Sara Butler

title.none: Roberts, Violence Against Women (Butler)

identifier.other: baj9928.9904.001 99.04.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sara Butler, Dalhousie University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Roberts, Anna, ed. Violence against Women in Medieval Texts. Gainsville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1998. Pp. viii, 254. $49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01566-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.04.01

Roberts, Anna, ed. Violence against Women in Medieval Texts. Gainsville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1998. Pp. viii, 254. $49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01566-9.

Reviewed by:

Sara Butler
Dalhousie University

Fe w scholars would contest the violent nature of medieval writing. Any brief survey of medieval literature immediately confirms that this brutality and force are without bounds; it is not only endemic to all cultures of Western Christendom, but it is found in every literary genre, be it hagiography, romance, or fabliau. From the ill-fated boiling of Equitan to the forced mastectomy of St. Agatha, medieval writers delighted in tales of death and physical pain. One area that scholars have not examined as closely, however, is the distinctly gendered nature of much of this violence. Roberts' unusual compilation of essays brings to light the normalisation of violence towards women in medieval literature. The use of force against women in medieval writing is dealt with in one of three ways. Often, and perhaps most damaging, it is treated with indifference or simply disregarded, but frequently it is the focal point of the story. Accordingly, it is viewed as either a punishment for transgression of sexual or communal norms, or as a necessary hardship for spiritual enlightenment. The purpose of this volume is to make medievalists aware of the relevance of this violence because, as Anna Laskaya argues, "readers are both constructed by and constructing the social" (100). Not only do readers enhance their reading with their own personal knowledge of the world, they also import ideas and beliefs from literature into their own lives. Violence in literature, then, is not merely confined to parchment.

This collection proves, indubitably, the value of academic conferences as a point of contact between scholars of disparate fields. What began as a session at the International Medieval Congress of Kalamazoo in 1995 has been transformed into a compilation of works involving a variety of literary genres across a broad span of history, from the late Anglo-Saxon era to the Spanish Inquisition. Unhappily, while these papers are supposedly linked by their focus on women and violence in medieval texts, the collection suffers from ambiguity: what constitutes 'violence' in the medieval literary tradition? Often, this volume seems to stretch the limits of any clear definition. Nevertheless, out of incongruity emerges one of the most fascinating papers of the entire collection. Following on the work of Derrida, Jane Chance argues for the notion of a gendered translation. Looking at fifteenth-century English translations of the literary works of Christine de Pizan, Chance notes how Christine's work has been masculinised by the inclusion of a male voice and, in turn, a male subjectivity. English translators even went so far as to omit passages about women and arguments in favour of women, masculine woodcuts of female deities and, in some cases, attributed her work altogether to a male author. Chance decries this as "scholastic violence against women" (173). While her essay may not fit into any conventional definition of violence, it illuminates yet another essential area of research for historians of misogyny.

Like Chance, many of the authors in this volume incorporate recent advances in theoretical analysis on different ways of reading texts. In a political deconstruction of the vernacular histories of Wace and Layamon, Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman demonstrate that the rape of Eleine (Arthur's cousin) "coalesces several anxieties about the maintenance of boundaries during times when they are being redrawn in potentially disturbing ways" (68). In context of the ascendancy of the Almoravids in Islamic Spain during the twelfth century, this violation takes on an entirely new interpretation. The rape, in effect, was far more about xenophobia, imperialism and social standing than about gender; the fact that the authors chose to depict these fears using the motif of a rape suggests how normalised was violence against women.

Chance, Finke and Shichtman exemplify the upper end of the theoretical spectrum in this volume; they use theory responsibly and logically in order to illuminate attitudes towards women. This is not always the case. Both Madeleine Jeay and Jody Enders present theoretical works entangled in post-structuralist jargon and literary metaphor. In each, the author makes leaps in logic and literary correlations that are simply unconvincing; nevertheless, the strength of this otherwise vigorous collection is only moderately diminished.

This impressive compilation of essays is not intended for the amateur medievalist; the specialist vocabulary and allusions to longstanding academic debate (see Dinshaw in particular) set the tone for the entire volume. For the veteran medievalist, however, this is a very accessible and exciting collection. Moreover, Anna Roberts has taken exceptional care to include details often lacking from essay collections; authors cite works at the end of each chapter and English translations of passages appear side-by-side with the original text. Literary scholars and gender historians alike will be wise to invest in this important and powerful contribution to the understanding of medieval texts and the place of women in medieval society.