Felice Lifshitz

title.none: Van Houts, Gender and Memory in Medieval Europe 900-1200 (Lifshitz )

identifier.other: baj9928.0011.010 00.11.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Felice Lifshitz , Florida International University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Van Houts, Elizabeth. Gender and Memory in Medieval Europe 900-1200. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 196. $50.00 HB 0-802-04698-3. ISBN: $19.95 PB 0-802-08277-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.11.10

Van Houts, Elizabeth. Gender and Memory in Medieval Europe 900-1200. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 196. $50.00 HB 0-802-04698-3. ISBN: $19.95 PB 0-802-08277-7.

Reviewed by:

Felice Lifshitz
Florida International University

Between 1990 and 1992, four articles by Janet Nelson, Rosamond McKitterick, Gerd Althoff and Elizabeth van Houts herself demonstrated that women in every capacity from scribe, through commissioner of historical works, through memorial site caretaker, to composer of historical narratives, had made major contributions to the remembrance of the past during the period from the eighth through the eleventh centuries.[1] A few years earlier, Eleanor Searle had drawn attention to aristocratic women as oral informants of male historians in Viking Normandy and Scandinavia.[2] A great virtue of van Houts' current book- length study of the topic of gender and memorialization--a study which embraces all the modes of commemoration noted above with the exception of scribal activities--is the work's capacity to publicize, beyond the circle of early medievalists, this recognition that women, alongside men, actively participated in representing the past. Memory and Gender in Medieval Europe is one of those great rarities: a cross- over book, drawing much of its inspiration from studies of the Carolingian and Ottonian periods, yet containing sufficient "high medieval" material to speak to that much more numerous group of scholars concerned with the period after 1100, who are unlikely to read articles in journals such as Early Medieval Europe and Fruehmittelalterliche Studien. The author brings together numerous examples of women's--as well as men's--involvement with historical and/or memorial activity, examples dating from the period between 800 and 1300 (despite the "900 to 1200" of the title). Memory and Gender in Medieval Europe will be widely read, widely cited, and repeatedly mined by scholars in search of active medieval women; the work may even be a seminal study.

Nevertheless, as is frequently the case with, and might even be essential to, seminal studies, there are major weaknesses in the book. The argument of Memory and Gender is not simply that both women and men contributed to the memorialization of the past during the period under review. If that had been the argument, the book would have been virtually immune to criticism, given the amount of evidence martialled in the course of the study. Instead, van Houts wrestles with various more complicated formulations, having to do with women and "hagiography", women and family memory, women and burial, women and orality, women and authority. These interpretive strands are simultaneously ambitious and problematic. It is in no way meant to detract from the value of the book that I focus the review on engaging with those more ambitious formulations; van Houts' overall point concerning the historiographical and commemorative activities of women is welcome and unassailable, and she is to be congratulated for a volume that should stimulate years of discussion concerning the details of those activities.

The first two substantive chapters discuss how authors of narrative texts viewed the relative authority and reliability of their own sources, primarily their oral informants, both male and female. The material is divided between the two chapters on the basis of the generic distinction between historiography and what has been labelled as 'hagiography'. That this nineteenth-century generic distinction is unhelpful as an analytical tool when applied to cultures to which it was entirely foreign (such as the period covered by this book) is something I have argued elsewhere;[3] that it can be downright harmful is richly demonstrated by Memory and Gender in Medieval Europe. Van Houts permits the conceptual categories, constructed in the nineteenth century precisely in the context of a broader movement to oppose reliable, professional male 'historiography' to unreliable amateur female 'historical fiction' and 'hagiography,'[4] to tyrannize her into discovering the 'unexpected surprise' that, while women had little to do with properly historiographical texts, women frequently figured in "the hagiographical tradition, which itself was so closely linked to historiography". (39) That, by reifying an anachronistic generic divide, she thereby helps to reinforce the very binary opposition that constructs the female/hagiographical as non-authoritative and the male/historical as authoritative was probably not her intention, but it is certainly one effect of her procedure.

