03.03.22, Allen, Concept of Woman, vol. 2

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Anna Dronzek

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.022


Allen, Prudence, R.S.M.. The Concept of Woman: Volume 2: The Early Humanist Reformation, 1250-1500. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002. Pp. xxiv, 1161. ISBN: 0-8028-4735-8.

Reviewed by:
Anna Dronzek
University of Minnesota, Morris

In her classic 1977 article "Did Women Have a Renaissance?", Joan Kelly-Gadol asked for the first time whether the periods into which historians had traditionally divided the past adequately described women's experiences as well as men's. Concluding that they did not, Kelly-Gadol argued that the Renaissance, often defined as a glorious rise in men's fortunes, in fact marked a decline in women1s position in European society.[[1]] Kelly-Gadol's article generated extensive scholarship addressing the question of the transition from the medieval to the early modern and its impact on women. Prudence Allen's The Concept of Woman, Volume II: The Early Humanist Reformation, 1250-1500 extends this examination to the realm of philosophy, by tracing the history of the concept of woman between 1250, the date at which Aristotelian philosophy came to dominate the European university curriculum, and 1500, through the introduction of humanism, and concluding before the development of Cartesian thought. Like Kelly-Gadol, Allen re-evaluates historical turning points and their significance for women, but reaches a very different conclusion, presenting a highly optimistic view of the impact of the Renaissance on the concept of woman. By surveying and synthesizing the works of a truly astonishing range of medieval and Renaissance authors, Allen has produced a valuable contribution to the history of ideas, and raises provocative questions about the impact of historical change on women.

The present volume is the second in Allen's study of the concept of woman. The first volume, subtitled The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 BC-AD 1250, traced the history of philosophical concepts of woman from ancient writings to the introduction of the Aristotelian curriculum into European universities. The second volume begins where the first left off, and continues through what Allen labels the early humanist reformation, ending in 1500. As she explains, she uses the term "reformation" to refer to neither "the Protestant Reformation, nor the Catholic Counter-Reformation," but to "the collective attempts to reform the concept of woman, using humanist principles" (3). This "reformation" was necessary because the Aristotelian revolution, detailed in her first volume and summarized in the second, had negative consequences for the concept of woman.

At the broadest level, Allen's book traces a movement away from what she calls separate communities of discourse, in which men and women wrote individually and privately about the concept of woman, to a more collaborative mode of discourse, in which men and women wrote to each other in a public dialogue. Along with this shift in the form of discourse, Allen identifies a parallel change in content. In 1250, she argues, the concept of woman, dominated by Aristotelian thought, was characterized by gender polarity: the belief that men and women were significantly different, and that one gender -- usually the male -- was superior to the other. By the end of her humanist reformation, Allen describes a change from gender polarity to gender complementarity: the idea that men and women were significantly different, but equal in dignity, complementing each other as whole individuals. (She also employs the concepts of gender unity, the belief that men and women were not significantly different from each other and thus were equal in dignity, and gender neutrality, in which considerations of dignity and differentiation are absent.)

In section I, Allen considers self-contained communities of discourse about women between 1250 and 1500, of which she identifies four: religious women writers, academic writings from the universities, satirical texts about women, and writers at the early transition from scholasticism to humanism. Women's religious communities, she argues, provided a counterpoint to the Aristotelian view of gender polarity. Drawing on writings by cloistered religious women and Beguines such as Beatrice of Nazareth and Mechtild of Magdeburg, she demonstrates that they portrayed women as capable of self-consciousness, self-knowledge, and self-governance, and as the model for humankind. At the same time, some religious women writers also structured their writings in the form of interior dialogues, an early example of the form of discourse that Allen sees as instrumental in encouraging a concept of gender complementarity. Conversely, academic communities, represented by writers such as William of Ockham, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas, appealed directly to Aristotelian views of gender polarity. At the same time, however, they drew on both a philosophical tradition of gender neutrality and a theological tradition of gender complementarity, resulting in an inherent tension in the concept of woman. Turning to early satires on women, Allen traces the devaluation of women in texts such as Le Roman de la rose and Le Livre de Mathéolus, through the exaggeration of perceived gender-related characteristics such as women's weak intellect and lack of self-governance. She argues that this philosophical approach depends on the Aristotelian ideas of gender polarity dominant in the university setting. (She does, however, attempt to redeem Geoffrey Chaucer by arguing that, rather than whole-heartedly satirizing women, he in fact engages in meta-satire that calls into question the gender polarity of traditional satire.) Finally, Allen closes her first section by turning to early humanists such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Through their extensive use of imaginary dialogues between men and women, such as those between Dante and Beatrice and Petrarch and Laura, Allen argues that these authors began to move from gender polarity to gender complementarity, by presenting both men and women as discussing their respective identities.

