Miriam Shadis

title.none: Rousseau and Rosenthal, eds. Women, Marriage and Family in Medieval Christendom (Shadis)

identifier.other: baj9928.9910.004 99.10.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Miriam Shadis, Ohio University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Rousseau, Constance and Joel Rosenthal. Women, Marriage and Family in Medieval Christendom: Essays in Memory of Michael M. Sheehan, C.S.B. Studies in Medieval Culture, 37. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998. Pp. xviv, 431. $20.00. ISBN: 1-879-28866-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.10.04

Rousseau, Constance and Joel Rosenthal. Women, Marriage and Family in Medieval Christendom: Essays in Memory of Michael M. Sheehan, C.S.B. Studies in Medieval Culture, 37. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998. Pp. xviv, 431. $20.00. ISBN: 1-879-28866-4.

Reviewed by:

Miriam Shadis
Ohio University

"When Michael M. Sheehan passed away unexpectedly on 23 August 1992, he bequeathed a rich and lasting legacy for those remaining behind. His legacy consisted of his own writings in medieval social history, his pastoral work, his scholarly relationships, and personal friendships with many individuals in Canada and abroad. The culminating part of his legacy, however, extended far beyond this." [1]

The thirteen essays in this volume bear witness to Fr. Sheehan's talents and dedication as a mentor. The ideal of the scholar-teacher is one still held up before graduate students, particularly in an uncertain job market where one has to be prepared to "do anything," but true models for this ideal are few, and the cost of achieving it, especially in terms of producing a high volume of published scholarship, are rarely acknowledged, understood, or valued. What one sees in this volume is the product of such sacrifice, and its best tribute - - a job well done by students. As a group, these essays can be read on at least two levels. They are independent contributions on like subjects, and there is a great deal of cross-over in terms of types of sources used, especially in the essays dealing with marriage and family, which tend to rely on legal sources, broadly conceived. One expects this of scholars trained in the "Sheehan School of Social History." Thus, at one level, these are fine scholarly essays which will be of use to those of us interested in the topic; some of the essays in particular may be of good use for undergraduate teaching. On another level, a more philosophical one, it is impossible not to read these essays as products of the teaching and guidance of Michael M. Sheehan, especially in light of the two introductory pieces by Sheehan's friends and colleagues, Walter H. Principe, C.S.B, "A Personal Profile by a Friend," and J. Ambrose Raftis, C.S.B., "The Interdisciplinary Context of a Career."

Principe's "Personal Profile" describes a witty, energetic, and adventurous scholar-priest, one who was " no bookbound historian -- he wanted to get some 'feel' of past events by experiencing landscapes and travel situations and even by fingering the remains of the past." (3-4) Fr. Sheehan's desire to experience or know the past in this way might be satisfied by these human portraits which contextualize the scholarship. Understanding the recent past and its implications for the pursuit of the humanities, exemplified by Sheehan's caeer, is the appeal of J. Ambrose Raftis, who notes the coincidence of Sheehan's career with emergence of "interdisciplinarity" and increased specialization. Sheehan's own course of study in Philosophy, English and History was made possible by a smaller institution and greater attention to younger students by the best professors; now larger student bodies make this difficult. Raftis sees a positive model in the multi-disciplined education, one in which institutions and departments are open to one another, for the restoration of history as a truly humanist endeavor. No one discipline can answer the fundamental question of "what it means to be human" without reference to another. Yet, new institutional, financial and social demands have made it impossible to "go back" to the older, even elitist method. Raftis considers Sheehan himself as a humanist and scientific scholar, who entertained no professional jealousy over his own specialization, but exhibited a great respect for the good work of others and generosity to students. Michael Sheehan's career prompts Raftis to "become impressed by the need for such retrospective analysis." (16)

The effect of Michael Sheehan's disciplinary openness, flexibility and rigor will be to be especially noticeable in the discussion of the essays under the section "Women." Until the current generation of assistant professors, most historians of women became so either after becoming degreed, or because intellectually fearless advisors were willing to let their students travel where they had not but with adequate tools and a "good grounding" perhaps in church history, or perhaps in reading legal texts, or parish records. The study of women is an obvious outgrowth of Sheehan's work; however, the theoretical work and kind of sources used by Dyan Elliot, for example, indicate a real departure. This is a good indication, I believe, of the kind of mentor he was, and suggestive of the directions in which Raftis appeals.

