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98.07.11, Duby, Women of the Twelfth Century, Vol 1

98.07.11, Duby, Women of the Twelfth Century, Vol 1

Aimed unabashedly at a classroom adoption market, this translation of one of the late Georges Duby's final publications describes, not the lived experience of actual aristocratic women, which the author calls "inaccessible" (p. 2), but rather the ways in which male contemporaries perceived the feminine. It would be a shame to have the greatest French medievalist of the second half of the twentieth century remembered primarily for books like this one. It cannot even be recommended for undergraduates, as it is built on paradigms and approaches that women's historians in the U.S. went beyond a generation ago, and it seems far overpriced for a book so slim, without illustrations or even notes.

In the final decade or so of a scholarly life devoted to medieval institutional history and to the structure of noble families, Duby turned to the topic of medieval women. Although he was to be commended for wanting to discuss the women as well as the men of powerful French families, he curiously never used the same close examination of charters and chronicles for women's history which he had used for the history of men. If he had, he might well have discovered the real women whom he said could not be found: women making gifts to monasteries, quarreling over inheritances, and giving their assent to the decisions of their husbands and their sons. Instead, by relying primarily on fiction written by men during the twelfth century, plus the occasional saint's life, he unsurprisingly discovered no more than the way that male contemporaries might idealize women. But even here a more sophisticated analysis would have been able to reach less simplistic conclusions than that medieval men considered women "subordinate" (p. 101).

The book is composed of six short chapters, three on real women (Eleanor of Aquitaine, Heloise, and Juette, the latter a visionary recluse), and three on fictional women (Mary Magdalene, Isolde, and Soredamors and Fenice, the last two ladies in a romance by Chretien de Troyes who are here treated together). The chapters alternate between real and fictional, and the women in all the chapters are analyzed in the same way, reinforcing Duby's point that all we have is the image of women, not women themselves. From these examples he concludes that twelfth-century men treated women as property, always controlled, their only allowable roles being virginal girl, submissive wife, or chaste widow. When women tried to break out of these roles they were by definition noxious and deceitful. The increased emphasis on love in twelfth-century literature and the growing opportunities for female spirituality are described as new ways for men to dominate women, even though Duby does suggest at the very end that love and religion, adopted by men to make women more willing to submit, did eventually help women break free of their heaviest "shackles" (p. 104).

The book reads as though put together very quickly. It is peppered with assumptions that other medievalists have rejected or else with examples that do not support the conclusions drawn from them. Most notably, Duby appears to have been the last medievalist to doubt that Heloise wrote her own letters (for their authenticity see, most recently, Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to Woman Christ: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1995). Although he discusses the reasons why Louis VII would have wanted a divorce from Eleanor of Aquitaine--primarily her failure to produce an heir--he describes her as "requesting and obtaining a divorce" for her own purposes (p. 8), thus oddly treating her repudiation as a form of dangerous feminine independence. His account of the Tristan and Isolde story, although attributed to the court of the Plantagenets, is not the French (Beroul) version of the story but rather the German version written by Gottfried von Strassburg.

Scholars, fiction-writers, and visionaries: since real twelfth-century women such as Heloise, Marie de France, and Hildegard of Bingen wrote about their ideas and experiences, it is not necessary to approach medieval women only through male writers. Of course, these women, as well as the land-owners, countesses, and queens who appear in the charters, were not the "equals" of aristocratic men, any more than most other males in medieval society were the "equals" of the powerful. But the ways that women themselves conceptualized the differences between masculine and feminine, the ways that they struggled to find their own place in a male-structured society, is a fascinating story. It is just not the story told here.