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98.09.11, Duby, Women of the Twelfth Century, Vol 2

98.09.11, Duby, Women of the Twelfth Century, Vol 2

"Remembering the Dead" is the English title of this second volume in the translation of Georges Duby's final triptych, devoted to women of the twelfth century. (For a review of the first volume, see TMR, 98.07.11.) Duby's introductory claim, that he is seeking to discover "how the wives of lords lived in the twelfth century" (p. 1), together with his brief discussion of Dhuoda's manual and women's roles in mourning the dead (pp. 10-15), suggest he will explore women's participation in a variety of commemorative activities. The aptness of the original French title, more literally rendered as "Remembering Female Forebears," becomes apparent, however, when Duby states that he is attempting to reconstruct, on the basis of genealogical literature, "the image of women in the minds of the knights of the twelfth century" (p. 28). This divergence in Duby's stated aims is only one of many unresolved tensions running through this short and unannotated book that ultimately fails, in light of recent research in these fields, to provide a useful overview of either the lives of aristocratic women or how they came to be represented in the historical narratives he has chosen to discuss.

The book is divided into three parts enticingly titled "Serving the Dead," "Wives and Concubines" and "The Power of Women." The first introduces Duby's sources and provides what he considers pertinent background information, so that what his source texts say about women can be gauged against the 'reality' of their experiences. Duby presents these texts as a new genre, developed in the twelfth century, of "family" or "genealogical literature," composed by compliant household clerics who expressed what their male patrons told them or wanted to hear, even as they relied upon a variety of written and oral sources in their works (pp. 26-27, 44-48, 110-11). Curiously, no reference is made to women in these texts praised, for example, as a "treasurehouse of capacious memory and recollections," while Duby passes over in silence women who wrote or commissioned narratives glorifying ancestors and recording dynastic memories. [1]

Yet here and in the rest of the volume Duby discusses a range of historical narratives, from Dudo of St. Quentin's path- breaking "Manners and Acts of the First Dukes of Normandy" of ca. 1000, to monastic chronicles and accounts of the deeds of abbots composed during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries in long-traditional forms. While often containing important genealogical material, these complex and diverse texts are not reducible to a single genre in either form or substance, and Duby rarely signals specific contributions of lay male patrons to their contents. To the question of how patrons' messages were communicated from these texts to those who were to benefit from them, Duby asserts bluntly, "we have no answers" (p. 28), though his main sources provide important clues that merit analysis.

Two interrelated problems thus emerge. First, while admitting that authors selected, invented, manipulated, and ignored information to suit their own purposes, Duby bases his discussion of women's experiences on anecdotes mined from these texts. Ripped from their textual contexts, these anecdotes are presented as representative facts showing that women normally experienced life as virtual -- if valuable -- objects, wholly dominated by men, who, though they might come to love their wives or mothers and enjoyed carnal pleasures, feared women's sexuality and restricted women to strictly domestic activities (e.g., pp. 29-39, 51-63, 93-107). Counterexamples from the same texts to any particular claim about an assumed normative experience of women are treated as rule-proving exceptions or, more frequently, simply ignored, as are whole classes of evidence, primarily administrative documents and letters, that reveal women acting authoritatively in public situations. All this material must be taken into account if Duby is to assess the relation of textual image to the lived experiences of the women he does discuss. That women were generally subordinate to men and men projected fears about sexuality and death onto women are hardly novel conclusions; women's wide-ranging activities and the diversity of their life experiences, however, cannot be recaptured simply by summarizing select anecdotes from a heterogeneous array of complex narratives.

Secondly, Duby focuses primarily on the presentation of members of leading lineages (understood largely as the men of patrilineal descent groups) within the wider cognatic families that appear in his texts. Though he rightly draws attention to the importance of both paternal and maternal ancestors to an individual's or a household's standing and power (with conjugal couples and their children at the center of households) and makes passing reference to maternal inheritances (pp. 8, 11, 23, 32-34, 37-38), Duby downplays or ignores both the important roles accorded to relatives through women by his authors [2] and women's identification with members of their own patrilineages as revealed in these texts. Nor does he adequately account for the numerous maternal inheritances for which his authors' protagonists fought. [3] The women not related to his leading lineages who play active public roles tend to disappear from Duby's sights altogether. Written in an age when custom had not yet hardened into law and inheritance from father to first-born son frequently was not an option (even where it was favored for certain kinds of property or titles), these texts reveal that women, both directly and through their properties and relations, played more central roles in families and lineages than Duby's readings here suggest.