I would ask van Houts to interrogate why she placed the two biographies of Queen Mathilda I of Germany (+968) in the 'hagiographical' chapter in the first place (see pp. 49-50), and how it functions, in terms of giving significance to the past, that Matilda's biographies--describing a woman, probably written and certainly commissioned by women--are treated with 'hagiography' while accounts of miracles by Leo of Ostia and Hugh of Flavigny (27) or of relic translations by Robert of Torigni (31) are treated with historiography? Van Houts' criteria for making the distinction between historiography and 'hagiography' are that the latter is "timeless" (42) and full of miracles (14), neither of which can be said to apply to the biographies of Matilda. Queen Matilda was a potent political figure, but was not and is not venerated as a saint. Nevertheless, she and her female historians are effectively constructed as "timeless" by the categorization. The insidious operation of unexamined ideologies of genre and gender could hardly be clearer; these two chapters do not get us any closer to understanding the gendered modalities of memorialization--if indeed there were any--in medieval Europe, but they do illustrate the continued power of the nineteenth-century foundations of current scholarly disciplines.

The next substantive chapter treats "Ancestors, Family Reputation and Female Traditions". Van Houts brings forward many concrete examples of women (aristocratic, royal and imperial) who did much to stimulate and produce historical writings. What is disturbing is again how the author's explanatory framework functions consistently to obscure (though never explicitly to deny) the political dimensions of these female labors, by emphasizing only that the women were "in charge of their family's memory". (68) A good example is van Houts' treatment (67-69) of Abbess Matilda of Quedlinburg (+999), granddaughter of the Queen Matilda discussed above. Van Houts' only explanation for Abbess Matilda's involvement with Widukind of Corvey's History of the Saxons is that Matilda needed to be able to avoid confusing "the names of the individuals for whom she had to pray". (68) It is undeniable that such prayer was a part of the duties of the abbess and community of Quedlinburg, as the organization of the confessio in the royal-imperial-abbatissal burial crypt under the high altar of the Quedlinburg church makes abundantly clear. But surely the power politics of the Empire were also a concern of Matilda who, as 'Reichsunmittelbar' Abbess of Quedlinburg hosted and had a seat in the Reichstag (Imperial Diet) which convened repeatedly in the upper level of that very church at Quedlinburg.[5]

The example of yet another Matilda (69-70) shows how van Houts, in her eagerness to discover the gendered dynamics of memorialization, asserts conclusions that are simply not supported by the evidence presented. Van Houts cites and prints in Appendix I (151-152) a letter from a noble Anglo- Saxon man, Aethelweard, to his distant relative Abbess Matilda of Essen (+1011), another 'Reichsunmittelbar' abbess, and a woman of royal Anglo-Saxon and royal Saxon descent. Aethelweard answers Matilda's request for information about their family, information which she did not know and which he provides in great detail "so far as our memory provides proof, and as our parents taught us". (151) Concerning one family member, however, a woman who had married a king near the Alps, this Anglo-Saxon nobleman had to admit ignorance, "because of both the distance and the not inconsiderable lapse of time". (152) He goes on immediately to suggest, however, that in this instance Matilda might be able to pick up the slack: "But it is your task to bring information to our ears, for you have not only the family connection but the capacity, since distance does not hinder you". (152) It is purely wishful thinking for van Houts to read into this that Aethelweard was "stressing the fact that it was her task as a woman to keep the rest of the family informed" (70), when the male writer never mentions Matilda's sex at all, or to conclude "Aethelwaerd's letter is a most illuminating piece of evidence for the commemorative task of noble women to keep track of the whereabouts of their relatives" (70); if anything, this epistle demonstrates that a man, Aethelweard, had thrown himself into keeping track of the family.

