The Medieval Review 10.09.05

sterberg, Eva. Friendship and Love, Ethics and Politics: Studies in Mediaeval and Early Modern History. The Natalie Zemon Davis Annual Lectures. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010. Pp. 229. . $22.95 ISBN 978-963-9776-60-9.

Reviewed by:

Ruth Mazo Karras
University of Minnesota

The chapters in this book were delivered as the Natalie Zemon Davis Annual Lectures at the Central European University in 2008. They constitute a worthy tribute from one distinguished historian to another. A set of lectures like this can give a scholar a chance to step back and place her own research in a broad context. In the process Österberg delivers a clear statement about the historical importance of topics like friendship and love which many people think of as being private matters. Once again, she shows that the personal is political and that historians interested in these issues are not simply voyeurs but study the wider societal implications of personal relationships. Individual friendships, of course, may have political implications, but Österberg's focus is on the "intellectual and political discourses on love and friendship" to determine "the purposes they served in different periods, and their impact not only on other social discourses but also on social change" (13).

Österberg asks what changed with modernity--to what extent did personal bonds that were previously thought to constitute the basis of society come to be seen as a danger to the state or the church? To what extent did the rise of individualism affect changing notions of friendship? Of the three main chapters, one concentrates on friendship and love in terms of the public-private dichotomy, one focuses on friendship as reflected in autobiography, and one addresses permissible and forbidden forms of love and sexuality in the early modern period. She draws particularly on examples from Scandinavia, her area of expertise, summarizing her own research and that of others. Her bibliography includes scholarship in Swedish, English, German, French and Italian. A significant absence, given her discussion of the boundary between friendship and erotic love and between acceptable and forbidden types of relationship, is Alan Bray's The Friend (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Chapter Two is entitled "Challenging the Private-Public Dichotomy: Friendship in Mediaeval and Early Modern Society." To feminist scholarship this hardly seems new. The Berkshire Conference on the History of Women took "Beyond the Public-Private Dichotomy" as its theme in 1987. But Österberg takes a quite different angle from historians who reacted against the idea that the women were connected with the private sphere and men with the public. She argues that although the line between the public and private spheres was clearly recognized in ancient, medieval and early modern European society, friendship blurred it. The philosophers and other authors she cites discuss male-male friendship almost exclusively, either explicitly or as the unmarked category; somewhat surprisingly given Österberg's work in gender history, she paraphrases Aristotle's and Cicero's discussions of friendship between virtuous men without comment, although she notes that the way Aristotle combines love and friendship "is less surprising if we bear in mind that Aristotle lived in a homosocial and to some extent homoerotic milieu" (30). Surprisingly, also, she can speak of "mediaeval man" as having "a worldview" (32), without indicating whether "man" here means "people" and without putting "worldview" in the plural. But among the exponents of the medieval Christian ideal of spiritual friendship and the risks of worldly friendships, she includes Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373) as well as Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), who would be the usual suspect.

Österberg also draws on the Icelandic sagas to argue that friendship appears not as a sentiment but as a thing to be won. She is certainly right about this; there is something of this in Cicero's view of friendship too, as well as in many medieval understandings of heterosexual love. Her prime example is the friendship between Njal and Gunnar in Njal's Saga , which she uses to demonstrate that bonds of friendship can even outweigh those of kinship. Friendship in the sagas, she argues, "has little to do with the joy of seeing each other or enjoying a good meal together. It was a much more serious affair. It referred to a broader social context...Friendship alliances, like other social alliances, were the very breath of life for the mediaeval Icelanders of the sagas" (48). While the political significance of friendship is undoubtedly central in the sagas, however, and often veers toward a patron-client type of relationship, the emotional and pleasurable aspect should not be ignored. The saga author presents Njal's and Gunnar's friendship as deep and heartfelt; loyalty is not only a matter of rules and honor but also a result of respect for each other. It is not just alliance and utility-although it is certainly also that.

In the early modern period, Österberg argues, friendship was a political and judicial term signaling peaceful alliance. She takes Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) and her diplomatic efforts as an example. It would be interesting to know whether the language of friendship Christina used was cast differently from that of male rulers. Österberg also gives examples from everyday life in both Sweden and England. The Swedish noblewoman and prolific letter-writer Catharina Wallenstedt (1627-1719) used the language of friendship both in regard to the political alliance system and for the small number of people, mainly women, who really cared about her and her family. Similarly the English clergyman Ralph Josselin (1617-1683), although he used the term "friend" for relatives (as was the usage at the time) and for patrons, stressed the empathy of soul he had with a small number of people of both sexes. The English merchant Thomas Turner, who kept diaries between 17545-1765, used "friendship" more broadly for a wide network of people including family and business acquaintances. In all cases, "the practice of friendship in the early modern period seems often to have been devoid of the equality demanded by ideal friendship...The observation that friendship was not seen as something to be restricted to private life seems once again born [sic] out" (74). Yet in Sweden, as in other countries in the early modern period, friendship was seen as potentially leading to corruption in the state through cronyism in appointments and legal proceedings.

