03.12.04, Fenster and Lees, Gender in Debate from the Early Middle Ages to the Renaissance

Main Article Content

Masha Raskolnikov

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.004


Fenster, Thelma S. and Clare A. Lees, eds.. Gender in Debate from the Early Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. xii, 292. ISBN: 0-312-23244-6.

Reviewed by:
Masha Raskolnikov
Cornell University

This collection is an interesting new edition to Palgrave's The New Middle Ages series, which already includes a number of excellent volumes. A series of revisions for papers originally presented at a Fordham University conference in 1999, the eleven essays that comprise this book range from a consideration of Anglo-Saxon writings on women to those produced in Renaissance Spain. Such breadth of language, period and place could make a collection unfocused, but the consistent reverberations of the central topic, a reconsideration of the medieval and early modern debate about women, helps keep all essays in dialogue with one another. The history of the "querelle des femmes," often localized as a specific fifteenth-century event that had its inception with Christine de Pizan's objections to the Roman de la Rose is broadened to include debates about the moral, social and philosophical status of women. Clare Lees' and Thelma Fenster's introduction to the essays promises that the discussion of the debate about women in this volume will not remain entirely or even primarily within the well-tended garden of scholarship about Christine de Pizan. The collection more than keeps this promise and includes essays on Spanish, German and English writings and visual productions, challenging the notion of a singular debate in favor of examining a number of disputations. The one (small) problem with this breadth of languages, periods and places is that almost every essay has to spend some time justifying the importance and interest of its specific emphasis, something that might be assumed rather than extensively argued in a different sort of collection.

I had offered to review this essay collection based on a somewhat erroneous understanding of its topic--an error that can shed light on the specific usefulness of this collection. I had assumed that the volume would be concerned with the function and role of gender in debate poems written in Latin and the vernaculars during the Middle Ages, perhaps a sort of feminist follow-up to Thomas Reed's Middle English Debate Poetry and the Aesthetics of Irresolution. While this volume would be of interest to scholars of medieval debate poetry, and often deals with pseudo-legal "pro" and "contra" debates about women's constancy and the like, the focus here is mostly on the fact that women's value was debated in a variety of modes and on a variety of literary and artistic occasions, rather than about the genre or rhetoric of debate as such. Thus, if this collection might be considered a follow-up to any extant scholarly study, it would be to Alcuin Blamires's The Case for Women in Medieval Culture, and, indeed, it includes an essay by Blamires and numerous references to his work. Given that the focus is topical rather than generic, it's interesting how many of the essays do, indeed, deal with what form debates about women took, which often makes for the strongest and best-argued contributions.

In what follows, I will summarize and briefly comment on the articles in turn, according to the order of their appearance in the collection. In part, this is my attempt at a sort of feminist egalitarianism. But even more, it is a result of my belief that this collection's scope is so broad that readers particularly interested in a specific vernacular or period might find certain parts more interesting than others. Like many medieval manuscripts, in fact, this collection is a miscellany with a set of important organizing principles. It can be most fruitfully considered as a whole, but a specific focus on any one of its parts can also be useful.

The first and one of the strongest essays in the volume is by Clare Lees and Gillian Overing and is entitled "The Clerics and the Critics: Misogyny and the Social Symbolic in Anglo-Saxon England." The discussion of women took a very different form in Anglo-Saxon writings, in a way that might inform the critical reception of later discourses about women. This is particularly true since, despite the proliferation of debate poetry, there was no real "debate about women" as such in the period. Lees and Overing are particularly interested in the normative statements made about proper female behavior in Old English maxims, penitentials, homilies and in Beowulf. This is an essay about how the category "woman" is produced or ignored (one of their more provocative arguments is that "clerical literature in the Anglo-Saxon period works to render the woman question ('what is woman?') moot" (p. 35). Ultimately, Lees and Overing make a fascinating connection between "misogyny" and the politics of "knowing" in Anglo-Saxon texts, with implications for how contemporary scholars comprehend their own practices of knowing and the language of their own criticism. This essay challenges scholars of Anglo- Saxon literature (and of Middle English as well) to rethink their own debates about the status of women in Anglo-Saxon culture, and the influence of the assumptions of this period on later European writings.

