03.10.07, Farmer, Pasternack, eds., Gender and Difference

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Anne F. Harris

The Medieval Review baj9928.0310.007


Farmer, Sharon, and Carol Braun Pasternack, eds.. Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages. Series: Medieval Cultures, vol. 32. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Pp. xxvii, 354. ISBN: 0-8166-3894-2.

Reviewed by:
Anne F. Harris
DePauw University

The editors and authors of Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages have produced a very animated, engaging, and self-conscious book. The premise of the anthology is to inflect the well-known critical category of gender with the more recent hermeneutics of race, class, and sexual orientation. As a group, the essays certainly succeed in enriching analyses of gender, but in the end do little to dislodge the power structures they set out to critique or deconstruct.

In their introductory essay, the editors very carefully establish the goals and motivations of the collection, which are to build upon the groundbreaking work already done (much of it in the same Minnesota Press series, Medieval Cultures) towards understanding how gender constructs subjectivities and realities. The point is to examine how gender itself, as a critical category and a crucial aspect of lived experience, is constructed or at least affected by other scenarios, specifically race, class (referred to rather as "social status"), sexual orientation, and, in a few instances, religious difference. Refreshingly, the editors do not divide the anthology according to each category, but rather according to the subject matter of the essays. Consequently, the collection is divided into three parts: gender and difference outside the medieval western construct, gender and difference within medieval European culture, and specific case studies of gender and difference in the same. The result is a very engaging set of readings which will take the reader from early Christianity to the Late Middle Ages, from medieval Baghdad to thirteenth-century Paris, and from the world of Byzantine eunuchs to that of German nuns.

The first section, "Differing Cultures, Differing Possibilities," offers the most new material and for that reason is the most engaging and challenging part of the book. Here, the authors apply race, social status and sexual orientation to the gender scenarios of non-western cultures. Daniel Boyarin's probing, if at times impenetrable, analysis of Early Christianity's struggles with its Greco-Roman and Judaic inheritances of the Phallus is informed by a thorough critique of Jacques Lacan's parallel (or itself inherited) struggle to disassociate the physical penis from the symbolic Phallus. More satisfyingly, because the material is so clearly presented and so thoroughly medieval, Everett K. Rowson's essay on multiple forms of transvestism in the courts of medieval Baghdad presents a careful philological analysis of the various terms for both male and female transvestites and an equally careful analysis of these terms in their original literary and historical contexts. Kathryn M. Ringrose convincingly explains the cultural constructs behind Byzantine theologians' consideration of the prophet Daniel as a eunuch by discussing the historical reality, presence, and difference of eunuchs in Byzantine courts and the Byzantine church. Carol Braun Pasternak examines the clash of cultures of an Anglo-Saxon paradigm informed by pagan, non-Roman Germanic lineage with that of a colonializing Christianity that discredited family in favor of individualism and spirituality.

The categories of experience that emerge in this section break down the established boundaries of gender so thoroughly that the constructedness of the category of gender itself becomes obvious (an intended and accomplished goal of the anthology): the binary construct of male and female is wholly inadequate to encompass the lived experiences described in these essays. The flimsiness of the male/female gender category reveals the cultural fact that this category is a product of culture, specifically, western culture. Curiously, none of the authors in this section, or any other, delve into this issue from a cultural perspective, i.e. rather than seeing the male/female dichotomy as a specifically western (Judeo- Christian, European) construct, they treat it as a universal structure which needs to be critiqued world-wide. And yet, as these essays plainly demonstrate, the simple binary gender structure of western culture is moot in non-western cultures. (Rowson and Ringrose's essays are particularly illustrative of this point). As self-conscious as the book is about the constructedness of gender, race, social status, and sexual orientation, it is surprising that its authors did not localize these constructs as products of western culture that disintegrate in non-western cultures. It seems rather that they use non-western cultures to point out the "malleability of preexisting paradigms" (xvi) but without specifying that these preexisting paradigms are the products of western culture. Several essays (Boyarin and Kuefler in particular) struggle with the character of critical categories (are they constructed or universal?), and in this instance, the struggle remains unresolved.

The second section, "Discourses of Domination," revisits established debates of gender to deepen them with intersections of race, social status and sexual orientation. If one is looking for new material, this is the least satisfying section of the book, since the arguments have been amply rehearsed (as the copious and helpful footnotes of the authors attest) and there are no new conclusions to said arguments--although plenty of new observations. Mathew S. Kuefler claims to historicize the condemnation of male friendships, by suspecting them of sodomy, in favor of loyalty to the Church and the new increasingly centralized aristocracy of the 12th century, but still relies mostly on literature (and heavily on the Roman d'Enéas), rather than historical texts, to prove his point. Martha G. Newman very interestingly argues for three different categories of gendered experience within the Cistercian community (monks, lay brothers, and women), each predicated on a different relationship to Christ, and each determined not so much by gender as by access to literacy. Ruth Mazo Karras nuances the historical depiction of women in late medieval England by arguing that social status created sexualized subjectivities as much as gender, so that poor women were consistently seen as more sexually promiscuous, even within the exploitative categories of prostitution and rape, than upper class women. Michael Uebel analyzes, at times with excruciating self-consciousness about the very process of writing about the historical Other, the Crusaders' anxieties about their colonializing project as these are projected onto Muslims via ascribed perversions.

