Richard Utz

title.none: D'Arcens and Ruys, eds., Maistresse of My Wit (Richard Utz)

identifier.other: baj9928.0502.016 05.02.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Utz , University of Northern Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: D'Arcens, Louise D., and Juanita Feros Ruys, eds. Maistresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholars. Series: Making the Middle Ages, vol. 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. Pp. x, 384. $96.50 (hb). ISBN: 2-503-51165-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.02.16

D'Arcens, Louise D., and Juanita Feros Ruys, eds. Maistresse of My Wit: Medieval Women, Modern Scholars. Series: Making the Middle Ages, vol. 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. Pp. x, 384. $96.50 (hb). ISBN: 2-503-51165-1.

Reviewed by:

Richard Utz
University of Northern Iowa

Two years ago, French historian Jacques Le Goff published A la recherche du Moyen Age (Paris: Audibert), a biographical account of how he came to be a medievalist and a manifesto for the histoire des mentalités as practiced by the representatives of the Ecole des Annales. While Le Goff cannot remember why, at the age of ten, he decided he would want to study history, he does recall that it was Walter Scott's historical novel, Ivanhoe (1819), that excited him about the middle ages when he read it as a twelve-year old. Scott's narrative used, according to Le Goff, certain material traits of the middle ages, the forest between Sheffield and Doncaster, the siege of Torquilstone castle, the tournament at Ashby with its audience of peasants, merchants, courtly ladies, knights, monks, and priests to create an impression of verisimilitude which captured his imagination and set him on the track toward becoming a medievalist.

Although Le Goff immediately adds the disclaimer that he did not really decide at this tender age that he would later investigate the material aspects of medieval culture, the list of realistic attractions he remembers noticing in Ivanhoe contains almost all of the areas to which he would later dedicate numerous articles and books (12). Indeed, if we may place any trust in Le Goff's recollections, his youthful reading experience would well up at ever so many decisive junctures of his biography. Further analysis of Le Goff's book exhibits a familiar dichotomy. While he quite diligently attempts to establish an affective basis for his choice of becoming a medievalist by tracing medieval memories back to his very first encounters with Walter Scott, to connect his interest in twentieth-century politics with his reactions to certain episodes in Ivanhoe, and to stress the decisive advent of cinematic representations of the past, he quickly diminishes such memories as nostalgic and draws clear boundaries between scientific and serious research in medieval culture on the one hand and indistinct images or ideas about the middle ages as represented in popular culture or the historical novel on the other. In a section during which he explains how, as an adolescent, he found the same degrees of fascinating alterity in twentieth-century Roman Catholic liturgical ritual and that omnipresent tournament at Ashby, he cautions his readers by saying that "[m]es souvenirs sont peut-être reconstruits" (20). He feels he cannot trust his own recollections, assuming perhaps that the truth value of any memoir will necessarily suffer from a personal post-hoc perspective, an attitude that would fabricate a linear teleology for a scholar who moved in one grand récit from reading Ivanhoe to teaching at the Sorbonne.

In making his distinction between subjective memoir and scholarly investigation, Le Goff resembles the majority of members of the medievalist community whose dominant discursive standards demand that we separate the affective side of the investigating subject from its subject of investigation. [[1]]For quite some time now scholars of medieval texts have been questioning this very separation. Feminist colleagues, especially, have provided a perspective that encourages the acknowledging of the affective dimension of scholarship and warns against assuming hermeneutic mastery over the medieval women we study. Similarly, scholars in medievalism (as opposed to medieval studies) have helped retrieve a whole host of popular, artistic, and non-academic contexts the narrowly scientistic study of the Middle Ages tended and still tends to dismiss as anachronistic or dilettantish. Based on these developments in feminism and medievalism, Louise D'Arcens, Juanita Feros Ruys, and the contributors to their essay collection propose a variety of ways in which the separation can be mended so that medieval studies might regain what it has lost along its long and winding path toward professionalization. How does such a revisionist project play out in praxi? The volume answers this question in four sections:

