Misty Schieberle

title.none: Watt, Medieval Women's Writing (Misty Schieberle)

identifier.other: baj9928.0809.028 08.09.28

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Misty Schieberle, University of Kansas,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Watt, Diane. Medieval Women's Writing: Works by and for Women in England, 1100-1500. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007. Pp. viii, 208. ISBN: $24.95 978-0-7456-3256-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.09.28

Watt, Diane. Medieval Women's Writing: Works by and for Women in England, 1100-1500. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007. Pp. viii, 208. ISBN: $24.95 978-0-7456-3256-8.

Reviewed by:

Misty Schieberle
University of Kansas

The category of "women's writing" often is interpreted narrowly as referring exclusively to texts by women. Diane Watt's Medieval Women's Writing sets out to broaden the canon of women's writing by revising our conception of women's literary history in three major ways. First, taking a page from feminist theorists of later eras, she considers both texts authored by women and writing composed for and about women ("women-oriented" texts). Second, she connects women to Middle English, Latin, French, and Anglo-Saxon works written in England; and finally, she emphasizes the ways in which the collaborative nature of medieval textual production could affect women's writing. Like Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's Saints Lives and Women's Literary Culture, 1100-1350, Medieval Women's Writing strives to take into account the complex, polyglot literary history of medieval England, and Watt achieves this goal in a format accessible enough to be used in the undergraduate classroom.

Writing for an audience that includes generalists as well as scholars, Watt offers brief but thorough backgrounds to authors and works, and she situates each chapter within current scholarly trends in the areas of women's literary history, feminist studies, and authorship. But in addition to presenting information foundational to understanding the subject of medieval women's writing in general, she also provides original readings generated by approaching women's writing in England as collaborative and intertextual.

Watt's readings proceed from the central argument that medieval texts by and for women are the products of collaboration and negotiation among women, men, and pre-existing literary traditions. Women may be significant not only as writers but also as compilers, translators, patronesses, and audience members; men may respond to female audience members' requests, or they may act as secretaries, a term that implies a close relationship and is thus, Watt proposes, preferable to "scribe," which may connote professional disinterest (an argument that builds on her earlier book, Secretaries of God).

By including writing produced for women patrons or audiences, Watt encourages a more nuanced understanding of the history of women's engagement with literary culture. Her methodology is primarily textual and intertextual rather than historicist in nature, and, she notes, "pragmatic rather than highly conceptual" (4). More or less in chronological order, chapters provide a series of separate yet interconnected readings on a range of writers and texts, including Christina of Markyate, Marie de France, legends of female saints, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and the Paston letters. To accommodate the broad chronological range covered by these texts (1100-1500), Watt gives special attention to form, genre, medieval concepts about language and literary theory, evidence of reception, and continuities among texts. Medieval Women's Writing is both a series of case studies and a developing argument about the broader importance for women's literary history of intertextual readings and of the consideration of collaborative methods of textual production.

The first chapter on Christina of Markyate examines the relationship between the Latin The Life of Christina of Markyate, the St. Albans Psalter, and some Anglo-Saxon female saints lives (the latter of which will be given greater treatment in chapter three). Using this textual matrix, Watt counters the assimilationist position that suggests that the Normans became well-integrated with the Anglo-Saxon society relatively soon after the Conquest. She proposes that the Psalter's Chanson of St. Alexis seeks to influence Christina's piety through emphasizing Continental and French models of married celibacy. In contrast, the Life foregrounds Anglo-Saxon models and language, revealing the unspoken cultural and linguistic tensions between English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin culture.

In the second chapter, Watt identifies the works of Marie de France as rich sites for the study of various modes of collaboration. To the portrait of Marie as a compiler and translator, Watt adds evidence that Marie requires the active collaboration of her audiences to create meaning out of the ambiguous, open-ended conclusions to her works. Additionally, Watt argues that the least-studied of Marie's works, Saint Patrick's Purgatory, most reveals her innovation and "the power or potentiality of translation as a form of literary production on par with original poetic composition" (62). By focusing on the prologues, prefaces, dedications and epilogues of the three works attributed to Marie, the Lais, the Fables, and Saint Patrick's Purgatory, Watt also establishes points of comparison on the topics of self-representation, motivation to write, and conception of authorship that she will reference in her examination of Clemence of Barking (chapter 3).

