contributor.author: Jacqueline Murray

title.none: Lewis, Menuge and Phillips, eds., Young Medieval Women (Murray)

identifier.other: baj9928.0101.015 01.01.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jacqueline Murray, University of Windsor, jmurray@uwindsor.ca

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Lewis, Katherine, Noel Menuge and Kim Phillips, eds. Young Medieval Women. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. xx, 202. $35.00. ISBN: 0-312-22130-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.01.15

Lewis, Katherine, Noel Menuge and Kim Phillips, eds. Young Medieval Women. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. xx, 202. $35.00. ISBN: 0-312-22130-4.

Reviewed by:

Jacqueline Murray
University of Windsor
jmurray@uwindsor.ca

This collection of essays on Young Medieval Women has emerged from the rich intellectual culture that characterizes the University of York's Centre for Medieval Studies. All of the contributors have studied, and in the case of one teach, at York. This volume is clear evidence of the strength and innovation of the program. All the essays are characterized by an intelligent interdisciplinarity. All are firmly grounded in the traditional strengths of the medievalist, supplemented by the insights of new critical approaches. Consequently, this collection forms a well-written and informative introduction a medieval social group that has hitherto been neglected by scholars.

Kim Phillips' essay "Maidenhood as the Perfect Age of Woman's Life" provides a strong introduction to the essays. Phillips presents a compelling analysis of the ideal age for women. While medieval writers had a highly developed articulation of the life cycle stages, these pertained explicitly to men. If the ideal age for men was considered to be between the mid- twenties and mid-forties, did this apply equally to women? Phillips examines the images of the virgin-martyrs and finds they were all teenaged girls. The Pearl-Maiden, too, was portrayed as teenaged. Perhaps most compelling are the images of the Virgin Mary who was portrayed as a nubile young maiden in images of her Assumption and Coronation, although she was believed to have been sixty years old at her death. A careful analysis of this evidence--hagiographical, literary, and artistic--allows Phillips to conclude that maidenhood, that period between puberty and marriage (roughly early to mid teens through the late teens and early twenties) was not only a recognizable stage of life for women, but was also considered to be their ideal stage of life. At this age a woman was characterized as being at once virginal and chaste and sexually attractive and nubile. The maiden, then, was an object of sexual desire, valued all the more highly because of her chastity. Phillips' essay underscores the importance of introducing gender as an analytical category. The "ages of man" were just that, the stages of the male life cycle, with little or no application or relevance to either women's experience or the construction of the feminine ideal.

The potential of the virgin-martyrs to serve as role models for young medieval women is at the centre of Katherine Lewis' examination of the education of girls. Lewis analyzes the meaning and value of their lives, with special attention on the life of St. Katherine, in the context of contemporary courtesy literature such as the Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry and Christine de Pizan's Treasure of the City of Ladies . She then examines the more practical household manuscripts: compendia of useful works that would meet a household's educational, edificatory, and entertainment needs. The inclusion of the life of St. Katherine, along with homilies, moral instruction, romances, chronicles, and medical treatises, is evidence that her life was considered to have a specific utility or application. Thus, in both works of theory and practice, Katherine's life was used as an exemplar of the ideal young woman. She was educated, modest, and a good household manager, all qualities a mother wanted to inculcate in her daughter and that a man wanted to find in a wife. Lewis concludes that Katherine served as a "paradigm of maidenhood" for fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English girls.

If virgin-martyrs provided the ideal of young womanhood, it was the Virgin Mary who provided the ideal of queenship. According to convention, the ideal queen was young and beautiful, wise and merciful, and possessed those qualities that would complement the king's. Above all, she was a virgin who would provide legitimate heirs to the throne. Joanna Chamberlayne focuses on what happened when the king's wife did not conform to the ideal. Generally, English kings had tended to marry young, foreign-born virgins who would enhance their prestige and political position at home and abroad. In the fifteenth century, however, disputes over royal succession were such that English women who had strong royal ties were more useful queens. Thus, Elizabeth Woodville, a widowed mother of two, was married to Edward IV, five years her junior. Chamberlayne demonstrates how the public image of Elizabeth nevertheless continued to promote her as the image of a virginal queen. She likely wore white and had her hair loose at her coronation, as younger virgin royal brides had done for generations. Moreover, her maternity was symbolically represented in Marian terms. Thus, despite her status as an older widowed mother, as queen Elizabeth Woodville was portrayed as perpetually young and virginal. Chamberlayne argues that queens, as much as kings, had private bodies and public bodies, and the public body reflected the ideological ideal of queens as wise young virgins no matter the physical reality of the private body. In this, there was remarkable continuity between the models established for young women of the gentry and urban mercantile classes and for royalty. The queen, however, had liturgy and official iconography at her disposal to ensure she conformed to the ideal, whatever her individual circumstances.

