Katherine L. French

title.none: Watt, ed., Medieval Women in Their Communities (French)

identifier.other: baj9928.9903.007 99.03.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Katherine L. French, SUNY - New Paltz,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Watt, Diane, ed. Medieval Women in Their Communities. University of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 250. 50.001995. ISBN: 0-802-04289-9 (hb); 0-802-08122- (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.03.07

Watt, Diane, ed. Medieval Women in Their Communities. University of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 250. 50.001995. ISBN: 0-802-04289-9 (hb); 0-802-08122- (pb).

Reviewed by:

Katherine L. French
SUNY - New Paltz

This volume of ten essays grew out of the 1995 meeting of the Gender and Medieval Studies Group in Britain. The conference that year took gender and community as its theme. With one exception, the ten essays in this collection deal with the period 1200-1500. The British Isles, particularly the East Anglian portion of England, is the most heavily represented geographical region with half of the essays dealing with some aspect of its literary or social history.

As one might expect in a volume devoted to the issue of gender and community, half of the essays deal with various aspects of the collective life of women religious, not only nuns, but also beguines and anchoresses. Individually, each essay offers new information and interpretive innovation. Jane Cartwright opens the collection with her essay "The Desire to Corrupt: Convent and Community in Medieval Wales." In an effort to uncover both the existence and attitudes towards Wales' very small nun population, Cartwright reads Cywyyddwyr poetry in conjunction with more traditional historical sources, such as bishops' registers. The evidence for only three convents suggests that devoting one's virginity to Christ and retiring to a convent was not typically an option for even noble women. Cartwright concludes that Welsh women were encouraged to live in the world and express their spirituality as mothers and wives. Penelope Galloway's "'Discreet and Devout Maidens': Women's Involvement in Beguine Communities in Northern France, 1200-1500" adds to the burgeoning literature on Beguines. Her work, however, looks at the less well known groups in Douai and Lille, where the records show a variety of flourishing beguine establishments. Although patronage of beguinages was not exclusively the purview of women, many in these towns owed their existence to the patronage of the countesses of Flanders.

The remaining three essays on women's religious communities deal with various aspects of religious writings either by or for women. Two essays, Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendtner's " Puellae litteratae: The Use of the Vernacular in the Dominican Convents of Southern Germany" and Rosalynn Voaden's "All Girls Together: Community, Gender and Vision at Helfta" look at some of the social experiences of religious writing in Germany. Ehrenschwendtner argues that unlike the more conservative and traditional monastic houses, such as Helfta, the Dominican nuns used more vernacular in their religious lives. The Dominican friars who oversaw them did not deny them access to Latin, but rather seemed to have encouraged the use of the vernacular outside of the liturgy. Voaden's article looks at the interconnections between the mystics, Mechtild of Hackeborn, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Gertrude the Great, who lived together at Helfta. She posits that the "intellectual and moral authority which seems to have existed amongst the women at Helfta resulted in a mystical discourse incorporating two of the cardinal elements of their experiences: membership in a community and biological femaleness." (p. 73) Susannah Mary Chewning's contribution "Mysticism and the Anchoritic Community: 'A Time . . . of Veiled Infinity'" looks at the mystical poem "[Th]e Wohunge of Ure Lauerd," which was part of a collection of poems written sometime before 1250. The manuscript in which this poem appears also contains some of the pieces in the "Katherine Group." The audience for this poem was probably a group of educated aristocratic women living within a convent somewhere in the north-west Midlands. Chewning argues that "the persona identified in the text is culturally feminized and that the act of writing the mystical text itself is an act of feminine writing, whether the text is actually written by a man or a women." (p. 123)

The last five essays deal with some aspect of the secular world, although they do not cohere as obviously as the first five. Patricia Skinner's "Gender and Poverty in the Medieval Community," looks at what is often taken as a truism--that poverty was an overwhelmingly female experience--to see if in fact, the empirical supports this contention. Looking at early medieval Italy, she concludes that women did indeed fall into poverty more often than men because of the legal prohibitions that prevented them from playing full roles in the medieval economy. Legal constraints gave women fewer opportunities than men to try to help themselves and their children when they fell into need. For example, women could not sell unproductive land as a means of alleviating poverty, because of rules protecting the inheritance of male children. This reality also led many contemporaries to conclude that women were more likely than men to be poor. Cynthia Kraman's "Communities of Otherness in Chaucer's 'Merchant's Tale'" argues that dominant cultures appropriate communities of the maginalized or "communities of otherness." In particular, she is interested in how Chaucer's "Merchant Tale" relies on paradoxes presented by concepts and marginal communities such as "the body of woman, the sexual body, landscape, and Jewish text" for some of its meaning and structure. (p. 138)

