03.07.05, Lawler, Encyclopedia of Women in the Middle Ages

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Albrecht Classen

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.005


Lawler, Jennifer. Encyclopedia of Women in the Middle Ages. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2001. Pp. vii, 279. ISBN: 0-7864-1119-8.

Reviewed by:
Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

Considering the wealth of modern research on medieval women, critical mass seems to have been achieved to publish an encyclopedia of women in the Middle Ages. Jennifer Lawler, a freelance writer, has taken this bold task upon her and here offers a wide selection of articles dealing with biographically identifiable medieval women, women roles (such as the abbess), violence to women, women monastic orders, and cultural phenomena affecting women, such as "courtly love." Occasionally she also includes entries on specific texts written by female authors, such as Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies and Treasure of the City of Ladies. Since she strictly applies an alphabetical system, these books appear in the sections for B and T respectively. Other books of great relevance, such as Kudrun, are often not even mentioned. Lawler does not draw any distinction between fictional women characters such as Isolt and Brunhild and well-known medieval queens, poets, mystics, patrons, and physicians. Some of the articles are accompanied by a short list of suggested readings, some of which are quite appropriate, many of which, however, demonstrate that the author has very little knowledge of the relevant research literature. Lawler also includes articles on favorite myths about the Middle Ages, such as the "Chastity Belt" and the "Jus Primae Noctis," but she does not offer any critical perspectives and discusses both issues with an amazing naivety. In a number of entries she also examines larger issues, such as "Food and Cooking," "Inquisition," the "Justinian Code," and "Mystics and Mysticism." Unfortunately, the information offered here is mostly truncated and misleading, if not simply incorrect, although Lawler certainly drew her material from a wide range of scholarly publications. Entries such as "Germanic Invaders" and "Manorialism" seem very much out of place here.

Granted, several pleasant aspects deserve to be mentioned. The author offers a very broad geographical perspective, dealing with women from the Nordic countries to Byzantium. She even goes so far as to include entries on Chinese women, such as Yang Kuei-fei, the eighth-century mistress to the Chinese Emperor Hsuean-Tsung the Brilliant, but particularly in those cases no secondary sources are mentioned. In an extensive appendix, Lawler presents a large number of genealogical charts that allow the reader to identify individual women. However, no information about the origin of these charts is given. All biographical dates are missing, which considerably reduces the actual value of these charts. The volume concludes with a glossary, an extensive bibliography, and an index.

Despite Lawler's laudable intentions and her hard work to produce this encyclopedia, its scholarly value is very questionable and even troublesome. All entries that I examined more carefully proved to be riddled with mistakes, misconceptions, and misunderstandings. The author knows very little of the Middle Ages and of the individual personalities and issues dealt with here. The discussions of literary figures prove that Lawler did not read the relevant texts and has no understanding of the role played by these women. The entries were obviously compiled quickly, drawing from a variety of more or less trustworthy or relevant sources, but the author has mostly failed to acquire full understanding herself. Some entries would pass muster and indeed collect the basic facts, but most entries are simply poorly written and misdirect the readers so badly that any library would do a disservice to its readers if they purchased this volume. The grammatical mistakes are astounding. Unfortunately, the attractive cover, the nice printing of this book, and the popularity of its theme might mislead many (school and public) libraries to acquire this book as an easy reference work. The catastrophic consequences, however, which will result from this encyclopedia cannot be underestimated. The proverbial blind would lead the blind. Actually, this reference work would not deserve to be reviewed considering its poor quality, but a clear warning about this book must be issued.

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Albrecht Classen

University of Arizona