Nancy Warren

title.none: Dinshaw and Wallace, eds., Medieval Women's Writing (Nancy Warren)

identifier.other: baj9928.0406.019 04.06.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Nancy Warren, Florida State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Dinshaw, Carolyn, and David Wallace, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women's Writing. Series: Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xix, 289. $60.00 0-521-79188-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.06.19

Dinshaw, Carolyn, and David Wallace, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women's Writing. Series: Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xix, 289. $60.00 0-521-79188-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Nancy Warren
Florida State University

The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women's Writing is an extraordinarily valuable resource for scholars and teachers of medieval literature and culture. Its pedagogical value truly cannot be overstated, as it provides "one stop shopping" for essays on a range of key topics and figures guaranteed to be important in a course on women and literature in the Middle Ages--or, indeed, in any survey of medieval literature. The focus is chiefly on England, but on England firmly, and, to my mind, rightly, "tied" to the Continent; thus, there are essays that address Marie de France, Heloise, Christine de Pizan, Joan of Arc, and Continental female mystics as well as such expected English figures as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. The pieces are of unfailingly high quality, and are written by a collection of some of the finest scholars currently working in the fields of literary studies, gender studies, and history. Added bonuses are the bibliography of further reading included at the end and the detailed, far-reaching eleven page chronology by Chris Africa that begins the collection. Spanning the period c.425-1505, it provides an overview of political, religious, and literary events. The collection is divided into three sections: Estates of Women, Texts and Other Spaces, and Medieval Women. Virtually my only gripe about this fine volume is that these divisions are a bit mystifying. For instance, it is not clear to me precisely why Sarah McNamer's essay "Lyrics and Romances" and David F. Hult's essay "The Roman de la Rose, Christine de Pizan, and the querelle des femmes" are included in the third, rather than the second, section.

The introduction, by Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace, is organized around the image on the book's frontispiece: a painting (Johnson Collection 402) from the Philadelphia Museum of Art depicting scenes from the life of Mary Magdalene. Dinshaw and Wallace adroitly use this image, with the central figure of Mary addressing a crowd, to interrogate medieval women's complex relationships to and involvements in textual culture. In addition to providing the expected brief summaries of the collected essays, the introduction explores the thematically central issues of auctoritas, its varieties, and its constructions.

Part One on the Estates of Women is arranged more or less chronologically, generally proceeding from birth to adulthood to old age. Incidentally, I did think it would have been interesting had an essay been included taking the next logical step to death, burial, and the afterlife to consider gendered practices and ideologies in these areas. Daniel T. Kline's essay on "Female Childhoods" begins the section, introducing an important, though little explored, topic. It too is organized chronologically, examining the formation of gendered subjectivities from infancy to adulthood. The section on "Infantia" addresses conception, birth, and baptism; Kline then turns his attention to education, with particular consideration of conduct and courtesy literature, in a section on "Pueritia." Raptus and marriage are the subjects of his consideration of "Adolescentia." The essay is quite literary in its orientation, discussing Pearl, medieval drama, and selections from the Canterbury Tales. This material is fascinating and very helpful for students and scholars of literature; given that the focus of this section of the volume is on women's experiences; however, I would have liked to see a greater blend of historical and literary evidence. I was also surprised not to find, either in the notes or in the bibliography of further reading for this section, a reference to Felicity Riddy's outstanding article on conduct literature and gendered adolescence, "Mother Knows Best: Reading Social Change in a Courtesy Text" (Speculum 71.1 (1996): 66-86); this is, though, a minor quibble with a strong essay.

Next comes Ruth Evans's essay "Virginities." The plural title announces one of her central arguments: virginity was not simply a monolithic category. As she says, "Virginity is a spectrum of ideals" (25). She focuses on the figure of the Virgin Mary in medieval drama, on lives of virgin saints (especially the Katherine Group), and such proscriptive, regulatory texts as the Ancrene Wisse, analyzing the texts and also interrogating how medieval women may have responded to them. Her discussion of virginity in relation to sodomy is particularly interesting, provocatively calling for us "to rethink the special value of virginity for (heterosexual) men and women, turning our attention instead to virginity's role in the disruptive discourses of same-sex desire" (28). Her thought-provoking conclusion "English virginities?" turns to the political sphere. She blurs the medieval / early modern boundary, discussing Lydgate's poetry, Elizabeth Barton, and Foxe's Book of Martyrs as she argues that "[v]irginities were symbolic memory-places upon which the emerging nation of 'England' was fastened" (35).

From virginity we move to marriage with Dyan Elliott's essay. She begins with a consideration of legal and ecclesiastical history, exploring the spiritualization and sacramentalization of marriage. She observes that the triumph of the consensual definition of marriage had certain destabilizing consequences, enabling as it did clandestine marriages. Elliott highlights the potential for female empowerment such a system offered, but she also rightly gives attention to the very real pressures and constraints put on women. A substantial portion of her essay consists of an excellent discussion of the husband's authority within marriage and its legal, as well as ideological, reinforcements; she uses a court case as a touchstone to demonstrate "the many ways in which the woman's ostensibly protected rights are hampered and occluded by the sheer magnitude of her husband's authority" (48). Her contribution also includes a lucid explanation of the conjugal debt and a nuanced consideration of the complex matter of married sexuality.

In this collection, as in the lives of many medieval women, widowhood follows marriage. Barbara Hanawalt provides a concise, well presented analysis of the legal rights and status of widows, concentrating on English widows' distinctive experiences. She looks at the situations of widows from different social classes as well as those of widows in urban and rural areas. She explores custody issues for widows with children, the social networks in which widows were engaged, and widows' involvement with religious foundations.

