Constant Mews

title.none: Cherewatuk/Wiethaus (edd.), Dear Sister

identifier.other: baj9928.9401.006 94.01.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constant Mews, Dept of History, Monash University, Australia

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Cherewatuk, Karen. Wiethaus, Ulrike, edd. Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. ISBN: ISBN 0-8122-3170-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.01.06

Cherewatuk, Karen. Wiethaus, Ulrike, edd. Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. ISBN: ISBN 0-8122-3170-8.

Reviewed by:

Constant Mews
Dept of History, Monash University, Australia

The title of this collection of essays may mislead. The volume concerns letters written by women (rather than specially for women) between the sixth and the sixteenth centuries. The chronological spread is necessarily unevenly balanced. Apart from an essay on "Radegund and Epistolary Tradition" by Karen Cherewatuk, the chapters focus on women from later centuries: Gillian T.W. Ahlgren, "Visions and Rhetorical Strategy in the Letters of Hildegard of Bingen"; Glenda McLeod, "`Wholly Guilty, Wholly Innocent": Self-Definition in Heloise's Letters to Abelard; Karen Scott, "`Io Catarina': Ecclesiastical Politics and Oral Culture in the Letters of Catherine of Siena", Diane Watt, "`No Writing for Writing's Sake': The Language of Service and Household Rhetoric in the Letters of the Paston Women"; Earl Jeffrey Richards, "`Seulette a part'— The Little `Woman on the Sidelines' Takes Up Her Pen: The Letters of Christine de Pizan; Ulrike Wiethaus, "`If I Had an Iron Body": Femininity and Religion in the letters of Maria de Hout." These papers are introduced with a general survey of the genre, "Women Writing Letters in the Middle Ages" by the editors, Karen Cherewatuk and Ulrike Wiethaus.

The difficulty with adopting such a single generic label is that its scope is enormously wide. As the editors note in their introduction, the public function of medieval letters often far outweighed their role in personal communication. There is such an enormous difference between an epistolary treatise like the Epistre d'Othea of Christine de Pizan and the practical missives of Margaret Paston to members of her family that we have to question whether we are dealing with a single genre. While there is no denying the editors' claim in their introduction that women do make a distinctive contribution to letter writing in medieval Europe, the effect of assembling studies of a very diverse range of women is to make the reader impatient for analysis of themes rather than of individuals. The danger with any anthology about medieval women (of which there are many on the market) is the risk of producing little more than an updated hagiography of outstanding women.

The introductory survey of Cherewatuk and Wiethaus strives to arrive at some form of synthesis, but too often provides little more than a summary analysis of individual papers with some very crude generalisation. A sentence such as "In an essentially oral culture such as the Middle Ages, the written word conferred great authority on both sender and recipient" (p. 4) does not inspire confidence. This astonishingly naive assertion about medieval culture as if it were some sort of monolith, is not only self-contradictory, but ignores extensive recent research (e.g. Brian Stock, Michael Clanchy, Rosamund McKitterick) into the role of literacy within medieval culture. St Radegund's formidable fusion of the imagery of classical poetry with that of Germanic poetic tradition, studied by Cherewatuk herself, provides eloquent witness to the preservation of Roman literary culture among the elites of early medieval Europe. If any conclusion can be drawn from the diverse studies in the volume, it is surely that through writing letters, a privileged minority of women sought to manipulate the evident power of the written word, the vital instrument of political and religious hegemony, for themselves. Similar claims by Scott about the "essentially and self-consciously oral" nature of late fourteenth-century Florentine culture are contradicted in the same paragraph by description of the letters of Catherine of Siena as "an important meeting place of literate and oral cultures" (p. 106; cf. Diane Watt on p. 133). Another rather naive claim made in passing in the introduction was that heretical groups "nearly always supported women in leadership roles, be it as teachers of priests" (p. 11), backed up in a footnote by observation that "no comprehensive work on the important roles of women in medieval dissent has yet been written" similarly perpetuates ignorance. Apart from G. Koch, Frauenfrage und Ketzertum in Mittelalter (Berlin, 1962), one thinks of a study like R. Abels and E. Harrison, "The Participation of Women in Languedocian Catharism", Mediaeval Studies 41 (1979) 215-51 which effectively questions such black and white generalisations about medieval dissent.

