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11.04.11, Garver, Women and Aristocratic Culture

11.04.11, Garver, Women and Aristocratic Culture

This book hits the moment when publications on women's history in the Carolingian period have reached the critical mass to make a synoptic view possible as well as desirable. Valerie Garver has brought to her subject the right skills, much toil, and a willingness, at the limit of skills and toil, to deploy "a disciplined imagination." In a thoughtful Introduction, she commends "speculative readings," under clearly explained conditions, and where direct evidence is sparse or absent. When she suggests (and develops an argument in chapter 4) that elite women through their supervisory role were directly connected with the labours of peasant women on great estates, or that gardening was "a probable activity of religious and aristocratic women, and the discovery of a watering can at an excavation of the convent of Herford helps to bolster the veracity of that impression" (13), she challenges readers to reflect imaginatively. This book is an admirably thorough and well-planned synthesis in the best traditions of women's history, making visible what had been ignored, or under-rated. Garver amplifies the picture of aristocratic culture by enabling us to "see" women in it and convincingly show, or plausibly suggest, how and where they belonged. Her agenda, ambitious and timely, is to identify "elite women as producers and transmitters of the culture that marked the Carolingian aristocracy."

The book's structure combines old and new: four chapters on topics suggested by the reasons given by a Carolingian author, Jonas of Orleans, adapting Isidore, for why men desire women, "family, prudence, wealth and beauty," plus a fifth chapter-head that only a modern scholar could have come up with, "textile work." Garver explains why she re-orders the lists of both Jonas and Isidore, and begins with "beauty" then "family": these are "the two seemingly most self-explanatory characteristics...traits determined greatly by birth." "Prudence" and "wealth" were not so determined, but "tools women could employ." Interestingly, Garver singles out prudence as "the only characteristic in [Jonas's] list that alludes to female actions." It's also true, though, that in terms of rhetorical moralising, prudentia, which Jonas had substituted for Isidore's mores, was the trait most over-determined. Garver's impression (and it would have been good to see this further elaborated) that "lay and religious women had far more in common with each other than with their male counterparts" relies on the heavily gendered expectations of authors who were almost exclusively male (Garver later notes "the singular nature" of the book written by the noblewoman Dhuoda). Chapter 1, "Beauty," has some arresting touches, notably on the moral neutrality of Theodulf's aesthetics when he engaged in controversy over religious images, but the discussions of hagiography and court poetry can hardly help being confined within the genres' own conventions. Speculative readings will crop up elsewhere.

The rest of the book is less concerned with ideology than with retrieving social realities by "crisscrossing and comparing disparate sources rarely employed in conjunction with each other." Chapter 2, "Family," focuses on the familial funding of aristocratic women with property in order to pray for dead kin. This has been an exceptionally fruitful field of recent research: Garver exploits this and adds to it, especially in her sensitive discussion of the Memorial Books of Remiremont and San Salvatore Brescia, by highlighting the bonds formed between royal and aristocratic families. She cautions against too-sharp distinguishing of male from female memorial activity, though doesn't refer to Mayke de Jong's scattered comments on the preponderance of evidence for boys' oblation and the tendency of parents to retain greater interest in oblated girls. Of the women in the few extant lists of those liturgically commemorated, Garver comments, "the sources reveal little of their individuality beyond their names" (100); yet masses for the named dead are surely about individualising, as O. G. Oexle memorably pointed out, and Garver herself endorses in discussing the liturgical material in the memorial books (pp. 82, 88). Without reaching for the label "speculative" in this context, Garver deftly reconstructs wider patterns of aristocratic women's social competence on "far from abundant" evidence.

In Chapter 3, Garver takes Prudentia to signify the kind of learning attainable by elite women. But what if, when a male cleric ascribed moral exemplarity to such a woman in a saint's Life or in a letter, he was finding her 'good to think with', casting himself as Jerome vis--vis Paula, rather than inferring from what he observed in the world around him? Garver later considers Dhuoda's moral exemplarity and finds it ambivalent: Dhuoda "could serve as an excellent example for William precisely because she was away from the temptations and accusations of court" (159). But would Dhuoda ever have written, or needed to write, I wonder, had her domestic life pursued a more conventional course instead of being permanently and tragically disrupted in William's early childhood? In exceptionally well-documented decades, Dhuoda is mentioned by no contemporary. Modern readers of Dhuoda's book must draw their own conclusions from that singular sample to speculate over whether, and if so, where and when, she engaged in "formal study." Garver supposes "the instructional line between lay and religious girls...less clear than that between male and female," but she stops short on the verge of an important discussion (turning instead to "the evidence of hagiography"). Elite Catholic girls in our own times report a blurred line between finishing- school and convent-school. That girls and women "may have moved in and out of religious houses" is far better attested in cases that lie behind ninth-century conciliar legislation than Garver's lone reference (p. 126, n. 9) to the Council of Tribur, 895 implies. The material clusters in north Italian contexts, which in turn suggests the desirability of more cross-referencing between chapters, in this case 2 (on San Salvatore) and 3 (on girls' instruction). A price to pay for gaining breadth of coverage and "crisscrossing sources" may be that regional differences, like different methodological constraints imposed by genre, are ironed out.