E. Ann Matter's "The Undebated Debate: Gender and the Image of God in Medieval Theology" addresses the complexities and contradictions of Augustine's discussion of woman's humanity. This essay asks, essentially, for medieval theologians, is woman qua woman created in God's image? As it turns out, a doctrinally correct answer is that woman is made in the image of God only insofar as she is a human being; in her embodiment as a woman, she is not. However, Matter argues that some medieval religious women (she focuses on Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena) took up the promise inherent in the understanding that they, like men, were created in God's image insofar as they are human as an opportunity for what Matter terms "spiritual self-assertion." Although it did not permit women to enter the spiritual elite (they were still women, their embodiment still suspect), it gave certain privileged women a way to access and intervene in their communities' spiritual life. This article is the sole contribution to the volume that deals extensively with the way in which medieval theology addressed and also refused to address the status of women in the religious hierarchy, and is useful as background to the less overtly philosophical debates that are discussed in the rest of the volume.

The third essay is by Alcuin Blamires, whose book, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture, informs many of the essays in the collection. This article is titled "Refiguring the 'Scandalous Excess' of Medieval Woman: The Wife of Bath and Liberality." Although it does present a new twist on discussions of the Wife of Bath's sexual generosity, this article is particularly useful for its discussion of the concept of "liberality" (liberalitas and largitas), which should be read with Helen Solterer's essay (#7 in this volume) and its re-examination of "franchise." This is essentially an article about the moral discourse of the vices and virtues in the Middle Ages as they were applied to stereotypes about women. Blamires' examination of the Wife of Bath and of liberality is centered on an odd term, "redoctrination," which means something like the re-use of previously hurtful or misogynist language in positive ways (one might ask whether the term "irony" might have sufficed, given the work done on and with it in the critical writing of the past two decades; it is used to excellent effect in Weiss' essay within this volume, see esp. p. 259-260). He traces the work of this redoctrination and other "debate moves" in the words of the Wife of Bath as well as in Chaucer's "The Book of the Duchess," seeking after instances where what might be viewed as the vice of excess is re-valued as the virtue of generosity. Blamires anticipates that some of his claims - particularly, the positive re-evaluation of excess -- run the risk of appearing to be essentialist (he wittily describes the risk that his argument "escapes the frying pan of one misogynistic stereotype only to fall into the fire of another kind of essentialism" p. 67). His solution to this problem (provocative but limited) is a return to the work of French feminist Helene Cixous. Blamires is most persuasive when he is seeing his own essentialist moves as part of a tradition that also includes her influential writing from the 1980s. It is least persuasive when it seems as though the logic of essentialism in the essay can be dissipated by simply invoking a contemporary (at this point, the 1986 essay he cites is not quite that) critic to buttress his position. Despite these several problems (at least, to certain kinds of readers), this essay and the careful work on terminology that it does is one of the most interesting contributions to this collection. Roberta Krueger's "Beyond Debate: Gender in Play in Old French Courtly Fiction" differs from many articles in this volume by focusing almost entirely on exemplary readings of three thirteenth and fourteenth-century works: the "Lais" of Marie de France, "Aucassin et Nicolette" and the Roman de Silence. This specificity of focus is a welcome return to close reading in a collection whose strengths are often more visible in large historical and theoretical gestures. This short article mostly suggests (rather than develops, as Krueger does in much of her published work) what these works might imply for studies of medieval gender. It does so by arguing that certain (French) works of this period showed gender to be contested and performative, and that they were capable of interrogating what have generally been accepted as the cultural conventions of misogyny that oppressed and limited the possibilities of both women and men throughout the Middle Ages.