The next chapter concerns "the function of objects and sites as triggers for stories about the past". (93) The first theme treated under objects is "the body of a dead person". (94) Van Houts' discussion is predicated upon "the fact that women normally provided the care for bodies after death and commemoration after the funeral" (95); she uses "common sense and knowledge of human emotions" (95) to speculate upon the consequences of this putative female role in burial and commemorative procedures. The problem here is the following: van Houts can cite not a single source, nor a single concerted scholarly investigation, which shows that women in fact had such a resonsibility for dead bodies. She does not do so, and I know that she cannot do so, for I spent the period from October of 1993 through the February of 1998 looking, in vain, for just that unicorn, before abandoning a projected study of gender and martyr commemoration which was to be built precisely around the consequences of this widely-accepted but undocumented and quite mythical "role" of women in relation to dead bodies.[6] This does not negate the importance of the two anecdotes about women who were involved in their husbands' funerals (94-95), or that of the women who erected runic memorial stones in tenth- and eleventh-century Scandinavia (97- 100), but it does change how and what they mean; women as well as men certainly did commemorate the dead, but we are very far from knowing what the normative gendered roles in this regard were, or indeed if there really were any at all. The one exception here may be a ritual role for women as chief mourners and public expressers of grief, something which seems to be solidly attested.

The rest of the chapter concerns various objects bequeathed by women either to individuals or to institutions. Among the objects highlighted are tapestries, most famously the Bayeux Tapestry, about which certainly much more could have been made. Van Houts urges us to consider the fact that women commissioned, owned and passed on, as "pegs for memory", tapestries which often depicted historical moments. (101-103) I am left wondering, however, why she did not consider it important to mention an even more direct and active role of women with regard to this sort of object, namely the actual production of the crafts, which are often not really tapestries but rather embroideries and in all probability examples of women's work; the conventional designation of the Bayeux Embroidery as the Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most chilling examples of how effectively women can be disappeared from historical consciousness by linguistic discourse.[7] It is also puzzling that she ignores completely the traditional view, long-accepted by scholars and still regnant among non-scholars in Normandy, that the tapestry was commissioned (and even made) by a Queen or Empress Matilda,[8] a theme that could well lead right to the heart of a number of issues central to memory and gender.

Besides wall hangings, van Houts treats the donation, by women and men, of objects such as vestments, jewelry, relics, books and the like; there can be little doubt but that such gifts and bequests, whether to ecclesiastical institutions or to one's own children, played a role in keeping alive the memory of the donor. However, when it comes to the actual stories attached to those objects (the "pegs for memory"), there is a strange disjuncture between van Houts' arguments, on the one hand, and the evidence she brings forward, on the other. This disjuncture relates to van Houts' theses concerning gender and orality, the aspect of the study which is clearly dearest to the author's own heart. A main goal of the study was to "look for women's actions to preserve the past by passing on information orally" (73), and it is the achievement of this goal that van Houts herself foregrounds in her conclusion:

"It is with regard to the roles of men and women that this book offers new insights into the ways medieval people preserved knowledge about the past. An impressive amount of evidence...underlines the important position of women in passing on of stories and traditions about the past. Much of the transmission of stories took place orally....The role of women as female informants about the past was pretty constant and evenly spread through Europe....The collaboration between men and women, however, took place according to more or less defined rules for each gender. Men as persons with legal authority collected stories about the past and wrote them recorded in writing the family traditions which were collected and passed on orally by women....Women collected stories about male and female ancestors and passed them on almost exclusively in oral form" (148-149).

Thus, a substantial percentage of the study is devoted to that which is oral not written, and which therefore does not appear in written sources. Van Houts calls attention to those dynamics of memorialization which are not positively attested in the sources, but which "common sense" indicates "must have been" true if we take notice of oral communication: "the fact that almost all oral information was received in the vernacular but written down in Latin" (35); the fact that historians considered the period of time during which oral information is valid to be about 100 years, which would represent three or at most four generations for male informants but usually--given a lower age at marriage and reproduction--five generations for female informants (e.g. pp. 36, 149-150); the fact that women must have been oral witnesses for "hagiographical" (an unjustified qualification) works written in their nunneries (49); the fact that female commissioners of chroniclers must have informed those they sponsored concerning what to say, particularly on "private matters" (71-72); the fact that men who married heiresses and brought suits concerning their wives' properties must have received information about the properties' histories from their wives (79); the fact that noble women who complained about mesalliances must have known their family histories (80-83), and so on.