Part two, "Wives and Concubines," is devoted to the representation of the wives and mistresses of the early dukes of Normandy, primarily in the narratives of Dudo of St. Quentin, William of Jumieges (with passing reference to Robert of Torigny) and the later-twelfth-century Romance adapters of their texts, Wace and Benoit of Sainte-Maure, who wrote for the court of Henry II Plantagenet. That these authors were more concerned with tracing the descent of an office than with representing dukes' views of their families, Duby does not consider important to his analysis. His main concern is to show how authors of different generations with different audiences dealt with the undeniable fact that more early dukes were born out of Christian wedlock than within it. Not surprisingly, he finds that the eleventh-century monk of Jumieges took pains to stress the binding and (serially) monogamous nature of the duke-producing unions (though to a Norman monk aware of the succession disputes after the death of king Cnut, marriage more danico would hardly be "a memory from a past era" [p. 71] or William's own invention [p. 77]), while the "Romance" writers Wace and Benoit elaborated in a courtly mode on the beauty of the mistresses and the loving, carnal pleasures of the fertile couples (with courtly love here seen as a game whose "laws [were] promulgated in order to contain and control male sexual exuberance" and which was, only naturally, played "outside the confines of marriage" [p. 78]). Of Henry's three female forebears named Matilda, who played active roles in several narrative histories and forged critical links in the chain of Henry's claims to dynastic legitimacy (while the second commissioned several legitimating texts [4]), Duby has nothing to say, not even naming the twelfth-century mother to whom Henry owed his crown.

The third part of the volume is devoted primarily to Lambert of Ardres' "History of the Counts of Guines and Lords of Ardres," with passing reference to genealogies of the counts of Flanders and a variety of twelfth-century narratives devoted either to the counts of Anjou or the lords of Amboise. (No genealogy of the counts of Anjou is included in the abbreviated tables at the back of the volume, while that for the lords of Amboise misnames two women and leaves one unnamed.) Potentially the most interesting section because it focuses on the texts which most closely fit Duby's definition of family literature, it is the most disappointing. One reason for the disappointment is Duby's treatment of his sources. That canon Lambert, well- known at the court of Baldwin II of Guines (the father of Lambert's dedicatee), merely pretended (p. 109) to write in the voice of Walter of L'Ecluse, an illegitimate son of Baldwin of Ardres (d. 1146) and source of much of the eye-witness information about the lords of Ardres, is highly unlikely; thus, the special authority Duby attributes to Lambert as someone personally familiar with several dominae of Ardres is frequently misplaced (pp. 106-08, 115, 118-120, 129, 130 , 136-37).[5] When discussing the origins of the lords of Amboise, information from three distinct texts by different authors is conflated and presented as if it came from a single source (pp. 125-26). Discussing widows in a society where "widows abounded" (p. 140), Duby devotes his most sustained discussion to one described in the "Deeds of the Lords of Amboise"; mistakenly calling her Isabella instead of Elizabeth, he then provides a partial and tendentious summary of her deeds as reported (pp. 144-45).[6]

More significant in this section devoted to "The Power of Women" is Duby's insistence on an absolute distinction between public and private powers (pp. 137-39), with women largely confined to exercising 'private' powers in bedchambers, households, family monasteries, or the minds of family members. [7] These 'private' powers Duby eloquently evokes: women revered as the founders of lineages, as "mother goddesses" on par with quasi-mythical heroic men (pp. 118-26); women who played on men's fears and desires with their physical beauty and sexual charms (taking male authors' representations as factual reportage; pp. 134-37); women with authority over household servants and the numerous youth of both sexes raised at court (pp. 136-37); women, particularly the saintly -- and safely -- dead, with the power to heal and save souls (pp. 144- 49); and women with power over other women as abbesses of family monasteries (though Duby never discusses the routine, but valued, commemorative and intercessory activities of their more numerous sisters in religion, who to him were mostly women fleeing husbands or prevented from marrying; pp. 128-29).

There were, of course, the exceptional women who "managed to snatch a few crumbs" (p. 145) of public, male power: wives occasionally acting for absent husbands and a handful of "mature" widows who overcame pressure to remarry or enter convents (pp. 139, 141-44). For Duby, in a society conceived in "domestic form" as "an agglomeration of households" (p. 7) -- where even men exercised authority largely in a 'private' domain -- public power was power of the sword: the power to fight, to command troops, to punish others (p. 138). Even on the battlefield, however, the armed conflicts described in greatest detail in his sources were those over inheritance rights. If armed combat and child-rearing are bracketed as largely sex-specific activities, was the domain of male power fundamentally different from that of female power at this time? For Duby it was, because he believes that women of lordly families lived largely sex-segregated lives, often under guard, in enclosed "domestic" spaces of castle-residences. The one example he presents of such arrangements, however, is based on a tendentious translation (p. 106 [8]). Yet only by positing rigid barriers between interior spaces frequented by the men and women of lordly families can Duby sustain a conceptual distinction between the domestically-rooted powers of lay men and the 'private' powers of lay women.

