Friederike Hassauer

title.none: Poor, Women and Medieval Epic (Friederike Hassauer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0802.002 08.02.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Friederike Hassauer, University of Vienna,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Poor, Sara S. and Jana K. Schulman. Women and Medieval Epic: Gender, Genre and the Limits of Epic Masculinity. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Pp. xii, 299. $74.95 1-4039-6602-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.02.02

Poor, Sara S. and Jana K. Schulman. Women and Medieval Epic: Gender, Genre and the Limits of Epic Masculinity. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Pp. xii, 299. $74.95 1-4039-6602-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Friederike Hassauer
University of Vienna

"Arma virumque cano"--the initial topos in Virgil's Aeneis with its exemplaric verses seems to leave no doubt about the traditional set of rules to which the epic submits: destined to narrate the heroic deeds of arms of warriors--male warriors. Under the impact of almost four decades of "new" gender awareness, the philologists have sharpened their analytic tools of observation and description, but the topic of "gender and literary genre" has begun to take clear shape only in the last decade decade. Be it research on the genderedness of "large" and "small" forms, of epistolary genres, of the literary portrait, be it the modern novel as genre fé minin or just the medieval epic as masculine genre--genres obviously, come in genders, too. Literary history as well as literary theory thus have seen themselves challenged in new ways and are producing new insights under this perspective.

The present volume, based on Kalamazoo panels of 2002, is clearly positioned in this field of study. The editors Sara S. Poor and Jana K. Schulman set out to explore "the place, function and meaning of women as characters, authors, constructs, and cultural symbols in a variety of epic literatures from the Middle Ages" (1). With eleven contributions the broad "interdisciplinary" (10) and partly intercultural survey covers Middle English Alexander Poems and Old English Genesis-versions; Romance Languages and Literatures are represented through Old French chansons de geste from the Crusade cycle and the Occitan Girart de Roussillon, as well as through the Castilian Cantar de Mio Cid and his youthful forerunner, the Mocedades de Rodrigo. In the field of German, Hrotsvit constitutes the only non-vernacular voice of the present book; the Nibelungenlied forms object of study, also in comparison with its contemporary Nordic ally, the Norse Vö lsungen saga, which in turn supplies the reference of comparison for the two Icelandic epics Njal's saga and Laxdoela saga; the Scandinavian field is further represented with the Old Norse foraldarsö gur. The only non-European case is introduced with the Persian epic Shahnameh.

The editor's intentions aim beyond a "feminist project" which would recover "marginalized...women authors of epic, women characters in epic and women's history"; Poor and Schulman rather want to take into view "gender and power dynamics within texts, between texts and their readers, and between literature and history." The analyses of "gender ideologies" are thus meant to be clues for "innovate" readings as well as for an opening of the canon of epic literature beyond the Nibelungenlied, unsatisfactorily labeled as "the only traditional epic" discussed in the volume (3).

The introductory endeavor is undertaken in a very pragmatic way, mainly by search for answers ex post, i.e. by grouping and assembling the wide range of multiple arguments raised by the contributors. Ex ante presuppositions, however, are scarce: a definition of "gender"/"women"/"masculinity" is referred via footnote-reference to Joan W. Scott and Toril Moi; the definition of "epic" is a slim and formal one, still based on Lukács, and--again--referred to a footnote of relevant bibliography. Neither gender theory nor genre/discourse theory are visible in a systematic way. The same is valid for an equally desirable understanding of historical status of fiction as well as of the textual pragmatics of epic, seen against the functional diversity of other genres in the medieval landscape of scriptuality and orality. Such a contrastive comparative genre panorama of the various configurations of discourse between fixation and mouvance (Zumthor) would have been facilitated considerably by the use of large-scale enterprises like the here virtually absent Grundriß der Romanischen Literaturen des Mittelalters. Despite these shortcomings, the merit of the volume clearly consists in the successful further agenda-setting of the topic as well as in the successful gathering of--among themselves divergent in ranges and reaches--contributions to a larger perspective of survey on "women and epic." Both components are substantially supported by a sensibly and diligently redacted Index nominum et rerum.

