12.04.21, Vines, Women's Power in Late Medieval Romance

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S.-G. Heller

The Medieval Review 12.04.21

Vines, Amy N.. Women's Power in Late Medieval Romance. Studies in Medieval Romance. Cambridge:D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. 176. ISBN: 978-1-84384-275-0.

Reviewed by:

S.-G. Heller
The Ohio State University

Did women have any power in the Middle Ages? Were real women's voices repressed as much as it would seem from the predominantly male- authored sources and prevalent misogynist discourses? Since the explosion of publishing on women in medieval studies in the 1980's, this question has been asked again and again.[1] Amy N. Vines' contribution to the inquiry demonstrates both that this is a question for which we yet lack a completely satisfactory answer, and that this is ground for investigation that has already been heavily trod. The close readings of English romances in their contexts of rewriting and patronage found in Women's Power in Late Medieval Romance manage to tease out certain newly nuanced insights, and suggest that yes: women could have significant influence on the creative process of romance creation, and thereby in turn influence those in their social circle with the didactic messages of the texts they recommended.

Vines begins by taking issue with the tendency to associate women readers with the romance genre without regard for how these narratives "represent female characters as sites of female authority," treating romances as escapist and wish-fulfilling narratives geared particularly for a female audience (1). Whereas previous studies have come against limits in focusing on the patronage of actual historical persons represented in documentary records, Vines acknowledges that women are more rarely represented in such records than men, and also that acts of influence and sponsorship were often not recorded. The book's thesis is that romance was both a didactic and entertaining genre, the chief vehicle for both reflecting and producing chivalric codes. Audiences found models for behavior therein, and also could help dictate the types of models they hoped to see. Moreover, women could learn methods of influence from the books they read, finding ways of facilitating the success of the men in their lives socially, intellectually, and financially, as well as keeping them faithful once success was achieved. Heroines in romance both produce and reward the knights' valor: a female reader in the right social position could do likewise. The case studies are fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English revisions of earlier narratives, ideological revisions as well as literary and linguistic, a process which Vines argues opens new opportunities for female readers to consolidate and enact social and cultural power.

One of the important but very nuanced insights of the book is that at moments when heroines show silence and submissiveness, in keeping with such stereotypes of women characters as passive and repressed victims of patriarchy, "damsels in distress," or detached and otherworldly fairy mistresses, the audience is always aware of the actual circumstances of their behavior. Vines points to scenes where heroines' private behavior is contradictory to their public performance or inaction, yet soon after the men supported by said female characters' passive or secret operations gain success. The modern readers' expectations are a tricky part of that frustration, but I think Vines is not wrong to impute the possibility of frustration to medieval audiences, as well, a frustration which is important to recognize as an element of the genre's structure and success.

Vines particularly seeks to revise notions of women's readership of romance texts promulgated by Lee C. Ramsey [2], who argued that women were subservient in society, and therefore found solace and satisfaction in their subservient fantasy heroines (reminiscent of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, vulnerable and corrupted by too many romances read in her comfortable bourgeois leisure time). Vines argues that heroines were exemplary rather than fantastic. Women would not only have read for entertainment, but to deploy what they learned from texts in their own real lives for the betterment of their families and themselves. To better describe women's engagement with texts, she adapts Rebecca Krug's notion of "service and self-inscription": women's participation in literary pursuits was a socially prestigious act of social service, and allowed imaginative insertion of one's interests into texts. [3]