Attempting to understand the experiences of aristocratic women and how women were represented by male writers in a variety of historical narratives are two distinct, if interrelated, projects. Much could be learned on both topics from a comprehensive analysis of all the women -- their activities, lands, and relatives, and how these came to be represented -- in any one of the complex texts Duby invokes.[9] But as Duby rightly admits, narratives extolling the deeds of ancestors focus one eye squarely on the military exploits of the protagonists (with the other fixed on displays of piety); consequently, they reveal little of the routine activities of lordly courts that are attested in documents and administrative registers, which, like "family histories," also came to be produced in significant numbers by household clerics over the course of the twelfth century. These sources present the historian with another 'public' sphere, that of the courts where disputes were settled, property transactions authorized, political favors dispensed, and oaths binding lords and followers exchanged. Aristocratic women appear in these sources and in this 'public' domain more regularly than they do commanding men to fight or leading troops in battle. By examining these sources in conjunction with narrative histories, the historian can learn how high status, large paternal inheritances, and/or other properties could be translated into power by women who brought such valuable assets to their conjugal families. They can see, as well, how men relied on wives and mothers to manage familial resources and secure or transmit patrimonies at critical junctures in a family's history. Georges Duby's well-earned stature as an innovative and insightful historian should not endow his idiosyncratic readings of complex narratives in this volume with greater authority than the sources themselves.


[1] The quotation applies to Gunnor, mother of one of Dudo of St. Quentin's patrons; see J. Lair, ed., De moribus et actis primorum Normanniae ducum auctore Dudone Sancti Quentini decano (Caen, 1865), p.289. See also J. M. Ferrante, To the Glory of her Sex: Women's Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts (Bloomington, 1997), pp. 68-106, for women writing or commissioning historical narratives and references to further literature.

[2] Duby's assertion that authors did not use precise terms to differentiate paternal and maternal relations beyond the conjugal family group (p. 8) is overstated; Lambert of Ardres, for one, uses avunculus for maternal uncle, patruus for paternal uncle and amita for paternal aunt in every instance I have seen that can be confirmed on the basis of information he provides.

[3] Duby's discussion of the context of the marriage of Baldwin II of Guines to Christina of Ardres (pp.100-101) is a lost opportunity: it was not simply to cap a round of routine power struggles between lordly neighbors, but to settle an inter-familial succession dispute that lasted about five years and in which four of the male protagonists actively asserted claims to Guines through women: two claiming it as a maternal inheritance, two fighting for their wives' claims.

[4] For queen Matilda II see Lois L. Huneycutt, "The Idea of the Perfect Princess: The 'Life of St Margaret' in the Reign of Matilda II (1100-1118)," Anglo-Norman Studies 12 (1989): 81-97.

[5] Lambert was responsible for putting Walter's words into the written form in which they are known today (which explains certain stylistic similarities), but the detailed accounts of events concerning Walter's father and grandfather in 'his' sections of the history (cc. 97-146), as well as discrepancies between his and Lambert's accounts of the same events, suggest that Lambert did not heavily re-script Walter's account; for differing representations of the mothers of illegitmate children (Duby, p. 129) compare Lambert in c. 89 to 'Walter' in c. 134; Lambert's history was edited by J. Heller in MGH,SS 24:550-642.

[6] Compare Duby's account to that in "The Deeds of the Lords of Amboise," L. Halphen and R. Poupardin, eds., in Chroniques des comtes d'Anjou et des seigneurs d'Amboise (Paris, 1913), pp. 112, 115, 118-120, 126-28, 130-31. There are many other instances in this volume where Duby 'misreads' his sources or where his paraphrases of specific passages are questionable.

[7] The one public function Duby allows women is mourning the dead (p. 15).

[8] See Lambert, c. 127, and the general overview of living arrangements in castle-residences by Dominique Barthelemy in A History of Private Life, Volume II: Revelations of the Medieval World, edited by P. Aries and G. Duby (Cambridge, Ma., 1988), pp. 397-423.

[9] For an exemplary approach to such a study, see M. Chibnall, "Women in Orderic Vitalis," Haskins Society Journal 2 (1990): 105-121.