Jacqueline Murray

title.none: Mitchell, Portraits of Medieval Women (Jacqueline Murray)

identifier.other: baj9928.0410.008 04.10.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jacqueline Murray, University of Guelph,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Mitchell, Linda E. Portraits of Medieval Women: Family, Marriage, and Politics in England 1225-1350. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. vii, 185. $50.00 0-312-29297-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.10.08

Mitchell, Linda E. Portraits of Medieval Women: Family, Marriage, and Politics in England 1225-1350. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. vii, 185. $50.00 0-312-29297-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Jacqueline Murray
University of Guelph

Linda Mitchell has drawn together seven case studies of the lives and fortunes of noblewomen in England from the mid-thirteenth to mid-fourteenth centuries. The family names that appear are those familiar to students of English history: Mortimer, De Lacy, Marshal and de Montfort, among others. They provide a cross-section of the rich and powerful, those with royal connections or the leaders of resistance against royal claims. The personal names in these essays will be less familiar to general readers: Alice, Agnes, Maud, Margaret and Isabella. These are the names of the mothers, daughters and wives of the men who dominated medieval English events and who populate modern accounts of those events. Mitchell, however, moves us behind the official accounts of the deeds of men that have dominated traditional history and reveals the power and influence that many of these women exercised.

The case study approach serves Mitchell particularly well. The complex networks of relationships among families, between women, and across lineages allow her to suggest something of the possibilities for women to participate in and influence the events of the day. Using a combination of the surviving sources, she looks behind the official acts, court cases, land transfers and so on to see the women who too often have been dismissed as extraneous bit-players in the panoply of historical events. Thus, Mitchell moves Maud, the wife of Roger Mortimer, to the center of events, arguing that her support was a significant boon to the royalist cause during the de Montfort rebellion both because of her connections through her natal family and through marriage but also because of her own personal qualities and abilities. Indeed, her support was so significant that she was rewarded with lands granted to her independently and free from control by her husband.

Perhaps more courageously, Mitchell also admits emotions and human nature into her historical analysis, suggesting that medieval people "experienced emotions that we could recognize and with which we could empathize." (5) If emotions could influence behavior, Mitchell argues, it is part of the historian's responsibility to speculate on them and admit them into the interpretive frame. So intrafamilial squabbles and sibling rivalries are taken into account, especially as they may have influenced political power and the transfer of property. These might be very significant, as in the case of the seven daughters of William de Ferrers, earl of Derby. The sisters co-inherited the largest estate in England and throughout their lives cooperated in their activities. As Marshals, they did not hesitate to use their status to advance their collective well-being and their husbands took their status, rather than the reverse. So, while the sisters may have had disagreements among themselves, they presented a formidable and united front to the outside world and laid a sufficiently stable foundation for cooperation among extended family members that it endured for a number of generations.

While concerned to reveal the agency and autonomy that could be exercised by these medieval noblewomen, Mitchell does not romanticize their situation. Due attention is paid to the role of familial marriage strategies or royal interference in determining the life experience of individual women. Alice de Lacy's life is presented as a tragedy in which a woman is buffeted about by political currents and the competition between men. Alice was abducted twice, forced to marry her rapist despite having taken a vow of chastity as a widow, saw one detested husband executed, and experienced the loss of her inheritance as countess of Lincoln and Salisbury as a result of grasping and greedy men. Although she did not die in poverty, and managed to live the last decade of her life in widowhood, Alice stands in stark reminder of the fundamental vulnerability of medieval women, no matter how wealthy or intelligent.

Insufficient evidence survives, even for women of such high estate, to allow for the development of full biographies. Nevertheless, Mitchell presents plausible and intelligent outlines of the lives of a number of women drawn from the upper ranks of English society. She is able to do this, in part through the broad array of sources consulted and in part through her own interpretive strengths. She asserts that something of a person's personality is revealed in their activities and that our understanding of human nature and what moves people can help us understand those in the past. Yet she does not fall into the trap of anachronism but solidly grounds her analysis in a deep appreciation of the context--social, political and cultural.

These studies, framed by introductory and concluding essays that reflect on her methodology and the changing nature of widowhood over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, are remarkably brief (the whole text only runs some 137 pages). But there is a certain provocativeness to the volume. It challenges us on many levels to think about what influences society and individual experiences, about how historians read the past, about how gender relations are understood. Discussion of women's agency and the limitations placed on it by rigid, ideologically-defined gender definitions continue to occupy a central place in women's history. Mitchell's studies are a useful intervention into this discussion, especially because of the balance in the essays between the historian's interpretation and the grounding of the evidence. It will be up to individual readers to judge the usefulness of her proposal that active, engaged, powerful women--viragos in medieval parlance--constituted a third gender.