Rhoda L. Friedrichs

title.none: Phillips, Medieval Maidens (Rhoda L. Friedrichs )

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.039 04.02.39

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Rhoda L. Friedrichs , Douglas College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Phillips, Kim M. Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1270-1540. Series: Manchester Medieval Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. Pp. xv, 246. ISBN: $25.00 0-7190-5964-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.39

Phillips, Kim M. Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1270-1540. Series: Manchester Medieval Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. Pp. xv, 246. ISBN: $25.00 0-7190-5964-x.

Reviewed by:

Rhoda L. Friedrichs
Douglas College

In recent years historians have become increasingly interested in categories of persons largely neglected by their predecessors--powerless or low-status groups now often described as "silenced," due to the absence of their perspective or even their presence in most written records. As Kim Phillips points out at the beginning of this study of what we would today call adolescent girls, historians often come to such themes with an axe to grind: they are looking for the past of a group with which they themselves sympathize, or whose present condition and problems concern them. Phillips is well aware of the political agenda, overt or tacit, that this can entail. She is scrupulous in seeking to discern and elucidate the role of maidens in terms of the values and expectations of late medieval England, rather than approaching issues such as autonomy or self- assertion, which often interest modern historians but were marginal for people of the Middle Ages.

It is in examining those values and expectations that Phillips is at her strongest. Her first two chapters, based on theological, medical, and didactic texts of the late Middle Ages, paint a convincing picture of how and why the medieval maiden differed from the modern adolescent girl. Maidenhood, lasting from puberty until marriage, was not seen as a difficult period of exploration and rebellion, but rather as the perfect age of woman--sexually desirable, but still in possession of the virginity so precious to lay society as well as to the Church. Maidens were seen as having all the charm and tenderness associated with women, without their flaws--unlike males, who were held to reach their peak at about thirty. This was partly because the Church identified integrity of body with virginity in females, but not in males. But it was also because men were expected to mature into strength and understanding, while for women the key virtues were docility and meekness-- better evinced, perhaps, in maidens than in older women. Maidens were not simply expected to be obedient, however: Phillips describes the ideal role of women as one of "active docility." Youth was a time of training for one's adult role, and for maidens this meant learning to be the mistress of a household. Phillips spends little time on the issue of the literacy of women, pointing out that this was an optional accomplishment as far as late medieval society was concerned. A maiden's serious education, usually conducted by her mother, was in the skills her family and society relied on her to have: the manual skills of food and clothing preparation which were above all associated with women, and also the handling of the general economic needs of the household. The chaste and obedient maiden was in training to become not the despised inferior of misogynist sermons, but a responsible and valued subordinate who willingly accepted that role.

Phillips makes a strong and convincing case for active docility as the normal model society held out for maidens. But when it comes to the actual lives of individual maidens the sources present her with the same problems that have faced other historians examining the silent majority of medieval people. In order to tease concrete experience and viewpoints out of recalcitrant materials, Phillips makes assumptions based on very small samples, and often on tiny ones. This is particularly problematic in her chapter on "Voices," an attempt to listen to medieval maidens speaking for themselves. She has only been able to muster a handful of these voices, however, and although the book covers the period from 1270 to 1540, this sample essentially comes from the latest part of the period. The voices are not only few and late, they are also muted. Only the sixteenth-century court lady Anne Basset and the often-cited Margery Paston of the late-fifteenth century are at all discursive. The parish and village maidens who figure in this chapter are remarkable simply for appearing in the records at all, and do not in any sense speak for themselves.

Although the author's theme is English maidens, she might have fleshed out these brief vignettes with some material from other sources. Joan of Arc was certainly not English, but Phillips comments on the considerable points of correspondence between the evidence on maidens for England and for northern France. Joan the Maid is probably the most articulate late medieval maiden we have, and the verbatim testimony from her trial gives a detailed and extensive description of her life and her feelings. It would have provided a useful comparison with the fragmentary comments of her English contemporaries. The same could be said of the Castilian Leonor Lopez de Cordoba, or the testimony of the maidens among the heretics of Montaillou a century earlier. Even if the Mediterranean world of these southern maidens proved to be significantly different, the contrast could well have emphasized those features, which were distinctively northern or English.

The most problematic chapter of the book is that on "Sexualities." Virginity was the defining quality of the maiden, yet the chapter deals largely with violations of virginity. The author first discusses incest (few cases were found) and lesbianism (no cases), and then looks more extensively at rape, as well as at cross-class sexual temptations, before providing a brief note on flirtation. Yet for most maidens flirtation was the principal expression of their sexuality, and some of them, like Katherine Dudley whom Phillips cites, enjoyed it so much that they delayed marriage by some years to prolong this form of sexual freedom and exploration. It is too limiting, and too modern, to exclude or minimize this conscious game of desire and temptation, a game that both men and women found amusing and tantalizing and saw as most appropriate to maidens. This in itself tells us important things about late medieval attitudes toward maidens' sexuality. Unlike the Victorian maiden, whose purity was identified with a need for shelter from any mention of sexuality, the medieval virgin, while meek and modest, was expected to have sexual feelings and to relish bawdy humor. The maiden was fully a part of a society that was frank about sexuality while at the same time insisting on firm restrictions on its expression. This basic feature of late medieval society might profitably have been compared with the Church's teachings and the rulings of its courts. Together such a treatment could have made for a more useful discussion of maidens and forms of sexuality than an emphasis on the violations of society's norms.

In its overall argument, however, Medieval Maidens does focus on the norms of late medieval English society with regard to the character, role, and behavior of girls and young women. Phillips has been eminently successful in achieving her goal of avoiding modern agendas and criteria. The maidens speak for themselves all too rarely. Nonetheless, the synthesis that Phillips assembles makes it plain that they were very much a part of the society they inhabited, of their families, communities and social classes, making their way in life based on values and assumptions they shared with the rest of their world. With her study of this phase of medieval women's life cycle she steers us towards a more clear-sighted image of medieval society as a whole.