Albrecht Classen

title.none: Chance, ed., Gender and Text

identifier.other: baj9928.9606.001 96.06.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Jane Chance, ed. Gender and Text in the Middle Ages. Gainesville Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 1996. xv, 342 pp.. ISBN: ISBN 0-8130-1391-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.06.01

Jane Chance, ed. Gender and Text in the Middle Ages. Gainesville Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 1996. xv, 342 pp.. ISBN: ISBN 0-8130-1391-7.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

The contributions to a symposium on "Gender and Text in the Middle Ages" at Rice University (Houston) in January of 1991 form the individual chapters of this volume. As the two nouns in the title indicate, the editor and the authors are on a search for the gendered text and for readings of medieval texts informed by modern feminism. Judging from Chance's introduction, the main focus rests on the question how to identify characteristic female literature which establishes difference, refutes "male misread ing" and "exorciz(es) the male mind" (2). The editor subscribes to notions such as the one developed by Laurie Fink (1992) that women pursue "a nonlinear and nondeterministic" discourse which would "account for the messiness of women's writing" (7). Would this, however, not be another dangerously "essentialist" statement relegating women writers back to the margin of the male-dominated canon? Chance also points out that women, in contrast to men, gained their authority "from experience and the oral tra nsmission of material" (6), which could easily be contradicted in specific cases (Hildegard von Bingen) and also be claimed for many male writers. Moreover, can we actually argue that women writers received less education than men (5), if we consider the research results of scholars such as Herbert Grundmann? In the same vein, "[t]he question of gender difference in writing of the Middle Ages" (5) has received much more critical attention than Chance seems to be aware of (e.g. A. Rieger, ed., 1991; see also the article by Classen/Dinzelbacher in Mediaevistik 8). Finally, would it really be justifiable to maintain that there was something like a "feminine tradition of letters, with its own literary conventions and topoi," even its own "feminine aesthetic" (19)?

Notwithstanding these theoretical and interpretive objections, the collection of articles offers an excellent array of critical examinations of some of the outstanding writings by medieval women. In the first section we learn about the literary struggles and ideological concepts of Heloise, Hadewijch, Birgitta of Sweden, and Christine de Pisan to gain authority and to resist male domination and misogyny. The essays of the second section examine various forms of construction of female subjectivity as represented by Marie de France, Christine de Pisan, Margery Kempe, and various German, English, and Italian mystics. The third section contains studies dealing with transhumanization and subversion in the works of Angela of Foligno, Julian of Norwich, Christine de Pisan, Sor Maria, and Madre Juana. Despite Chance's strongly feminist jargon, most of the articles reflect very sound philological research not necessarily "brainwashed" by modern theory. Clearly, here the text-based interpretation is further illuminated by the theory, and not the other way around. Cristina Mazzona demonstrates, for instance, how little Jacques Lacan understood medieval mysticism, and how much he misinterpreted the texts by Angela of Foligno. Whereas the latter talked about the metaphysical experience with God, the Freudian psychologist identifies this vision with sexual orgasm and thus grossly misreads the text prima facie.

Catherine Brown, on the other hand, argues that Heloise deliberately chose a form of female discourse in her defense against Abelard's impositions. Nowhere does Brown consider the possibility that there might be a problem with authenticity; instead she pushes her agenda that Heloise attempted to conquer Abelard through disputation (rhetoric) and staged contrition (35). Even if her authorship can be confirmed, it would remain a dubious strategy to define her letters as documents of a feminist struggle against essentialism in the modern sense of the word.

Saskia M. Murk-Jansen suggests that a critical examination of the Dutch mystic Hadewijch has to be based on the understanding that medieval writers perceived themselves, at least in religious terms, much less defined by their gender than today. Whereas Hadewijch heavily relies on knightly imagery of jousting and tournaments, male theologians such as Bernard of Clairvaux utilized images representing them as weak women to express their humility. Murk-Jansen also observes that the mystic frequently resorts to feudal concepts to describe the relationship between human beings and God.

Claire L. Sahlin, in discussing Birgitta of Sweden, illustrates how much public power a mystic like her could, despite occasional accusations of being a witch, accumulate because she acquired the reputation of being a prophet like those in the Old Testame nt. The key to her success was the incessant insistence on her own passivity and obedience to God who used her as his vessel to communicate with the world.

Focusing on Christine de Pisan, Earl Jeffrey Richards confirms Murk-Jansen's observation that within religious discourse medieval writers often ignored the gender difference as "the soul was first created by God as an intellectual spirit" (105). Christine was keenly aware of this concept and discussed women's role within the universe before and after Redemption. It is particularly interesting that she moved from using the term "nature de femme" to "condicions de femme" (107), thus reaching the insight that the gender dichotomy is a false construction (112) which needs to be replaced with a universalist notion of human life.

