contributor.author: Anne Clark Bartlett, DePaul University

title.none: Smith, The Power of Women

identifier.other: baj9928.9612.014 96.12.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne Clark Bartlett, DePaul University, abartlet@condor.depaul.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Smith, Susan L. The Power of Women: A Topos in Medieval Art and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Pp. xviii, 295. $44.958195. ISBN: ISBN 0-8122-3279-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.12.14

Smith, Susan L. The Power of Women: A Topos in Medieval Art and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Pp. xviii, 295. $44.958195. ISBN: ISBN 0-8122-3279-8.

Reviewed by:

Anne Clark Bartlett, DePaul University
abartlet@condor.depaul.edu

This book evolved from Smith's 1978 dissertation, "To Women's Wiles I fell": The Power of Women: Topos and the Development of Secular Art. That work, she explains, viewed the topos of female power as the articulation of a "newly assertive lay society constructed largely by the church" (xiii). In this revised and expanded work, she has shifted her focus away from its formerly largely institutional context: the topos has become "a vehicle for the expression of conflicting and competing views which existed in the Middle Ages about women, love, and power relations between the sexes" (xiii). This transformation has its strengths and weaknesses: it produces a much richer, though far less historicized analysis. On the one hand, Smith frees her work from the insupportable conceptual binaries of ecclesiastic/lay and traditional/innovative discourses. On the other hand, the book's use of evidence from several centuries of Western European culture ignores the specific operation of its diverse textual communities.

Chapter 1, "The Power of Women and the Rhetoric of Example," briefly explains the medieval rhetorical principles that drive the use of topoi: as figure of speech, as argument, and as preaching tool. Smith provides copious examples of misogynistic commonplaces, and explains how each could be used as a tool to communicate gender hierarchy. These explanations, while not startlingly novel in themselves, are cogent and useful. They are also timely: as I read her summary of how figure of speech serves as argument, I was reminded of how such euphemisms as "character," "responsibility," and "family values" can serve in certain political contexts as, for example, coded references to marital infidelity, welfare abuse, and homosexuality. At the same time, I found myself wondering, as I read example after example of the topos, what function these admonitions must actually have served. This is a topic well beyond the scope of Smith's textual analysis, but I couldn't help suspecting that constant reminders of the dangers of feminine sexual appeal might not occasionally provoke more desire than they eradicated. Speaking for myself, I must admit when this book was my evening reading, my dreams were far more interesting than they usually are.

In addition to arguments based on medieval rhetorical theory, Smith speculates on the reception of the topos through medieval orality and literacy, and clerical and lay learning. Citing the work of Bauml (1979), Clanchy (1979) and Stock (1983), she argues that beginning in the twelfth century, "lay people from a diversity of social and professional backgrounds were reading and writing in growing numbers, some in Latin, but many more in the emerging vernaculars" (13). This estimate strikes me as both optimistic and historically vague. I would have liked to see Smith incorporate some of the recent outpouring of work on medieval literacy and reading practices. Studies by authors such as Rigg, Meale, Bartlett, Bell, Riddy, Justice, and Lehrer -- just to name a few -- would have helped anchor this book immensely.

Chapter 2, "'Thise Olde Ensamples Ought I-Nowgh Suffice,'" surveys and analyzes a host of misogynistic diatribes, from Jerome forward. Smith argues that "around the middle of the twelfth century...the interpretive monopoly that "father speech" had exercised over the Power of Women topos began to come under attack" (34). Smith documents the success of these attacks as "cracks in the interpretive monopoly" held by the church over lay, vernacular readers. For example, Walter Map's Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum philosophum ne uxorem ducat illustrates the potential gap between masculinist persuasion and unquestioned readerly acceptance; Heloise's letters reveal the identification of a female-identified voice with power, rather than victimization; and the emergence of vernacular genres such as the troubadour love lyric, chivalric romance, and popular tale celebrate the power of love, especially love of women (34-44). Her analysis of the "Querelle de la Rose" concludes the chapter with a teleological flourish, since it reveals that readers might well (and evidently did) identify with subject positions that an author likely did not wish to authorize.

