contributor.author: Laura L. Howes

title.none: Carol M. Meale, ed., Women and Literature in Britain, 1150- 1500

identifier.other: baj9928.9601.004 96.01.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Laura L. Howes, University of Tennessee

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Meale, Carol M., ed. Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pp. x, 223. $. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-40018-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.01.04

Meale, Carol M., ed. Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pp. x, 223. $. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-40018-X.

Reviewed by:

Laura L. Howes
University of Tennessee

A book of nine essays, which take as their common ground medieval "women's access to a written culture" in Britain (1), this volume far exceeded my expectations: because of its surprising coherence and the high quality of all essays included, it reads well sequentially--unlike many other essay collections--and in several instances authors refer directly or indirectly to other essays in the volume. Indeed, reading the essays together conveys a clear sense of the great variety of ways medieval women participated in written culture, so that in this case the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Further, as Carol Meale observes in a brief introduction, the central issue of the collection is whether, and how, women were able "to use [written] culture for their own ends, independent of the male authority by which it was sanctioned" (1). This is a welcome approach. For while many earlier studies examine the very real cultural and ideological constraints imposed on medieval women, and while others focus on a handful of exceptional women, such as Marie de France and Christine de Pizan, this book derives much of its strength from its broad-based analyses of "sub-cultures" of religious and secular literate women. But before proceeding further, I must pause over two assumptions encoded in the preceding statement. First, "literacy" cannot mean for medieval women what it means for modern men and women. While some women did in fact know how to read and write, especially in the vernacular, others who could not read at all nevertheless owned books. As Meale points out in her essay: "In an age when 'reading' could be a communal activity, . . . the term 'reader' may need radical redefinition if we are to understand women's use of books" (133). And second, the division of medieval society into "religious and secular" components does not accurately represent the lived experience of many medieval women who, Felicity Riddy argues, "may well have formed reading communities" that crossed the religious-secular divide (109). On this issue, Riddy concludes: "From the pattern of book-giving I have described it seems clear that the literary culture of nuns in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and that of a devout gentlewoman not only overlapped but were more or less indistinguishable" (110), a point made about the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne as well. As these brief quotations suggest, these essays significantly advance the study of medieval women because they do not simply re-examine old categories of thought on the topic; they formulate new ones.

The volume opens with three essays on romance. Judith Weiss's "The Power and Weakness of Women in Anglo-Norman Romance" acknowledges that most female romance characters serve as "pawns in the games of others" (11); still, Weiss explores the depiction of strong-willed female characters, favorably presented. Argentille, in Gaimar's Estoire des Engleis, and Iseut, in Folies Tristan, both display their ingenuity at key points in the narratives and are thus among those twelfth-century romance heroines who "impress us by their initiative and resourcefulness" (13). Seeking the reason behind these and other positive portrayals, Weiss posits a connection to the patrons of Anglo-Norman romances. One female patron, Constance, wife of Ralf Fitzgilbert, is mentioned by Gaimar in his Estoire des Engleis, according to which "she borrowed a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae from her husband and gave it to Gaimar to work on for the Estoire" (19). Such speculation is intriguing; it begs further attention.

Flora Alexander's essay, "Women as Lovers in Early English Romance," examines the variety of ways female love is portrayed in early romances. She begins by demonstrating that La3amon makes Igerne "a loving wife to Gorlois" (26), when she is deceived by King Uther in her own bedroom, and so La3amon "deal[s] perceptively and sympathetically with the sexual life of a woman when it suits his purpose" (26). In other instances, the love and desire of romance heroines actually drive the plot: "The most obvious connection between the woman's love and the plot is created when the heroine is assertive in her sexual conduct" (31). Examples of such assertiveness include Rymenhild of King Horn, Belisaunt in Amis and Amiloun, and the English Ysoude who "is a lively and responsive partner to Tristem" (33). Of course not all female love is viewed positively in English romance, but Alexander argues convincingly that love forces English romance heroines to behave in unexpected ways: "They challenge barriers of rank, and defy social prohibitions, for the sake of their love" (37). Like Weiss, Alexander also suggests a historical connection between strong-willed heroines and an original female audience. She surmises "that the story-tellers were responding to a desire felt by women in their audience . . . to imagine an autonomy and freedom of action denied them by their actual position in family and society" (38). The third essay on romance, "Mothers in Middle English Romance" by Jennifer Fellows, opens with a brief discussion of motherhood and maternal imagery in spiritual works of the period before surveying romance mothers who, on the whole, tend not to fare as well as romance lovers: "Broadly speaking, the more active the mother's part, . . . the more likely she is to be in some degree the villain of / the piece and eventually to meet with some sort of judgement or retribution" (43-44), although Fellows also discerns a "degree of sympathy" for mothers in difficult situations, such as that of unmarried mothers. The bulk of Fellows's essay, however, comprises a kind of catalogue of mothers, good and bad, so that analysis of her findings is here somewhat limited.

The next three essays, concerning religious writing, evince no such limitations. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's contribution, "'Clerc u lai, muïne u dame': Women and Anglo-Norman Hagiography in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries," emphasizes the degree to which nunneries and noble households shared an interest in religious writing. Not only was the "medieval noble household . . . itself a kind of religious community, maintaining its own chapels and chaplains, festivals and commemorations" (62), but "[e]ven the greatest nunneries fulfilled the function of upper-class gynacea, providing places for widows and other women unaccommodated within their parental or marital households' dynastic arrangements" (63). Wogan-Browne focusses her examination of hagiography on three works: Marie (of Chatteris's) Vie seinte Audree, Clemence of Barking's Life of St. Catherine, and Vie d'Edouard le confesseur, by another nun of Barking Abbey. All three deserve study not as mere translations from their Latin sources, according to Wogan-Browne, but as full reworkings with a female readership in mind. Clemence of Barking's Life of St. Catherine should indeed be "seen alongside such contemporary and comparable works as the Lais of Marie de France," because of its "courtly and doctrinal sophistication" (68). Wogan-Browne's note number 4 provides the reader with an invaluable list of Anglo-Norman hagiographical works, alphabetical by saint.