1) The Practice of Medieval Studies (27-145): If late nineteenth-century German dissertations on early English literature placed the most academic feature of their work, the general bibliography, before the actual text to distance themselves from journalism and other more subjective discourses, Philippa Maddern framed her essay "A Woman and Her Letters: The Documentary World of Elizabeth Clere," with a self-reflexive (edited) e-mail exchange with her colleague, Wendy Harding. The first exchange, set before the scholarly essay, thinks through the advantages and risks of "agreeing to expose our relatively unedited thoughts to the public gaze" (28). The second one follows the essay and deepens the discussion. But things do not end there: It is Harding who then continues with her own scholarly investigation of "Mapping Masculine and Feminine Domains in the Paston Letters," which ends in another (fifteen-page) e-exchange in which both intimately related essays and topics can now be revisited and in which both authors reveal how scholarly communication should work, namely as a process during which ideas are being tested, refined, and finally put to 'paper.' While much of this process is usually hidden and takes place in various locations and over longer periods of time, Harding and Maddern allow us to participate in, or at least to 'listen' in on, the vast variety of voices, imaginings, and scholarly positionings which we could rarely ever glean from the finished, polished, uninflected and thus often hermeneutically one-dimensional academic essay. And after reflecting questions about the difference it would make to approach medieval women as a woman, an Australian, an Australian of Anglo origins, or as a child of the 1950s, the authors follow Petrarch's lead and seek an even closer connection to their medieval "maistresses" by addressing letters to them, including one in Middle English. I can already see how scholars, tempted to quote from these two "essais," will avoid what they might see as mere paratextual features of otherwise 'solid' research. However, the hopes, fears, disappointments, and joys during the different phases of scholarly work are a reality, albeit not one we have been allowed to acknowledge openly when we want to be published in the established journals. Both "essais" beautifully illustrate that we can overcome burdening our work with the rhetorics of need and productivity and openly discuss that, in the words of Louise Fradenburg, "the enjoyment of the signifier is at the heart of our practice in literary and cultural studies." [[2]]

Other contributions to the volume, although often surprising in their candid self-inclusion and -evaluation, take readers on somewhat less experimental a ride than the two lead essays: Constant J. Mews, for example, uses the intriguing micro-history of his own "Encountering [of] Hildegard [von Bingen]: Between Apocalypse and the New Age," to elucidate the multi-facetted general academic and non-academic reception history of Hildegard as an author, thinker, and healer. Earl Jeffrey Richards gives an engaged assessment of his passionate scholarly relationship with Christine de Pizan. In "A Path of Long Study: In Search of Christine de Pizan" he delineates the reception of Christine, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and sings the praise of "old" philology (with filiations from August Boeckh through Gustav Gröber and E.R. Curtius), an academic practice which, he suggests, not only has provided the most fruitful approach to Christine's texts but, unlike Hans Robert Jauss's aesthetics of reception, is grounded in "anti-nationalist, cosmopolitan, and humanist" thought. While Richards rightly criticizes the "New" Philology for ignoring many political and cultural issues and indicates its epistemological links to the Gadamerian and Heideggerian tradition, he also intimates that "old" philology may be more or less resistant to totalitarian thought, too broad and mechanistic an assessment, as my own work on German Chaucer reception or Frank-Rutger Hausmann's recent studies of Romance and English philology during the Third Reich would indicate. [[3]]

In the final contribution to this section on the practice of medieval studies, entitled "Her Own Maistresse?: Christine de Pizan the Professional Amateur," Louise D'Arcens finds in the reception of Christine's dual reputation as professional writer and autodidactic amateur a fascinating parallel for rethinking our discipline's own autodidactic past and (overly?) professionalized present. She argues compellingly that Christine's example of a "professional amateurism" might offer "contemporary medievalists a thought-provoking model of intellectual and professional authority in which passion and reason are not mutually exclusive" (124).