There is an extremely good chance that all these "common sense" points bear a strong relation to the truth; many of those noted here and others that were not surely deserve and probably will receive further exploration. However, the ultimate formula, the schema of "oral women" and "writing men," which van Houts constructs from all those individual areas of analysis, and which was quoted extensively above from the conclusion of the book, is awfully tenuous; so solid an edifice cannot be constructed on the basis of "common sense" and what "must have been," independent of the evidence of the sources. There is nothing even remotely implausible about the idea that women told their children about their relatives; indeed, I would tend to agree with van Houts that "it seems obvious" (89) that they did. But the fact remains that, in none of the cases in which van Houts pretends to discern the hidden but ultimately "obvious" female oral informant on family history (84-90) does she present any compelling evidence why male family members, who also appear in the discussions, could not have been the family-history-minded gossips [9] responsible for the information. All too frequently, van Houts leaps from the tentative suggestion that women were "likely sources of information" to treat them as though they certainly were (e.g. twice on pp. 84-85 alone). An even more extraordinary leap occurs in the case of Henry of Huntingdon who moves effortlessly from having been "almost certainly married" (132) to having been (with no shadow of a doubt) informed orally by his wife. (137) Yet when there is evidence that any sort of a written genealogy of a family existed to be consulted (such as the one seen and referred to by Ivo of Chartres, +1115), van Houts can only "assume that the women of the family had been the vehicles for the knowledge on which the genealogies were based" (88-89); why, I would ask, does the identification of women with orality have to be so all-encompassing that they could not have actually been the ones to produce a now-lost written genealogy, but must be relegated to the role of "vehicle"? The claim that "the interaction between a female oral and a male written tradition is self-evident" (89) reflects van Houts' presuppositions; there is simply no meaningful room, given her discursive strategy, for writing women or chatty men.

Yet the book is full of examples of chatty men, of men who engaged in the oral transmission of stories about the past, including about women in the past, including stories pegged to objects. The otherwise unknown man named Richard Animal who gave a ring to the monks of St. Albans and claimed it had belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and who so inspired the monk Matthew Paris with his story-telling that Matthew made a drawing of and note concerning the ring (106) should not be subordinated to female "gossips" as somehow less representative of his putatively-appropriate gender role. And when, in 926, Duke Hugh of the Franks told King Aethelstan of England that he was giving him Charlemagne's lance and Constantine's sword, he was certainly undulging in some orality. And the final substantive chapter, a study of "the memory of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066", is virtually one long catalogue of chatting, remembering men (123-142); if the orality of males can be so recognized here in an individual chapter, why can't it be incorporated into the bigger schemata of Memory and Gender as well? Writing women, meanwhile, are sometimes duly noted but rarely lingered over (e.g. the nun Marie, p. 141).

The argument that women in reality must have made much more of a contribution to historical memory than is acknowledged in the written sources brings us to the final problematic interpretive strand to be addressed in this review: gender and authority. As explanation for the silence of the sources, van Houts proposes that women were not cited because women's testimonies were not considered authoritative in most situations, including that women were not permitted to testify in secular courts. (38, 59, 147) However, the repeated assertions of women's incapacity to testify are at no point documented (by citations either to sources or to scholarly literature) and are contradicted by concrete examples of women speaking authoritatively as witnesses and testators in legal contexts, or of their memories being treated as authoritative (79, 82, 102, 104, 108; for "one of the most exciting" ones, see p. 57). The extent to which women's voices can be proven to have been non-authoritative is simply overstated. It is certainly striking that the only actual medieval author in the entire study explicitly to raise the issue of the authority of female testimony does so not to denigrate it, but to express confidence in it (Goscelin of St. Bertin, on pp. 51-52). And van Houts egregiously misrepresents the situation of Hildegard of Bingen, whose authoritativeness is described as having been dependent upon the intervention of her male secretaries, and who is asserted to have "normally" related her visions in the vernacular to a male priest who translated them into Latin (60- 61); the paradigm of "oral women and writing men" thus rears its influential head. In contrast, Barbara Newman, to name only the most widely-respected current authority on Hildegard, presents the abbess of Bingen writing directly in an "untutored Latin...difficult and idiosyncratic" and using male secretaries as nothing more than copy editors who had no impact upon her authority as a visionary theologian speaking "in persona Dei."[10]

