Alessia Ronchetti

title.none: Hagedorn, Abandoned Women (Alessia Ronchetti)

identifier.other: baj9928.0406.015 04.06.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alessia Ronchetti, University of Cambridge,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Hagedorn, Suzanne. Abandoned Women: Rewriting the Classics in Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. Pp. ix, 220. 0-472-11349-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.06.15

Hagedorn, Suzanne. Abandoned Women: Rewriting the Classics in Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. Pp. ix, 220. 0-472-11349-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Alessia Ronchetti
University of Cambridge

Suzanne Hagedorn's study of abandoned women in medieval literature is courageous for at least two reasons: first, for its attempt to organise into a coherent hermeneutical system the variety of literary solutions that classical and medieval authors such as Ovid, Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer achieve through their employment of the traditional figure of the relicta; second, for the critic's decision to visit in her textual journey some of the most studied and discussed works of the European literary canon, with all the risks that such a choice implies.

These risks are typical of any thematic investigation. Nevertheless, when the treatment of a theme in a piece of literature is inextricably linked to its author's interest in structural experimentation, then the danger of disappointing the reader who decodes the text by inserting it within her own specialized--and probably more narrow--sphere of competences is even higher. Hagedorn faces the limitations of her enterprise particularly in the first half of the book, where she finds herself dealing with the imposing critical tradition accompanying Dante's encounter with Ulysses in Inferno 26. Also her analysis of some of Boccaccio's "minor" works, such as the Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, occasionally fails to do justice to the complexity of Boccaccio's poetics. However, she has the gift of synthesis, together with a stylistic clarity that makes me think of her book as "didactic" in its noblest connotation.

In chapter one, Hagedorn recalls the difficulty that modern scholars have often found in their attempt to justify the juxtaposition of wit and pathos in Ovid's Heroides, a juxtaposition that does not allow the reader a "monologic, straightforward" response. Following Marina Brownlee, Hagedorn suggests the adoption of a Bakhtinian mode of enquiry that would interpret the Heroides as a text in which different forms of discourse are operating. This dialogic quality of the text reveals the inadequacy of a single poetic genre or a single stylistic register to describe the wholeness of human experience.

The subsequent historical survey (which the critic in her captatio benevolentiae humbly defines as "prolegomena to any future reception history of the Heroides in the Latin Middle Ages") reveals how in the Middle Ages the interpretation of the Ovidian letters of abandoned women was by no means univocal. The Heroides could be seen as providing a series of exempla of licit and illicit love, but also as an instruction manual in the art of love-letter writing; the stories traditionally viewed as bad exempla could receive a black-and-white moralizing gloss, but they could also cause--and they often did--an empathic reaction in the reader which would undermine the value of any such straightforward reading. Such a variety of interpretive responses can be found not only in medieval commentaries on the Heroides, but also in more creative forms of writing: the examples recalled by Hagedorn include the verse epistles of Baudri, Constance, Heloyse, the anonymous Deidamia Achilli.

Chapter two is a detailed and patient intertextual investigation of the presence of Statius's Achilleid in Dante's encounter with Ulysses in Inferno 26. Having noted that Dante recalls the abandonment of Deidamia by Achilles as one of the sad consequences of Ulysses's deceitful art, Hagedorn underlines the close link existing between Deidamia's sufferings and Penelope's. The wife of Ulysses is in fact another relicta who pays the cost of masculine epic. The pairing of the two heroines, whose abandonment is caused in different ways by the same man, has the function of reminding the reader about those voices, which are often silenced at the moment of celebrating male heroism. Hagedorn's enthusiastic close reading occasionally seems to lead her astray, as, for instance, when she analyses Statius's narration of the love-story of Deidamia and Achilles. However, this textual wandering allows her to raise another fundamental issue that will receive further attention in the subsequent chapters: the function of rape and in general violence against women in classical and medieval literature.

Chapter three proceeds to analyze how the ghostly presence of another abandoned woman, Ariadne, problematizes the depiction of Theseus as "good ruler" in Boccaccio's Teseida and Chaucer's Knight's Tale. Hagedorn's cross-reading of Boccaccio's and Chaucer's texts brings to the surface the condition upon which male order is constructed, i.e. the limitation of female autonomy, a limitation that can be achieved through abandonment, abduction, and rape. Ariadne is in fact only one among several women who did not receive much advantage from their encounter with Theseus: Helen, Ippolita, Emilia have all seen their freedom being seriously limited as a consequence of their attempts to challenge the decisions of the Athenian hero.

Chapter four deals with Boccaccio's representation of abandoned women in the Amorosa Visione and in the Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta. In these works, abandoned women are not confined to the margins of the main narrative, but, on the contrary, they become central characters who are given the chance to recount their own stories. In her reading of the Amorosa Visione, Hagedorn notes the ambivalence inherent in Boccaccio's hommage to the Ovidian tradition: indeed, by responding sympathetically to the voices evoked by the figures depicted in the Triumph of Love, the internal narrator problematizes his guide's moralizing condemnation of worldly goods. This sympathy towards suffering women can turn into identification on the part of the reading subject, as the case of the Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta makes clear. In Hagedorn's view, Boccaccio forces his readers to experience the conflict between reason and desire that links them to those characters, such as Fiammetta, whose powerful appeal tends to be easily dismissed if judged from a purely theoretical moral framework.

Chapter five traces the gender reversals that Chaucer sets out in his Troilus and Criseyde in his treatment of the theme of the abandoned lover. In doing so, Hagedorn constructs an intricate and fascinating web of intertextual connections between Boccaccio, Chaucer and Ovid's works that reaffirms in the most striking way the fecundity of the theme in Medieval literature. This is probably the best developed section in the whole book.

It is ideally complemented by the analysis of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women carried out in chapter 6. Hagedorn wittily entitles this last chapter "Chaucer's Heroides" in order to emphasize the continuity of the tradition and at the same time the powerful originality of Chaucer's solution. The critic sees the Legend as the result of a conscious reflection upon the powers and the limits of poetic discourse: this exquisitely Chaucerian theme is the key to understanding why the Legend is a book whose exposed imperfection ironically unmasks the omissions upon which the perfection of its authoritative literary sources is constructed.

In introducing her study--a study which is definitely worth reading--Hagedorn acknowledges those critical views upon which her hermeneutical quest is based. This critical framework could hardly be more "canonical," to judge by her declared historicizing approach, by her indebtedness to the works of Bakhtin and Eco, and by the explicit exclusion of what she groups under the generic label of "postmodernist writings on gender theory." One cannot help noticing how Hagedorn's fascinating textual adventure rests upon the rejection of these anonymous female voices, voices that, again, pay the cost of order with their silence.