The Medieval Review 11.02.11

Conor Kostick. Medieval Italy, Medieval and Early Modern Women, Essays in Honour of Christine Meek. Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 2010. Pp. 297. $70 ISBN 9781846822223. .

Reviewed by:

Thomas McCarthy, Carrie Benes
New College of Florida,

In 2007 Professor Christine Meek retired from the Department of Medieval History at Trinity College, Dublin after a distinguished career of teaching, research and service to the College. Her studies on the economic and social history of medieval and Renaissance Lucca are standard works in the field, while more recently she has turned to the history of medieval women. The volume under review seeks to acknowledge both of these interests, and the diverse essays contributed by Meek's students and colleagues from both sides of the Atlantic coalesce--largely thanks to a well-crafted introduction by Conor Kostick--into a whole worthy of the honorand, and better than the volume's admittedly awkward title might suggest. Christine Meek's scholarship is characterized by meticulous archival research, thorough linguistic competency, and the self-assuredness to resist scholarly fads while taking advantage of their occasional merits. She has left an important legacy as well for her academic colleagues as for her students, and so it is fitting that her work should be celebrated with an elegantly produced Festschrift.

Following a list of the honorand's publications and Kostick's introduction, contributions are divided into the two parts intimated in the book's title. The scope of Part I, on medieval Italy, is a strong testament to Meek's influence, encompassing as it does synthetic assessments of current scholarly trends as well as highly focused documentary analyses.

The first two articles, by George Dameron and Duane Osheim, offer broad assessments of current research in both history and Italian studies. Dameron makes a passionate case for the reintegration of economic analysis into the toolbox of the professional historian. Taking the historiography of medieval Italy as representative of broader trends in medieval studies and history, he characterizes the last thirty years as a period in which economic history has been neglected in favor of more linguistic approaches. Dameron argues that such approaches tend to ignore a large proportion of the archival evidence, particularly in medieval Italy, and that economic analyses are needed to enrich our understanding of medieval culture, politics, and society. Osheim takes a different approach, situating the work of Christine Meek within forty years of scholarly developments in Italian studies. He emphasizes that the real contribution of Meek's work on Lucca was to complicate the generally accepted model of city-state development in medieval and Renaissance Italy, which relied heavily on evidence from a few well-studied cities such as Florence and Siena. Osheim offers as an example the concept of civic liberty (libertas), which Meek showed was interpreted very differently in Lucca than in better-known Florence. Meek was therefore a trailblazer in a now-established movement to balance the recognition of general trends in Italian civic development with the necessity of considering each case in its own context.

William Day's essay on Empoli and Edward Coleman's on Cremona both provide well-crafted demonstrations of this type of analysis. Day introduces the category of quasi-città irredente, medieval towns that acquired some characteristics of the independent civitas but whose move toward full autonomy was arrested; he then gives the example of Empoli, located on the Arno between Florence and Pisa. Medieval Empoli was a thriving commercial center with a prominent noble family (the Guidi), but it never converted its economic influence into political sovereignty for various reasons that Day enumerates. While Day focuses on various factors affecting cities' political fortunes, Coleman focuses more on the prosopography of political change: specifically, the longstanding domination of Cremona by the da Dovara family. Coleman begins with the well-known career of Boso da Dovara, elected perpetual podestà, or signore, of Cremona in 1266, but rejects the usual explanation of charismatic, forceful leadership for the establishment of a signoria by exploring the da Dovara family's profound relationship with the city, a history that preceded Boso by nearly three centuries and clearly contributed much to his success.

The next three contributions--by Brenda Bolton, Andreas Meyer, and Ignazio Del Punta--are all documentary analyses that use their specific primary sources to shed light on broader phenomena. Bolton focuses on the ongoing medieval conundrum of the plight of Christians enslaved by non-Christians around the Mediterranean, making a valuable distinction between a case studied by Meek from 1424--in which an enslaved Italian merchant converted to Islam because he received no assistance from his fellow Christians--and a series of letters by Pope Innocent III nearly two hundred years earlier, showing the pope's deep concern for and efforts on behalf of Christians in similar circumstances. Andreas Meyer offers a close reading of a Lucchese lawsuit from 1237, an inheritance dispute involving a number of parties all connected by elite family and commercial bonds. In particular, Meyer's analysis reveals the existence of serious disagreements over the definition and requirements of "legal marriage" in thirteenth-century Lucca. Del Punta's contribution (in Italian, with an English abstract) also focuses on a single archival document, but his angle is economic rather than social. Del Punta explicates (and publishes in an appendix) a document of the 1280s detailing fiscal arrangements between the commune of Lucca and several Lucchese merchant banks for loan repayment at the Champagne fairs. As Del Punta points out in a wry aside on the vicissitudes of documentary survival, without this document we would have little evidence of the international scope of Lucchese merchant banks, the sophistication of the city's finances, or the complex relations between communes and merchant banks in the late thirteenth century.

Articles by Jennifer Petrie and William Caferro then move to examining more ideological questions. Petrie's article on the idea of Italy in the works of Petrarch argues that, contemporary political realities aside, Petrarch did conceive of Italy as a "nation," demonstrating the broader spread of national concepts in the later Middle Ages. She elaborates different ways of imagining a national Italy (geography, kinship or gens, history), and theorizes as to why Petrarch was a particularly sophisticated analyst of place and its connection to cultural identity. Caferro, by contrast, focuses on the manipulation of public perception with an inspired analysis of the legend of the mercenary John Hawkwood, arguing that the image of Hawkwood projected at his elaborate funeral and in Uccello's famous portrait--and popular ever since--was completely out of proportion to his actual services to the city of Florence. Instead, Caferro recontextualizes Hawkwood's funeral and legacy as merely one weapon in Florence's wars with Milan and Siena around the turn of the fifteenth century.

