03.10.15, Gee, Women, Art and Patronage: 1216-1377

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Stanley Weed

The Medieval Review baj9928.0310.015


Gee, Loveday Lewes. Women, Art and Patronage from Henry III to Edward III: 1216-1377. Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 219. ISBN: 0-85115-861-7.

Reviewed by:
Stanley Weed
Univ. of Michigan-Dearborn

Loveday Lewes Gee's Women, Art and Patronage is a welcomed addition to the growing list of studies devoted to women's patronage of the arts, especially as it focuses on the relatively understudied period of England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This framework, which examines "the activities of various women from different social strata as patrons of a range of artistic enterprises" (3) between the reigns of Henry III and Edward III, attempts to "draw some conclusions as to the nature of such patronage, the means by which these women achieved their aims and what their activities tell us about the women themselves: their motives, priorities, constraints and influence, as will as their financial and social circumstances" (3).

The author's approach is especially noteworthy for its breadth, while at the same time working within a reasonable time frame. The study examines a limited number of women, and follows their patronage throughout. Gee's primary focus is devoted to the lesser studied examples of noble women, those that she defines as coming from "families who bore heraldic arms" (5), although for practical reasons, the larger body of surviving documents and works of art, royal women, such as Eleanor of Provence or Eleanor of Castile, also receive significant attention. A detailed family history of each of the women in the study is given in Chapter 1. In addition to discussing women form differing social classes, Gee is also ambitious in examining the significant variety of objects of their patronage. These objects ranged from high profile endowments and foundations of churches, monasteries, colleges, and tomb monuments, to the decoration of private residences, manuscripts, and seals.

The book can be broadly broken down into two main sections; one dealing with the motives behind women's patronage, and the other with the specific examples of their patronage. The former topic is addressed in three chapters (Chapters 2-4), all titled "Motives for Patronage," but each with a specific focus. Although these chapters serve as a necessary introduction to the material in the later chapters, little new information is presented.

Chapters 2 and 3 both address one of the fundamental reasons for all artistic patronage during the Middle Ages, be it male or female piety. Foundations and memorials are initially covered. As large, public monuments, patronage of churches, monasteries, and tombs held a variety of meanings for the female patron. One of the most notable reason was to provide God with an appropriate gift, an act of good works for which the donor would hopefully be duly rewarded in the afterlife. Yet the initial act of patronage was often only the beginning, for it was the "importance of attracting prayers for the soul that would have influenced the choice of church for burials and of those who were to be responsible for the prayers" (32). As wives, mothers, and, most importantly, widows, women did play a key role in overseeing such pressing concerns for their family members, especially for deceased husbands. However, as Gee points out, it is often difficult to discern to what extent a widow's patronage on behalf of her spouse was due to her own initiative, or whether she was following the terms of a detailed will. One area in which female patrons did exert significant influence was when it came to their own burials. Not only did many women actively seek to be buried in foundations that were perceived to be especially holy (most notably the Franciscans, Benedictines, and Augustinians (36)), but some women specifically founded nunneries with the intention of joining the community and being buried there.

Chapter 3, devoted to manuscripts and the motives for private devotion, presents the greatest glimpse into female patronage, as internal evidence within many books indicates that about half of the surviving psalters and books of hours produced between Henry III and Edward III were for laywomen (39); a significantly greater number than were produced for laymen during the same period. Yet here again we are presented with the problems that derive from the lack of documentation, as it is often not known whether the manuscripts were commissioned by the women, or only given to them by other family members. The latter situation is given greater emphasis by Gee. She especially notes the significant need for women to have appropriate models of correct behavior due to the inherent sin of their sex. There certainly are justifications for these claims, as medieval texts often emphasized the fragility of the female sex. Moreover, women were responsible for the spiritual and moral education of children. Thus devotional texts with appropriate illuminations would have been highly desirable objects for women, whether they commissioned them of not.