Ann Marie Rasmussen's biographical note at the end of this volume promises that "her current research focuses on expanding her essay in this volume into a book-length study." Perhaps as a consequence, this article reads a little bit like the prospectus for this larger project, which seems immensely promising. Having no expertise in the scholarship about medieval German writings myself, I was surprised and somewhat saddened to discover that some of the more basic gestures of re-reading the medieval German canon from a feminist perspective seem yet to be accomplished. In doing so, Rasmussen proposes to look at the German literature of courtly love as well as to the arrangement of material in manuscripts, provocatively proposing to "think about gender as a compilational practice" (p. 100). Like Lees and Overing in their essay on Anglo-Saxon writings on women, Rasmussen examines a canon that does not contain a "querelle des femmes" as such, and has therefore been largely ignored by critics searching for material about such debates. If studies of medieval German literature have actually done as little as Rasmussen implies about examining gender as a category of thought, it's a good thing that Rasmussen proposes to do so in such a genuinely interesting way.

The sixth chapter of the collection is Karen Pratt's "The Strains of Defense: the Many Voices of Jean Lefevre's 'Livre de Leesce'" and this article is in starkest contrast to the preceding one, as specific in its focus as the previous article was programmatic. Pratt is concerned with analyzing a specific contender in the debate about women, the fourteenth-century lawyer Jean LeFevre who composed a text that only at first appears (both to Pratt and to Christine de Pizan) to be a defense of women. This article is particularly useful as an examination of the actual workings of rhetorical ambiguity in works that purport to "defend" women, a sort of case study to go along with the large theoretical statements that both precede and follow it.

Helen Solterer's article in this collection is one of its strongest and richest pieces. Entitled "The Freedoms of Fiction For Gender in Premodern France," this article argues for a re-evaluation of the term "franc[h]e" as a sort of version of "freedom." Read with Blamires' discussion of "liberality," this article is particularly interesting as a sort of keyword study - specifically, the study of how a word changes its meaning over time yet continues to permeate a certain discourse (here, the discourse of gender and of love- rhetoric). At the same time, Solterer's focus is not exclusively on the history of the term - indeed, the other major project of this complex article is to trace the response to Alain Chartier's oddly controversial poem, "La Belle Dame sans merci." "Franchise" can mean "nobility of character" (p. 138) and Solterer argues that its functions is as that which "makes high-class loving possible" (p. 139), a kind of generosity available to the noble-born. Over the course of the middle ages, however, "franchise" shifts from this meaning and becomes something that indicates the freedom of the will, for instance, the freedom of a woman to give or not give herself to a lover. Ultimately, the word begins to mean something that Solterer characterizes as "a liberating process" (p. 145) and "a challenge to the double standard that the idea of "franchise" had implicitly signified earlier." (p. 146).

The eighth chapter of the collection is by Pamela Benson, "Debates about Women in Trecento Florence." This article traces the specific regional embeddedness of the rhetoric of attacking and defending women in the course of the fourteenth century by examining works written and read in Florence. Benson discusses a number of works including the anonymous "Fiore di virtu," Francesco da Barberino's "Reggimento e costumi di donna" and Antonio Pucci's "Libro di varie storie" and "Contrasto delle donne" by contrast with Latin works by Petrach and Boccaccio. The article argues that while some ("radical") vernacular authors asserted that women could be intellectual men's equals, the really significant and radical interventions were made when authors made claims about women's moral capacity, which Benson describes as both a "practical and conservative" rhetorical solution to the problem of women's value and status.

