Elisabeth van Houts

title.none: Bitel, Women in Early Medieval Europe (Elisabeth van Houts)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.002 04.12.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elisabeth van Houts, University of Cambridge,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Bitel, Lisa M. Women in Early Medieval Europe 400-1100. Series: Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xv, 326. $60.00 0-521-59207-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.02

Bitel, Lisa M. Women in Early Medieval Europe 400-1100. Series: Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xv, 326. $60.00 0-521-59207-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Elisabeth van Houts
University of Cambridge

Writing a history of early medieval women is a notoriously demanding task. Very few women left any legacy in writing, and such writing as has survived is often of a formulaic nature; charters or other legal documents being the most obvious. As a result of the dearth of sources originating from female authorship, we are almost entirely dependent on information about women presented by men. Even if we accept that male writers were informed by women and that the resulting image of women is a product of a gendered cooperation, there is no escaping the fact that the male view dominates.

How can the medievalist deal with this insoluble problem? Lisa Bitel has come up with a refreshingly down to earth and honest approach. Rather than pretending that we can somehow reconstruct women's place in society in the absence of much evidence, she proposes, boldly, to ask questions about the gendered nature of our evidence. If so many men were responsible for the composition of the sources on which we now rely, would it not be legitimate to ask where the women might be hidden? It is this question that is central to Bitel's exhilarating exploration of the early medieval sources.

The book consists of six chapters which between them in a roughly chronological sequence deal with some of the big themes of medieval society between the end of the Roman empire and the beginning of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance. Thus we are led through an introductory chapter on "Gender and Landscapes" (13-46) where we are being introduced to the uneven impact of Christianity in the various parts of Europe, the survival, or not, of documentation, the recent discoveries about pagan religions from archaeological digs and the demands by modern historiography to ask questions about men and women.

The migratory period of the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries is discussed in Chapter two on "Invasions, migrations and barbarian queens" (46-94) by asking one question in particular: "why is it that we hear so little about women" in the the narratives about the Germanic settlers in western Europe? The repetition of this question is actually remarkably effective in that it forces the reader to stand still and reflect on the blatant gap in our knowledge about the new settlers of Europe. Bitel probingly ponders the ambiguity of the most obvious answer: only men arrived from the East, who settled down by marrying indigenous women who did not need to be profiled in the triumphant narratives that were constructed in order to legitimise the new political elite. The ambiguity lies of course in the problem that if this were the case why did not the indigenous population leave more of a mark on the administration of society?

Religion as one of the most important binding agents of society is the central topic of the third chapter "The theory and practice of religion" (95-153). Here the author's expertise on early Irish society comes to the fore and enables her to ask interesting comparative questions on the rest of Europe. Why was Ireland, as the earliest christianised nation in Europe, also one of the last to have experienced non Christian religious practices? And what does that tell us about the role of women in society?

In the fourth chapter (154-199) the subject of women is approached, conventionally, through an evaluation of recent research, often antropologically informed, about kinship, family and marriage and motherhood. Bitel, like all other historians interested in women's history, deals with the fact that if our sparce documentation tells us anything about women it is often confined to their roles as nurturers, mothers, child bearers and cares in society. She extends the discussion by extrapolating from the spare details to fill in gaps in our knowledge. If a narrative speaks about a family meal and refers to men only, can we make the jump by assuming common- sensically that women were present but were not foregrounded in the story?

This chapter acts in many ways as an introductory exploration of what, for me, is one of the best chapters in this stimulating book, namely Chapter five on "The take-off: mobility and economic opportunity" (200-265). Here the position of women in frontier societies is being evaluated as something of potentially greater significance than has hitherto been thought. Why is it that, for example, in the migratory movements from Norway to Iceland, or from Scandianvia to southern Europe, we find stories highlighting the crucial role played by women in the migrations? This chapter acts almost as a mirror to Chapter two where we have seen that for the early medieval period the migratory narratives barely mention any women. Five hundred years or so later we do meet them, as indeed we meet them on the horse-drawn carts in the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American mid-West migrations. Here Bitel quite imaginatively and legitimately asks herself the question of how the women coped by leaving their homelands, piling their belongings onto a cart, or ship, and setting off to new pastures. Surely, the conditions believed to be available in the new lands must have outweighed any worries about the dangerous travel and problems of settlement. She argues persuasively that the pull factor probably far outweighed any push factor for these families' decisions to pack up and go elsewhere. Comparative history (diachronically and synchronically) helps to ask questions of our medieval material. Normally one might not so easily think about crusader women sheltering from the heat of the sun in the Near East in parallel with the Norse women braving the northern Atlantic to settle in a drizzling climate on the rough coasts of Iceland. But the two groups of women did in fact face similar problems of providing food and shelter fo their families in an unfamiliar environment. The temperatures might have been different, but that did not diminish the hardship they experienced.

In the Conclusion (266-98), Bitel brings together the various strands of her thematic approach and focuses on the social rank of women; what we know of women is almost invariably confined to high status women. Here too she deploys deftly recent approaches to the very topic she is discussing by, for example, bringing in the women as partners in the preservation of memorial traditions.

The book has been engagingly written in an easy, at times almost chatty, style that newcomers to the Middle Ages in particular will welcome. There is no trace of theoretical jargon that might hang as a veil over the thesis of the book. On the contrary, the author honestly and openly offers her cards and allows us to read them. This is a searching study which provides excellent coverage of the knowable evidence and as a result presents a stimulating introduction to the topic. I enjoyed reading it immensely and recommend in the strongest possible terms to teachers and students of the history of women (and men) in the Middle Ages.