Albrecht Classen

title.none: Ferrante, To the Glory of her Sex (Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.9709.001 97.09.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Ferrante, Joan M. To the Glory of Her Sex: Women's Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts. Women of Letters. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 295. $39.95 (hb), $19.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-253-33254-0 (hb), 0-253-21108-5 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.09.01

Ferrante, Joan M. To the Glory of Her Sex: Women's Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts. Women of Letters. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 295. $39.95 (hb), $19.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-253-33254-0 (hb), 0-253-21108-5 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

For some feminists Joan M. Ferrante's extensive study on the social position of, literary and artistic contributions by, and the perception of medieval women might not come as a welcome addition to their theoretical battle. In particular, Ferrante here takes a position which stands in clear contrast to many a critical examination of medieval women's lives because the author takes a deliberately positive, constructive approach and searches for the concrete achievements by women and the actual degree of recognition by their male contemporaries. Ferrante certainly takes note of pervasive elements of misogyny during the Middle Ages, but she does not let them influence her critical perception of women's reality. By contrast, less theory-oriented scholars will strongly welcome this monograph in which many aspects of medieval women's lives, heretofore mostly explored only in specialized articles, are put together to create a new picture of the "glorious sex," to play a pun on the book's title.

In particular, Ferrante tackles two major problems which have severely hampered the kind of research which she now dares to present in a refreshingly straightforward, powerful, and convincing manner. In the first place, medieval misogyny seems to have had such a powerful impact that women must surely have succumbed under the weight of the vicious barrage of male criticism, voiced as early as late antiquity by the church fathers and still reverberating in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Secondly, traditional literary histories have hardly given room to medieval women and thus simply claimed that women represented the "weaker sex," hence had only a very minor position in public life. Ferrante boldly disregards such opinions, first made up in "old boys' clubs" in the medieval church and then falsely taken as actual truth in the modern age. According to her own observations there are many literary and historical documents available which demonstrate without a shred of doubt that women were, after all, deeply involved in public life and were fully "aware of themselves as women" (3). Even misogyny needs to be viewed more as an ideological strategy than as a reflection of actual women's suppression by a male world. Ferrante does not deny the heavy impact of patriarchy, yet insists "that not a few were able to control their lives is an equally important fact" (5). With delight I read her statement: "theory and doctrine are one thing, practice and experience another" (5) with which she indicates the need to go beyond both the traditional, male-oriented and even beyond theory-oriented feminist medieval studies to reach a much better, especially more comprehensive and complex image of medieval women's lives. Whether Ferrante is indeed on the search for the "real woman" (5), or naively follows a pipedream of the powerful medieval lady future research needs to investigate further. Here, at least, she successfully challenges traditional perceptions primarily predicated on the understanding that patriarchy ruled in the Middle Ages so that women had to be quiet, both within the Church and outside in public.

One of the best examples, though only touched upon here by Ferrante, would be the famous or, if you will, notorious love treaty by Andreas Capellanus. Previously the third book of De amore with its strongly anti-courtly and vehemently misogynistic attitude was more or less completely ignored. Recently, the focus shifted, and since then many scholars took those negative statements as the author's ultimate reflections on women. In other words, according to this reading Andreas was no real defender of courtly love, instead he actually took the Church's side and strictly opposed extra-marital affairs. In my own investigation, however, I discovered strongly ironic elements throughout the treatise, especially in the third book ("Andreas Capellanus aus kommunikationstheoretischer Sicht. Eine postmoderne Auslegung von 'De amore'" Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 29 (1994): 45-60). It can be demonstrated that the exaggeration of the misogynistic accusations reveals a deliberate literary game with the theological tradition, undermining its rhetoric to a point where it collapses under its own weight. This would mean that the presentation of courtly ladies as highly intellectual participants in these love debates sheds considerable light on the respect which twelfth-century noble women enjoyed among writers and courtiers.

From this point of view Andreas fully corroborates Ferrante's argument, although, at least in the third book, he seems to contradict her conclusions in a radical fashion. Ferrante, however, provides in her introduction, a significant explanation: "when medieval men write theoretically about the female sex, they may condemn it or relegate it to subordinate roles, but when they--even the same men--deal with individual women, they treat them as colleagues or even as superiors" (6f.).