I mentioned above that this section does not offer a great deal in terms of new research, but it is very useful to revisit, critique, and reconstruct those debates of gender established by such influential works as John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and Caroline Walker Bynum's Holy Feast and Holy Fast (which are both referred to repeatedly throughout the collection). There is a good sense of the authors being second, or even third, generation thinkers on these issues: the footnotes are copious and detailed as to previous analytical scholarship. But while the authors build on the scholarship with the new interpretive tools of race, social status and sexual difference, the conclusions remain the same: the presence of the straight, white Christian male is still all-powerful, all-controlling, and all-oppressive. Some very interesting recent scholarship has sought to deconstruct the surety of male power and male identity (Masculinity in Medieval Europe, ed. D. M. Hadley, Longman, 1999, and Medieval Masculinities, ed. Clare A. Lees, Minnesota, 1994, immediately come to mind), and while there are moments in all of the essays in this section in which hegemonic power is threatened, it is consistently re-established in the end. There is no denying that white, male Christian power was brutal and controlling, perhaps especially when threatened, but there is also increasing interest in resistance to this power. On a related issue, in their introduction the editors tantalizingly promise the use of postcolonial theory in the analysis of gender (a theory which itself seeks to dislodge white western hegemony), but it is really only Uebel who discusses a postcolonial critic, Edward Said, at any length, and he does so more in relation to the problems of writing the history of the middle eastern Other than in relation to the medieval experience he analyzes.

The third section, "Individual Choices, Strategies of Resistance," will appeal to readers who appreciate an in-depth case study used to prove a larger point. The larger point here remains the same as that of the second section: an analysis of social constructs in medieval western culture according to the category of gender intersected with race, social status, sexual orientation and religious difference. Sharon Farmer delves into the miraculous experience of Jehanne of Serris to dislodge the assumption that men were always associated with productive labor and women with reproductive labor in the Middle Ages: rather than beg, Jehanne takes up productive labor in order to earn money for a pilgrimage which will heal her illness, this despite her husband, a carpenter, already engaging in productive labor. Ulrike Wiethaus looks to the writings of Hadewijch of Brabant about the all-powerful love goddess Minne, for evidence of a kind of coded lesbian writing, manifesting homoerotic passions "under the cloak" of Minne's own gender ambiguity. Finally, Elizabeth Robertson treats the Man of Law's tale in great detail to prove that Chaucer, far from being an essentialist when it came to gender, nuanced the character of Constance to make her a woman who is powerful, when confronted by religious difference, through her passivity; Robertson reverses the claim of many past scholars who have seen Constance simply as passive by pointing out the unconventional (non- essentialist) ways in which Constance exercises her power, that is, by using her own image (passive) rather than words (active) to convince and convert her enemies.

Robertson's welcome emphasis on Chaucer's imagery of sight brings up my greatest concern with this book: the lack of any analysis of the visual culture of gender and difference. The absence of any treatment or questions of visual culture points to a methodological quandary: how can gender and difference in the Middle Ages be so entirely localized in texts? All of the essays use medieval texts as the primary evidence for their claims; not once is an element of visual culture (whether a work of art, an urban structure, an iconographic tradition, or even a set of literary images) presented as primary evidence for an argument concerning gender and difference. And yet, the human experience in the Middle Ages was much more often negotiated through images than through texts--issues of literacy alone make this claim, but so do those of access to texts, and the contrasting availability of images in both ecclesiastical and urban settings. The vibrant work of the late Michael Camille and that of Diane Wolfthal, Linda Seidel, Madeline Caviness, Joan Holladay, Kathleen Nolan, Jeffrey Hamburger, Adam Cohen and Anne Derbes, Kristina Gourlay, and Susan L. Smith, to name a few, indicate that medieval visual culture is a rich area of study for the medieval experience of gender. Certainly images have to be contextualized and analyzed in a manner different from text (their material nature call for different interpretive models), but this reader maintains that the present anthology would have been much enriched by explorations in visual culture.

None of the critiques that I have laid out above limit the fundamental interest of this book; they are rather conversations that are left unfinished by the authors and are stimulus for any reader to ask more questions of these complicated scenarios of the human experience. Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages has several excellent uses: it can serve very well as an introduction to issues of gender in medieval culture because the argumentation is very historiographic and the footnotes are so copious (the essays by Wiethaus, Pasternak, Farmer, and Newman all form excellent introductions to their complex issues); it can also serve as a productive teaching text due to the excellent and thorough introductory essay by the editors and the mostly very clear argumentation of the authors (the essays by Boyarin, Kuefler and Uebel are perhaps too deeply indebted to theory for most students); and finally it is a very useful text for readers already invested in gender issues who wish to deepen their own methodology of analysis (Karras and Robertson perform this task eloquently) or learn something heretofore relatively unexplored (such as the essays by Rowson and Ringrose). Whatever the reader's approach, Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages is worth the read and the lively discussions afterwards.

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Anne F. Harris

DePauw University