Becky Lee

title.none: Raguin and Stanbury, eds., Women's Space (Becky Lee)

identifier.other: baj9928.0601.024 06.01.24

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Becky Lee, York Univeristy,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Raguin, Virginia Chieffo, and Sarah Stanbury, eds. Women's Space: Patronage, Place, and Gender in the Medieval Church. Series: SUNY Series in Medieval Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Pp. x, 261. $85.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-7914-6365-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.01.24

Raguin, Virginia Chieffo, and Sarah Stanbury, eds. Women's Space: Patronage, Place, and Gender in the Medieval Church. Series: SUNY Series in Medieval Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Pp. x, 261. $85.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-7914-6365-6.

Reviewed by:

Becky Lee
York Univeristy

One of the challenges historians of women face is the invisibility of women in the historical record. In order to uncover and recover women's lives, they have devised new approaches to traditional textual sources, and broadened their search beyond those sources to the material artifacts of medieval life. This interdisciplinary collection of essays combines both strategies to examine the uses of walls, chapels, tombs, commemorative objects, and pew arrangements in medieval church buildings, including women's patronage, for evidence of the dynamics shaping medieval women's gender identity/ies. Exploring the interrelationship between gender and those devotional spaces, the essays in this collection not only add new dimensions to our understanding of medieval England and Europe, but also demonstrate new approaches to their study.

The Introduction, co-written by the editors, provides an informative discussion of the importance of the parish in medieval life and consequently in medieval identity formation. This is followed by a helpful overview of the developments in the analysis of the social construction of space in anthropology, and cultural and feminist geography, which inform the essays in this collection. To demonstrate the usefulness of a gendered analysis of church space for interrogating the medieval worldview, a brief study of the squint, a small window or a peep hole allowing a view of the high altar, is offered. Beginning with the questions: Who would have access to these squints?, and What would they see?, the authors weave an elaborate web of questions and possible interpretations regarding the social structure of the parish community, the dynamics of psycho/social space, the relationship between the public and the private, and the gendered nature of visual knowledge. The essays that follow offer a similarly rich mixture of data, analysis and interpretation.

The plays of early English drama are the focus of the first essay "Signs of the Body: Gender, Sexuality, and Space in York and the York cycle." Drawing on the work of Judith Butler, Ruth Evans explores the reciprocal relationship between medieval bodies and the urban spaces through which the biblical plays of the York cycle wended their way on pageant wagons. She argues that the meanings of neither space nor gender are fixed or stable. Rather, they are "reciprocally transformative." Central to her argument is the mutability of both gender and space as it is evidenced in the text and in the performance of the plays. According to Evans, the interaction of transgressive gender play within the performances with the cross-temporal and multivalent significations of the changing venues of the performances produced the meanings of both gender and space from moment to moment and from place to place. Combining textual analysis, archival data, and theoretical musings Evans pushes at the boundaries of our theoretical considerations of the relationship between gender and space, positing space as an active agent in gender identity formation rather than as simply the location where gender acts itself out.

The second essay, "Ely's St. Aethelthryth: The Shrine's Enclosure of the Female Body as Symbol for the Inviolability of Monastic Space" by Virginia Blanton, is one of two essays treating monastic space, allowing a view of women's interactions with sacred space in the early medieval period. In this essay, Blanton identifies a deliberate manipulation of the meanings of space and gender on the part of the twelfth- century monastic compilers of the Liber Eliensis, a compilation of deeds, charters, and privileges of the Benedictine monastery of Ely. Reading the vita of St. Aethelthryth, the monastery's female founder and patron saint which prefaces this compilation, in conjunction with those deeds, charters and privileges, Blanton discovers a skillfully crafted political argument for the monastery's original and continuing right to independence from outside jurisdiction. Conflating the monastery's female founder and patron saint's virginal body, with the shrine in which her body is entombed, the compilers gender the monastery's property and their male monastic community female, equating the threatened rape of this twice-married virgin with the threatened violation of the monastery's properties and autonomy.

Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg explores the exclusion of living breathing women from male monastic churches from c. 500 to 1200 CE in "Gender, Celibacy, and Proscriptions of Sacred Space: Symbol and Practice." From an array of archival sources documenting the proscription of women from monastic spaces across Europe and England, Tibbetts demonstrates that monastic space was an important arena for the negotiation of gender relations, and consequently for gender identity formation, in the early medieval period. For monastic space was situated at the intersection of the growing popularity of the cult of relics among women, requiring their access to churches, chapels, cemeteries and holy wells under monastic control, and the proliferation of male monastic foundations with their emphasis on the reformed life, ritual purity and celibacy.