Three essays in this section address various aspects of East Anglian culture. Many scholars believe this region had an exceptionally vibrant religious culture. The survival of such works as the N-Town Plays, discussed by J.A. Tasioulas, and the Book of Margery Kempe, discussed by Janet Wilson, have few analogues in the rest of English culture. The religious themes and practices of these works show a closer association between East Anglia and the continent than experienced by the rest of England. Janet Wilson's article "Communities of Dissent: the Secular and Ecclesiastical Communities of Margery Kempe's Book" looks at Kempe's spirituality in terms of the diversity of local religious culture prevalent in East Anglia. She argues that Margery's behavior was more at home in the spiritually intense world of Norfolk than it was outside of her home region. J.A. Tasioulas' article "Between Doctrine and Domesticity: The Portrayal of Mary in the N-Town Plays" looks at the contested (and apocryphal) events in the childhood of the Virgin Mary. The portrayal of these events in the N-Town Conception Play emphasizes Mary's domesticity, physicality, and motherhood. These themes, Tasioulas argues, show the community's interest in Mary's humanity. In the process, the playwright offers a more complex image of women than stereotypically either good or evil. Tasiolulas then goes on to suggest that the Mary of the N-Town plays was an ideal model for all women. Finally, Jennifer Ward looks at the noble women of East Anglia, particularly Sussex, Suffolk, and Essex. She shows how their economic and political power would have an impact on local life. Through their patronage of the local parish church, local artisans, and food producers, noble women had the ability to shape local life and advance the interests of their own families.

In the introduction, Diane Watt argues that it is important for scholars to explore concepts of community before we can draw any firm conclusions about women's position within medieval society as a whole. Feminists in particular need to look at the issue of women's communities because, while many have sought to "reject hierarchy and individualism as instruments of oppression" (p. 5), women are still too often defined in relationship to men. In addition, although some have begun to ask how useful it is to assume that all women have a common identity, there is, yet, little exploration of what these observations might mean for medieval studies. Simultaneously, Watt reminds readers that community is a popular topic with social historians. In her introduction, Watt invokes Miri Rubin's polemical 1991 article "Small groups: identity and solidarity in the later Middle Ages." In this article, Rubin cautioned against thinking about community in terms of a mythic pre-industrial golden age, where harmony and cooperation were the hallmarks of human interaction.[1] Rubin argues that class, gender, and geographical identities disrupt this seemingly egalitarian ideal of community as scholars, particularly historians, so often use it. Watt is also cognizant of other ways in which scholars, such as Brian Stock, have used the concept of community.[2] Watt argues that with feminist concerns for collective work and action, the topic of women in communities is one that is ready for exploration. She is not ready to believe that women or gender are already unproblematically included in studies or concepts of medieval communities, and she would be right. Such a diverse use of the term leaves open a variety of ways for the scholars in this collection to incorporate this concept into their scholarship.

Despite the recognition of this scholarly lacuna, this collection of essays suffers from many of the problems associated with collections of essays. The individual essays, while good and informative on their own, do not make up the unified whole outlined in the introduction. Community, in all of its manifestations and formulations outlined in the introduction, is not really at the center of most of these articles. Even with a recognition of Brian Stock's idea of textual communities, the more literary of these contributions do not necessarily incorporate this concept into their work. East Anglia and women's collective religious life are two nice examples of how gender needs to be injected into what are unproblematically assumed to be communities. Yet most of the contributors do not attempt to define what community means for them. Despite the fine quality of essays, I would like to have seen greater engagement with the concept of community and how it can be refined or clarified through gender analysis. Too often, the authors fall back on "common sense" or traditional ideas of what constitutes community. Thus, community becomes all things to all people. It is just such uses of the term that give Miri Rubin cause for concern when she argues that the concept is losing its meaning through over-use.


1. Miri Rubin, "Small Groups: Identity and Solidarity in the Late Middle Ages," Enterprise and Individuals in Fifteenth Century England, ed. Jennifer Kermode (Gloucester: Alan Sutton Press, 1991) pp. 134-149.

2. Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).