Lesley Smith

title.none: Blamires et al., Woman Defamed and Woman Defended

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.009 95.05.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lesley Smith, Linacre College (Oxford)

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Blamires, Alcuin. Pratt, Karen. Marx, C.W. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. xvi + 327. ISBN: ISBN 0198719712.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.09

Blamires, Alcuin. Pratt, Karen. Marx, C.W. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. xvi + 327. ISBN: ISBN 0198719712.

Reviewed by:

Lesley Smith
Linacre College (Oxford)

How difficult it is to review this book! Not because of any lack of scholarly merits, for it is thoughtful, sensible, comprehensive and readable, but rather because it is all of those things; and after some two hundred pages of misogynist writings, scrupulously catalogued, simply to write a review, rather than sit down and howl or demonstrate on street corners, seems too small a response. Alcuin Blamires, with translations from Karen Pratt and Bill Marx, has assembled a wide-ranging collection of consciously anti-feminist writings from Ovid to Chaucer, comprising texts from many genres, from scholastic theology to vernacular poetry. This is followed by a shorter section (about half as long: the length, says Blamires, reflects comparatively the amount of material to be gleaned) of writing in response to deliberate misogyny, similarly varied, and including the heretic's Walter Brut's arguments for women priests, and a selection from Christine de Pizan. This second section, as Blamires notes, is often problematical, for the defenders generally base their cases on women's overcoming of their commonly agreed handicaps: `Given that she's weak, it's all the more amazing that...'. Christine comes aross as by far the best defender, since she does not start from a position of defence but structures her arguments from first principles, and coming up with women on top all along the line. Her theological arguments from Creation and the soul are particularly well done.

Blamire's approach makes it particularly easy to trace the long history of misogynist arguments. Like most medieval debates, the debate against women relied heavily on what had been said before — new twists were rare. By beginning with the Roman poets and the Fathers, and by careful footnoting, Blamires shows us of how little was original to the later medieval polemics. Although this can make for occasional weariness in the reader, it is made up for by the cumulative anger built up by the seeing same specious arguments repeated again and again. All that can relieve one's growing hatred of the sources is humour and irony, although this, of course, can be a double-edged sword. Blamires asks whether Andreas Cappellanus meant Book 3 of De Amore to be an over-the- top hoax, and he decides that, if he did, then the joke badly misfires. Indeed; this reader could not finish the selected text. But the following text, Gawain on Marriage, does come over as funny, and one feels more inclined to laugh and dismiss it as the sort of `Oh no, what have you done!' speech the best-man gives at a wedding.

This raises the thorny issue of female collusion in misogyny: by laughing at the best-man's jokes, how far do women go along with, and reinforce, male arguments? Certainly, as Blamires points out, it is hard to withstand the sort of all-round onslaught these texts reveal without feeling that there can't be quite so much smoke without fire. But women, even today, must be forgiven for feeling they have to actually answer these so-called arguments (which we still hear, almost unchanged, distressingly often) rather than dismissing them with the content they deserve. And yet, if these texts substituted `black' or `blind' for `woman', they would have been laughed out of court long ago. Nevertheless, as historians, we must continue to strain our modern ears to listen for that crucial, and often non-literal, factor in any writing: tone. Last week I sat in a country pub at lunchtime. The pub was that dying species, the real centre of village life, with locals with favourite seats (I know because I sat in one...) and a running commentary on all village gossip. There was a fair mixture of men and women, young and old. And old man joshed a young woman about her love-life. Others joined in. She gave him as good as she got, and other women came down on her side. Written down in stark prose, it would have made depressing reading. But the spirit of the thing revealed it as a different game — one enjoyed by both sides, and one where, given the actual dynamics in the bar (the publican was a woman, and obviously in change; a woman was running various sorts of raffles and lotteries in which everyone had a long-standing stake; a woman was quietly beating the men at dominoes; a woman was taking orders for food and keeping all and sundry in order) the men were putting up a good defence in the face of crushing opposition: the women simply were on top, and the chaps were saving face.

My village vignette is, of course, not meant to minimise the harm that men have done to women and continue to do, across the centuries, putting up `rational arguments' to give ridiculous authority to a situation basically wrought by strength. But it does serve to remind us, yet again, of the problems of reading historical texts with present eyes. Of all the texts Blamires gives as defamatory, I was most surprised by the Wife of Bath's prologue. Who is the heroine of the hour? who effortlessly grabs attention by her storytelling verve? and who gives eloquent evidence of her comprehensive learning and biblical thoughtfulness? There's no doubt who's in charge when Alison's behind the bar!

I tried to read Woman Defamed, Woman Defended with a sceptical eye, daring Blamires to make me believe his catalogue of misogyny. Too many recent works have sought from medieval people a kind of awareness and sensitivity we have but recently taken up ourselves; and yet the finger of blame is pointed at its absence. But Blamires won me over immediately. His short introductions to the texts are balanced and sensible; he is aware of style and inner voices; he is not, apparently, bearing his axe ready-ground; and, above all, he is a man. It is sad to say how useful it is that this book has been compiled by a man, but if that makes it more acceptable in some quarters, so be it. Blamires has at least shown us that their arguments are nothing new.