The first section of the book, "Women," contains the following essays: "Bede's Women" (David A. E. Pelteret); "Dominae or Dominatae? Female Mysticism and the Trauma of Textuality" (Dyan Elliott); and "Salisbury Women and the Pre-Elizabethan Parish" (Audrey Douglas).

David Pelteret examines Bede's writing, especially the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, to assess the level of Bede's misogyny. The merit of such a project lies in Pelteret's point that Bede's misogyny is not explicit, like Pelteret's twelfth-century example,[2] but rather more insidious, and thus, possibly, more dangerous. Bede discusses women in limited terms, and on limited occasions, largely to suit his political purposes, Pelteret finds. Hild, Aelfflaed, Aethelburh and Aethelthryth are not allowed their own voices, are conceived largely as mother/virgin figures, and serve mainly to help Bede reduce Wilfrid's stature. While these conclusions are not surprising (although perhaps disheartening -- et tu, Bede?), the essay serves as a salutary reminder that standard, seemingly objective sources are embedded in a larger culture which influences them heavily. Bede did not escape his culture, and his female heros as a consequence do not escape that culture's limits on women.

In her compelling essay, Dyan Elliot further explores the concept of limitation, both culturally and self-imposed, and both positive and negative, for late medieval women mystics, especially focusing on the fifteenth-century Frances of Rome and her relationship with her scribe, John Mattiotti; or better put, her scribe's relationship with Frances' visions and the act of writing them, which was fraught with peril. Typically, female mystics refused notoriety; several, like Marguerite Porete, demonstrate by a negative example the danger of speaking for oneself and had to be pressured into revealing their visions and submitting to scribes, an act which Elliot suggests was detrimental to the visionaries' own security and independence. The procedures of writing down visions were subject to much scrutiny, were seen to be vain, provided an occasion of temptation for the scribe, and ultimately placed the visionary in a completely subdued relationship vis-a-vis her scribe: John tested Frances' purity by commanding her complete obedience. Thus, this "exaggerated passivity" seemed by the late Middle Ages an essential precondition for mystical veracity. (77)

Using parish records (recording oblations, tithes, purifications wills, and accounts) from late medieval Salisbury, Audrey Douglas finds information about female communicants, in terms of their household status (wife, widow, servant, singlewoman), their wealth (or lack thereof: 8/9 of paupers in St. Thomas's parish were women (82)), and interestingly, their active participation in the crafts in the employ of the parishes -- goldsmith and chandler to name two. Douglas' records span the late fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth century, and demonstrate the last of a high degree of participation for women in the ordering and functioning of parish life. With the English reformation, and the rise of dissenting groups, opportunities for women's activity such as churchings and Hocktide, gave way to a new order, demonstrated physically by individual women's assigned places behind their men during church services (117); previously, they sat, worked, and danced -- communicated -- together.

The second section of the book, "Marriage," which is perhaps the most coherent section (unsurprisingly, given Sheehan's own work on marriage and in legal sources) contains the following: "Individualism and Consensual Marriage: Some Evidence from Medieval England" (Jacqueline Murray); "I will never have none ayenst my faders will: Consent and the Making of Marriage in the Late Medieval Diocese of London" (Shannon McSheffrey); "'Maritalis Affectio': Marital Affection and Property in Fourteenth-Century York Cause Papers" (Frederik Pedersen); and "Husband and Wife in Criminal Proceedings in Medieval England" (Margaret H. Kerr).

Murray traces the role which pastoral manuals played in the dissemination of the Church's doctrine of consensual marriage to the lowest levels of English society, and the direct relationship which the practice of independent marriage had to increased individualism: the right of the individual to make moral decisions affecting his or her salvation, the responsibility of the church to aid and uphold that end, and the practical outcome of this doctrine in ordinary people's lives as they chose whom (or whom not to) marry. Murray bookends her discussion with the examples of Margery Paston, who endured ostracism and disinheritance to make her own "lewd" marriage with her family's steward, Richard Calle, and of Margery's aunt Elizabeth who endured physical abuse when she refused to marry the man chosen for her, but Murray's real interest lies in understanding how women (and men) like the Pastons knew of their rights and thus her essay mainly explicates the evolution of English pastoral manuals following the pronouncements of Alexander III and the Decretals of Gregory IX on marriage (12th and 13th centuries) up through the fifteenth century.