The book is divided in three major sections: "Background," "Women in Collaboration," and "Women in Control." The first part might well serve as the most enlightening investigation because Ferrante argues that women participated in medieval literature more by way of correspondence than by way of courtly narratives or lyric poetry. She does not, however, really look for literary achievements, but rather at the actual role which women played in intellectual life. The many letters written from the Early through the High Middle Ages indicate, for example, that "women participated either as head of state, as regent for the head of state, or as his consort. The letters show that both the men they governed for and the men they governed expected women to make and enforce decisions or to persuade husbands or sons to do so" (11). In fact, the number of medieval women regents is surprisingly high even though many of them only served as regents for their sons.

Women often exchanged letters and established a close-knit community of female friends, such as in the case of the circle of female friends of Hildegard von Bingen who provided them with comfort, advice, and support (21). Fortunately, many of these epistolary exchanges have been studied by other scholars as well in recent years, although Ferrante does not always give them adequate credit, particularly because she has hardly paid attention to Italian, German, or Spanish research in this area (see my articles "...und sie schrieben doch: Frauen als Schriftstellerinnen im deutschen Mittelalter," Wirkendes Wort 44, 1 (1994): 7-24; now also consult Disputatio. The Late Medieval Epistle, Vol. 1 (1996)). Ferrante refers us also to the important correspondence between Saint Boniface and his female friends in England, Bugga, Eadburg, and Lioba (31; see also my article "Frauenbriefe an Bonifatius," Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 72, 2 [1990]:251-273; not considered here). The author also discusses the letters exchanged between Abelard and Heloise (28ff.), but never acknowledges the still very divisive debate about the authenticity of these letters. I would certainly agree with her position that Heloise composed these letters herself, but it would have been wise to deal with the opposite viewpoint as well. Nevertheless, the author's conclusion is well founded that medieval women fully participated in the intellectual life and formulated their own ideas, feelings, and concerns primarily in letters (34).

The second chapter highlights the considerable role which women played as patrons and addressees for many of the most important theologians, philosophers, and poets throughout the entire Middle Ages. Ferrante demonstrates that Jerome "wrote most of his works for women" (41), and that Augustine responded to various women's requests to explain his viewpoints by writing important treatises (53). The same applies to Alcuin, Rabanus Maurus, Peter Damian, and Abelard, to mention a few names.

Although women were practically excluded from composing historical chronicles, they can often be identified as those who "commissioned men to write histories of themselves" (68). A good example would be Hugh of Fleury's Historia ecclesiastica written for Adela of Blois who had also many other works of poetry and prose composed for her (97). Even more important, women were highly influential in the area of courtly literature which was largely written for them, as Ferrante outlines in her fourth sub-chapter. Herbert Grundmann can be credited with having made the first fundamental observations in this regard, but his work is not even mentioned in the text or in the footnote, not to speak of the bibliography ("Die Frauen und die Literatur im Mittelalter," Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 26 (1936): 129-161; now also in: H. Grundmann, Ausgewählte Aufsätze, Part 3 (Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1978). Unfortunately, Ferrante provides only French and a few Old- English examples, although her conclusions do certainly pertain to other medieval literatures as well: "certain motifs did appeal to those women: the vulnerable hero who needs the help of women at least as much as he serves them, in contrast to the overpowering heroes of epics; the heroine in a position of power and wealth, who controls the action by her superior education and special powers, who has more to give the hero than to receive from him, in magic gifts or lands" (135).