Elizabeth van Houts' Memory and Gender is, in many ways, a thought piece, the sort of work in which the author cites translations for teaching purposes rather than critical editions, and which provides "Suggestions for Further Reading" rather than a bibliography. Van Houts has paid her scholarly dues with her edition and translation of the Gesta Normannorum Ducum,[11] and risks no derogation of her gravitas through publication of a rather less rigorous, but ultimately far more stimulating, volume. In her editor's introduction, Miri Rubin recommends the study to "poetical historians, historians of religion, of family and of gender". (ix) This assessment is far too limited, for there is no one to whom I would not recommend this book. Van Houts has written a great book to think with.


[1] Janet Nelson, "Perceptions du pourvoir chez les historiennes du haut moyen age," in Les femmes au Moyen Age, ed. Michel Rouche (Paris, 1990), pp. 77-85; Rosamund McKitterick, "Frauen und Schriftlichkeit im Fr├╝hmittelalter," in Weibliche Lebensgestaltung im fruhen Mittelalter, ed. Hans-Werner Goetz (Cologne, 1991), pp. 65-118 (now available as "Women and Literacy in the Early Middle Ages" in R. McKitterick, Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th - 9th Centuries (Variorium CS 452; Aldershot, 1994)); Gerd Althoff, "Gandersheim und Quendlinburg. Ottonische Frauenkloster als Herrschafts- und Uberlieferungszentren," Fruhmittelalterliche Studien 25 (1991): 123-144; Elizabeth M.C. van Houts, "Women and the Writing of History: the Case of Abbess Matilda of Essen and Aethelweard," Early Medieval Europe 1 (1992): 53-68.

[2] Eleanor Searle, "Fact and Pattern in Heroic History: Dudo of St. Quentin," Viator 15 (1984): 119-137.

[3] Felice Lifshitz, "Beyond Positivism and Genre: 'Hagiographical' Texts as Historical Narratives," Viator 25 (1994): 95-113.

[4] In Lifshitz, "Beyond Positivism and Genre," the gender issue is less explicit than it would be were I to rewrite the article today; for the gender focus, see Christina Crosby, The Ends of History: Victorians and "The Woman Question" (New York, 1991) and Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History. Men, Women and Historical Practice (Cambridge, Mass, 1998).

[5] For Quedlinburg, see Althoff, "Gandersheim und Quedlinburg" (above note 1); also, most accessibly and focussed, Christa Rienacker, Quedlinburg in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Quedlinburg, 1989) or, most densely embedded in the broader politics, Johannes Fried, Der Weg in die Geschichte. Die Ursprunge Deutschlands bis 1024 (Berlin, 1998), passim.

[6] For the study that resulted from the vain search, Felice Lifshitz, "The Martyr, the Tomb and the Matron: Constructing the (Masculine) Past as a Female Power Base," in Medieval Concepts of the Past: Ritual, Memory, Historiography eds. Patrick Geary, Gerd Althoff and Johannes Fried (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 311-341.

[7] For the active 'disappearing' of women, see Kathleen Biddick, "Bede's Blush: Postcards from Bali, Bombay, Palo Alto," in The Past and Future of Medieval Studies, ed. John van Engen (Notre Dame, 1994), pp. 16-44. That the actual artisans of the Bayeux Tapestry were either all embroideresses or a mixed-gender team is the ubiquitous view in the scholarship on the embroidery; see e.g. Wolfgang Grape, The Bayeux Tapestry. Monument to a Norman Triumph (Munich, 1993), p. 62.

[8] Shirley Ann Brown, The Bayeux Tapestry. History and Bibliography (Woodbridge, 1988), pp. 25-32.

[9] I use 'gossip' here in direct response to van Houts' minimizing utlization of the term to describe how various tenth-century royal women would have talked about queenship. (73)

[10] Barbara J. Newman, "Introduction," pp. 9-53, especially pp. 23-24, in Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York, 1990).

[11] The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumieges, Orderic Vitalis and Robert of Torigni, ed. and trans. E.M.C. van Houts, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1992-1995).