Constance Berman

title.none: Horner, The Discourse of Enclosure (Constance Berman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0211.015 02.11.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constance Berman, University of Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Horner, Shari. The Discourse of Enclosure: Representing Women in Old English Literature. Suny Series in Medieval Studies. New York: SUNY Press, 2001. Pp. i, 207. ISBN: 0-791-45010-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.11.15

Horner, Shari. The Discourse of Enclosure: Representing Women in Old English Literature. Suny Series in Medieval Studies. New York: SUNY Press, 2001. Pp. i, 207. ISBN: 0-791-45010-4.

Reviewed by:

Constance Berman
University of Iowa

Given the variety of topics engaged, Horner's book might well have been called "The Discourses (pl) of Enclosure." After an extended introduction establishing in her view that there was a discourse of female monastic enclosure in Anglo-Saxon England, Horner considers notions of female enclosure in four different types of Old English literary material. Chapter One concerns the Old English "female" elegies, "Wulf and Eadwacer," and "The Wife's Lament," which are described on pp. 29-30, 34 as having a "firmly-constrained" female voice, reflecting "the silenced and enclosed female religious of Anglo-Saxon England," who yet have a high level of literacy and "'weave' their own stories into texts." Chapter Two, discusses textual enclosure in Beowulf. There are many ways in which women are confined within limited spaces of this text; for instance, they are ringed about with barriers that make those women's voices marginal to the main action. Horner takes on Grendel's mother as both woman and monster. In Chapter Three, which appeared in an earlier version in Signs 19 (1994): 658-75, Horner treats Cynewulf's Old English Juliana as reflecting "the gendered processes of Christian reading and pagan misreading" (113), processes dating back to the time of Augustine. She argues that this text would have been read at a time when Anglo-Saxon nuns had much to fear from Viking invaders. Chapter Four turns to the impenetrable, thus enclosed, female body in the lives of female virgin martyrs written by Aelfric; in earlier form, it appeared in Violence Against Women in Medieval Texts, ed. Anna Roberts (Gainesville, 1998), 22-43. In her Conclusion, Horner argues that these discourses become distorted in the Latin life of the twelfth-century woman of Anglo-Saxon family, Christina of Markyate. In each of the four major chapters Horner tells her story well, introducing the particular texts in light of the scholarly literature and her own interpretive frame, which is some type of female enclosure. It is beyond my ken to comment on the interpretation in terms of the larger corpus of Old English literature, or the originality of the scholarship, although I can say that a non-specialist will not find Horner's presentation difficult. Her presentation of text in the original vernacular followed by translation allows one to pursue easily her arguments. Horner's overarching effort is to tie these chapters together into a book that makes sense as a literary study, an aim this leads her to focus on enclosure in its multiple meanings. One argument seems to be that there are ideas about the enclosure of women, their voices, and their bodies that are part of a literary tradition accepted by both men and women that derives from an Anglo-Saxon or Germanic tradition different from the Mediterranean and Christian one. Discussion of the enclosing of women's voices within particular parts of the Beowulf text seems to work particularly well. But it seems to me that a separate Old English tradition is less convincing when older stories are reworked. Her arguments about Juliana or Aelfric's Lives of the virgin saints seems less compelling as evidence for Anglo-Saxon notions of enclosure because the author or rewriter is confined within a textual tradition. Moreover, here the model for interpretation is Augustinian. There is no attempt to consider how lives of Agatha, Agnes, Lucia, and Eugenia are distinguished in Aelfric's voice from that of the earlier traditions on which he draws. What are the new twists that Aelfric gives to the stories, what is narrative repeated unthinkingly (but which he could never have invented), and what are the things that he finds so problematic that he leaves them out? My only serious concern about this book is its treatment of monastic enclosure as a theme that can pull all the varied modes of enclosure together. I approach this book with an interest in the history of female monastic enclosure and how it changes over the middle ages, so I am perhaps liable to be over-committed to the idea of evolving norms. I see enclosure not as a static thing, but as something that develops in the middle ages from diverse origins among veiled virgins who sought the philosophic contemplative life as an alternative to marriage and found enclosure to be a convenient way to maintain that life. Such early notions of enclosure as were embraced by women must have been quite a permeable enclosure. Women's notions of enclosure did not always coincide with what men thought monastic enclosure for women should be, but up until the mid-twelfth century, female monastic enclosure was a tool more often used by monastic women for their own protection and serenity, than used against them. Only in the later middle ages do we find almost everywhere an increasing emphasis among men on the enclosure of monastic women for the sake of control and obedience, a concern with enclosure that reflects an increased clerical misogyny that we can regard as displacing clerical and monastic insecurities about male chastity. In my work I have found that the felt need for monastic women to be enclosed and separated from monks appears quite suddenly in the middle of the twelfth century. This relates to that confusion that Horner sees quite rightly in the Life of Christina of Markyate. But I am not convinced by Horner's collection of evidence for an earlier coherent discourse of monastic enclosure, as presented in her Introduction. To give an example from later centuries, how strict or coherent is the enclosure enjoined on nuns in Boniface VIII's Periculoso which allows that abbesses go out only on legitimate business? How univocal, enforceable, or known were the early norms she cites? I admit that this may not be quite fair in that Horner does nothing different from what has been done to date in many standard treatments of female enclosure, which like hers consist of disembodied extractions from a variety of contexts. But should we perhaps question that normal practice? How can evidence for what she suggests is an Anglo-Saxon monastic discourse on enclosure include Caesarius of Arles' rule for nuns, Carolingian capitularies that may never have been seen outside the continent, and the lives of Saint Leoba and Boniface, yet ignore Bede on the abbess Hilda? Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is how its commentary on Old English texts provides Horner an opportunity to look at the Latin Life of Christina of Markyate as a text about sainthood written in what was still an Old-English milieu. Horner shows clearly that the author of the Life did not understand certain tropes in the discourse about female sainthood, for instance that about cross-dressing. She reminds us that he describes Christina putting on men's clothing in order to run away from marriage, but then hiding those men's clothes under a cloak. The later evidence cannot support assertions about the earlier period and confusion in Christina's Life about the discourse of monastic enclosure, cannot support a view that there was an earlier, less confused discourse of enclosure. While Horner has succeeded admirably in tracing some of the earlier sources that may have contributed to the twelfth-century picture of Christina, those parts may not have fit together very well into a discourse in earlier times either. But perhaps the more important difference between Christina's life and the earlier retelling by Aelfric and Cynewulf of lives of virgin martyrs is something made clear in another recent study of Christina's Life, that in Rachel M. Koopmans's prizewinning article, "The Conclusion of Christina of Markyate's Vita," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 51 (October 2000): 663-97, an article that complements and would have been complemented by Horner's insights. Koopmans underlines the fact that Christina's life was contemporary with the author's. Despite its concerns about clerical sexuality, it is also an account of a real life in which its author struggles with a real person whose relationship with the abbey of Saint-Albans becomes so vexed that the life is never completed, as Koopmans argues. This suggests that the answer for such a study as Horner's would be to examine discourses of female monastic enclosure in more closely defined spheres -- that found in literary texts, that found in monastic rules and legislation, that found in available documents of practice, and that of eyewitness accounts like the Life of Christina, which is very different from rewriting the legends of martyrs. This is nonetheless an insightful book, particularly valuable in pointing beyond the milieu of Old English texts alone to areas where further work needs to be done by historians as well as literary scholars concerned with female enclosure.