Michael Calabrese

title.none: Amt, ed., Women's Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook

identifier.other: baj9928.9409.010 94.09.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Calabrese, California State University, Los Angeles

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Amt, Emile, ed. Women's Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook. New York London: Routledge Routledge, 1993 1993. Pp. x + 347. $49.95 (HB) $15.95 (PB). ISBN: ISBN 0-415-90627-x (HB) ISBN 0-415-90628 (PB).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.09.10

Amt, Emile, ed. Women's Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook. New York London: Routledge Routledge, 1993 1993. Pp. x + 347. $49.95 (HB) $15.95 (PB). ISBN: ISBN 0-415-90627-x (HB) ISBN 0-415-90628 (PB).

Reviewed by:

Michael Calabrese
California State University, Los Angeles

This book of source material about women's lives features only two pages from Christine de Pizan and makes no mention of Chaucer or the Wife of Bath. In other words, it avoids the famous, the imaginary and the literary in order to provide legal, medical, philosophical and historical documents that tell us something about the ordinary lives of women across class, ethnicity and religiosity in the middle ages (see p.7). As Amt baldly states, the book's purpose "is to present first hand information about women's everyday lives and activities," to show us "on what sorts of evidence historians base their conclusions about these aspects of history"(1). The ambition is both humble and wide, and the need for the volume is clear, and right from the start I say that the book will find its way into many courses in medieval history, literature and culture. Because it offers so many diverse documents spanning cultures and times, Amt's collection accordingly offers no argument or perspective on women's history. It merely wants to facilitate discussion of social, political and medical history of medieval women. So teachers, particularly non-historians will have to create carefully a course context in which to read the material. Toward this end Amt provides some basic historical guidance in the introduction and in the chapter headings throughout, allowing the non-historian and the student reader at least some access to the particular milieu under study.

The material is "grouped thematically and arranged chronologically," a plan which highlights the greater availability of documents from the 12th and later centuries. Amt begins with excerpts from the Bible, the Church Fathers, Classical law and letters and Germanic law up until the 6th century. The excerpts in Part I give no uniform or coherent picture of one society or civilization, of course, and are as diverse as the cultural moments that spawned them. So it is difficult to assess the overall force of this unit, which does, at the least, reveal the range of ideological, legal, and in some cases such as Seneca's letter to his mother, warmly human apprehension of womanhood in Europe in the early periods sampled. Reaction to this unit, like that to all parts of the book, depends on the pedagogical context. Students reading Chaucer or any medieval literature about women and gender (i.e. all medieval literature) will certainly benefit from having Paul, Augustine and Jerome on hand. But the smatterings of Germanic law are, by definition, confusing and dull, and, without a historian's full apparatus, hard to relate in any credible way to the lives of ordinary women. Because of the topic's current urgency, we will naturally gravitate toward documents concerning crimes and punishments of violence against women. But as scholars have often commented, the application of laws was spotty and unreliable when it came to rape and assault. The relationship between law and real practice is hard to establish. But that does not stop us from hearing in these documents a kind of historical immediacy about the daily lives of women that the Aeneid, Beowulf and the Chanson de Roland will never provide. Unit one is a bit of a hodgepodge, then, but full of gold too.

In Part II we find, from the high Middle Ages now, much more legal documents, more involved and elaborate than the early material, concerning law, marriage, health and family. These are absolutely thrilling. 13th-century Norman legal documents detailing the fines for refusing to pay a prostitute will offer the students the immediacy of a voice from our legal-sexual past (57). Also compelling are the discussions of rape and a Sicilian jurist's impatience with the loophole rapists attempt by marrying their victims to avoid capital punishment (61). The same Sicilian laws specify fines for anyone who "hears a woman who is being attacked . . .but does not go to her assistance"(62). These documents show a culture struggling with fairness, standards of consent and the problems of evidence, wishing, at least on paper, for a kind of clarity and reform. The penalty offered by one Sicilian document for raping a prostitute is death, and the author proudly points out that prostitutes merit protection too, despite their shame—for this largess the jurist recommends that the prostitutes "rejoice in gratitude" (60).

Yet too these same Sicilian laws offer some severe ancient customs: "If a husband catches his wife in the very act of adultery, he may kill both the adulterer and his wife" (68). The additional caveat that this crime is only excused if done "without any further delay" does not seem to soften the shock we feel at the allowance of double murders of passion. All these documents contain ironies—mad mixes of compassion and brutality. Repeat offending madams will have their noses slit, as will mothers who prostitute their daughters (68-9). Yet that penalty is too severe if the mother and the daughter have acted willingly because of their poverty and their need to find a man who "gives them sustenance for life" (69). Other legal documents are mainly homey and anecdotal, such as records of a woman, one Alice Shether, arrested for "being a common scold" and verbally abusing her neighbors. Her endless backbiting merited her an hour in the pillory (74).