"A Woman's Place: Visualizing the Feminine Ideal in the Courts and Communes of Renaissance Italy" by Margaret Franklin differs from other contributions to the volume in its focus on visual representations of women rather than narrated ones. This brief and beautifully illustrated article examines two sets of representations of women in portraits of the "uomini famosi" type, images intended to be exemplary to their viewers. One such cycle was painted by Andrea Castagno for the Villa Carducci outside Florence and shows women in typically submissive postures; the other, painted for Eleonora d'Este, the wife of the duke of Ferrara, show virtuous women taking power, often in dramatic ways, over their own lives. Franklin argues that the first cycle reflects a set of highly gendered virtues, those of masculine "gagliardo" and feminine "leggiadria," expressions of idealized masculinity and femininity. The paintings of the second cycle, commissioned by a duchess who was also the daughter of King Ferdinand of Naples, reflect virtues that transcend the specificity of gender. This article might be useful read alongside E. Ann Matter's discussion of how medieval theology imagined women as made yet not made in the image of the divine.

Barbara Weissberger's "'Deceitful Sects': The Debate about Women in the Age of Isabel the Catholic" is the sole article in the collection to address at some length the question of women in its intersection with issues of race and sexuality. Weissberger's focus, specifically, is the intersection of discourses of gender and the rhetoric about the danger of contagion by Jews and Muslims and/or homosexuals in Aragon and Castille. The article looks at literary works produced during the reign of Isabel the Catholic and the anxieties engendered in male authors by the power of a female monarch. Weissberger traces a really fascinating moment of historical transformation: a poet engaged in a notoriously virulent anti- female rhetoric, Pere Torrellas, describes women as forming "deceitful sects." Fifty years later, this description of the danger of the "deceitful sect" reappears in a poem as part of a condemnation of Islam. Such shifts between the discourses of misogyny and xenophobia, as well as tensions between the condemnation of women and the homophobic condemnation of those who do not love women are delicately traced in this complex article. Weissberger examines a number of fascinating moments in the Spanish debate about the status of women at a moment when this debate had very visible political ramifications.

The final article in the collection is Julian Weiss' "?'Que demandamos de las mugeres?' Forming the Debate about Women in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain." Weiss begins with a historical materialist analysis of the relationship between courtly culture and the debate about women, relying on the terminology of recently deceased French critic Pierre Bourdieu to make an argument about the workings of Pere Torrellas' poem against women (discussed quite differently in Weissberger's essay, above) and a number of "defenses" of women written in the fifteenth century. Weiss makes a particularly interesting connection in his article between the debate about women and the problem of lay literacy, arguing that "The debate over women allowed [courtiers] to intrude into otherwise forbidden areas, like theology or natural philosophy, since clerics and theologians could hardly argue that woman was not part of the nobility's legitimate domain." (p. 250). This aspect of Weiss' argument potentially sheds new light on many of the works discussed in the essays of this collection. Although Bourdieu's terminology of "habitus" and "field" proves useful for much this essay, the argument concludes with a beautiful close reading of a poem by Marcia Belisarda, a woman responding to the debate about women in the early seventeenth century. This analysis forms a particularly interesting counterpoint to the presence/absence of Christine de Pizan throughout the collection, offering a very different sort of female response to being an object of debate.

This article is followed by a useful bibliography of primary texts useful for further study of the debate about women in Spanish. One can only regret that this is not a fuller bibliography and does not include primary texts in French, English, Italian and German, as the rest of the collection does.

At its best, the considerations of form and of topicality in this collection meet, with implications not only for medieval feminist scholarship or for the history of major medieval debates, but for feminist thought in general. This last can be encapsulated in an argument of Helen Solterer's, that "we would be hard-pressed to find work in contemporary gender theory that has not been marked by what is, fundamentally, a figurative way of proceeding legally_I want to point out the enduring pattern in gender debates over the centuries to mount cases; despite the different tendencies to foreclose, the habit of mimicking litigation remains a constant." (p. 146) This analysis, which Solterer offers parenthetically, might nevertheless help the reader understand the potential scope of this collection's intervention for feminist scholarship in the Middle Ages. It is not just a matter of re-organizing the history of the "querelle des femmes" - this collection's diverse voices promise to look anew at a variety of canons, including (implicitly but at times also explicitly) at the canon of feminist criticism itself.

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Author Biography

Masha Raskolnikov

Cornell University