Chapter 3, "Tales of the Mounted Aristotle," takes up one of the most provocative instances of Smith's topos. Smith explicates the conventions of the tale thoroughly, distinguishing between the tale's appearances in exempla collections (which deplore Aristotle's predicament) and romance traditions (which celebrate the yielding of philosophy to love). I found this discussion utterly fascinating. The two traditions of "the mounted Aristotle" offer some of the most rewarding evidence of dueling (if ambiguous) moral codes in the Middle Ages. As Smith argues, "each time [the reader] is told the tale a new way, [s/he] is implicitly challenged to judge it against the tale or tales that he or she already knows and to bring their differences into focus" (100). And moreover, since neither memory nor reading are uniform, predictable practices, the recalled tales themselves must have been inherently "interpellated" differently for various readers, making interpretation all the more undependable.

Between Chapters 3 and 4 is a collection of plates depicting visual representations of the Power of Women trope, and these signal the book's transition in emphasis from written to visual text. The plates are magnificent -- practically worth the price of the book itself. They document both the similarity of the trope across time, space, and genre. But they also point out the individual variations that invite re- (or mis-) reading, especially when seen in conjunction with other texts and images.

Chapter 4, "'Body it Forth': The Mounted Aristotle As Visual Example," argues that while over 218 images of the mounted Aristotle exist, no "fixed iconography" organizes their representation. Therefore, as is true with texts, the image "is deployed rhetorically, in the service of shifting arguments about women and their power" (104). Smith finds such images in the spatial equivalent of textual marginalia: "the margins of sacred manuscripts and other peripheral zones inside and outside the church" (104).

Chapter 5, "The Power of Women Topos in Fourteenth- Century Visual Art," follows the topos into the late- thirteenth and early-fourteenth centuries. The question that initiates this chapter is an important one for Smith's project, since it explains why the majority of her book thus far has analyzed written, rather than visual text: "why, when the topos had been a ubiquitous presence in medieval texts since the patristic period, did it enter the visual arts only now?" (137). The visual evidence explored here suggests that the reason is a further expansion and momentum of lay culture, a secularization that could "produce different ideas about women and love" (141). But Smith notes that these cultural innovations were not necessarily flattering to women. More frequently in this era, Samson and Aristotle were linked as figures for both fortitudo et sapientia both victimized by a woman. And images of Virgil in a basket, left hanging outside his potential paramour's window served as a similar warning about feminine seduction.

Chapter 6, "The Topos in the Fifteenth Century and Beyond," charts a general domestication of the topos. Aristotle begins to appear as a harassed husband, and Phyllis as a shrewish wife, threatening the philosopher with her distaff. Smith concludes that the topos became assimilated into representations of ordinary life, and then disappeared altogether (197).

In conclusion, I found Smith's book absorbing and informative, though not always convincing. Perhaps the book's most untenable feature is its fundamental opposition between a monologic church and a heteroglossic lay culture. For example, Smith argues that around the twelfth century

points of view previously undeveloped or deprived of / expression asserted themselves alongside the universal / and patriarchal authority of the church. A condition of / vernacular writing is difference. What was now set / against the universalizing Latin language was itself / fragmented... rooted not in the timeless authority of / the Divine Word but in the transience of oral speech, / vernacular texts were not positioned to function as / carriers of a single universal truth. (13-14)

A look at ecclesiastical conflicts in various times and places (one need only think of the vociferous classroom vs. cloister debates for a good example) illustrates the polyglossic and conflicted status of "the medieval church." I also found myself confused by Smith's terminology. Why is the trope called "The Power of Women" and not "The Power of Woman"? Typically, stereotypical (tropic) representations of the feminine are designated "Woman," since they refer to an abstract entity, rather than to specific female subjects ("Women"). One passage in particular illustrates why these two terms are customarily distinguished. Smith argues that

the mounted Aristotle, more than any other exemplary / figure connected with the Power of Women, focuses / insistently on the body as a site from which meanings are / drawn and directly defines the power of women [sic] as the / power of female sexuality. (104)

Clearly, one reference is to the trope and one is to the women affected by its use. But Smith's careful orthography makes this a moot point, because "Women" is always capitalized. Still, it's a point to consider.

Overall, though, Smith's enterprise is highly successful and satisfying. The Power of Women: A Topos in Medieval Art and Literature makes an artful case (pardon the pun) that medieval notions of the feminine do indeed constitute

a veritable cacophony of voices speaking differently about / the power that women exercise over men... [and] the / topos definitively emerged as a site for these / competing voices. (viii)