The fourteenth century saw great cultural changes, effected especially by the plague and its consequences (peasants' rebellion, rise of the middle class). These changes, Tara Williams claims in this book, necessitated not just a new word that made its first appearance in Chaucer's works, womanhood, but also a new concept that enabled writers to describe women in ways going beyond the traditional threefold model of maiden, wife, widow (which defined women in terms of their relationship to men/sexual activity) and the binary model of Mary's virginal perfection and Eve's eternal sin (5). William's project of exploring the "invention of womanhood" is quite a literal one at the outset: she uses the actual occurrences of the word womanhood in the primary texts as a signal of "moments where the writers are particularly interested or invested in exploring new ideas about femininity" (3). She builds her argument from the occurrences of this one word (and related words such as femininity, and, for the last chapter, motherhood). This allows her not only to perform a very careful and insightful close reading of the primary texts with respect to her overarching question but also to see structural elements which may hitherto have gone unnoticed. To give one example, she detects the word womanhood/motherhood as appearing at the beginnings and endings of narratives, while they do not seem overly important in the narrative as such. Such framing of the narrative with the respective word suggests that it is considerably more important than it appears to be in terms of a mere occurrence-count. Moving from Chaucer's use of the word and concept of womenhood to Gower's, to Henryson and Lydgate's, to, finally, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe's use of the word motherhood, Williams seeks to show a development of the concept of womanhood, claiming that, between its first appearance in Chaucer's works to the Early Modern period, the word develops from the specific to the more general use prevalent today.
In chapter 1, Williams analyses Geoffrey Chaucer's Knight's and Clerk's Tale. It becomes evident here that another central concept of her study is that of transformation, as she focuses on those moments of transformation of the female characters that are present (in the Clerk's Tale) or conspicuously absent (in the Knight's Tale). It is this absence of transformation in the two Amazons Emily and Hippolyta that is most interesting and also potentially most controversial (how much can you actually read into the absence of an element in a narrative?) in this chapter. In her comparison of Chaucer's version to that of his source, Boccaccio's Teseida Delle Nozze di Emilia, Williams observes that Chaucer eliminates any references to the "stormy transition of Hippolyta" from Amazon to Athenian queen (22) as well as any references to the two women ever having been "manlike women" at all (14ff). Doing so, Chaucer not only leaves "concerns about the authenticity of her transformation...unanswered" (20), he also "invites the reader's suspicions" (22). In contrast however, Chaucer employs "violent language" in connection with Emily where violence is absent in his source. This is especially true for the scene of Emily's first appearance before Arcite and Palamon ("stongen were unto the herte," "Palamon was wounded sore / Arcite is hurt as much as he") and in Arcite's death speech ("endere of my lyf," "foo," "mercy," 19). In the Clerk's Tale, William claims, the various transformations of Emily from maidenhood to wifehood to motherhood are built up as paradoxes (e.g. a model mother wouldn't agree to her children's murders as she does) that are mobilised "in order to investigate the ideas of womanliness underlying them" (33).
In chapter 2, Williams turns to John Gower's concept of womanhood and contends that while "Chaucer conceives womanhood as mediating between different female roles and traditions of feminine representation...Gower imagines it mixing with manhood and beastliness" (84ff). She analyses the Tale of Florent and the loathly lady's questionable status (she is "a creature / A lothly wommanysch figure" as opposed to her counterpart in the Wife of Bath's Tale that is clearly female, 55) as well as the tales of Tereus, Neptune and Cornix, and Calistona as examples of actual human-to-animal transformation. She comes to the conclusion that Gower presents "womanhood, manhood, and beastliness as overlapping identities defined primarily by what is displayed, not what is essential, and potentially present in women as well as men" (72). Williams underlines this argument with her analyses of the Tale of Achilles and Deidamia, The Evil Example of Sardanapalus, and the Tale of Iphis in which visual as well as physical gender shifts occur and she concludes that the desire for the respective other sex which forms an integral part of gender is presented as not necessarily more natural than clothing and actions. In other words, she claims that "Gower focuses on the performative nature of gender" (84). In the course of the Confessio Amantis Amans himself, she goes on to argue in the third part of this chapter, "reveals the multiplicity of his own nature: manhood, womanhood, and beastliness" (83). Faced with his lady's potentially unwomanly rejection, he must develop a "new idea of manhood...based on a new understanding of womanhood" (83) to then, finally, find the correct answer ("a man") to Venus's initial question about his nature, thereby downplaying both his beastly and his womanly sides.