2. Empathy, Ethics, and Imagination (149-243) This section begins with a reprint of Nicholas Watson's article, "Desire for the Past" (originally published in the 1999 edition of Studies in the Age of Chaucer). In his essay, Watson had used his own reading of Carolyn Walker Bynum's Holy Feast and Holy Fast (1987) and the critique of Bynum's study by Kathleen Biddick ("Gender, Bodies, Borders," Speculum, 1993) to argue for a systematic investigation of the role desire plays in historical scholarship and moved toward such an investigation in his discussion of Hadewijch of Antwerp's and Julian of Norwich's insights about the relationship between desire and knowledge in the realm of religion. For the essay collection under review, Watson added an "Afterword" in which he ponders, from a distance, if the impetus for his earlier text was not that of "a mere defence of my own right to be, as a male scholar of women's spirituality" (186) and doubts that medieval studies will be able defend its existence as a discipline of academic inquiry unless it can theorize the role of empathy and affect in its scholarship. Diane Watt, in "Critics, Communities, Compassionate Criticism: Learning from The Book of Margery Kempe," makes a plea for readings of medieval literature that not only make perceptible their authors' stakes in the work that engages them (something she aptly terms their "ethical signature"), but also carefully consider who constitutes their community of readers. She discusses how recent reactions to The Book of Margery Kempe (Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval [1999] and Robert Glück's Margery Kempe [1994]) offer fully engaged and involved readings of the medieval text but, in an effort to address the queer community, appropriate the text to emphasize "the queer over the feminine" and "the sexual over the maternal," thereby silencing, for example, the debt queer theory owes to feminist politics and practice. Juanita Feros Ruys, in "Playing Alterity: Heloise, Rhetoric, and Memoria," is concerned with the dangers of "presentism" and "pastism." As her cogent discussion of the reception history of Heloise's writings demonstrates, both these practices may imply, on the one hand, overly appropriative gestures toward the medieval writer or, on the other, the dehumanizing and complete silencing of these writers' human past. The possible solution to avoid the pitfalls involved in either perspective Ruys gleans from the scholarly role-playing (memoria) practiced by medieval women. Thus, the fictionalized dialogue ("Interrogating Heloise"), which follows Ruys's formal essay, is meant to "signify both my empathic investment in the issue of Heloise's mothering" as well as "my acknowledged distance from (non-identification with) the historical figure of Heloise" (234). Spiked on every page with the typical paratexts of academic discourse, i.e., the learned footnote, this "playful" interrogation of Heloise by an officer from a department of youth and community services is one of the most intriguing symbioses (revealingly, my first choice of words was "confrontations") of the academic with the affective/literary I have had the pleasure to read in recent years.

3. Medieval Women and Modern Women (247-312) In the first essay of this third section, "Uncanny Dialogues: 'Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn' and The Book of Margery Kempe," Marea Mitchell successfully applies Freud's category of the "uncanny," that which is both familiar, recognizable, and safe, and at the same time unfamiliar, alien, and threatening, to a comparison between one of Virginia Woolf's short stories and late medieval Book. Acknowledging the "real differences" (265) between both texts evolving from such a comparison, Mitchell argues, suggests the recognition of the various interests with which modern scholarship often approaches medieval texts. While the manifold resonances between medieval women and modern scholars will be helpful for a full understanding of medieval women's voices, a text like Margery Kempe's should never be subjected to an all-encompassing "assimilation" since there will always be "unfamiliar" or "undesirable" elements in her Book that, for example "do not fit the pictures and stories that modern feminism needs in order to make sense of its past and suggest its future" (265). The second essay, Shawn Madison Krahmer's "Redemptive Suffering: The Life of Alice of Schaerbeck in a Contemporary Context," approaches the vita of a thirteenth-century Cicerstian nun from the sometimes mutually exclusive perspectives of "a feminist medievalist, a friend of contemporary religious, a Christian theologian, and the survivor of a marriage" she found "emotionally abusive" (269). Somewhat less experimentally minded, Krahmer holds that the foundation of any study of medieval women's spirituality is to first understand their "actions and lives within their own context. Only then can we ask what we might learn from them that is applicable in our own time and our own lives" (274). Her solution is that, while contemporary scholars need to continue a dialogue with figures like Alice, the nun's redemptive suffering should not be adopted as a model for our contemporary lives but must be rejected as a relic of the past. Kari Elisabeth B¿rresen (Religious Feminism in the Middle Ages: Birgitta of Sweden") finalizes the section by presenting St. Birgitta as a "paradoxical foremother" who unites "an exemplary feminist motivation with a theology that remains, for feminists, only partly imitable" (312).