The next section compiles marriage law and theory from such sources as Gratian, the liturgy and Holy Maidenhood. We learn from Gratian that it is "no sin to marry an immoral woman" (75); that a man cannot become a monk without his wife's consent and if he does so he "must return to her"(79); that consent makes a marriage and therefore "no woman who is unwilling ought ever to be joined to anyone" (81). Such dicta take their place in the history of gender power relations, and the effort to establish fairness and respect women's will in these cases may surprise modern readers. So too will Gratian's law that "Men are to be punished more severely for adultery than women" and "No man may kill his adulterous wife" (82, 83) which opposes the Sicilian law cited above. The documents provide us with no uniformity, but only voices, authoritative but strange— voices which we cannot easily correlate with "real" events or with the medieval literature we teach. This makes everything in the Sourcebook thrilling but mercurial. But how wonderful to be able to read the "blessing of the marriage chamber" (88) and the Liturgy for Mothers containing blessings for pregnant women and women after childbirth (97-98). The anti-marital Holy Maidenhood, which graphically lays out the horrors and sufferings of childbirth and the misery of married life, is well included. This text, the flip side of the Jeromian antifeminist tradition, is sure to delight students, as it blasts the horrors of marriage, childbirth, child care and living with a man, who "chideth and jaweth thee, as a lecher does his whore" and "beateth thee as his bought thrall and patrimonial slave" (92). We here feel a living history of women and of the female body in particular.

We feel this even more so in the medical and health documents that follow. All readers of Chaucer know of Trotula, but who has ever read her? In the court records of Jocoba, who was indicted for practicing medicine without a license, we read that "it is better and more suitable and proper" (111) that women doctor other women because men should not violate female shame or privacy, and because women are more apt to reveal ailments and their bodies to other women. Indeed Trotula shares this sentiment (99). Again, anecdotally, we are disappointed to hear from Trolula that wet nurses should above all avoid garlic (105), and her list of herbs gets tiresome, but truth is in the details, and in solving the problems of scant or excessive menstrual flow, this medieval female physician reveals to us the history of the body in just such detail. Not all the book's material focuses on women per se, and documents on lepers and Boccaccio's classic plague account tellingly fill out Part II. No doubt, the plague knew no gender, and Amt is right to try to reveal woman's history as human history, never neglecting to reveal in the selections that class, as much as sex, determined one's power, potential and hope—or despair.

Part III, "The Noble Life," contains testaments to various women of fame, power, or sacred notoriety through biographies and personal accounts. It includes: the life of the chaste Christina of Markyate; Guibert of Nogent's homage to the holy, dedicated life of his mother; the household accounts of the wealthy widow, Dame Alice de Byrene; the holy, royal bravado of Leonor Lopez de Cordoba; and some personal letters—a medieval oddity—from Margaret Paston to her husband. The theme here is social diversity and varieties of power, as we see women exercising authority over such matters as the grocery shopping for her estate or over her own spiritual life and the use of her body.

Part IV deals with work, rural and urban, peasant and mercantile. Court roles and census material are difficult to appreciate and apply, but we do read here much telling information about working women and gender roles in medieval society. In Alexander Necham's "Observations" concerning estate management, we learn that a chambermaid should have a face that can "charm and render tranquil the chamber (181). Coroners' records are haunting, and with heavy heart we read about Emma Sutton falling in a well and downing (190-91). Illustrations of estates and peasant dwellings add some helpful visual detail to the events discussed. Guild regulations and documents testifying to bread incorrectly weighed and bakers' stealing dough glimpses the world of Chaucer's Miller and his heavy gold thumb. In business contracts we see women at work, like the Wife of Bath. In the London documents that follow, concerning guardianship, regulation of prostitutes' clothing, and an indictment of a corrupting procuress who deceives young women into prostitution—an act more grave than the practice itself—we witness the pre-Puritan supervision of what was seen as a problematic but necessary position for women in medieval society (210-13).

Part V deals with the minority of medieval women leading an institutional religious life. Though it contains some familiar material, such as the Ancrene Riwle (the guidebook for female recluses), Margery Kempe's story of her pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and a letter of Hildegard of Bingen, this unit also offers church degrees and statutes from the 5th century on, such as Caesarius of Arles's Rule for Nunsand some bizarre stories of bold women who died for violating gender segregated church lands. The unit offers copious excerpts from the Rule of St. Clair (235- 45), offering us a woman's voice speaking to women about the daily physical and spiritual care required in this most holy order—a delightful and informative selection for students of medieval female spirituality and any reader of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure!

The book's final unit compiles documents on women as "outsiders," Jewish, Muslim, and Heretical. These 30 dense pages offer such documents as Hebrew chronicles of the massacre of Jews in the First Crusade, Maimonides's book on Jewish women and marriage, selections on female mores from the Koran and from Muslim Spain, and, finally, stirring inquisition records, such as the first person narrative of a Cathar woman, produced through interviews with the inquisitor Jacques Fournier. On a less dark note, the collection ends with the 14th century Manual for his wife by the so called "Goodman" of Paris (317-30). The anachronism of the condescending tone of this work provides humor, but this does not stop the work from evidencing the domestic expectations put on wives, in this case a woman of the lower nobility. The advise boils down, one might argue, to love God, love your husband (like Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel did), and choose servants carefully.

Again, the book makes no argument, advocates no political position or any particular kind of feminist critical poetics or historical analysis. Refreshingly, Amt seems simply to want to get these records, reports and documents out to readers and to teachers so as to gloss, deepen, or broaden literary, historical and philosophical study of the lives of medieval women. The bibliographical headnotes that begin each section certainly provide us with access to the sources of the excerpted material, as does the 10 page bibliography of suggested further readings, organized conveniently by topic. It is difficult to imagine another book in which one could find all this diverse material, and no doubt Amt's collection, in its richness, and in its genuine clarity and simplicity will takes prominent place in our expanded, diversified medieval curriculum, a curriculum that takes class, gender, and ethnicity as central to an understanding of world cultural history. Women's Lives in Medieval Europecertainly will supplement most any medieval literature class that I would teach , and I recommend that students and teachers examine it and share strategies for using it in their classrooms too.