Similarly, Bella Millet's "English Recluses and the Development of Vernacular Literature" argues for a re-evaluation of the role of female recluses in the rise of religious works written in French during the Anglo-Norman period and in English beginning in the thirteenth century. Their position in the "newly emerging, ill-defined borderland" (90) between Latin literacy and non-literacy provided a significant catalyst for the use of vernacular languages, she asserts. Millet's discussions of the St. Albans Psalter, prepared in the early twelfth century for Christina of Markyate, and of Ancrenne Wisse and related texts, illustrate a "hierarchy of literacy" (95), the "mid-point" of which "is occupied by the primary audience, a group of readers more at home with the vernacular than with Latin" (95).

Felicity Riddy's essay, "'Women Talking about the Things of God': A Late Medieval Sub-Culture," uses Chaucer's Prioress as a "metonym" for "the existence of a certain kind of female readership" in late medieval England (106), one which may have circulated devout manuscripts, such as the Vernon manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library Eng. poet. MS a.I), and formed reading and teaching communities. Riddy examines in detail several instances of book-giving and discerns a "late medieval sub- culture" of devout women, lay and religious. She then turns to Julian of Norwich's work to examine such a sub-culture "from within. . . and a subjectivity shaped by [the sub-culture]" (111). In fact, Riddy argues, it is this feminine sub-culture that appears to have given support to Julian's "confidence in her own gender" (116), despite her internalization of "the clerical definition of the unlettered [i.e., illiterate in Latin] woman as weak and marginal" (116).

The last three essays cover a broad range of related topics. Carol M. Meale's ". . . alle the bokes that I haue of latyn, englisch, and frensch': Laywomen and Their Books in Late Medieval England" examines historical records for several late medieval women, including Alice Chaucer, Cecily Neville, and Anne Neville, Duchess of Buckingham, for evidence of book ownership and patronage. She further identifies as women "[m]any of Lydgate's patrons for his minor religious works" (137). And for women's ownership of romances, "the second largest generic grouping amongst women's books in the Middle Ages as a whole" (139), after religious works, Meale finds plenty of evidence to suggest a wide female readership for French romances, Arthurian and non-Arthurian alike, as well as for some English romances, the work of Christine de Pizan, and other assorted texts.

Julia Boffey's search for "role models for women writing" (159) in the late medieval period, in "Women Authors and Women's Literacy in Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century England," discusses Marie de France, Clemence of Barking, Beatrice of Kent, and Christine de Pizan as possible role models. Further, "[t]ranslations of continental devotional texts must also have reminded English audiences of the existence of female authors" (161). Boffey also analyzes evidence for female authorship of some anonymous works, and ends up debunking assumptions by earlier scholars that unsigned works often indicate female authorship. Of four lyrics in the Findern Manuscript (Cambridge University Library Ff.1.6), for example, Boffey concludes that "[t]he nature of the manuscript's contents, and the number of female names it contains, must suggest that women read it with interest (perhaps even that they organised [sic] its production), but the status of its lyrics as the compositions or the copy of 'writing women' must await further proof" (171). Boffey's feminist analyses of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe as "authors" would have benefitted from the work of two frequently cited American literary scholars--Karma Lochrie and Lynn Staley Johnson. It is regrettable that she seems not to have known their work.

The only thematic inconsistency in this volume comes at the opening of the last essay, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan's "Women and Their Poetry in Medieval Wales." Following Julian Boffey's critique of scholars who find women's words hiding in anonymous works written from a female point of view, Lloyd-Morgan begins by doing just that when she argues that "a few examples" of women's poems may have been included in the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse inadvertently, since many traditional folk songs "reflect experiences so gender-specific that we may conclude that they were composed by women" (183). Still, Lloyd-Morgan does go on to discuss what can be known about two named women poets in medieval Wales: the late twelfth-century Gwennllian ferch Rhirid Flaidd and Gwerful Mechain, active from about 1462 to 1500. The establishment of each woman's poetic corpus is complicated by the "long time lapse between the supposed date of composition and the date of the earliest manuscript" (185) and by an assumed tradition of oral transmission, but Lloyd-Morgan's discussion is marked by judicious analysis of the available evidence and a strong desire to sort fact from fiction. Her essay closes with translations and readings of two englynion by Gwerful Mechain, one of them religious and the other openly lustful. We can but wait for the full edition of Gwerful's poems presently occupying Lloyd-Morgan and Dr. Marget Haycock.

In short, the nine essays in Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500 cover an impressive array of historical situations in which medieval women read books or heard them read, wrote works or dictated them to an amanuensis, owned books, passed them on to daughters or to other like-minded women, and acted as literary patrons. The volume does indeed establish, in my mind, the existence of reading and talking communities, or intellectual "sub-cultures," among women in medieval Britain. Thus, for the lack of a clear diachronic tradition of female authors during this time period, we can substitute synchronic networks connecting women locally. Redefining the way in which we view women's intellectual involvement during the medieval period is one of the strengths of this volume. It should find a place in every college library and in the bibliographies of all new projects which deal with medieval women.

Works Cited

Johnson, Lynn Staley. "The Trope of the Scribe and the Question of Literary Authority in the Works of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe." Speculum 66 (1991): 820-38.

Lochrie, Karma. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Parry, Thomas, ed. The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.