Shannon McSheffrey also examines the role of consent in late medieval marriages, asking how "the radical notions of free choice promoted by the consensual theory of marriage" worked in fifteenth-century practice. (155) Using depositions from the diocese of London's consistory courts, she examines manipulation of social expectations that, regardless of the legality of a marriage contracted independently, young people marrying for the first time would seek the advice and approval, even permission of their family, friends, and/or employers. Manipulation of these expectations occured when some prospective spouses offered their consent to marriage conditional upon the consent of others, hoping to forestall an unwelcome suitor, but unable to say "no" (mainly women), or sometimes with the intent of gaining sexual access (always men; 167). Thus, the strategy of promising to contract a marriage dependent upon external consent was highly gendered, and it worked because of social expectations that young people -- and young women in particular -- were compliant and left important decisions to their elders, which, in fact, the majority of them did. Church law may have provided for independent marriage, but as McSheffrey points out, marriages were not made in a social vacuum, and it might be risky to incur disapproval, disinheritance, loss of dowry, or other opprobrium by going against the preferences of mothers, fathers, friends and employers.

Pedersen examines the use and meaning of the term "maritalis affectio" like consent, a topic to which Fr. Sheehan gave some attention. Using the York Cause Papers from the fourteenth- century, he looks at 88 files in which marriage was the subject of litigation, and what he finds is interesting. Where, in keeping with canon law developments, some people referred to affection in marriage as an emotional state which confirmed the marriage bond, was permanent, and could be related to a shared bed, more likely the term still obtained its old Roman law meaning; "marital affection" implied the intent to marry with the legal and specifically economic consequences being agreed to. That is, "marital affection" as a concept appears in the York Cause Papers most often in cases where property rights were the main concern not an emotional state of being. As Pedersen points out, from the days of the Roman Empire this phrase, while evolving, was consistently ambiguous, and this ambiguity persisted, in England at least, through the late Middle Ages.

Following Maitland's lead, M.H. Kerr asks a series of questions about the position of married women and their husbands in their capacity as such under English criminal law between 1194 and 1306. Whereas Maitland posited that married women essentially had no identity under the law, Kerr finds that comparing actual court cases shows that practice often diverged from theory. She examines whether married women were considered their husbands' property--could husbands be violent towards their wives with impunity? Could a husband appeal for damages if his wife were raped? Could a woman appeal on her own behalf if raped? While in theory the law allowed women to appeal for very few crimes slaying of a husband, rape, assault resulting in abortion, Kerr finds widows and single women appealing for crimes such as burglary, death of a child, mayhem, etc. Wives also might act as attorneys for their husbands who were temporarily incapacitated, perhaps through assault. Women generally suffered severe handicaps in front of the court, however. While the court might hear other appeals from women, it was often enough for the defendant to point out the irregularity of her gender to have the case dismissed. Did married women derive any advantages from their dependent status? According to Bracton, husbands' responsibility diminished wives' culpability. Theoretically, a criminal's wife was assumed to take part in his crime only under coercion, but in practice it was of course more complicated. Bracton also noted women's special relationship to managing the household, and suggested that women's obedience should extend only to what was moral, and while legally incapacitated, a married woman was not ethically incapacitated; all of these elements were taken into consideration by juries. Kerr suggests that changes in women's relations to criminal law largely resulted from a growing investment of the Crown in judicial procedure (and revenue). It was of little advantage to the Crown not to hear women's appeals; likewise it was of little advantage not to prosecute female felons who happened to be married. Kerr concludes this essay with three useful appendices: "A Note on Rape," "A Note on Wives' Unconventional Appeals," and a bibliography of (printed) primary sources.

Finally, the last section, "Family" contains four essays, "The Cultural Construction of Childhood: Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation" (Kathryn Ann Taglia); "'Que nos in infancia lactauit': The Impact of Childhood Care-givers on Plantagenet Family Relationships in the Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Centuries" (John Carmi Parsons); "Kinship Ties, Behavioral Norms, and Family Counseling in the Pontificate of Innocent III" (Constance M. Rousseau); and "The Curteys Women in Chancery: The Legacy of Henry and Rye Brown"(Timothy S. Haskett).