Essays like the one from Christine Chism (Kyng Alisaunder, Wars of Alexander), Sarah Grace Heller (Chanson d'Antioche, Chanson de Jé rusalem, Les Ché tifs), Dick Davis (Shahnameh) and Thomas Caldin (Poema de Mio Cid, Mocedades de Rodrigo) enlist the appearance of women characters and their contributions to a "masculinist" model of epic: Alexander's royal mother and his royal rival/lover, Christian and Saracen women of the Crusades, foreign and native women in Persian conquests, the woman around the Cid. From queens to laundresses, from ruling to subservient functions, from main characters to minor roles, the most various and contradictory degrees of visibility, influence and independence are described in these four essays which are partly burdened by lengthy discussion of divergent secondary literature in the current text. Male martial heroism generally appears here as central segment, to which supplementary female completions have to be added--from auxiliary to vital--, in order to get a full view on facilitation of and participation in the epic universe. While analogously acknowledging the visible surface of official military and political power in male hands in Castile, Thomas Caldin reconstructs the far less visible transactions of the leading women characters. So top-level female complaint to the king from the Cid's wife ("quejas de Ximena") or even suicidal pleas for killing from the Cid's daughters ("afrenta de Corpes") are thus shown in their vital importance for continuation or either jeopardy of the hero's epic orbit; but these actions are also shown in their self-reflexive potential which sheds light on the representational order of this epic orbit itself.

In the "Nordic" section of the volume, various impacts of women in important political, dynastic and martial functions are convincingly analyzed. Kathryn Starkey reconstructs public display of the queens' smiles in the Nibelungenlied as performative gesture of lordship--not an undebated gesture of authority, as the conflicting manuscript versions show. Karen Grimstad and Ray M. Wakefield draw up a synopsis of the Vö lsunga saga against the Nibelungenlied, in which the same female personnel from the top echelons--Brunhild, Brynhild, Kriemhild, Gudrun--is capable of symmetrically monstrous revenge, if the contractual feudal bonds of honor are violently turned into shame. Here again, the narrative moves of different versions indicate the dynamics of "open texts" in interaction between audience and compilator. An identical locus of conflict--the feast--makes apparent identical violence in the comparison of "historical" Icelandic family sagas of settlers (Njal's saga, Laxdoela saga) with the heroic-mythical Vö lsunga saga, as presented by co-editor Jana K. Schulman. In the exchange economy of martial alliances, women protagonists again are shown capable of equal revenge to restore family honor from insult. William Layher analyzes the Old Norse fornaldasö gur with its spectacular transitory identity of noble maiden warriors. Their precarious crossover to a temporarily male persona in auxiliary function for endangered male rule, though, needs corresponding frames and codes of taming and control in order to reassert and restore the essential validity of male power against accidental slurs and blurs.

Switching the genre/gender-question from feudal lay culture to clerical culture, the volume offers two important studies of paradigmatic value. Lisabeth Buchelt pursuits a poignant parallel reading of the Junius 11 Anglo-saxon Genesis versions. While on the level of protagonists' semantics, Eva is elaborated in justification against the patristic master-foil of blame, on the level of language the process of signification in itself becomes gendered between divine/fallen and correct/corrupt. This not only occurs in intratextual negotiations between Christ, Satan, Eve and Adam, but also in the extratextual dynamics of docking the meaning of the text to the expected signifying practices of inventio, memoria and lectio divina in the audience of Christ Church Canterbury. Hrotsvits Carmen de Gesta Ottonis Imperatoris and the Primordia Coenobii Gandeshemensis are analyzed by Kate Olson in their equally parallel energy to establish by scriptural trace the authority of the dynasty as well as of its monastery, while at the same time establishing across the Virgilian master-foil the authority of aristocratic women and the auctoritas of female writing.

What absence do we see when we look at the presence of women in epic? What presence do we see when we look at their absence? Much of the tension between quantitative and qualitative reasoning, between "counting" and "weighing," a tension which the present volume highly successfully builds up through an astonishingly homologuous move of all contributions--as varied as they may proceed individually--is fused in William Burgwinkle's brilliant study on Berthe, spouse of Girart de Roussillon. A high-precision accrochage of Lacan, Zizek, Kierkegaard and Butler furnishes the theoretical model for the heroic female act of the "subjectless subject." Berthe thus transverses the symbolic order, disposes of her feudal privileges by founding monasteries--her worldly sanctity not disappearing into the hagiographic, but instead changing the political Real. It is this essay in the volume which exposes epic masculinity to the most acute light; also the one which locates the obsessive intrafeudal feuds rightly far above the only second-placed anti-pagan fronts of medieval chivalry. And it is this essay which passes on the merit of these insights to the gender-bending potential of this Occitan chanson de geste.

The debate of the Querelle des femmes will be heir to the powerful configuration of problems which the volume evokes in such a pertinent way, from the late Middle Ages until the end of the eighteenth century. The Querelle will develop the gestalt of this "subjectless subject" by mediating male robur, auctoritas, arma, pluma, potestas through feminea fragilitas in new secular and saintly emanations, in new political, juridical, intellectual and artistic emanations. And finally the Querelle will give a name to this new paradoxical gestalt of transgression: the femme forte.