Although these ideas are true, Gee's emphasis on women's "greater vulnerability to sin," that would have required "a greater need for penitence to compensate" (45), as the main force behind their patronage of manuscripts presents a rather limited view of female devotion and their ownership of books. Indeed, here Gee presents women largely as passive agents in their devotional lives, responding to social criticism, rather than seeing the commissioning of manuscripts as revealing their desires to achieve a closer relationship to God. This rather narrow interpretation of the relationship between English laywomen and devotional manuscripts is all the more surprising given the significant amount of recent, progressive literature on the topic by such authors as Felicity Riddy, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Mary Erler, and the numerous editions of Women and the Book, derived from the proceedings of the "St. Hilda's Conference on Women and the Book in the Middle Ages." Motives for amenity and status are considered as the final reasons for women's patronage. As all of the women in Gee's study were either royalty or from the upper-class nobility, social status and comfort were major factors. Among the objects considered are the redecoration/refurbishment of castles and gardens, heraldic seals, objects for pleasure pastime, and gifts.

The second half of Gee's study, which examines the actual objects of women's patronage in depth, begins with a well presented account of the realities that women encountered in the pursuit of patronage. This is perhaps the most important section of Gee's book, for it presents the often less-sensational aspects of the logistics behind commissions that are all too frequently ignored in many studies of patronage. These problems were even more pronounced for women due to their restricted role in society. Simply having the money at one's disposal was often not enough, although it was a prerequisite for any patronage. As Gee demonstrates, women patrons had to obtain permission from local ecclesiastical, or even papal, authorities, secular authorities, and often had to engage in long-term relationships with religious houses if they wished to have family members buried there, or to exert influence on how their donations would be spent. For example, Gee cites the case of Joan de Plugent (d. 1327), whose tomb is located in the highly desirable north side of the Lady Chapel of Hereford Cathedral, in the founder's position. This coveted location was the result of a long standing relationship between Joan and the cathedral, which involved numerous financial gifts and, more importantly, knowing the right people, which included, among others, the archdeacon of Hereford, Thomas de Chaundos. Although these nuts-and-bolts aspects of commissions are often ignored, they do reveal some of the most telling stories behind the realities of medieval patronage.

Even though a significant variety of objects are discussed within the context of women's motives for patronage, only the artistic choices for architecture and tombs are singled out for detailed analysis. These are covered in Chapters 6 and 7 respectively. Although this approach does provide the reader with a significant variety of examples of women's patronage, the exclusion of other artistic commissions is noticeable. The most glaring exclusion is an analysis of the patronage of manuscripts, which, as Gee points out at several places, were largely owned and apparently commissioned by women. Even though documentation surrounding manuscripts is often lacking, a more detailed discussion than the two pages provided in the concluding chapter (134-35) would have greatly enhanced the overall impact of the study.

Despite these problems, Gee's analysis of architectural and tomb commissions draws two important conclusions. What the evidence shows is that noble women not only sought out the best artists that their money could buy, but that they specifically wished to elevate their own social position by emulating royal foundations through the hiring of royal artists or architects and employing new styles. Here Gee posits that women played a key factor in the spread of modern artistic ideas into the hinterland of England through their patronage. The other main conclusion involves the role that women played in the importation of continental artistic ideas into England. Given the number of English noblewomen with French family connections, this observation is not surprising.

The final chapter, Chapter 8, "Patterns of Patronage," presents conclusions drawn from the evidence in the previous chapters to discover whether "there are certain patterns, themes and priorities that are particularly relevant to women" (123). Among those that are uncovered are the preference of many women in the study to patronize the Franciscan Order, the emphasis that many women placed on family responsibilities, and the frequency with which women founded nunneries, suggesting a gender preference. Although these are significant findings, none are truly given the extensive attention that they deserve. Indeed, one of the overall shortcomings of this study is that it is heavy on factual information, but short on conclusions.

Beyond the body of the text, Gee also provides the reader with useful appendices. One appendix covers the standard genealogical breakdown of the women in the study; a useful tool given the extensive family connections between the characters in the book. The other appendix is much more substantial, and will be a great resource for future researchers. This is a detailed 31 page account of each of the women in the study, giving their family connections, burials, endowments, and acts of patronage, broken down by buildings, tombs, manuscripts, and applied arts. Despite several shortcomings, Gee's Women, Art and Patronage is a significant addition to the study of female patronage in the later Middle Ages, and will be a valuable resource for those interested in art history, women's studies, family history, and even economic history.

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Stanley Weed

Univ. of Michigan-Dearborn