Chapter 4, "Wealth," brings together a great deal of scattered evidence for the activity of royal and aristocratic women in managing elite households. Garver begins with a juicy episode from the Latin epic Waltharius (though does not cite the work of Jan Ziolkowski which would have enabled her to situate the poem's audience squarely in Charlemagne's court). "Secretly ask fish- hooks from the smiths," the eponymous hero tells his beloved as the pair get ready to flee Attila's court, and a few lines later (though Garver doesn't follow the story this far), there is the girl leading with one hand the pack-horse "loaded with much money," and in the other carrying the fishing-rod! Garver makes brief but apt reference to the queen's control of treasure in pre-Carolingian narratives and in a Carolingian treatise, The Government of the Palace (though she doesn't mention that that this was arguably written c. 812 by Charlemagne's counsellor and cousin Adalard). Then linking hospitality and domestic management by means of capitulary and survey materials relating to royal estates, she extends the elite woman's "managerial control" to include the provisioning of what Dhuoda called "the great house." Arguing from queens to noblewomen is a good tactic; and an argument by analogy from the bottom up could work as well, given the insistence of a number of early medieval law-codes and dower-documents on women's inheriting of movables, especially domestic equipment. Hospitality and alms-giving were at the heart of the household economy; and so too, Dhuoda singularly reveals, was the negotiating and repayment of debts to Jews (though Dhuoda lived in southern Gaul within 20 miles of Nömes: not a region from which you could safely generalise).

Garver's deployment of hagiographical evidence displays, as ever, her special expertise, but it's her ability to range far wider that helps explain why there is more speculative thinking here than in other chapters. Elite women "could have" supervised other women in egg-collecting and chicken-feeding, and "probably" helped to look after "estate animals" (Charlemagne's Capitulary On Estates lists, for instance, peacocks, pheasants, partridges and turtledoves), or even to direct production activities like dairying and gardening as well as, along with their husbands, giving instructions to estate-managers (but not to hunters and falconers, apparently, Garver notes, managed by men only). On a similar probability, Garver discusses beds, and other fixtures and fittings, in the context of elite women's management in great house, or in convent: if the cellaress looked after the food- provision, "she may therefore have been in charge of looking after the garden" (the Herford watering can makes further appearances, pp. 206, 208's photograph). Elite women's interests could have extended into the further reaches of craft-production and repair of farm-buildings. "Women may have been especially active in supervising construction work as it was probably most common in the warm months when men were away." Again, though, "crisscrossing" sources entails assumptions about the comparability and compatibility of what may turn out to be apples and oranges. In this chapter's next, short, section on women's health and life expectancy (which might have been better placed elsewhere), Garver notes the paucity of evidence for women's involvement in the care of the sick and attributes this to male authors' lack of interest in the subject. In whose eyes, then, did "the conventional duties of aristocratic women" give them "opportunities to exert power"?

The fifth and final chapter is an excellent résumé of the current state of knowledge on textile work. Here it's the richness rather than scarcity of the evidence, textual and material, that generates speculative thinking. Textile work was women's work, and as such caused "further blurring [of] the line between lay and religious women" (233). It was "a substantial economic activity," Garver says, chiding distinguished economic historians who have neglected it! But can the work of religious women, for all its high cultural value, be termed "economic"? Women also "almost certainly" directed textile work, Garver thinks, adding that, if so, "this period was unusual in Western history." But what kinds of textile work can be filed under "economic activity"? Production for lords, for almsgiving, for local markets, and for the peasant family's consumption, are different things--implying different things for the women involved, whether as makers or managers. "Supervising gynaecea [women's workshops]," Garver writes, "may have composed a major duty of some lay aristocratic women. They would have had to help supply the women's workshops...: 'Let them take pains to provide the women's workshops, as instructed, with materials...'" (265) In these last two sentences, the pronoun denotes two different kinds of person: "they" as referred to by Garver are women, "them" in the quote-within-the-quote are Charlemagne's estate managers. Has speculative thinking here gone a bridge too far?

Garver's short concluding chapter explicitly addresses lifecycle, an exceptionally useful concept that has until this point lurked, half-recognised, in the wings. Garver's comments are thoughtful, certainly, but, like Chapter 4's reflections on women's health, they are curiously misplaced. For they seem to belong, instead, near the book's beginning, where they could have informed and helped frame all that followed. Lifecycle acquires added value when systematically correlated with gender. An opportunity has been missed here. As it is, the book, as a whole, amounts to a tidy sum of parts--but parts they remain. Garver has written a very valuable work of scholarly reference, and one that will be widely and eagerly read by students of medieval women. Historiographically, it looks back to a great tradition of writing, largely by Americans, about women's positive contributions to culture, about women's power through the family, and about women's agency. Textile work, the work of women, makes a fitting apotheosis to an upbeat story. Two questions remain. Why are the contributions of elite women so underplayed, not just in a good deal of modern historiography, but in the contemporary sources themselves? And can these women's activities and experiences be registered only as positives? Culture is complicated, contradictory, untidy. Seldom do we find echoes here of the scandals and violence that punctuated and were inseparably part of this Carolingian story, the deep forces and fissures that from time to time surfaced to rack and convulse this aristocratic culture, the tensions and anxieties that lurked, deep and unresolvable, in masculine conceptions of honour and practices of domination in the Carolingian world. Maybe, following another great tradition, American but also international, of writing about gender and power, these themes will be for another book.