Chapter Three, "Me and My Friends: Individuality, Friendship, and Autobiography from Augustine to Rousseau," examines the two authors named in the title plus Petrarch, Montaigne, and Vico. Österberg here seeks to examine the development of individualism and its relation to friendship across a long time period. The small and unrepresentative sample size here seems problematic; in the previous chapter, the examples she gave seemed the tip of a larger iceberg, whereas here they seem to be sparkling exceptions. I applaud her critique of a sharp dichotomy between the premodern and the modern because it "reduces the history of individualism to a simple evolutionary process" which creates "a very crude picture of pre-modernity and the individual" (95). However, while she cites the Renaissance of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as having led to greater individual consciousness, her examples jump from 397 when Augustine completed his Confessions to the 1340s-1350s when Petrarch wrote his autobiographical fragments. Augustine, she argues, represents the beginning of the Christianization of friendship, in which God serves as the origin and inspiration. Petrarch is more interested in an intellectual partner. Montaigne began the process of the privatization of friendship: it represented for him a place to retreat from society. Vico, on the other hand, downplays the role of friendship; his friends appear, if at all, as participants in his intellectual work. Rousseau places more emphasis on the love of women, but he also depicts many degrees of friendships with boys and men, all of which remain in the personal sphere.

Österberg concludes, not surprisingly, that autobiography focuses on the author, but that the formation of an individual identity is done in dialogue with others. Here she notes the gendered nature of the friendships, since "all five lived at times when men's legitimate relationships with women remained firmly framed within a family context" (138). If I may be permitted an entirely predictable medievalist quibble, medieval examples from beyond the autobiographical genre might fill in the thousand-year gap between Augustine and Petrarch: there are multiple examples of celibate men and women with friendships outside of a family context. Examples from other genres would defeat her point about the nature of autobiography, but could speak to the even larger point about the rise of the individual.

Chapter Four, "Sexuality, Love, and Gender: The Politics of Heteronormativity in Reformation Sweden" takes a Foucauldian view: the newly established Lutheran church found a new way of regulating sexuality by finding a new language to talk about it. Her evidence, drawn from court records, indicates how the views of the "representatives of the people (the jury, witnesses and so on)" came into conflict with the views of the "main instruments of state-formation in post-Reformation Sweden (the central government and the established Church)" (151-2). She presents some fascinating individual cases dealing with women, placing them in the context of work on gender and the Reformation in Europe as a whole and using the Swedish case to "muddy the general picture" (161) of the Reformation's negative impact on women. Adultery and fornication were punished frequently and severely; homosexual behavior, although illegal, was rarely prosecuted. The reason, she argued, was that the main concern was with the conception of illegitimate children. At the same time, the courts were willing to support the idea of love and matrimony by preserving the unions of people who wished to be married to each other regardless of their families' preferences. "The Reformation in Sweden saw not the creation of patriarchy pure and simple, but rather a hierarchical power system that amounted to a milder form of patriarchy based on reciprocity, mutual obligations, and care" (179). Her picture for Sweden is very convincing. The description, however, would seem to apply elsewhere as well. As recent scholarship demonstrates, and as Österberg cites Davis and Arlette Farge to underscore, there was great variety both within and across societies--indeed within the life of a given woman!--in the ways she encountered patriarchy. The official concern with "matrimony and sanctioned forms of reproduction" (180) was unique neither to Sweden, nor to the Reformation period; I would argue that one can see this already in the fifteenth century in many parts of Europe.

When a scholar paints with such a broad brush as Österberg has done, it is inevitable that people will disagree on some of the smaller points. Overall, however, she makes her case well: ideas about friendship, love and sexuality are integral to society as a whole, they change over time, they are complex at any given time, and the most prominent of the chronological stories that can be traced is the emplacement of a distinct boundary between friendship and love. She concludes with an eloquent call to bring to bear the history of friendship on contemporary ideas about it. The nature of the book as lectures makes it a very quick and pleasurable read. For scholars who do not read Swedish, this is an excellent and thought-provoking prcis of Österberg's work.