The individual chapters in this volume are stronger in their grasp of detail than the introduction, although they rarely provide a sense of context. Ahlgren analyses the large quantity of surviving letters of Hildegard of Bingen, distinguishing three kinds of formulae to legitimise her authority (repertorial, in which she says she sees in a vision; instrumental, in which she describes herself as a divine vessel; representative, in which she mediates the divine will directly). Ahlgren's finding that this third, strongest level is most often used for addressing members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, is interesting, but lacks analysis of what Hildegard says in her letters, or how she moulds her strategic response to particular individuals (whose requests are preserved within the register of Hildegard's letters).

McLeod's study of the Letters of Heloise to Abelard focuses on the tension Heloise feels between her personal role as Abelard's lover and her public role as abbess of the Paraclete, and her search for self-definition. Noting the sexual undertones of some of Heloise's imagery, she emphasises the discrepancy between public expectations of her role and inner judgement, both in the first two `personal' letters, and the third, about the religious life. Such a reading transcends a lop-sided focus on either the 'personal' or the `monastic' Heloise, characteristic of the discussions of Gilson or Dronke on the one hand, or of Waddell, editor of the Paraclete Institutes, on the other. McLeod's introductory comments skates with over the methodological significance of over a century of debate about the `authenticity' of the letters attributed to Heloise. Her remark (p. 64) that enquiry should "turn from invesigations of authenticity to look at the letters themselves, a change in critical dialogue first recommended by Gilson and Peter von Moos and recently enacted in the work of Peter Dronke, Peggy Kamuf, and Linda Georgianna" passes over the theoretical gulf separating Peter von Moos, an advocate of the exemplum view of the correspondence and Peter Dronke, advocate of the view that the letters of Heloise lay bare her "unrepentant" soul. McLeod's reading of her letters as an attempt at self-definition does provide a useful way forward, however, to a debate of the 1970s which has become rather outmoded.

As the editors remark in their introduction, religious women writers frequently use a visionary mode to legitimise their authority, Scott's study of Catherine of Siena documents how a woman without formal education could rise to a position of major political influence. She demonstrates that her letters, sometimes judged to be stylistically `imperfect' when compared against a Petrarchan standard, are very varied in nature and present a distinct identity from the more apologetic focus of her confessor, Raymond of Capua. She judges them to present an `apostolic' rather than a literary sensitivity. As with some other studies in this volume, comparison with the letters of other male figures would have made it possible to identify more easily what is particular to male epistolary activity. The letters of Maria de Hout are much fewer in number than those of Catherine of Siena, but they are given a convincing analysis by Wiethaus, who traces the varying guises of feminine adaptation of the themes of self-emptying and humility.

Diane Watt's study of the Paston Letters is a model of contextual analysis. With great finesse, she identifies the wider rhetoric of service and lordship which penetrates the writing of the women, as well as the men, in the Paston household. Here there is a good sense of the social context in which these letters were written. A sense of context, although literary rather than social, is also provided by Richards in his study of Christine de Pizan. Perhaps because this is the only study coming to grips with major works of literature, Christine stands out in the volume as the most sophisticated of the writers studied. Her involvement in the debate over Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose provided a central focus for Christine to voice her dissatisfaction with the misogynist images of women being conveyed in contemporary romance literary. Jeffreys sees Christine as skilfully combining courtly, dictaminal and above all humanist traditions in letter writing.

There should be something in this collection of essays in this volume to attract the interest of a wide audience. The fact that contemporary academia still inherits the legacy of a gender imbalance bequeathed by the Middle Ages makes the study of medieval women's writing all the more important. It is to be hoped that the studies in this volume will bear fruit as fuller investigations in coming years.