Laura Dufresne

title.none: Taylor and Smith, eds., Women and the Book (Dufresne)

identifier.other: baj9928.9804.008 98.04.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Laura Dufresne, Winthrop University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Taylor, Jane H. M. and Lesley J. Smith, eds. Women and the Book : Assessing the Visual Evidence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. 287. $75.00(hb) $29.95(pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-802-04216-3 (hb); 0-802-08069-3 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.04.08

Taylor, Jane H. M. and Lesley J. Smith, eds. Women and the Book : Assessing the Visual Evidence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. 287. $75.00(hb) $29.95(pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-802-04216-3 (hb); 0-802-08069-3 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Laura Dufresne
Winthrop University

The venerable and devout virgin Gisela de Kerzenbroek wrote, illuminated, paginated, and decorated in gold letters and beautiful images this extraordinary book in her own memory, in the year of our Lord 1300. Codex Gisela (109)

Christine de Pizan, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Bridget of Sweden, Marie de France, Herrad of Landsberg, Barbara Gewichtmacherin, Suora Battista Carducci and the above-praised Sister Gisela de Kerzenbroek, are just a few of the names of women authors, scribes, artists and mystics discussed in Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence. As evidenced by this work, in recent years there has been an explosion of interest in the topic of literate women in medieval society. Grappling with the subject of women, text and image within that society is a far more complex issue, nicely addressed by the publication of the fourteen collected essays in this volume. Women and the Book is divided into three parts. Part One contains four essays devoted to the images of women in medieval texts. Part Two contains four essays devoted to books and images made by women. The third and final portion of the book is the largest, containing six chapters addressing images and books made for women. The majority of essays in this collection were presented at a conference entitled "Women and the Book" held at Saint Hilda's College, Oxford in 1993. Editors Jane Taylor and Lesley Smith's selections illustrate the challenge and complexity of relating an image to a text as well as to the woman connected with its production. The scholars examining texts and their accompanying marginalia, miniatures and decorated letters find that, when present, the images are not simple photographic records of the world in which they were produced. The message of an illustration is often as ambiguous as the text it accompanies. Although some authors in this collection find a lack of visual evidence upon which to base definite generalizations, most agree that the pursuit of this topic provides a banquet of information, whether blatant or obscure, for scholars of art, literature, gender, cultural and social history.

In addition to detailing the lives of specific women and the books they wrote, painted or commissioned, this collection of essays focuses on questions which must be asked in order to approach and explain the visual image. Were the images made for men or women, by men or women or about men or women? Martha Driver, in "Mirrors of a Collective Past: Re-Considering Images of Medieval Women" writes "(A)n illumination or miniature refracts reality, becoming a mirror, whether a fun- house distortion or a real-seeming reflection, of the culture producing it." (78) This idea is best expressed by an example posed by editors Taylor and Smith:

A picture of a woman as a miner, made by a woman, might be expressive of a woman's ability to undertake any task; when made by a man it might be a satirical joke about women in unsuitable positions; or, in both cases, it might be an allegory of mining the jewels of religious knowledge; or it might be a simple representation of women mining." (18)

At a more philosophical level this idea is expanded in an article by Wendy Armstead entitled "Interpreting Women with Books in Misericords." Misericords are carvings on choir stalls in churches, and often contain impious and even sexually explicit imagery. How do such images find their way into a Christian sanctuary? Because they offer the clergy a humorous reflection of the social bond that links monks and canons as a group, designating their high social status in relation to "others" -- the women, commoners, actors, acrobats and foreigners carved on their choir stalls. Armstead utilizes the controversial "carnival theory" espoused by Mikhail Bakhtin in his pivotal work Rabelais and His World to decipher the meaning of these "others". Bakhtin offers a different theoretical framework with which to examine, in this case, the satirized images of women in misericords. One of the most revealing aspects of his study in conjunction with iconography are his observations on the relationship between speech and image, in particular between the formal, schooled speech of the elite, and the free, unschooled speech of commoners at the fair and in the marketplace. These forms of speech are given physical form on the misericords of the choir stalls and in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts, detailed by Martha Driver in "Mirrors of a Collective Past" and to some extent by Susan Ward in "Fables for the Court: Illustrations of Marie de France's Fables". The meeting of the different forms of speech and image is naturally not that of equals. For example, the depiction of a woman reading a book on a misericords, or in a miniature, might serve to emphasize the difference between the sexes. It may also exemplify the Bakhtinian paradox contending that status is a reminder of its reverse, lack of status (69). Therefore a depiction of a woman reading might not be a respectful representation of a serious woman engaged in scholarly pursuits, but within a certain context, represent the male clergy's humorous reflection upon female wisdom (or lack) with its inseparable counterpart of female sexuality, both viewed as threatening. Like the metaphorical "carnival crowning", which supposedly empowered the community through the debasement of one individual, another Bakhtinian reversal, so the borrowing of folk and cultural motifs in misericords and manuscripts can be seen as a demonstration of elitist power. Armstead's analysis of carvings on misericords is quite adaptable to the interpretation of manuscript illumination, suggesting that the interrelationships between ecclesiastical culture and visual tradition might be best understood through a Bakhtinian theoretical framework.

