Lisa M. Bitel

title.none: Dockray-Miller, Motherhood and Mothering in Anglo-Saxon England (Bitel)

identifier.other: baj9928.0106.005 01.06.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lisa M. Bitel, University of Kansas,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Dockray-Miller, Mary. Motherhood and Mothering in Anglo-Saxon England. The New Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. Pp. xi, 257. $39.95. ISBN: 0-312-22721-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.06.05

Dockray-Miller, Mary. Motherhood and Mothering in Anglo-Saxon England. The New Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. Pp. xi, 257. $39.95. ISBN: 0-312-22721-3.

Reviewed by:

Lisa M. Bitel
University of Kansas

I may not be an Anglo-Saxonist, but I know what I like. I like this study of maternal performance in early medieval England and its literature. Mary Dockray-Miller has written a daring book that relies on three specific feminist/gender theories -- those of Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, and Sara Ruddick -- to generate a profile of maternal performers in Kentish saints' lives, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Mercian register, and Beowulf. The book responds to old-fashioned sexist interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon canon as well as to recent efforts to discover female characters and voices in the texts. Although Dockray-Miller indulges in some linguistic hi-jinks, her basic thesis is persuasive. After reading this book, any but the most traditional medievalist will be able to see once-obscured mothers in all sorts of documents and to rethink the aims of mothering in early medieval Europe.

According to Dockray-Miller, Anglo-Saxon texts reveal a neglectful, even hostile patriarchy that obscured mothers and effaced maternal strategies, communities, aims, and successes. In three chapters, each focused on a different set of texts, Dockray-Miller reveals the variety of maternal performance. Chapter 2 focuses on the royal abbesses of seventh- and eighth-century Kentish families who developed "maternal strongholds" in their double monasteries. The abbesses aimed to coexist with men's secular and clerical hierarchies while promoting their own biologically and spiritually linked generations of women who founded and ruled religious communities. Charter evidence and vitae show the political involvement of women such as St. Mildrith and Eadburh of Minster-in-Thanet. Although they were the kinswomen of male royalty, these women were not imitating masculine power structures but creating their own protective, nurturing, and teaching environment for the women and men under their leadership. A manuscript fragment (re)discovered by Dockray-Miller describes a special ritual of inclusion which was probably intended for performance by a mother-abbess and her daughter-nun, suggesting a maternal spin even on liturgy.

Chapter 3 traces the maternal genealogy of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, whose usual claim to fame is her father, King Alfred. Instead, Dockray-Miller places Aedelflaed in a line of West Saxon and Mercian queens of the ninth and tenth centuries: Osburh, Aethelswith, Ealhswith, and Aethelflaed's daughter, Aelfwynn. Dockray-Miller details the kinship and marriage connections of these women and the political savvy that they handed down through the generations. She then asks whether Aethelflaed was a successful maternal performer. Dockray-Miller argues that Aethelflaed learned much from her foremothers, and that this maternal know-how is crucial to understanding how she handled her kingdom in joint rule with her husband and, after his illness and death, on her own. Apparently, Aethelflaed always chose ransom over murdering captives, reclamation of land taken by Vikings over aggressive expansion, and even felt terrible when her thegns were lost in a siege. Although her daughter Aelfwynn tried to succeed her as an independent queen, Aelfwynn ended up stuck in one of those maternal religious communities by her brother, king of Wessex. But this, suggests Dockray-Miller, was exactly what Aethelflaed wanted for her daughter. Although historians usually assume that all medieval people craved political dominance, Aethelflaed was a good enough mother that she preferred her child's security. What Aelfwynn preferred is not clear.

Chapter 4, obviously the heart of the book given Dockray-Miller's previous publications, is a re-examination of Beowulf. The argument depends on equal parts gender theory, drawn from Butler et al., and linguistic reinterpretation of particular words in the poem. I claim no expertise with the language problems, although the effort to reinvest single words with the lectio difficilior strikes me as dubious. However, Dockray-Miller's rejection of previous feminist readings of the poem is insightful. Contrary to the work of Chance, Damico, Overing, and those who have read females in Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems as victims struggling to overcome their own femininity, Dockray-Miller argues that we must examine the mothers of the poem as a group and evaluate their mutually referential maternal performances. She finds that most of them failed. Of all the mothers tucked into the major and minor episodes -- Mothrytho, Grendel's mother, Hildeburh, Hygd, and Wealhtheow -- only Wealhtheow succeeds maternally, although all five strove to protect their offspring within the violent world of the poem. Dockray-Miller refuses to analyze these female figures through the old construct of "peaceweaver," an inherently passive role in her eyes. She assesses them on the basis of their maternal abilities to protect, nurture, and educate their offspring. Mothrytho is a bad-turned-good queen (confusing her writer and readers, apparently, but not Dockray-Miller who reinterprets some adjectives applied to the queen) but whose masculine performance prevents her from mothering. Grendel's mother, renamed Sea-wolf by Dockray-Miller, was "a scared angry mother who could not protect her grown child" (91). Sea-wolf never meant to grab Aescher and haul him off to the mere, she was just depressed and confused because of Grendel's death. Hildeburh was the ultimate peaceweaver, the maternal failure who did not avenge the deaths of her child and husband, thus vindicating the patriarchal feuding that killed them. Hygd tried to protect her son by offering his kingdom to Beowulf, another instance in which a mother preferred security for her child over his political inheritance. She failed, though, since Beowulf refused the crown. But Weal~eow was a successful mother. She was the only mother to speak in the poem and she used her voice successfully to keep her sons off the throne, at least within the scope of the poem itself, thus ensuring them a future.

Dockray-Miller indulges in word tricks, anachronisms (as when suggesting that stepmothering was the same as mothering, or interpreting all peaceweavers as wimps), and occasional outright essentialism. But succeeds in locating a particular set of maternal goals, articulated from women's points of view, in largely male-authored Anglo-Saxon texts. She argues from selected examples, she strains to make some points in this slim book, and she does not always make clear who is meant to read women as maternal performers -- us or the Anglo-Saxons of old? But her historical instincts are good. A more sustained literary or historical study of many more documents will likely support her reading of her chosen sources. This study does indeed, as she hopes in her afterword, raise awareness of maternal work in a past society. The book successfully endows once-marginal women in the texts with subject positions. It lucidly applies feminist and gender theory to old poems and other texts. Whether or not the book will impel readers to reexamine all maternal performers, male and female, in our own society, as Dockray-Miller wishes, is another question. The maternal imperatives in our own century are not always as clear as those in the Anglo-Saxon literature read retrospectively, where some women's desperate desire to mother successfully was constantly thwarted by patriarchy and its violent tools.