The Medieval Review 12.06.26

Bodden, M.C. Language as the Site of Revolt in Medieval and Early Modern England: Speaking as a Woman. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. xvii, 276. $85. ISBN: 978-0-230-61876-3.

Reviewed by:

Nancy Bradley Warren
Texas A & M University

M. C. Bodden's book consists of six chapters with an introduction and conclusion. She begins with a brief though appreciative gesture toward previous scholarship on early English women's speech: Patricia Meyer Spacks' Gossip (1986), Bernard Capp's When Gossips Meet (2003), and Sandy Bardsley's Venomous Tongues (2006) are all praised in the first paragraph. Bodden then sets out the premise that there exists "no book-length treatment of late medieval English women's language or speech as a site of cultural consequence-- independent of its connections with gossip and slander" (1). She further observes that early modern women's speech has "fared much better" (1), and notes that it is precisely because of the availability of early modern English court records that she extends the chronological range of the book into early modern England.

This is a rather destabilizing opening, one revealing of structural problems with the book as a whole. On the one hand, Bodden claims to be doing something quite new; on the other hand, however, gossip and slander do feature significantly in her subsequent analysis, and it is not clear precisely how she defines "cultural consequence." Furthermore, her main points might be summed up by saying, "Men sought to control women's speech in the medieval and early modern eras, and women sought avenues to resist or subvert such control." This feels like a very well established, even somewhat passé, position to take at this stage of the feminist critical conversation in medieval and early modern studies. Additionally, Bodden sometimes claims to be offering a book on late medieval England, while at other times the early modern is appended. The book does not, though, seriously interrogate periodization or offer sustained comparison of medieval and early modern English women's speech. It is mostly about medieval texts, with a bit of early modern material tacked on.

The closing paragraph of Bodden's introduction further calls attention to the uneasy temporal and topical parameters of this project. Bodden feels compelled to end with a justification for why she does not deal with Shakespeare. Frankly, it never occurred to me that this project ought to deal with Shakespeare. What needs justification is why the project does not deal with such figures as Christine de Pizan (whose works were widely available in later medieval and early modern England), or Aemilia Lanyer, or Elizabeth Cary, or Rachel Speght--all women whose writings would seem to have important connections with the topics that feature in Bodden's chapters. Other than Margery Kempe, women with religious vocations are largely absent, and they were certainly a vocal group in both medieval and early modern England (think of Matilda Newton, the first abbess of Syon; Elizabeth Barton; Elizabeth Sanders; and Mary Ward, just to name a few). Tellingly, although there are numerous entries for "monks" in the index, "nuns" and "monasticism" do not appear at all, while mysticism gets only six mentions outside of references to notes. My overarching point is not to quibble about what texts and figures Bodden leaves out; rather, the larger problem I have with this study is that the project as a whole seems poorly defined, without clear organizing logic, both in regard to the texts and figures it covers and in regard to the period it covers. The book reads like a loosely connected series of essays on a somewhat random assemblage of topics grouped around "women's speech" rather than a project with a strong through-line and a cohesive argument.

The first chapter is entitled "The Control and Criminalization of Women's Speech." Bodden begins with a survey of general anxieties about speech in medieval and early modern culture, considering the unreliability of speech, the mystique of speech, the uncontrollability of speech, and speech as power. The latter category "essentially subsumes and infuses the other three categories of anxiety" (8). Medieval cycle drama features prominently in this analysis, as do Chaucer's writings. This chapter illustrates the unclear logic governing Bodden's choices of examples that characterizes the book as a whole. It is not that she makes poor choices in this chapter; rather, she does not implicitly or explicitly address why she chooses what she chooses out of an almost limitless imaginable menu of possible textual illustrations. Bodden moves from an exploration of general anxieties about speech to a discussion of specific concerns with women's speech that led first to the demonization of sites where women gathered and conversed (particularly alehouses and lying-in chambers) and ultimately to the criminalization of women's speech. At the heart of men's "obsession with control of women's speech" is, she argues, a desire to control personal agency. This claim seems perfectly correct, if unsurprising--an assessment I found myself making frequently as I read this book.