In the few cases when Ferrante refers to German literature, such as in the case of Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, she treads rather thin ground, ignores, for example, the powerful role played by the mother Isolde and misreads, I would argue, the impact of the love potion on Isolde the Fair who is allegedly trapped "in an adulterous affair" (121). Would not the love between Isolde and Tristan be the highest ideal presented by Gottfried (see his prologue!)? Can we read this work in light of our bourgeois values? Did courtly poets really consider marriage as an ideal, or did they not rather aim for love outside of marriage, as Andreas Capellanus had stated so unequivocally, and with him many other courtly theoreticians? Ferrante briefly mentions Wolfram's Parzival with its subdued appearance of Parzival's mother Herzeloyde and his wife Cundwiramur, but she forgets the highly educated, powerful, and politically influential Kundrie. And with respect to the heroic epics where allegedly male forces dominate, it might be worth to consider the thirteenth-century German epic Kudrun as a significant corrective to this perception. Ferrante refers to Kudrun in a footnote (251, n. 72), but does not include this important text in her overall discussion. Kudrun works, not to forget, as an important peace weaver and brings to an end the vicious cycle of blood revenge by means of asserting her political authority and by establishing marriage bonds between the former enemies.

The third part deals with "Women in Control," beginning with mystical literature. Primarily Ferrante focuses on Hildegard von Bingen and Elisabeth von Schoenau who demonstrated in their writings that they not only did not feel any hostility for males, but even established a harmonious male-female balance (145). Nevertheless, the female mystics "looked to female figures for authority.... Their preferred models are women of authority and action, the Virgin Mary, queen of heaven and an active force in the redemption, Ursula the leader of an 'army' of virgins and martyrs" (174). Again there is little room to contradict Ferrante's critical analysis, except that here as well she has paid surprisingly little attention to the relevant scholarship presented by North-American and European researchers on mysticism, foremost among them Peter Dinzelbacher (see, e.g., his Mittelalterliche Frauenmystik [1992]).

Finally, Ferrante turns to active women writers, beginning with Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, the Provencal trobairitz, Marie de France, and Christine de Pisan. Overall, her feminist reading of their texts will find general approval, especially because she identifies a strong sense of female self- consciousness among them. In terms of Marie's "lais" she argues that the poet "gives a balanced picture of good and evil, of women and men, but she does seem to have more concern for the problems of women, for their need to take control of their lives as we say, and for female bonding" (197). Most of Ferrante's interpretations are based on sound judgment, whereas in the case of "Bisclavret" and "Eliduc" she seems to have let modern perceptions excessively influence her arguments. She tries to defend Bisclavret's wife against the charge of misbehavior--although Marie herself outlines her own negative viewpoint by means of the nose which the werewolf bites off--and calls her a "victim...of his anger" (199). She is "an example of the abused wife who is blamed for her attempt to save herself by a society which sees only the good in the man" (199f.). But the narrator does not tell us anything negative about the married couple's private life, only lets us know that the wife is overly curious, distrustful, and victimizes her husband by accepting a lover whom she does not love and by asking him to steal Bisclavret's clothing, thus condemning him to a life in the wilderness. Ferrante's statement, "and surely some abused wives in the audience would have recognized the plight" (200) seems inappropriate and reflects a regretful misreading of the "lai." Similarly, the interpretation of "Eliduc" goes in the wrong direction: "One might say that Eliduc is a man unhappy in his professional life who looks to a younger woman to assuage his ego" (202). But Ferrante is certainly right in her subsequent observation: "In contrast to husbands who spy on their wives to catch and hurt them, she spies on her husband to help him" (202).

Overall this is a beautiful landmark study which elegantly combines feminist arguments with thorough historical and literary-historical investigations. The concluding bibliography and index for names and subjects, along with the extensive scholarly apparatus, demonstrate that Ferrante's observations are not simply based on superficial reading of primary texts, but represent an in-depth look in the literary and historical sources. She certainly proves her point that in many respects medieval women were highly recognized by their male contemporaries, enjoyed their respect, and were able to realize their political, religious, and literary potentials to a larger extent than had been acknowledged in previous research. Since Ferrante covers such extensive ground, it is no wonder that she could not take note of every pertinent secondary source. Occasionally, however, as I pointed out above, there are some painful lacunae, although these do not distract from the overall first-rate accomplishments. Obviously, Ferrante wrote her book primarily with English and French texts and scholarship in mind, but her conclusions also apply to the lives of medieval women in Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, and other parts of Europe.