The rest of the essays in the collection focus on parish spaces in the later medieval period. Sarah Stanbury demonstrates that identity and space are inextricably intertwined in the Book of Margery Kempe. In "Margery Kempe and the Arts of Self Patronage," Stanbury argues that Kempe's meditations served not only to claim her privileged status and spiritual election, as is commonly assumed by scholars, but they also served to position Kempe among the donors and patrons of Lynn. Examining the Book as a "quixotic and highly localized fifteenth-century benefactor's list" (77), Stanbury demonstrates that even as Kempe's meditations depict her as a figure in the devotional tableaux which decorated the churches she visited, they also situate her as a patron and donor of those devotional images and artifacts, at a time when such patronage signified and conferred social status and power.

Virginia Chieffo Raguin's "Real and Imaged Bodies in Architectural Space: The Setting for Margery Kempe's Book" is a companion piece to Stanbury's. While Stanbury concentrates on Kempe's self- construction through literary constructions, Raguin's focus is Kempe's self- construction through strategies of placement in relation to the architectural structures of the churches she frequented. Those strategies of placement are the same shouting and weeping, fits and prostrations, perambulations and incursions into privileged spaces that others have labeled parodies of mysticism, symptoms of psychiatric disorder and exaggerations of the popular piety of the day. However viewing these physical manifestations in relation to their architectural setting allows Raguin to demonstrate their logic and efficacy as strategies which enabled Kempe very literally to claim a place among the spiritual and social elites of her world.

In "The Seat Under Our Lady: Gender and Seating in Late Medieval English Parish Churches," Katherine French also focuses on strategies of placement, the gender politics of church seating. Based on the records in churchwarden's accounts listing the purchasers, prices and placement of pews as they became a permanent fixture in late medieval English parishes, French demonstrates that the use of space in the nave of the church not only reflected the gender dynamics of local parishes but also played an active role in those dynamics. Comparing two parishes, St. Margaret's in Westminster and St. Mary's in Bridgewater, Somerset, French challenges the assumption that the segregated seating typical at the time only served to reinforce negative female gender stereotypes. Her reading of these archival sources suggests much more complex forces at work in the uses of space in the nave. French finds evidence that when purchased by women, segregated seating also facilitated women's involvement in parish life and activities by creating a space for a women's culture to develop, and by giving visibility to their priorities and concerns.

"Access to Salvation: The Place (and Space) of Women Patrons in Fourteenth-Century Florence" by Ena Giurescu Heller shifts the focus from England to trecento Florence, and addresses the theme of women's patronage running through this collection from a historiographical perspective. Heller examines the patronage of Andrea Acciaiuoli, wife of Mainardo Cavalcanti, in the sacristy/chapel of Santa Maria Novella to demonstrate the kind of information that can be gleaned about the status and place of women from the study of women's patronage, as well as the challenges it presents. Along with an insightful analysis of the gender dynamics of trecento Florence, Heller provides a useful guide for navigating the textual, contextual, and material sources of patronage, and the influence of their interpreters.

This collection concludes with an intriguing study of gendered right and left positioning within Christian imagery. Drawing on anthropology, phenomenology, art history and feminist theory, Corine Schleif, in "Men on the Right-Women on the Left: (A)Symmetrical Spaces and Gendered Places," analyses the polarities that characterized medieval European society and culture through uncharted territory, its religious iconography. Scrutinizing images spanning the era from across England and Europe, Schleif engages in a wide-ranging discussion of the deeply ingrained polarities signified by right and left and their impact on, and implications for, female and male gender identities, and for women's lived experiences.

Each essay, including the introduction, provides extensive notes, and a list for further reading. This volume is generously illustrated with fifty-three black and white plates.

Even in this electronic forum with its liberal word limits, it is difficult to do justice to the richness of the data and the complexity of the analyses found in these essays. The theme of patronage highlighted in the title is not always as central to the essays as the editors suggest. Nevertheless these explorations of patronage, place and gender make a valuable contribution to our understanding of gender and gender relations in medieval England and Europe, and to their study. Although they focus on women's patronage, these studies of patronage in parish spaces demonstrate promising new avenues for recovering and analyzing not only women's roles and activities, both idealized and experienced, but also those of non-elite men who are similarly obscured in the historical record.