The image of women and books is also perceptively approached by Susan Ward in "Fables for the Court: Illustrations of Marie de France's Fables in Paris BN MS Arsenal 3142". Ward writes of the unusual miniatures of Marie de France found at the beginning and end of the text for Fables. The image at the beginning shows Marie writing in a codex, while the final miniature shows her holding a completed book, inscribed with text (195). The appearance of the two miniatures of Marie, first writing, then holding the apparently completed book, are unique to the Arsenal manuscript. This combination of two miniatures suggests the passage of time, indicating that while the reader has been reading, the book itself is being written, and the illuminations have implicated the author and the reader together in the action of reading and writing (196).

It is this kind of analysis of text and image that makes many of the articles in this collection so compelling and inspiring. They do indeed, as the editors write in the introduction, demand that we study the images and the texts they accompany in light of the wider spectrum of economic, political, cultural and theological analysis.

Women artists are examined in Part Two of Women and the Book, most notably by Judith Oliver in "Worship of the Word: Some Gothic Nonnenbuecher in their Devotional Context". Oliver asserts that "Identifying work by medieval women and assessing its merits has not been a major focus of recent research" (110). She rectifies this omission by introducing us to the stunning Codex Gisela, an early fourteenth-century gradual made in a Cistercian convent, inscribed with the codicil regarding its creator, Gisela de Kerzenbroeck, quoted at the beginning of this review. The Codex Gisela contains a historiated initial of a nativity scene with a delightful depiction of Gisela and five nuns singing the Christmas Chant while snugly ensconced under Mary's bed (Plate 1). The fine color image alone is worth the price of the book!

Judith Oliver calls for further study of convents and their books, and this call is answered by several articles in this collection, especially in Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendter's "A Library Collected by and for the Use of Nuns: St. Catherine's Convent, Nuremberg". Her study explores the formation of a new library as a result of the reform of the Dominican order in 1428. This includes, among other things, several book lists of the sisters' private collection, and of the convent library's books and their content. There were selections compiled for table readings while the nuns dined, lists of books appropriate for private reading, and collections of spiritual writings with commentary written by the nuns themselves. The nuns of Nuremberg were devoted collectors of books, gathering together "a great variety of the most diverse works of spiritual literature" aimed to the specific needs of the reformed Dominican life (129). There are few illuminated texts in the library, although the name of one illuminator is documented, Barbara Gewichtmacherin. It was a great disappointment to me that one of her miniatures was not reproduced in this text. Ms. Ehrenschwendtner seems to have fallen prey to the dismissal of other scholars of these images by writing "she was not a particularly gifted painter (though) she seems to have been very influential" finding followers at other religious houses of Nuremberg (129). I, for one, would appreciate having access to the illustrations in order to assess their merit within the larger context of a cultural and historical approach.

In summary, Women and the Book can be used by scholars in a variety of fields, and I have found that it provokes stimulating discussion in the classroom. As a resource, it contains 103 illustrations in black and white of varying quality, and nine fine color plates. There is an index of all manuscripts cited, as well as a good general index. Lesley Smith, in her article "Scriba, Femina: Medieval Depictions of Women Writing" includes an inventory of every known image of a woman writing from the medieval period (39). There are also a few errors in this edition; an erratumreplaces a duplicate illustration for fig. 77 on page 176, while on page 235 the reader is mistakenly referred to color plate 8 instead of 9. These corrections aside, the essays in Women and the Book begin to fill the void created by a current lack of evidence found on literate women in the Middle Ages. Whether this lack is due to a lack of literate women, or to the lack of scholarly investigation remains to be seen (17). The only way to address this quandary is to take up the very challenge offered by this book of collected essays, and continue to investigate the lives of women, their books and imagery.