Breaking chronological order, but tying together many of the major interests and texts in the book, the third chapter links lives of women saints to the other writings in the study. Watt explores in brief but illuminating strokes the Latin Life of Christina of Markyate, Clemence of Barking's Anglo-Norman Life of St. Catherine, and the Middle English Legends of Holy Women by Osbern Bokenham. The works are linked together primarily by genre, but each is more closely linked by Watt to other elements of her study: the image of The Life of Christina in chapter 1, Marie de France, and Margery Kempe, respectively. Watt demonstrates ways that the The Life of Christina reveals how Old English lives of female saints were read and how those lives in turn influence the portrayals of masculinity and femininity in The Life of Christina. Read against Marie de France, Clemence of Barking is presented as more consistently representing women in positive, rational, and intellectual terms. Watt persuasively argues that Clemence identifies with her saintly protagonist and challenges clerical privilege as the only acceptable form of authority, offering in Catherine an alternative model of authority open to both men and women. Turning to Osbern Bokenham's saints lives, Watt focuses on his emphasis on and deference to female authority within his texts (through his representations of female sanctity) and outside them (to his patronesses). Including Bokenham allows Watt not only to introduce the concept of women patrons and readers as influences upon male authors, but also to initiate discussion of the vibrant religious and literary community of late medieval East Anglia, which lays the foundation for her readings of Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, and the Pastons.

In chapter four, Watt gives consideration to Julian of Norwich's theology as well as attention to Julian as a woman writer. Her readings of Julian's connections to motherhood, fertility, and femininity involve not only analysis of the trope of Jesus as mother, but also of Julian as fulfilling the services and duties of motherhood through her writings. The final section of the chapter turns to textual transmission and audience, including a brief analysis of the Sloane Manuscript of the Revelation. Watt suggests that the headings in Sloane that insistently frame Julian's visions as orthodox represent collaborative efforts by Julian, her secretary, or another member of her spiritual community to control the reception of the text (although we cannot be sure when the scribal headings were added).

In the chapters on Margery Kempe and the Pastons, the author-secretary relationship receives its fullest and most persuasive treatment as a collaborative mode that affects a female author's compositions. When Watt turns to Margery Kempe (chapter five), she focuses on the details of the construction of the Boke that can be found in her narrative, rather than on Margery's subjectivity. By analyzing the contributions to the book that Margery's clerical secretary claims were his own (the second part as further evidence of Margery's sanctity; the proem as a testimony to a miracle; and his record of how his failing eyesight was cured by Margery), Watt convincingly proposes that Margery and this secretary collaborated to produce the Boke as evidence for Margery's beatification as a local saint, who could serve as a model of piety for all readers but particularly for women.

The final chapter assesses Paston letters that originated from both men and women, highlighting the extremely collaborative nature of letter-writing: both in the sense that writers respond to and imitate strategies in a correspondent's previous letter, and in the sense that men could influence the style and content of women's letters. Especially provocative is the evidence of drafting that indicates that John Paston III wrote letters that he intended his mother to recopy and send in her name. Watt uses this example to propose questions of voice and authorship, asking readers to consider whether it is appropriate (or even possible) to attempt to identify a woman's voice. By ending on a note that problematizes the notion of "women's writing," she provocatively argues for the crucial understanding of women's writing as "the product of collaboration between authors or writers, secretaries, subjects, patrons, recipients, readers and audience" (158).

There is much to recommend Medieval Women's Writing for both generalist and specialist audiences, but especially for classroom use. The text is meticulously structured, and Watt is conscious of her audiences: she provides a wealth of information to introduce generalist readers to medieval women's writing in a very concise format; the annotated suggestions for further reading balance foundational scholarship with the most recent developments in the field; and quotations appear both in translation and in the original language. More advanced scholars will appreciate Watt's re-assessment of the ways that medieval women's writing and women's literary history should be studied.

Medieval Women's Writing is an ambitious project, but it cannot do everything; for instance, although she calls attention to Simon Horobin's discovery of a complete legendary by Osbern of Bokenham, Watt does not engage how this might change the way we think about Bokenham and gender. Additionally, her introduction mentions her necessary omissions like Christine de Pizan, Eleanor Hull, and Lady Margaret Beaufort, providing readers with access to information that can spark their own scholarly explorations. As she acknowledges, the conclusion to the book marks not an ending but a beginning, and the ideas set forth in the text clearly invite readers to investigate further the writings that Watt analyzes, to seek out the scholarship that she cites, and to think through, apply, or reformulate her own arguments (160).

For use in an undergraduate or graduate classroom, Medieval Women's Writing is an affordable, accessible text that will challenge students to consider the complex literary and linguistic contexts of late medieval England. The introduction helpfully explains the concept of women's literary history, theories of authorship (medieval and modern), and the historical details of medieval textual production that are necessary to understand the book's methodology. Throughout the chapters, Watt frequently calls attention to links among women or texts, some of which seem more speculative than others (e.g. that in Bokenham's Lives we might find a response to Margery Kempe, although we have no certain evidence as to what or whether Bokenham knew of Margery). Watt generally acknowledges when her statements are based on circumstantial evidence or speculation, and as a whole, the connections she draws seem likely to provoke fruitful discussions and further scholarship.

Medieval Women's Writing is an outstanding synthesis of scholarship and original research that should become essential reading for all students of women's authorship and literary history. Watt's intertextual approaches create more possibilities for women's participation in textual production, and her book articulates new avenues of research for the exploration of women's writing and questions of authorship within the late medieval English literary milieu.