Women characters in narrative have used prophesy as a discourse to influence others since antiquity. Chapter 1, "Prophecy as Social Influence: Cassandra, Anne Neville and the Corpus Christi Manuscript of Troilus and Criseyde," focuses on Cassandra's discourse in Chaucerís text, setting it in counterpoint to the twelfth-century French Raoul de Cambrai, in which the hero fails to heed his mother's guidance with disastrous consequences. Vines observes that Chaucer contrasts two prophets in this romance, particularly their methods: the treasonous Calchas, who relies on augury, casting lots, and consulting oracles and who ultimately abandons Troy and betrays his daughter; and Cassandra, whose insights are represented as the product of historical and textual study, erudition rather than magic, and whose words ultimately succeed in bringing Troilus back to appropriate chivalric behavior. Similarly, Criseyde is shown as a careful and perceptive reader of letters, books, and even her own dreams. Vines then adds another layer of women reading about women reading, focusing on the only one of sixteen extant manuscripts of the romance that includes specific evidence of female readership, the luxurious Cambridge Corpus Christi MS 61, which includes a fifteenth-century inscription, "neuer Foryeteth Anne neuyll." Although it is impossible to link this definitively to one Anne Neville, there are two historical women who are likely possibilities. This codex, moreover, contains the famous Troilus frontispiece depicting an audience of both men and women which Vines argues invites the reader to feel part of such a mixed readership and also is the only manuscript to omit Troilus' dream, the main section condemning Criseyde's behavior as licentious.

Chapter 2, "The Science of Female Power in John Metham's Amoryus and Cleopes," focuses on a more obscure text, extant in a single manuscript, and usually dismissed as derivative of Chaucer, badly versified, and clunky with its lengthy didactic passages reading like scientific and religious treatises. Vines emphasizes that Metham's patrons were Miles and Katherine Stapleton, and that the romance mirrors their joint literary sponsorship and indeed promotes female patronage through its heroine Cleopes, as well as implicitly praising Katherine as a member of a literature-promoting family. A pagan well-read in the natural sciences, Cleopes' knowledge of herbal and zoological information as well as chivalric techniques leads to the rather shallow hero Amoryus' knightly success. Vines examines the other texts in the codex, including treatises on palmistry, physiognomy, the Esdras Prognostications, and a list of other works Metham presented the Stapletons (probably on topics military, historical, and agricultural), now lost.

Chapter 3, "A Woman's 'Crafte': Sexual and Chivalric Patronage in Partonope of Blois" examines another highly educated heroine, Melior, who promotes her young man's career through her expertise in this fifteenth-century English rewriting of the French romance Partonopeus de Blois. Again, the most complete English manuscript of this text includes signatures signaling possible female owners. Vines argues that literary models such as this provided detailed examples for negotiating obstacles to women's sponsorship, and defending women's public reputations and personal dignity. Secrecy was often necessary, as in Melior's case; but Vines makes the important point that acquiescence to male authority was actually a negotiating tool, which the author allows the audience to perceive as a double standard, at odds with the heroine's private thoughts and desires. Use of learned knowledge, hospitality, and good governance yield rewards as well. This romance presents an alternative model of female patronage in the person of Melior's sister Urake, who heals the hero after he has betrayed the heroine and sought suicide in his guilt, and urges Melior to make a public acknowledgement of her decisions.

In Chapter 4, "Creative Revisions: Competing Figures of the Patroness in Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal," rather than focusing on the "Englishing" of Marie de France's Lanval, Vines emphasizes the author's response to increased late medieval interest in women's literary and cultural influence as motivating the rewriting, in which the fairy mistress, here named Tryamour, presents good patronage leading to her knight's tournament success, contrasted with Arthur's dysfunctional patronage. This text's inclusion in a miscellany of some forty popular and practical texts suggests Sir Launfal was presented as "useful" to its readers. Vines' arguments for the utility of romance in women's lives are succinct and convincing.



1. See for instance the famously controversial article of Joan Kelly- Gadol, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, eds. (Boston: Haughten Mifflin, 1977), pp. 175-201; Women and Power in the Middle Ages, Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski, eds. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988); for a recent review of the literature, Barbara Stevenson, "Feminism," in Handbook of Medieval Studies: Terms Methods Trends, Albrecht Classen ed. (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2010) vol. 1, pp. 540-549.

2. Lee C. Ramsey, Chivalric Romances: Popular Literature in Medieval England(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983).

3. Rebecca Krug, Reading Families: Women's Literate Practices in Late Medieval England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

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Author Biography

S.-G. Heller

The Ohio State University