Section II of Allen's book traces the development of dialogue, both among women and men, and between men and women, addressing the concept of woman, which she argues reforms that concept in the direction of gender complementarity. She traces the conversations between academics, religious writers, and humanists, which were previously carried out in isolation, noting especially a Dominican influence. She begins by describing the increasing sophistication of religious women authors in using analogical thinking, considering figures such as Gertrude the Great, Bridget of Sweden, and Julian of Norwich. Allen next returns to satires about women, such as Le miroir de mariage and Les Quinze joies de mariage, and describes a further decline in their concept of woman through their identification of danger and deception as specifically female characteristics. She also connects the Aristotelian view of gender polarity with arguments used to try women for heresy and witchcraft, such as those employed in the arrests and trials of Margery Kempe and Joan of Arc, and in the Malleus maleficarum. In contrast, Christine de Pizan's work, to which Allen devotes an entire chapter, continued to lay the foundation for gender complementarity, through her development of dialogues with both men and women, both real and imagined, such as her historical debate with Jean Gerson and her imaginary debate with the figures of Justice, Reason, and Rectitude in her Livre de la Cité des dames. Allen also outlines the way that Christine drew together a wide range of communities of discourse. The last four chapters of this section address further developments in humanist thought. The introduction of humanist schools of education, Allen argues, infused Platonic concepts of gender unity into philosophical study, and often allowed women to gain a higher education and engage in dialogues with each other and men about the concept of woman. The introduction of Platonic ideas also helped to articulate new ideas about gender, including gender unity but also gender neutrality, complementarity, and reverse gender polarity, all of which she considers necessary for the reformation of the Aristotelian rationale for gender polarity. Finally, she turns to the figures of Isotta Nogarola and Laura Cereta as examples of women philosophers engaging in high-profile dialogue with other scholars and contributing significantly to the reformation of the concept of woman. She concludes by very briefly suggesting a timeline for later developments in the concept of woman, beginning with a "Cartesian reformation" that turns away from gender complementarity to gender neutrality.

Allen's encyclopedic book is a valuable contribution to women's studies in many ways. The result of meticulous research, it presents a vast amount of material, requiring a command of a truly impressive range of authors. A list of the writers Allen considers in this work would be overwhelming, but would include men and women, secular and religious authors, examples from a wide variety of genres, and would represent many European regions. This scope renders the book especially valuable as a survey or a reference work. Moreover, Allen's focus on the way that different forms of discourse -- such as the disputationes central to the universities, or the dialogues found in humanist writings -- connect to the different concepts of woman raises important questions about the ways in which forms of thought can shape content of thought. The work's scope also allows readers the chance to bring together authors more frequently considered separately (for example, how often do figures ranging from Mechtild of Magdeburg, to Petrarch, to Nicholas of Cusa, appear in one volume?), which provides a valuable shift in context for understanding many of these works. Finally, Allen's work also raises some significant questions about periodization. While scholars have long recognized the importance of the introduction of Aristotelian thought into the university curriculum, Allen's is one of the first to consider the implications of this development for understandings of gender.

In a work of this scope, inevitably some criticisms arise. The book is perhaps larger than it need be; Allen devotes quite a bit of space to recapping her previous volume, which, while useful for understanding the significance of the changes she describes in the second volume, could be condensed. Specialists in any one of the notable thinkers that Allen addresses may feel that her discussions, though allowing for consistent comparison across these disparate figures, shortchange the individuals in question by considering only one element of their thought. Allen takes the "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them" school of writing to extremes, with frequent introductory and concluding statements, as well as reviews of her previous arguments. This explicit organizational structure renders her book especially useful as a reference work, as it is easy to dip in and out of and find one's way around the volume. It also, however, leads to a certain repetitiveness that may slow down readers working their way through the entire volume. The tables that she scatters throughout the work have a similar effect. Nonetheless, these are minor comments given the amount of labor that Allen has put into successfully organizing this mass of material.

The Concept of Woman is a notably optimistic work, charting the path of the concept of woman's progress from the detrimental view of gender polarity, to the more beneficial view of gender complementarity, which, Allen argues, offers women a more positive expression of identity. For instance, she comments that "it is hoped that knowledge of the truth will not feed resentments but instead open the way for a better understanding and a more authentic love" (4), and that "in this turbulent and even violent period of history, a slow but steady progress in the history of the concept of woman occurs" (24). Some readers may find this attention to progress disconcertingly Whiggish. While Allen convincingly demonstrates the changes in intellectual discourses, scholars outside of philosophy or intellectual history may wish that she had addressed, if only briefly, the implications of these changes in discourse for women outside the pool of writers she studies. This is perhaps an ungenerous comment to make of a book that already addresses such a vast amount of material, and is not intended to question Allen's conclusions, but to point out how much the intellectual developments that she describes contrast with social and economic developments outlined by other scholars. For instance, extensive historical scholarship inspired by Kelly-Gadol's article examines the transition from medieval to early modern and suggests a more negative view of its implications for women's experience. Allen's optimism about changing concepts of woman is in striking contrast to works of social and economic history which have suggested either that the Renaissance (or early modern period) did, as Kelly-Gadol argued, mark a downturn in women's lives, or that surface changes between medieval and early modern have tended to mask an underlying continuity in women's experience that needs further examination.[[2]] Even though Allen does not address these works directly, scholars of women's studies must now figure out how to integrate her conclusions about intellectual developments with social and economic developments in their assessments of how transitions in the past affected both men and women.


[[1]] Joan Kelly-Gadol, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, ed., Becoming Visible: Women in European History (Boston, 1977), 148-61. Many of Kelly-Gadol's specific arguments, especially about the sexual freedom enjoyed by women in the Middle Ages, have been discredited since she wrote, but the significance of her article in questioning traditional periodization remains.

[[2]] For two examples from the English context: P.J.P. Goldberg's Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy (Oxford, 1992) sees economic opportunities for women shrinking at the end of the fifteenth century, as England began to recover from the demographic impact of repeated outbreaks of bubonic plague; Judith Bennett's Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300 to 1600 (Oxford, 1996) argues for an underlying continuity in the social and economic disadvantages women faced in the medieval and early modern periods.

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Author Biography

Anna Dronzek

University of Minnesota, Morris