Taglia's essay departs from the English, legal source based "Sheehanesque" nature of the previous ones, but her observations surely could be usefully compared with similar sources from England, Iberia, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. Drawing mainly on Synodal records from the north of France in the 12th - 15th centuries, and on ecclesiastical writings from the fifth century on, Taglia explicates the development and meaning of practices of infant baptism, (first) Communion, and Confirmation in terms of the Church's interest in and conception of childhood. In particular, she examines how the Church contended with the nature of being a child, especially a new born, in ensuring the coherence of the Christian community as well as the salvation of the individual. The most significant element of her study is an examination of emergency infant baptisms; on the one hand, this was a sacrament which any Christian could validly perform, provided the correct formula was followed, and it was one which was often necessarily performed by midwives and parents. On the other hand, the Church demonstrated increasing anxiety about the validity of such baptisms, and resorted to a type of "conditional baptism" to be performed should the child survive. At stake here was the precise incorporation of the body and soul of the individual into the Christian community, as well as the Church's privilege. Over the course of the Middle Ages, particularly as the physical act of taking the Eucharist became increasingly important, (first) Communion became separated from the rite of baptism; babies could not be relied upon to ingest the wafer, nor could they demonstrate appropriate reverence for the host. The age of discretion between 7 and 10 years of age was set for first communion. The rite of confirmation, which sealed the believing Christian into his or her community (and affirmed episcopal involvement) was also set at a later age. Taglia thus traces the coevolution of three of the sacraments of Catholicism along with a developed position on the nature of childhood. It would be interesting to compare these doctrines with parish records and to see how medieval people did in fact comply with these patterns, which are largely still followed today. [3]

John Parsons also explores an aspect of medieval childhood. He starts with the premise that medieval people--in this case royal parents--did have concern and affection for their children as children, as well as an investment in them politically (for other families, a parallel investment might be economic), and personal letters, which give voice to family feeling demonstrated more prosaically--if more concretely-- through household accounts of the Plantagenets in the thirteenth century. In particular, Parsons looks at the way care for royal children was managed. Very young children could not tolerate the itinerant life of their royal parents, and thus had their own households, where they were visited by their families, and from where they would join their parents for extended stays. This provided some environmental stability, but even more important were the people chosen to nurture these royal children. Students of any elite family might take a cue from Parsons' findings (admitting that he has extraordinarily good records to work with); by examining the networks of families who cared for these children, especially the valued midwives and wetnurses, Parsons determines not only a highly gendered aspect to children's care, but a network of households that would remain important to the young royals as they grew older, complementing, but not necessarily supplanting, family relations.

Parsons interrogates the mechanisms by which children raised in such circumstances came to know and even love their parents. Crucial here is a growing awareness of the specialness of royalty, fostered from about the age of seven by exposure to royal ritual and public enthusiasm. Parsons focuses in particular on the troubled relationship of Edward of Caernarfon with his father, Edward I, and shows how the young Edward relied upon the high status of his extended biological and surrogate family to negotiate with his father. Because Edward I generally seems a devoted and interested father, young Edward's earliest years bear new scrutiny; Parsons suggests that Edward's relations with his parents were star-crossed from the beginning, marred by the death of his much beloved--and much invested in--older brother Alphonso. The friction between the two Edwards becomes the exception that proves the rule of parental value of children.