Karma Lochrie's essay "Between Women" breaks the chronological pattern, but it is definitely a welcome addition. Lochrie begins by observing, "Female interactions simply did not register on the medieval radar screen, and as a result, they slip through scholarly studies as well" (70). Her piece is an important step to filling this gap. She argues convincingly that "'Between women' there was more going on than medieval categories or modern scholarship has so far recognized" (71). She addresses medieval anxieties about female fellowship as "a form of conspiracy" (74) and observes that, in contrast, there is historical as well as textual evidence of widespread practice of spiritual friendship between women. She also makes the innovative point that Christine de Pizan's City of Ladies can be read as "an allegory of female friendship" (76). She considers the ways in which women figured in discourses of sodomy, explores depictions of female same-sex desire in literary works (Gower, Marie de France, and saints' lives), and presents another ground-breaking argument in her discussion of the dangers perceived to be inherent in female celibacy.

Jennifer Summit's "Women and Authorship" begins Part Two. Her starting point is a call to revise the sort of question we ask about women and authorship; she proposes that, instead of asking where the female authors are, we should ask, "[I]n what sense was authorship understood to exist in the Middle Ages, and to what extent could the concept apply to women?" (92). She productively examines the distinction that obtains between auctoritas, from which women were excluded, and authorship, and she acknowledges the challenge to the identification of female authors posed by the "diffuseness and medieval literacy and its texts" (93). She explores the self-authorizing strategies and collaborative relationships of women writers, especially visionary authors, and she considers the political usefulness of their texts. She further complicates the modern notion of authorship in her analysis of compilation and patronage as varieties of authorship practiced by women.

The essays in Part Two are not as closely linked as those in either Part One or Part Three, and the ordering of them is not guided by as readily identifiable a principle as may be found in the other sections. Christopher Cannon's "Enclosure" is the second essay. It focuses primarily on the anchoritic life, reading enclosure not only as a "form of life built according to the same principles as the medieval body" but also as "a tool for securing that body's imaginative boundaries" (113). This essay is a departure from others in the collection in its frequent references to contemporary literary theory (Derrida, Foucault, Lacan) and to philosophy (Nietzsche, Hegel, Judith Butler). While Cannon's use of such material is interesting and it exemplifies a productive approach to medieval studies. It is, however, rather jarring in the context of this volume. Having recently used this volume in an introductory graduate-level course, I can also attest that the unexpectedly theoretical orientation of this essay proved somewhat distracting and disorienting to students, a problem I imagine would be magnified if one used the essay in an undergraduate course.

Sarah Salih's "At home; out of the house" returns to a more straightforward approach. She notes that the house was "the privileged locus for medieval women" (125), and she addresses ideas of how women were supposed to behave at home as well as in the wider world. She makes the important point that the domestic and non-domestic were not defined as diametrically opposed realms in the Middle Ages. The medieval household was "both family dwelling and workplace" (127); the household was an economic and political as well as a domestic unit (129). In her discussion of where women were found, in what numbers, and in what roles in medieval households, she continues to focus on the topic that concerns many contributors--the construction and performance of gendered subjectivities. Alcuin Blamires's "Beneath the Pulpit" closes Part Two. His subject is "the rights, limitations, rituals, and contributions of women in relation to Mother Church" (141). He gives a great deal of attention to the debate concerning female preaching, including discussion of women in the Lollard movement and the tradition of saintly female preachers. He also explores the presence of women in sermons as he highlights clerical attitudes towards female sexuality and impurity. He provides useful information about women's roles in religious guilds and fraternities as well as a discussion of affective piety and its strong association with women.

Several of the essays in Part Three provide straightforward, well researched, informative introductions to well-known medieval female figures and their works. Into this category fall Christopher Baswell's "Heloise," Roberta Krueger's "Marie de France," Nicholas Watson's "Julian of Norwich," and Nadia Margolis's "Joan of Arc." Alexandra Barratt's "Continental Women Mystics and English Readers," like those on individual woman, introduces biographies and textual productions; she attends to Continental holy women whose works were known in England in the later Middle Ages. Carolyn Dinshaw's contribution on Margery Kempe performs such necessary introductory work as well, but it deserves special mention for her insightful exploration of Margery Kempe and time. Dinshaw notes that Margery simultaneously lives in historical time and holy time and observes that she is "an anachronism even in her own (temporally heterogeneous) time" (236).

I was somewhat puzzled by the decision not to include a similar type of essay on Christine de Pizan. Instead, Christine is the subject of David F. Hult's "The Roman de la Rose, Christine de Pizan, and the querelle des femmes." This essay provides an excellent overview of both the Roman and the complex literary / cultural debate concerning it, and Christine's participation in it was clearly a central aspect of her career. However, given the article's particular focus, other aspects of Christine's career get relatively short shrift. In particular, the treatment of the City of Ladies is surprisingly brief (although, to be fair, it does receive attention in other essays in the collection).

This final section also includes Sarah McNamer's piece on "Lyrics and Romances." As the title suggests, the essay is divided into two sections. The part on lyrics primarily explores strategies for and difficulties inherent in recovering anonymous lyrics that may have been written by women. In the section on romance, McNamer acknowledges the difficulty in defining romance as a genre, and correctly attends to the ideological dimensions of romance. She incorporates a fascinating analysis of female ownership and readership of romances, noting that women possessed many more French than Middle English romances in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. She points out that French versions tend to have more positive images and roles for women than English versions, and she calls attention to the increasing "masculinization" of Middle English romances, which in the later Middle Ages came to emphasize male heroism and women as obstacles to it.

This is one of the most important, interesting, and valuable collections of essays to be published in recent years. It seems destined to become a classic scholarly work, and deservedly so. It belongs on the shelf of every serious scholar of medieval women; it equally belongs on the syllabus of undergraduate and graduate courses alike.