Kristina Gourlay's examination of the Malterer Embroidery focuses on the understanding of female sexuality and the power of love as expressed in early fifteenth-century German society. The Malterer Embroidery depicts a series of scenes, three of which are associated with the "Power of Women" topos. That men cannot resist the seductive charms of women is the common theme of the stories of Samson and Delilah, Aristotle and Phyllis, and Virgil and the Emperor's daughter. Images based on the Iwein romance and one of the maiden and the unicorn complete the embroidery. Gourlay provides an interesting re-reading of the embroidery's images. Rather than the usual condemnation of women, she suggests that the anomalous Iwein scenes change the whole understanding of what is represented. Iwein, in fact, resisted love and women's sexual allures. As a result, he deserted his wife and kingdom in pursuit of honour. Ultimately, he went mad when he realized his faults and shame. In this context, then, women's so-called irresistible sexuality is in fact quite resistible. Thus, the traditional lessons of Samson, Aristotle, and Virgil are subverted. The placement of the maiden and unicorn at the conclusion of the images acknowledges the power of women and suggests that moderate adherence to it is healthy. The message is reject it and go mad or succumb to it and be humiliated, therefore, behave with moderation. This is an original re-interpretation of the Malterer Embroidery and should attract considerable attention from art historians.

An equally close and careful reading, in this case of literary texts, is presented by Isabelle Mast. Mast examines how John Gower depicted rape in his Confessio Amantis . Gower departs significantly from Ovid and his own contemporaries who also re-worked ancient tales. In the stories of Philomena and the Rape of Lucrece, in particular, Mast argues that Gower portrayed a complex and sensitive understanding of the effects of rape on the victims. The women are not presented as complicit in the attacks and their attackers are portrayed as particularly ruthless and brutal. What is more significant, however, is that Gower portrayed the agony of the victim, her shame and emotional anguish. Here rape is a life-altering event. This, Mast argues, sets Gower apart from writers such as Chaucer. As well, it sets him apart form the values and laws of English society which did not exhibit the same level of sensitivity to the trauma of rape.

Lilas Edwards also uses the techniques of critical textual analysis in her study of the transcripts of Joan of Arc's Trial of Condemnation (1431). Edwards finds that multiple constructions of the virgin-warrior emerge from the records of her trial. Although what is recorded in the trial transcripts has been filtered through the lens of the inquisitors and their clerks, as well as layers of translation, nevertheless, various understandings of Joan emerge. Moreover, it is possible to discern how Joan herself constructed her own authority. Her identification as visionary and virgin were ways of accruing divine authority, just as the inquisitors tried to undermine that authority with their accusations of heresy and disobedience. Edwards suggests that despite the gender ambiguity that characterized Joan, the virgin-warrior, the woman in men's clothing, the trial records try to construct her in terms of gender binaries. She was the subordinate and inferior woman who should submit to the superior rational male church. Despite this rhetorical construction of the evidence, Edwards is able to find a complex and multivalent Joan, a young woman who remains an enigma.

The ability of young women to confront authority is also central to Noel Menuge's discussion of the marriage of wards. Menuge argues that reading legal texts and romances that discuss wardship against each other allows the historian to isolate which issues surrounding the marriage of wards most warranted attention. Citing legal cases and romances that discuss the coerced marriage of female wards, Menuge cautions medievalists not to equate free consent to marriage--a passive acquiescence--with freedom to choose one's spouse--an act of autonomous agency. Even wards above the age of consent could be coerced and manipulated by guardians who were knowingly exceeding their rights. Menuge suggests, however, that wards might well have known their right to consent, along with other aspects of marriage law, such as the impediments of prior contract, consanguinity, and coercion. Even so, consent was relative and should not be assumed to include modern notions of freedom and individual agency.

The theme of personal choice and freedom also echoes through P.J.P. Goldberg's re-examination of prostitution. Just as there was a northwestern marriage pattern that was distinguishable from a southern/Mediterranean model, Goldberg argues there were different patterns of prostitution. The honour and shame culture of southern Europe gave rise to the oft-studied institutionalized civic brothels. In England (and perhaps Flanders), on the contrary, street walkers were the more usual type of prostitute. Based on the rich evidence of the York courts, Goldberg suggests that prostitution, rather than a career, was a casual means for a woman to supplement her income, not unlike being an occasional huckster or tapster. Consequently, street prostitution was the norm in English cities with the few exceptions of ports such as Southwark and Southampton. These locales saw large numbers of itinerant, non-native men pass through, men who expected sexual services. In these contexts, brothels at once supplied that demand, while their regulations show they also aimed to protect the prostitute herself from exploitation. Goldberg's careful reading of the evidence presents a particularly important conclusion about the nature of commercial sex. It is an hypothesis that other scholars will want to test on evidence from elsewhere in northwestern Europe.

This volume provides scholars with a series of lively, well- written, and thoughtful essays. Together they show the importance of introducing gender to the study of children and youth in the Middle Ages. They also are examples of how interdisciplinary approaches to historical problems can do so much to enhance our understanding of the past. This volume will no doubt stimulate more research on young medieval women. It is a collection that all medievalists who interested in gender and the family will want on their bookshelves.