97.02.04, Parsons and Wheeler, eds., Medieval Mothering

Main Article Content

Jacqueline Murray

The Medieval Review baj9928.9702.004


Parsons, John Carmi and Bonnie Wheeler, eds.. Medieval Mothering. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 1979; Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, The New Middle Ages, vol. 3.. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996. Pp. xvii, 384. ISBN: 0-815-43234-17.

Reviewed by:
Jacqueline Murray
University of Windsor

When, in 1991, Clarissa Atkinson published her foundational study, The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages, she argued convincingly against any notion of maternity as natural and inherent. By exposing motherhood as culturally constructed, Atkinson did much to enhance our understanding of the ideology of motherhood in medieval society. Implicit in her overview was a challenge to historians to examine how that ideology was played out in the lives of medieval women. With the recent appearance of Medieval Mothering, a variety of perspectives on motherhood and maternal ideology are examined.

At the outset, the editors of Medieval Mothering make a critical distinction. While maternity is a biological fact, the consequence of childbirth, and of necessity limited to women, mothering is something quite different. It is a culturally constructed activity in which men, as well as women, can engage. Hence, men may mother but only women can be mothers. As the title of the volume indicates, the subject of the essays is mothering and while a focus on mothers may dominate, there is appropriate representation of masculine approaches to mothering as well.

The nineteen essays in the volume combine to present a truly interdisciplinary approach to the subject. There is delightful cross-section of medieval sources consulted from the theoretical works of medicine and theology through literary and artistic representations to personal letters and the documents of state. The topics range from medical perspectives on conception and pregnancy to childrearing arrangements among the upper ranks of society, from Julian of Norwich's mystical construction of Jesus as mother to Aelred of Rievaulx's mothering of his sister, from grandmothers to stepmothers to witch-mothers. Geographically, the collection extends from Scandinavia to Iberia and temporally from the pre-Christian world to the fifteenth century, although the majority of essays fall in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

As with so many issues that involved women, the medieval view of mothers and mothering was dichotomous and contradictory. This is exemplified in the medieval perspectives inherited from antiquity, perspectives that suggested that the menstrual blood that nurtured the fetus in the womb and the mother's milk that sustained the infant were also potentially dangerous. William F. MacLehose traces the dilemma that confronted people when the ideology constructed women's bodily fluids as at once essential and dangerous. Yet, quite a different view of mother's milk is proposed in Patricia Ann Quattrin's analysis of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival. In this romance Parzival's mother holds in her body nourishment. Mother's milk is likened to the waters of baptism and Herzeloyde is presented as a source of both natural and spiritual nourishment. This nurturing quality of maternity is also highlighted in John Carmi Parson's analysis of pregnant queens and their role as intercessors with their husbands. Parsons argues that the literature and rituals surrounding the pregnant queen's intercessory role downplayed the sexual aspects of maternity. It had much less to do with childbearing per se than it did with nurturing. While motherhood ended with age, the queen's role as intercessory mother for the king's subjects endured.

Two essays, in particular, attempt to enter into the psychological aspects of medieval motherhood. Allyson Newton brings a Lacanian perspective to her analysis of Chaucer's "Clerk's Tale." She argues that the story exposes a deep-rooted anxiety in patriarchy which perceived a threat inherent in the mother's role in ensuring succession. Men feared maternity and so sought to contain it by rendering women subordinate and socially passive, while also recognizing that the very well-being of the patrilineage rested on women's activity: childbirth. In order to constrain the potential for maternal influence on heirs, the mother's role was devalued and denigrated, as exemplified in the humiliation of Griselda. This is quite a different perspective from that which Nancy Partner brings to her psychologically-informed reading of Guibert of Nogent's discussion of his mother. In a subtly argued and close reading of Guibert's memoirs, Partner exposes the interdependence of the relationship. Guibert's mother is never named yet she is predominant in an account that writes out siblings and marginalizes the father.

Guibert of Nogent rendered his father virtually invisible and the maternal relationship central. Pamela Sheingorn argues similarly that within the Holy Family Joseph was marginalized until God the Father assumed the place of Mary's spouse. At the same time, God also was imbued with maternal qualities that rendered him a more caring husband than were his earthly sons. Sheingorn suggests that normative heterosexuality and female submissiveness were reinforced through this idealized divine union. Medieval women could find solace in the idea of Mary's nurturing and kind husband, while at the same time a young wife's submissiveness to an older husband was reinforced.

This complicated question of the relationship of Mary and Joseph also figures into Rosemary Hale's analysis of how, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the cult of Joseph appropriated many Marian images. In the process, Joseph was transformed from an elderly bumbling cuckold into a vigorous and potent paterfamilias, one who could provide for his family and be a loving father and good husband. This new prominence, however, was gained at the expense of Mary's powerful maternal role.