Two final contributions by Duane Osheim (a second time) and M. E. Bratchel use different kinds of evidence to reveal patterns of landownership in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Tuscan countryside. Traditionally this was seen as a period in which independent farmers were bought out by large-scale land speculators and their dependent sharecroppers; Osheim's examination of contemporary tax records analyzes the challenges posed by the crises of the fourteenth century at village level and explains why local farmers around Pisa and Lucca were particularly successful in retaining their holdings. Bratchel uses legal documents to make a similar point: that inhabitants of the Lucchese countryside managed to increase pastoralism, diversify their crops, and retain smallholder ownership, so that this part of the Tuscan countryside saw less radical change in its economic and social structures than elsewhere.

The book's second part, which deals with medieval women, begins with an article by I. S. Robinson: "Conversio and conversatio in the Life of Herluca of Epfach." This article, which is meticulously researched and crafted, should be read by those interested in medieval women as well as by scholars with research or teaching interests in church reform or popular piety. It deals not only with Herluca herself, but also with the materiality and context of the primary source that records her life--Paul of Bernried's Life of the blessed Herluca, written probably in 1130. Paul was an ardent Gregorian who had written a Life of Pope Gregory VII because the example of Gregory's life formed "a prop for holy church and an ornament of Christ's faithful and brings defeat for impious heresies" (1723). There is every indication that Paul viewed Herluca, whom he knew personally, in a similar manner. Unlike Gregory VII, Herluca of Epfach was a lay woman whose life was spent in humble domestic work. This fact is used to illustrate and analyse an aspect of the church reform movement that is sometimes overlooked: the impact of reform on ordinary people. Here the reader will not only find a wealth of information on "grassroots" church reform but also discern important connexions with the popular piety movements of the later twelfth century. Robinson's treatment of this woman does not divorce her from her proper context and in so doing makes for a meaningful and important study.

A similar care is evident in Conor Costick's "Eleanor of Aquitaine and the women of the Second Crusade" and Stephen Hanaphy's "Consolation and desperation: a study of the letters of Peter of Blois in the name of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine." Costick's study addresses the question of why the sources of the second crusade contain far fewer references to women than do the sources of the first crusade, while Hanaphy's article demonstrates persuasively why Peter of Blois' letters on behalf of Eleanor of Aquitaine concerning the captivity of her son Richard I are to be seen as rhetorical exercises in the expression of desolation and consolation rather than as actual diplomatic correspondence. Again, great sensitivity towards the primary sources is evident in these two articles, a sensitivity that should serve as a model when many scholars are too careless in their attention to their sources' contexts.

Careful and meticulous scholarship is also the hallmark of Katherine Simms' "Bardic poems of consolation to bereaved Irish ladies." This article, which grows out of Simms' expertise in bardic literature, draws attention to the fact that the dedication of many consolation poems to Gaelic- and Anglo-Irish women highlights the social and economic power of those women, a power that saw them increasingly act as patrons in their own right. A different picture of women is provided by Gillian Kenny's "Women's experiences of war in later medieval Ireland," which goes beyond the traditional picture of women as victims to discuss their roles as initiators, combatants or peacemakers in warfare. Like Simms, Kenny examines uses the parallel societies of Anglo-Ireland and Gaelic-Ireland to illuminate this paradigm, concluding that in times of crisis women exercised an unusual "independence of both thought and action" (255). A useful comparison is provided by M. Grazia Nico Ottaviani's article ("Important ladies and important families: Lucrezia Borgia and Caterina Cibo Varano"), which juxtaposes the exercise of power by two near contemporaries in Renaissance Italy: in Lucrezia's case as an instrument of the family politics of her father, Pope Alexander VI, while in Caterina's case in her own right as an energetic and influential widow.

Two articles address women's place in the intellectual history of the late medieval and early modern period. In "Lover of widows: St Jerome and female piety," Catherine Lawless demonstrates how St Jerome provided an ascetic example for female religious communities despite what is interpreted by some today as his misogyny. Dr Robinson- Hammerstein's article ("Bonae litterae and female erudition in early sixteenth-century Nuremberg") is a brilliant study of the correspondence between the Nuremberg humanist Willibald Pirckheimer (14701530) and his sister Caritas (14671532), abbess at the convent of the Poor Clares in Nuremberg. Caritas was renowned for her learning and especially for her superlative command of Latin. The article throws intellectual life in both Nuremberg and Germany into rich relief by charting the relationship of brother and sister through their letters. It details both how Willibald and his humanist friend Conrad Celtis attempted to introduce Caritas to the gems of humanism and how adeptly Caritas resisted their attempts at intellectual paternalism. Caritas' view of philosophia was firmly rooted in the distinguished tradition of doctrina Christiana, a point she was well equipped to make to her brother. This is an article in which the subjects' humanity speaks to us and which could profitably be used both by students and researchers alike.

Overall, the quality of the contributions to this fine volume are an impressive testament to Christine Meek's career and influence, and Kostick's introduction ties its disparate threads together effectively via its portrait of Meek's scholarly life. There are two general themes here: the first is the crucial importance of meticulous documentary research in complicating or even contradicting the interpretive models that (perhaps inevitably) dominate much historical writing. The second is an academic version of the "butterfly effect": the volume demonstrates clearly how one person's interests can affect a wide range of scholarly endeavours--that historians are not (contrary to public opinion) lonely singular researchers buried amid stacks of their own books, but social beings for whom communication, collaboration, and the exchange of ideas are just as transformative as finding that one crucial document in the archive.

Final note: while commending the volume's content, the reviewers must note the presence of distracting errors in the text of some of the articles, and recommend more consistent proofreading to the publishers.