Jennifer Hellwarth

title.none: Green, Women Readers (Jennifer Hellwarth)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.009 08.10.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jennifer Hellwarth, Allegheny College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Green, D.H. Women Readers in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. 296. $95 978-0-521-87942-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.09

Green, D.H. Women Readers in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. 296. $95 978-0-521-87942-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Jennifer Hellwarth
Allegheny College

Feminist scholars of the Middle Ages often find themselves pondering medieval women's relationship to literacy, since the possession of literacy--or at least access to it--has long been equated with possession of knowledge and power. D.H. Green's Women Readers in the Middle Ages ponders this relationship and its many variations through both the traditional methods of sticking very closely to documentary evidence on the one hand (evidence of women as readers, writers and sponsors), and through challenging our conventional understanding of what it meant to read and be literate in the Middle Ages on the other. Green proposes a diachronic survey of the practice of reading between the seventh and fifteenth centuries in Germany, France and England, with particular attention to the critical role events of the twelfth century played in a shift in literacy practices and women's literacy practices in specific. Ultimately he argues that women had a significant role--though not a solitary one--in the vernacularization and "domestication" of literacy and literary practices. This happened through a variety of ways women were involved with literature: not just as authors, but as sponsors and patrons, as dedicatees and addressees, and, necessarily, as readers.

Women Readers in the Middle Ages is divided into two parts, two chapters each. The first part, "Reading in the Middle Ages," is a more general discussion and description of the definition of literacy and the nature of reading in the Middle Ages in which D.H. Green defines what it meant--according to medieval clerics--to be literate in the Middle Ages, and in the narrowest sense. He then challenges this definition. Green, in the process of defining the nature of reading in the Middle Ages, opens up the possibility of more fluid boundaries between reader and listener, litteratus and illiteratus. The second part, "Women and Reading in the Middle Ages" first categorizes the different types of women readers--from nuns to heretics--and then surveys the different ways in which women participated in the spread and development of literature. I found his last (and longest) chapter the most compelling, in part because it draws on concepts and terms defined in earlier chapters and in part because of the ways in which he develops and applies these general concepts to women's participation in spreading literature and literacy practices.

The first chapter, "Literal Reading," is concerned largely with establishing a paradigm for how the individual act of reading was defined and understood in the Middle Ages. He begins with Herbert Grundmann's work on medieval literacy, and he returns to Grundmann many times during the course of his text (though Grundmann perplexingly doesn't appear in the index). For Grundmann, literacy was "explicitly equated with Latin." The ability to read was the purview of the cleric; laymen had no Latin and were therefore unable to read (3). Green suggests that, while accurate in certain ways, confining ourselves to this narrow view "hampers our assessment of the most important development in this period, the rise of written literature in the vernacular for laymen" (4), which begins in earnest in the twelfth century in part as a result of church reform, as more laymen were educated, and as oral culture gave way to written culture. Green draws on religious and literary texts and letters for linguistic, descriptive and prescriptive evidence of reading practices. Using close readings of images of reading, both linguistic and visual, Green suggests that different verbs used to describe reading in theological and literary texts give us insight into broad reading practices. A verb with a reflexive dative, for example "reading to oneself," has the implication of solitary withdrawal, when an entirely different use of a verb "to see" or even "to look" stands for reading as well. But reading, Green writes, can also be accomplished through listening. We come to see reading not just as an individual act, but as a community one as well. And so space and spatial context become central to Green's discussion of literal reading. In all cases, it is the increased access to vernacular literacy that became a threat to ecclesiastical authorities as it opened up the possibility of lay folk, men and women alike, making meaning of texts previously unavailable to them.

In his second chapter, "Figurative Reading," Green shifts his focus from the visual to the, well, figurative, in which one reads a text "with one's mind's eye" (43). Further, he takes up the notion of reading "correctly"--that is, with understanding. Green divides figurative reading into categories of reading without a written text, but in which the "reader" imagines and interprets the letters or words seen in the mind's eye. This kind of reading is performed by one who is conventionally literate. Another form of reading with the mind's eye involves reading a text that is neither written nor imagined, but is a visual object that provides meaning. Green uses as his primary example the body of Christ, in which his crucified body is "read" as a book metaphorically and as a meditational practice. This kind of devotional reading does not require knowledge of letters but does require a kind of literacy. This kind of reading pushes the boundaries of the "text" to a place accessible to the illiterati and therefore creates a potential power shift. Likewise, the viewing and reading of images and illustrations--as in the case of the Bayeux Tapestry or manuscript illuminations, for example--fall into a similar category, where a kind of literacy or multiple literacies is involved, such as that of visual and word recognition, and where meaning can be made by the viewer. Additionally, the potential for misreading is, at least in terms of clerics such as Hugh of St Victor, always a potential danger.