Within medieval religion mothering occupied an important position. Mary mothered the infant Jesus, God the Father mothered Mary, Joseph acquired maternal qualities. Yet, Felice Lifshitz points out that within the ecclesiastical hierarchy, maternity did not carry with it a power and authority equivalent to that of paternity. She surveys the ideas surrounding the female head of a monastic community. Abbess (abbatissa), she argues, did not denote mother, but rather was a female father. How various monastic rules conceived of the female head of the community could vary, as did how the community might perceive their female leader. Similar blurrings of roles and meanings are found in Susanna Greer Fein's study of how Aelred of Rievaulx mothered his sister. In his advice to his sister, Aelred carefully distinguished physical motherhood from spiritualized mothering in a way that also allowed brother and sister to assume the roles of mother and child, and virginal husband and wife.

Julian of Norwich's famous metaphor of Jesus as Mother is the subject of two essays. Maud Burnett McInerney argues that while Julian's image was not particularly original, nevertheless, she went beyond the earlier Cistercians who imbued Jesus with a femininity devoid of specific femaleness. Rather, Julian linked Jesus' body to the female body's physical functions, developing an image of the anchorhold as womb that was derived from specifically female experience. Taking a different perspective, Andrew Sprung argues that Julian degendered the idea of motherhood and in the process broke the usual binary understanding of maternity. By rendering Jesus as Mother, the Trinity was reconfigured as father, mother, and spirit. Thus, he argues that the binary opposition of male and female was overridden by a double gendered God.

If men and women could be reconciled in the person of the God that was both mother and father, relations were not so easily reconciled between human beings. Parents and children, mothers and fathers, had complicated and frequently conflicting relations. Jenny Jochens examines the relationships between mothers and children in the Icelandic sagas. She suggests that the bond between mother and child was defined (and hampered) by three social realities: infanticide, fostering and illegitimacy. Sagas written later in the period, however, seem to show a change in attitude and a warming of relations between mothers and children. This change, she suggests, could be the result of the introduction of Christianity which brought with it the motherhood of the Virgin Mary, a model which consequently might have enhanced the love between earthly mothers and children. Stephen Grundy also focuses on Norse motherhood in his analysis of the witch-mother and her sons. He finds mothers and sons in complimentary roles. Mothers forward the interests of their sons while sons protect their mothers from both physical and legal attack.

The witch-mother of the Icelandic sagas should not be linked with the idea of the wicked stepmother, a spurious image inherited from folk tales. Barbara Hanawalt's examination of the relationships between stepparents and fosterparents in the Lisle letters provides wonderful insights into the warm and close relationships that could develop in blended families and in surrogate family relationships. Lady Lisle loved both her daughters and her stepdaughter and lavished considerable care on their training and upbringing. The letters also show that warm affection could develop between the young girls and their foster families, an affection that in no way diminished their ties with their natal families. Joel Rosenthal's essay similarly examines the more elusive role of the grandmother, as revealed in the letters of the Paston family. The letters and wills of the Pastons provide only tantalizing hints about the quality of the relationships among the writers. While Rosenthal cannot provide many definitive answers, his essays should encourage others to search for three-generational family relationships and reflect upon how to render the lives of the elderly more multidimensional.

Four of the essays are devoted to the relationships between aristocratic mothers and children. These women were not only active in directing the future directions of their children's lives, they are also the group for which significant documentation survives. Each article highlights a different facet of aristocratic motherhood. Marjorie Chibnall's study of Matilda, for instance, reveals how, although Matilda had three sons, her life was devoted to the unwavering quest to secure the English throne for Henry. Little of the private mother emerges from behind the cloak of affairs of state. Miriam Shadis' examination of Berenguela of Castile discusses how political exigencies could enhance a woman's reproductive responsibilities. Berenguela's motherhood involved not only securing a kingdom for her son, but also overseeing his sexual morality. Like Matilda, Berenguela focused her maternal energies on one son and heir. In contrast, Adela of Blois would seem to have spread her attention across her children, taking into account their individual personalities as she arranged marriages and preferments. Lois L. Huneycutt's analysis of Margaret of Scotland mothering reveals the nurturing and more personal aspect of maternity. The vita margaritae, on which she bases much of her research, presents the private life of the queen in a way not possible in state papers. In the end four quite different portraits of aristocratic mothers emerge from the political powerbrokering of Matilda, to the marital strategies of Berenguela, to the more individualized arrangements of Adela, until with Margaret of Scotland a more whole and three- dimensional picture of motherhood is glimpsed.

There is likely to be at least one essay in this collection that will be of interest, no matter what the focus of the reader. Taken together, however, and read as a whole, the collection provides an exciting and insightful overview of medieval mothering, one that significantly enhances our appreciation of both the medieval theory and practice of this complex activity.

Article Details

Author Biography

Jacqueline Murray

University of Windsor