Chapter 3 is my favourite chapter because, in its discussion of Henryson's Testament of Cresseid in particular, it most convincingly exemplifies the gradual development of the concept of womanhood that Williams is interested in tracing. In her careful comparison of Henryson's version of Cresseid and her womanhood to Chaucer's (also as established in other female characters discussed previously in the book) she argues that "Henryson uses the word in the broadest sense that we have yet seen, as a term that describes the general condition of being a woman and so approaches modern usage" but that nevertheless "the word still has some moral overtones; he implies that weakness is the identifying characteristic common to women and hence to possess womanhood means to be vulnerable" (100). Unfortunately Williams does not venture beyond the traditional medieval/renaissance divide here. If she had, she could have analysed Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, which she does mention in just one sentence at the end of this chapter. Such an analysis might have supported her claim of a continuous development from the specific to a more general concept of womanhood. It might, on the other hand, have prompted questions as to how much this development is indeed a chronological one or how much it is dependent on the respective author's personal conceptions. This is a question that I think is not sufficiently treated in the book.
Since he drew heavily on both Chaucer and Gower, the discussion of Lydgate's Temple of Glas is likewise very helpful in tracing this development. Williams puts special emphasis on how his use of Venus rather than of Mary as the defining figure of womanhood influences his concept: "Womanhood embodied by Venus must be substantially different from that exemplified by Mary, with a lesser emphasis on chastity, for instance" (90). She claims that Lydgate is most interested in the "possibilities and limitations of womanhood" (99) and that, despite much negative criticism of the Temple of Glas in the past, his imaginations of womanhood are innovative.
Chapter 4 is slightly detached from the rest of the book in that Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich never employ the word womanhood at all. With Nicholas Watson, Williams points out that one might interpret this absence as "characteristic of medieval women writers who...tended to reshape established categories of femininity rather than proposing alternatives" (115). The term and concept that Williams works with instead is that of motherhood. She claims that "rather than using the new word womenhood, [Julian and Margery] refashion motherhood" (114). Margery and Julian also stand out from the other authors treated in the book because they themselves exemplify "some of the ways in which women's experiences in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries exceeded the extant gender stereotypes and vocabulary" (114). It is thus certainly justified to include this chapter in the book, although it would have been nice to have a short discussion of the term and concept motherhood, as it undoubtedly appears in the works of the other authors discussed in the book, to underline connections and differences between those and the two women writers a bit more. Williams convincingly argues that Julian of Norwich is one of the first writers to apply the notion of motherhood to actual human women (rather than just to the Virgin Mary, and in her case, to Christ) and that she "uses her idea of motherhood to reassess the physical and womanly and then to authorize herself and her text" (121). Margery Kempe in turn, Williams claims, "explicitly exploits her physical motherhood to gain the authority of spiritual motherhood and combines maternal with sexual imagery to express her extreme intimacy with Christ" (128). It is one of the great merits of this chapter (and indeed of the overall project) to make this visible in a text that, as has been pointed out by generations of critics, barely mentions Margery's motherhood of 14 children. Williams does this again by detecting a framing function of motherhood: The narrative begins with the birth of Margery's first child which leads to her first vision of Christ and ultimately to her vocation and it ends in the interactions with her eldest son in which she styles herself as a spiritual rather than a biological mother, drawing attention to her own transformation of motherhood. As Williams notes, Margery also employs the concept of motherhood in her imitatio Mariae (in which her motherly suffering surpasses even that of Mary), in her taking care of her sick husband who has turned from a lover to a child (this underlines Margery's transformation from wife to spiritual mother), or in the use of the term labour, which is employed both to refer to actual childbirth and to her spiritual struggles.
In her conclusion Williams provides an outlook on the development of the term and concept in a wide variety of 15th century sources, ranging from acts of parliament to love lyrics. This is a very recommendable book which suggests valuable revisions of traditional critical opinion. I would only criticise that, in the search for a continuous development of the term and concept womanhood towards a "general modern meaning" (I would actually question whether there is one single, generally accepted meaning of the term today) the connections between the individual authors are at times a bit forced.