My favorite part of this chapter is Green's discussion of reading and memory in which he explores the ways in which the Middle Ages functioned as a "bimedial society" with a shifting relationship between the oral and the written, with memory playing a role in both forms of memorialization. Further, individual and collective memory were necessary to making meaning of texts, written and oral. Memory was also a close companion to reading for a variety of reasons, some practical, as in the case of the practice in antiquity and into the Middle Ages of teaching reading and memorizing together. Others were more political, as in the example of the Lollards who memorized potentially "heretical" books in order to avoid persecution (63-4). As in his other chapters, Green uses examples from religious and literary texts, and often romances. The examples within the literary texts of "memorial reading" becomes a kind of meta-discussion, or a mechanism that both reveals the culture's memorial practices as well as teaches the reader to read memorially. In the case of the romances, the reader draws from earlier narratives in the text to make meaning.

Part II of Green's text speaks more directly to women's reading practices and their impact on the domestication of literacy and literary practices and production. In his chapter on "Categories of Women Readers," Green, drawing on the fluidity of reading practices he establishes in Part I, suggests that there are a number of different kinds of women readers, not just those that fall neatly into religious women and lay women, though there are those, too. He begins with a brief discussion of women's education, reminding us that women in the upper class were largely responsible for the education of their children. He pieces together the scant evidence about women in religious orders and monasteries and nunneries to show that they had access to some kind of education in reading and writing, in Latin and/or the vernacular. The evidence is largely contextual, for these kinds of female reading communities are limited to documentation of women exchanging books and of women passing on books to their daughters or to religious houses. Other complicating factors in assessing women's literacy practices include what Green refers to as the "humility formula," a variation of the familiar literary humility trope. This humility formula was also used often as a form of "religious self-deprecation or a deliberate distancing from the values of book learning" (97). This is in part a reflection of the view of those such as Mechthild von Magdeburg and Margery Kempe, both of whom Green uses extensively as examples, and whose lack of traditional education they worked to their advantage in that they claimed divine inspiration rather than book learning. Green also uses visual evidence, primarily that of the increasing number of late medieval pictorial representations of the Virgin Mary and Anne engaged in the act of reading. This is one way he shows an increasing respectability in lay and religious women alike taking up the book.

In "Women's Engagement with Literature" Green concerns himself primarily with the impact of women as readers, as sponsors or commissioners of literary work, and as writers--as scribes and authors. His work in Part I on the interrelationship between the physical processes of writing and reading sets the stage nicely for his discussion of women as writers. Correlating pictorial evidence once again with written documentary evidence, he paints a picture of communities of women engaged as religious and lay readers and writers, and as having influence on literary production. The production of texts by female scribes takes on a kind of subversive form when one considers that scribal practice was considered a form of "silent preaching" by medieval clerics (189). Texts written by men that were addressed or dedicated to women suggest that either the woman supported in some way the text's production, or might potentially support future work. Further, this interrelationship indicates a kind of power women had in the production of these texts as well as a certain amount of judgment of them. This power could be wielded through the patronizing of those authors who offered "readings" that expressed desires and interests of the women of the court. These texts were often, though not always, romances, and the content-- interrogating marriage and political practices--indicated a level of courtly authority. Green's array of examples of female sponsorship is indeed impressive, but especially compelling to me is the fascinating matrix of women, Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughters, Mathilda and Marie, whose relationship to both literary and religious texts serves as an example of "'matrilineal patronage' on an international scale" (217).

Green draws his evidence from a wide range both in terms of time span and language--seven centuries, four languages, three countries--but the number of texts and locales he uses is by necessity relatively narrow given what he is trying to accomplish. His sources range from Otfrid von Weissenburg and Hildegard of Bingen, to Christine de Pizan and Marie de France; the reading communities and texts he draws are from Barking, Syon Abbey and Gandersheim, among other literacy centers. Whatever the apparent limitations of these texts and locations, he mines these sources to excellent effect. He raises important questions about the ways in which we have interpreted the body of evidence of female readers. He also illustrates important ways in which women participated both within and outside of a clerical structure, sometimes subverting it, sometimes in service of it-- women's mystical experiences being just one striking location in which both of these can occur. We can't help but see in Green's aggregate of evidence women's influence on the formation of new literary genres and religious literatures such as "mystical revelatory literature" and autobiography (249). In his closing pages he also brings our attention again to the significance of the twelfth century and the "great thematic innovation" of the romance, in particular the Matter of Britain, locating Marie de France's work as emerging simultaneously with Chrtien (250). There is something here for everyone, especially for those of us who fall prey to the limitations of working in a single field. I appreciate the fact that Green pushes and consciously blurs the boundaries in so many different areas--across historical periods (and even into the early modern period), national borders, class, and documentary genres--to create a richer understanding of the experience of women and the text.