4. Women Readers This concluding section begins with Jacqueline Jenkins's essay on "Reading Women Reading: Feminism, Culture, and Memory." Jenkins first debates the fascinating possibility of a cultural memory, a number of shared common norms, conventions, and practices that would link the otherwise non-contiguous reading experiences of medieval and contemporary women. Drawing on the results of modern romance studies, she wonders if the otherwise forbidden self-realization of women through the reading of romances could not also be the cause of the popularity of vernacular devotional literature among high-status women in the Middle Ages. In the end, however, she considers the sobering possibility that she might have accepted the results of modern romance studies precisely because of her (formerly unrecognized) investment in attributing some form of resistance to the medieval women readers of devotional texts. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne ("Virginity Always Comes Twice: Virginity and Profession, Virginity and Romance"), a little like Shawn Madison Krahmer's contribution, reads like a reality check to those who might believe that relating one's medieval specialty area to one's daily academic life is merely fun and games. Although she indicates that the defiant medieval virgin martyrs may serve as an empowering precedent when dealing with the imposed virginities at the contemporary university, the thought that Wogan-Browne finds much in medieval virginity writing that reiterates patriarchal constructions of the present relations between women and the workplace begs the question as to how joyous the current investigating and teaching of the Middle Ages can realistically be for at least half of our colleagues.

It is difficult to foretell the role this volume might play in our continuing negotiations of medievalist practices. I am afraid, for example, that many colleagues may silence it with disregard because of its openly experimental and often playful character. I also fear that, like so many volumes centering exclusively on medieval women, it will remain unrecognized by the category of scholar Jocelyn Wogan-Brown once fittingly defined as the "alpha male."[[4]] Finally, its contributors' inclusive gestures towards medievalism, a term and practice still suffering from its reputation as a Victorian folly may also not gain this collection too many friends among those who still bask in the belief that they are researching--sine ira et studio--a clearly definable medieval textual canon and can illuminate everybody else about "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist." To me, this truly innovative volume will undoubtedly become a mainstay (dare I say "maistresse"?) in my own future work on medievalism. The editors' courage to explore the mutually enriching qualities of medievalism and feminism and the various interconnections between medieval and contemporary women (and men) deserves highest praise. Indeed, I would go so far as to recommend this volume to any and all students who are thinking of making the Middle Ages their primary area of academic research. They, as well as their more experienced colleagues, might be surprised about the level of contingency governing our manifold scholarly conventions, a contingency that should encourage them to dare speak and write themselves more identifiably and affectively into their own future scholarly endeavors.

[[1]] My thoughts on Le Goff's memoir were originally presented at the 19th International Conference on Medievalism at the University of New Brunswick on October 1, 2004. They were subsequently published as "Mes souvenirs sont peut-être reconstruits": Medieval Studies, Medievalism, and the Scholarly and Popular Memories of the 'Right of the Lord's First Night', in Philologie im Netz 31 (2005), 49-59 (

[[2]]"So that We May Speak of Them: Enjoying the Middle Ages," New Literary History 28:2 (1997), 205.

[[3]] Richard Utz, Chaucer and the Discourse of German Philology. A History of Reception and an Annotated Bibliography of Studies, 1793-1948 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002); Frank-Rutger Hausmann, Anglistik und Amerikanistik im 'Dritten Reich'(Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 2003); "Deutsche Geisteswissenschaft" im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Die "Aktion Ritterbusch" (1940-1945) (Dresden: Dresden University Press, 1998, 2nd. ed. 2002); 'Vom Strudel der Ereignisse verschlungen'. Deutsche Romanistik im 'Dritten Reich' (Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 2000); 'Auch im Krieg schweigen die Musen nicht'. Die 'Deutschen Wissenschaftlichen Institute' (DWI) im Zweiten Weltkrieg (1940-1945) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001).

[[4]] "Analytical Survey 5: 'Reading is Good Prayer': Recent Research on Female Reading Communities," New Medieval Literatures, vol. 5, ed. Rita Copeland, David Lawton, and Wendy Scase (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 275.