Rousseau, who is to be commended for editing this volume as well as contributing her own work, turns to Pope Innocent III's general articulation of the importance of family relations, taking on such scholars as David Herlihy, who posited "the medieval Church saw no absolute value in close and emotional family attachments." [4] Some readers may have difficulty accepting that the language of Innocent's letters provides enough evidence to argue his conception of family. Innocent III encouraged rulers to emulate ancestral models, stressing their valor, good government, faith, and positive relations with Rome. He deliberately chose language emphasizing biological (even illegitimate) relations when seeking to make peace between family members, such as the embattled Hungarian brothers King Imre and Duke Andrew, urging Andrew to live up to his father's will (and fulfill a crusading vow) and to honor his brother because he was his brother: "may the affection of mutual charity unite you as it united the paternal blood and the maternal womb." (336) This was not mere rhetoric, Rousseau argues, but a real attempt to resolve familial strife. If this coincided with the interests of the church, so much the better. To test Rousseau's thesis, we need a case in which resolution of family problems did not meet the interests of the church. Admittedly, such a case would seem preposterous, at least on a pastoral level, and the interests of the Church were indeed wide and varied. Rousseau shows that Innocent even argued that illegitimate blood ties carried mutual obligations, when he strove to settle differences between Richard I and his half- brother Geoffrey, urging Richard to "love him as a brother." (337) Of course, Geoffrey was archbishop of York, and so Innocent was not a disinterested party, and was certain to use all tools at his disposal to help Geoffrey. However, Rousseau argues that this is a unique case of Innocent stressing "spiritual and kin relations between monarch and prelate," and not to be confused with an example of the rhetoric of Christian brotherly love. (339) Ultimately, this essay suggests a less cynical view of Innocent's activist papacy than is sometimes put forward, and challenges the notion that the Church and "the Family" were destined to be at odds in medieval Europe.

Very usefully, Timothy Haskett outlines the workings of the Chancery Court in late medieval England. Not exactly a court of last resort, the Chancery took up where Common law had become increasingly inadequate in resolving contested matters for which the letter of the law was not at issue, but matters of conscience and intent were. Turning to the database "The Early Court of Chancery in England Project (ECCE), 1417-1532," Haskett has selected three related documents at once ordinary and extraordinary from Chancery proceedings: two wills, from Henry Brown and his wife, Rye Brown of Calais, and then a bill presented to the Chancery Court by a group of the Browns' beneficiaries, the "Curteys" women, mostly Henry's nieces, but also, interestingly, one of Rye's. These women, who were all "well rewarded" by Henry and Rye (373), were contesting the disposition of several pieces of real property purchased by Henry, attached to an effoeffment of use, and not explicitly disposed of in his testament. At issue here is Henry's spoken intent for this property, and the activities of his executor, a man trusted by the Browns but not worthy of that trust, according to the petitioners. The testaments also demonstrate the Browns' devotional preferences, through their varied bequests to churches and confraternities, as well as to the division, not just of labor but of household goods and management in the Browns' life. While Rye bequeaths no real property, her will suggests she almost entirely controlled the family's moveable goods and that she was a very social woman, with more friends than Henry, and deeply involved in both their families. Thus, these instruments together permit Haskett to "build a more detailed family structure" than is usual for ordinary people, and interrogate the activities of individuals responsible for executing a will, and finally, the care taken by the Browns to provide for their friends and relatives, even the most "conniving." (381)

This is a sensitive, but not sentimental tribute to Fr. Sheehan; the students' work here reflects their relationship to their teacher, in terms of topic, appropriately, but also perhaps in terms of questions asked; and even their pedagogical nature, as they clearly explain their sources and methods. Fr. Sheehan worked in English history, and thus nearly all of these essays reflect that direction. Exceptions on France, Italy, and the Papacy hint at a mentor's intellectual openness and willingness to validate students' interests, and perhaps help to challenge what my own professor, himself an English historian, jokingly refers to as the "Continental Divide", or "The Great Gulf", otherwise known as the English Channel, separating English historians from the rest of "us." Still, in a collection whose title claims "medieval Christendom," one wishes for more of a comparative approach to the topics of Women, Marriage, and Family. This is a small complaint. The essays are well written, and the book is nicely produced, with large type, footnotes, and a thorough index. In her first note, Margaret Kerr expresses the following "I hope that Fr. Sheehan would have been pleased by this book of essays, and perhaps a little proud to say of the writers, 'I trained them all.'" (211) I think he would.


[1] Constance M. Rousseau, "Introduction," p. xv.

[2] "Woman the unhappy source, evil root, and corrupt offshoot, who brings to birth every sort of outrage throughout the world." Marbod of Rennes, cited by Pelteret, p. 19.

[3] Although perhaps not for long; see current debates about the significance of denying the Host to small children, or delaying confirmation among Catholics today.

[4] Medieval Households (Cambridge MA, 1985), p. 114, cited in Rousseau, p. 327.