09.10.25, Fenton, Gender, Nation and Conquest

Main Article Content

Emily V. Thornbury

The Medieval Review 09.10.25

Fenton, Kirsten A.. Gender, Nation and Conquest in the Works of William of Malmesbury. Gender in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2008. Pp. 163. ISBN: 9781843834007.

Reviewed by:
Emily V. Thornbury
University of California, Berkeley

Since the 2007 publication of the Oxford Medieval Texts edition of the Gesta Pontificum, all of William of Malmesbury's historical works are now available in good modern editions with facing page translations. Now that the texts have been put on a strong footing, and opened to those who might have difficulty with William's often very challenging Latin, it is encouraging to see new kinds of studies of William's work emerging already. We can hope that Kirsten A. Fenton's Gender, Nation and Conquest in the Works of William of Malmesbury is but the first of a new generation of literary and historical investigations to follow on from the studies presented in R.M. Thomson's groundbreaking 1987 work William of Malmesbury, and from the impressive scholarship of the editions themselves.

Fenton's monograph seeks "to contribute to gender studies by looking in depth at the construction of gender in a particular author and his works" (1) and to "illuminat[e] how gender as a tool of historical analysis can be used to broaden our understanding of medieval society and culture" (8). Her methodology is interesting and ambitious: the intent is to define in the first chapter the twelfth-century historical and cultural context in which William wrote, to extract his ideology of gender in Chapters 2 and 3, to map these gender categories onto national groups in Chapter 4, and then to explore, in Chapter 5, just how the nexus of gender and nationality plays out in William's accounts of the three foreign conquests of England. Moreover, the section on ideals of masculinity and femininity in individuals (Chapters 2 and 3) "proposes new categories of analysis based on areas of activity common to both men and women, such as violent behaviour rather than the more familiar 'professional' or familial roles like warrior and wife" (5). This is a very grand scale of analysis, and one, I think, to which no study this brief could actually do justice. In consequence, many of Fenton's most interesting ideas and conclusions give the impression of being inadequately developed.

The problem of scope is particularly apparent in Chapter 2, "William's Construction of Gender: Violence and Its Expression." A substantial monograph could have been written on this topic alone: something violent happens on practically every page of the Gesta Regum Anglorum, and about every other page of the Gesta Pontificum (by William's account, most of England's bishops appear to have been irascible, provoking, or both). Fenton's principle of selection seems to be based partly on the identity of the violent agent, and partly on the emotional state that prompted (or inhibited) violence. The discussion of violent saints (302, 4650) is significant for Fenton's conclusions about lawful violence and for her overall thesis that Saints Dunstan and Wulfstan are the "unambiguous heroes" (128) of William's narrative of English history--a fascinating idea, and one which I wish had been positioned more centrally. Fenton's discussion of virtus (4355) appears to uncover a significant dichotomy between William's application of the term to laymen or to those in religious orders: here, I think, more extensive reference to particular Classical as well as patristic sources might have helped to pin down his thinking more firmly. I would have also have liked more discussion of such problematic issues as the mollities of Robert Curthose (demonstrated in the incident with which Fenton opens and closes this chapter), a flaw of character which as presented does not seem quite the same as effeminacy.

In Chapter 3, "William's Construction of Gender: Sexual Behaviour," Fenton places a good deal of emphasis on the self-restraint which seems to have been the measuring stick of proper sexual behavior for both laypeople and clerics. The next chapter, "The Presentation of Gentes," deals with the characterization of entire groups, sometimes in identifiably gendered terms. Chapter 5 is perhaps the most persuasive, in part through its extensive use of both source texts and of other contemporary historiography for highlighting the unique qualities of William's accounts: it traces the intersection of gender and nation (and gendered portrayal of nationality) in the Saxon conquest of Britain, the eleventh-century Danish conquest of England, and finally the Norman Conquest. Fenton identifies improper gendered behavior at the root of all three of these instances: particularly Vortigern's outrageous lust; Queen AElfthryth's unnatural murder of Edward the Martyr; and the effeminacy of the Englishmen immediately before the Norman Conquest. The question of how William presented the causation of these key events is a difficult and interesting one, and could have been effectively expanded many times over: a comparison with moments of failed conquest (such as the first series of Viking attacks on England), or an investigation of the intersection of gender and nationality with other important dichotomies such as loyalty/treachery, might be very fruitful ways of pursuing these ideas further.

The author makes extensive use of recent work on gender in the early and central Middle Ages, and the volume's bibliography should be a very useful resource. But since we are all interdisciplinary these days, I must add how much it surprises me that Fenton makes so little use of the many literary and cultural theorists whose work is relevant to her methodology. Fenton's introduction seems to indicate that her endeavor is essentially literary in nature:

The subject of this book is William of Malmesbury and his representation of gender, nation and conquest. It is not the men and women whom he presents. His works could be used as sources for the real men and women whom they describe, especially Malmesbury's contemporaries. [...] But this is not its aim. This is an exploration of Malmesbury's ideas about gender, about men and women and his use of gender in his descriptions of nations and conquest. The question of accuracy or truthfulness with regard to Malmesbury's texts is therefore not a chief concern. Rather it is with the ways and means by which he constructs his narratives and the figures portrayed therein. This might be seen as a modern, or rather postmodern quest. (7)

Or, as I see it, a literary quest. Be that as it may, it is striking to see, for instance, a discussion of the feminized presentation of the Turks in William's crusade accounts (958) without reference either to Said's Orientalism, or the many recent accounts of the Eastern Other in medieval literature which have both followed and critiqued Said. It is almost as surprising to see an extensive consideration of bodily and emotional self-discipline, as we find in Chapters 2 and 3, without mention of Foucault or recent studies of medieval gender and sexual behavior that use Foucault's work to good account (William Burgwinkle's Sodomy, Masculinity, and Law in Medieval Literature would have been particularly relevant). The problem is not the absence of Names of Power, but rather the sense that Fenton is re-inventing wheels that she might have found made to measure.

The high production values of this volume--it has a durable binding, good quality paper stock, and an attractive dust jacket--make the editorial problems all the more disappointing. There are relatively frequent misprints, particularly in the Latin, and there seems to be no consistent strategy for quoting words and phrases from the Latin: sometimes these words are left in their original form, and sometimes put into the nominative or first principal part. This latter strategy has occasionally led to trouble, as with, for instance, spetus (75)--a false nominative of spetie (here the ablative of species 'appearance')--and pelicis (56), inexplicably genitive singular (the text reads pelicum), even though Fenton draws attention to the importance of the plural form. Moreover, the author's choice to refer to William as "Malmesbury", as though his byname were a surname, is set aside in Chapter 1 only, for reasons that are not made clear. Oversights of this sort do a real disservice to those readers willing to pay (or have their libraries pay) $90 for a monograph.

Article Details

Author Biography

Emily V. Thornbury

University of California, Berkeley