Lesley Smith

title.none: Mulder-Bakker, ed., Seeing and Knowing (Lesley Smith)

identifier.other: baj9928.0502.010 05.02.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lesley Smith, Harris Manchester College, Oxford,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B., ed. Seeing and Knowing: Women and Learning in Medieval Europe 1200-1550. Series: Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, vol. 11. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. Pp. x, 204. $73.00 (hb). ISBN: 2-503-51448-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.02.10

Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B., ed. Seeing and Knowing: Women and Learning in Medieval Europe 1200-1550. Series: Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, vol. 11. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. Pp. x, 204. $73.00 (hb). ISBN: 2-503-51448-X.

Reviewed by:

Lesley Smith
Harris Manchester College, Oxford

This is a volume of nine essays with contributors from the Netherlands, Germany, and the USA. The predominant subjects of the book are medieval religious women from the Low Countries, and the essays themselves and the bibliography cited testify to the richness and vibrancy of scholarship in that field, and in the work of Dutch scholars in particular.

After an introduction by Mulder-Bakker, the essays are: "Using Women to Think With in the Medieval University," by Ruth Mazo Karras; "Henry Suso's Vita between Mystagogy and Hagiography," by Werner Williams-Krapp; "Beatrice of Nazareth: The First Woman Author of Mystical Texts," by Wybren Scheepsma; "'Being a Woman on my Own': Alijt Bake (1415-1455) as Reformer of the Inner Self," by Anne Bollmann; "The Gender of Epistemology in Confessional Europe: The Reception of Maria van Hout's Ways of Knowing," by Kristen M. Christensen; "Ghostwriting Sisters: The Preservation of Dutch Sermons of Father Confessors in the Fifteenth and the Early Sixteenth Century" (sic), by Thom Mertens; "What Francis Intended: Gender and the Transmission of Knowledge in the Franciscan Order," by Lezlie Knox; "A Textual Community in the Making: Colettine Authorship in the Fifteenth Century," by Bert Roest; and "Maria doctrix: Anchoritic Women, the Mother of God, and the Transmission of Knowledge," by Mulder-Bakker.

The theme of the essays, and the aim of the volume, is to present a form of medieval learning as it existed outside the male centres of higher education, and outside of their Latin literate culture. The editor points out that most men, as well as almost every woman, did not have such an education, and yet could not be called unlearned, judged by their particular needs and calling. Thus, the book looks for non-academic forms of education and new ways of describing someone as "knowing" something. It wishes to question, in Ruth Mazo Karras' words, "a view of the Middle Ages in which men transmitted knowledge formally and professionally, in written Latin, while women did so sporadically, orally, and emotionally rather than rationally" (21).

The most successful essays here are packed with information little known outside the Dutch-speaking world. Williams Krapp, Scheepsma, Bollman, Roest, Mulder-Bakker and Christensen open up a vista (and there is clearly much more to be learned) of confident, authoritative religious women, living in what we might call "the real Church," outside the Schools. These Schools are dealt with dismissively by Mazo Karras in the opening essay of the volume, as she makes the useful distinction between the "misogynist teaching" which they might or might not transmit and the "specifically masculine cultural practices involving competition and technical skill" (21) which she is sure they use. Why competition (come to my tennis club and and watch women play) and technical skill (see my colleagues at work) are exclusively masculine, I do not know, and the essay seemed to me to contradict itself by not recognizing the technical limits of the Quodlibetal form and by ignoring its own point that Quodlibets do not actually deal with real men or real women at all, but with a human being constructed for the purposes of argument. It is not women who are ignored in these exercises, but flesh and blood humans of both sexes: to the Schoolmen, God was more interesting than we are. Mazo Karras poses the most probing question for this scholarship: "not only 'why have modern scholars privileged this masculine intellectual movement', but also 'why did medieval people privilege it?'" (33). She answers the first part inadvertently ("because many of its dominant ideas are extraordinarily interesting and fruitful" [33]), but the second--the more historically challenging--is left hanging. And, as Bert Roest makes clear later in the volume, many medieval people did not privilege this sort of knowledge at least they did not make it available, or seem to want it to be available, in the vernacular (178).

Mertens' essay is a lovely example of treating the sources seriously and with respect. It is a "revisionist" piece in its way, on the ghostwriting editors (and more) of the Brussels Jericho Convent, and it paints a convincing picture of an intellectual and spiritual community. I wondered, in passing, why he twice repeats the idea that the sisters had no developed shorthand? There may have been no "official" system, but it seems unlikely that anyone who needs to take dictation regularly and quickly would not develop something for themselves; surely before the advent of tape recorders, all students had some system of shorthand for lecture notes? Would the sisters not have done the same?

Knox presents a reading of a story about St Clare, Br Giles and an unnamed Master of Theology related by Sr Battista Alfani of Monteluce, seeing it as a comment on the place of women and men in the Order's learning. This strikes me as far-fetched and in need of more backing evidence. A simpler reading, about the importance of humility, would be in line with what we read elsewhere of both Francis' opinions on school-learning (cf. his words to Anthony of Padua) and Clare's own repeated words on humility and knowledge. It is not clear why the more tenuous reading, which, however, fits the premise of this volume, is to be preferred.

The material dealt with in this volume presents difficult problems for the medievalist. Why do these woman (and some men) focus so strongly on the Passion of Christ and on suffering as a modus vivendi? And how is the historian to judge the status these people enjoyed in their own time, when they are both vilified and exalted; what criteria can we use to attempt to see them clearly as historical actors? It is the "Margery Kempe" question: from almost unknown medieval writer to Penguin Classic superstar--but who exactly was Margery in her own day? This volume does not answer those questions, but the women it highlights add to our knowledge of the landscape in which those such as Margery were framed.

Mulder-Bakker is to be congratulated for daring to edit a book in a language not native to her, but occasionally she needed to be better served by her English-speaking editors and proof-readers at the University of Hull, under whose auspices this series is produced. To read, "Just like Pierre de Reims had made Colette into a receptacle of divine grace, so to Henry .", in an academic volume is painful. Nevertheless, this book points the way for new work and new thinking, and what more can one ask?