In chapter two, entitled "The 'Imagined Woman,'" Bodden concentrates on two issues: the processes by which sexuality became "the nearly exclusive literary and artistic means of representing the nature of women" and the processes by which the representation of women's speech became inextricably aligned with women's sexuality (38). This is a heavily theoretically inflected chapter featuring a sustained encounter with Baudrillard (a section in which we get very far afield from the medieval and early modern, as Bodden discusses examples ranging from Madonna to Haitian religion to Cheers Bars in airports). The heart of the chapter is an interesting analysis of the ways in which representations of the serpent in depictions of the Garden of Eden change. Bodden observes that the serpent assumes female face and form and the moral interpretation of the female serpent "becomes chiefly linked to women's speech" (49). In this chapter, the early modern does not receive serious attention, and I found myself wondering what Bodden might find if she continued tracing the representations of women's speech and depictions of the Garden of Eden through the mid-seventeenth century, a period that does feature importantly in chapter three.

Chapter three is entitled "Women, Conversation, Crime and the Courts." Bodden proposes to examine women's legal depositions as "representative speech events and reasonably faithful accounts of women's conversations" (57). In these depositions, she argues, women "insist on a different knowledge of their economic and sexual position" (57). The chapter presents analysis of women's discursive strategies in a variety of legal cases, primarily from the first quarter of the seventeenth century. Unlike in the previous chapter, where attention to the early modern period drops out of focus, here attention to the medieval period is missing. I realize that the sorts of records Bodden analyzes are more available from the early modern period, but surely some comparable medieval material exists that she might have incorporated.

In chapter four, Bodden turns her attention to The Assembly of Ladies. The Assembly is a comparatively little studied fifteenth-century narrative poem, and, as Bodden argues, the critical reception of this text has made it "one of the most underrated and misunderstood texts among those medieval works" thought to have been written by a woman (79-80). In what is to my mind the best chapter in the book, Bodden provides an insightful analysis of the treatment of the garden in the poem, analysis developed by attentive close readings. Extending her interest in rhetorical maneuverings evident in her reading of legal records, Bodden here concludes that the author of The Assembly, by playing with literary modes, employs "persuasive tactics" of their rhetoric and calls attention to "the gendering of court prerogatives" (96).

Bodden's focus in chapter five is Chaucer's Clerk's Tale. The chapter examines the ways in which Chaucer "uses a male narrator (the Clerk) to employ the strategies of women's speech, thereby confronting an understanding of maleness itself, and, at the same time, endorsing women's speech as a means of their gaining discursive authority" (97). The chapter begins with a set of theoretically-centered sections, one on theories of translation, and a series that draw on linguistic analyses of practices of code-switching. Bodden contends that the Clerk "recodes" the story of Griselda he received from Petrarch, introducing what she calls a "bogus allegory" that "appears to invite parallels between human and divine action but actually doesn't" (115). This chapter is perhaps the oddest inclusion of all in this volume. While the idea of the Clerk as a code switcher is certainly interesting, the chapter just does not fit very well in a volume concerned with women's speech. If Bodden wants to talk about Chaucer and code switching, why not the Wife of Bath? Or Criseyde?

The final chapter is the strangely titled "Margery Kempe: 'I Grab the Microphone and Move my Body'--Volatile Speech, Volatile Bodies." The title comes, as Bodden indicates, from a song lyric, and the use of the lyric to frame the chapter stands as another largely unexplained interpretive choice. The chapter's chief focus is the history of the reception of Margery and her Book. Her thesis is that "women's speech and attitudes toward women's speech led (and still lead) to the resistance to Kempe's text as semi-hagiographical, and to Kempe's status as a mystic" (124). This thesis is another instance of Bodden's fairly obvious, albeit accurate, analysis. The fact that Margery Kempe spoke a great deal, in a voice strongly connected to female embodied experience, in transgressively public venues, on dangerous topics, and so caused trouble for herself during her lifetime and afterward, could not be better established. This chapter is problematic in several other respects as well. I understand that Bodden is interested in the history of the critical conversation about Margery Kempe, but the chapter leaves one feeling somewhat drowned in secondary material. Somewhat ironically in a chapter emphasizing the female voice, Bodden's own voice tends to get lost. Second, I am quite troubled by Bodden's decision to rely primarily on Barry Windeatt's translation of The Book of Margery Kempe rather than using the Middle English original consistently throughout the chapter. Surely the use of a translation just puts us at yet another remove from Margery's speech, voice, and body.

In some ways the individual chapters of this book may be useful to scholars and students of medieval and early modern literature. Some of Bodden's readings are interesting, and she does call attention to some texts like The Assembly of Ladies that are understudied. That said, many of Bodden's conclusions have a dated quality, while the project lacks coherence and so is an unsatisfying whole.

Copyright (c) 2012 Nancy Bradley Warren

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