Rupert T. Pickens' thesis that Marie de France mainly focused on the body in her lais and that physical violence proves to be the source of text creation for and by women in response to it appears to be highly speculative and does not illuminate the narrative in a meaningful way. Pickens believes that Marie explored women's power to generate texts but fails to present convincing arguments or rather forces the narrative elements to a point where a leap of faith becomes necessary. Kevin Brownlee returns to Christine de Pisan to illustrate her deliberate attempts to rewrite the courtly tradition of the "dit amoureux" as represented by the works of Guillaume de Machaut and Jean Froissart, and the Roman de la Rose through her Duc des Vrais Amans. For Brownlee the figure of the Dame Sebille serves as a mouthpiece of the author who wants to detach herself "from the world of courtly discourse" (181). If we consider, however, that Sebille's arguments are severely undercut by the subsequent event s and by the hollow moralistic teachings, then this thesis does not find enough support in the text. There is no doubt that we hear Christine speaking in her Trois Vertus, but the intratextual reference to the Duc and the statements by Sebille again demonstrate that Brownlee ignores the ironic subtleties of Christine's treatment of epistolary criticism of courtly love in the Duc. Although Sebille seems to have won the debate about the value of courtly love, at the end her teachings are rejected because without love there would be no happiness and thus no culture. In particular, the lovers continue with their affair and also exchange many letters, thus increasing the positive evaluation of their affair as a source for text productivity.

Sara Beckwith's article on Margery Kempe is the least impressive contribution to this volume because she does not succeed in establishing a critical focus in her analysis and instead largely paraphrases the text and discusses disjointed aspects. She observes Kempe's identification with Christ's passion and also explores the symbolic function of the mirror, both of which gave Margery access to the written word--a typical move in most mystical accounts.

Kate Greenspan discusses the autobiographical or autohagiographical' nature of mystical accounts. Observing the heavy use of rhetorical and theological strategies, she claims that mystics did not really compose autobiographical accounts because they "sought to efface themselves in their text by evoking formulas of humility and submission" (221). This is an old argument, however, which has often been raised in terms of medieval literature at large, see the debate between George Kane (autobiographical fallacy) and J. A. Burrow (conventional fallacy). Greenspan tends to give too much weight to the formulaic strategies in the texts and equates literary strategies (intentions to move the audience) with a lack of self-reflexivity. In radical contrast to Chance, she also rejects the notion that writing can be gender determined, instead she proposes that mystical texts fully belonged in the mainstream of contemporary literature. Cristina Mazzoni's arguments against Lacan's interpretation of Angela of Foligno's mystical account pursue the same and very welcome critical avenue, insisting on the unique literary quality of Angela's texts which should not be abused by poststructuralist theoreticians and psychoanalysts. This is not to deny the significance of theory, but it serves as a solid warning always to keep the text in mind as the ultimate reference of the interpretive work.

Maria R. Lichtman demonstrates that Julian of Norwich overcame, in her mystical visions, the traditional Neoplatonic-Augustinian dualism of body and mind by using her body and bodily features for her experience of and with God: "Julian's theology of incar nation of Word into flesh is itself incarnated in the bodiliness of her sickness and in her visions" (265). Here we find a mystical theologian fully dedicated to sensual experiences in the physical sense of the word.

Claire Nouvet returns to the texts by Christine de Pisan in whom she discovers an author bent on gaining a position within the mainstream of literary discourse. Interpreting her Epistre au Dieu d'Amours, she argues that Christine successfully struggled to overcome male deception and mistreatment of women in order to win her own authority--none of which comes as a surprise to us and represents the strongest, long acknowledged aspect of Christine's work.

Finally, Mary E. Giles, far removed from theoretical concerns, brilliantly examines the mystical accounts by Sor Maria of Santo Domingo and Madre Juana de la Cruz as to what impact they had on their contemporaries. Both women were publicly questioned and resorted to public demonstrations of their visions, here defined as "holy theater" (313) through which these women gained a new form of religious authority and converted many spectators.

The contributions are highly stimulating articles and reawaken the interest in medieval women literature. Despite the heavy theoretical framework set up by the editor, the authors mostly succeed in pursuing a very convincing and solid philological analys is of the texts. Some authors specifically contradict Chance's ideological concept and demonstrate beautifully how much we can gain from a close and also comparative reading. Others are more prone to follow a theoretical argument which might, but also might not work well. Except for the noticeable exclusion of German women writers, this volume is a well-balanced anthology of critical articles and will make its existence felt in future research on the topic of female literature composed in the Middle Ages.