12.09.24, Niebrzydowski, ed., Middle-Aged Women in the Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Linda E. Mitchell

The Medieval Review 12.09.24

Niebrzydowski, Sue. Middle-Aged Women in the Middle Ages. Gender in the Middle Ages, 7. Cambridge:D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. xiv, 153. ISBN: 978-1-84384-282-8.

Reviewed by:

Linda E. Mitchell
University of Missouri, Kansas City

The body of work on medieval women grows exponentially each year, yet few monographs or essay collections focus on the topic identified by the title of this book: women in their middle years. This slim volume of eight essays, with an introduction by the editor (who is also one of the authors of an article), attempts to unpack some essential issues having to do with the identification of "middle age" for women in the medieval period. Most of the authors focus on depictions of older women in literature or in relation to literary tropes, although a few of the articles delve more deeply into the lives of specific women who have left writings created while in middle age.

Beginning with the editor's introduction, one of the ongoing concerns throughout the volume is that the notion of "middle age" is not clearly defined or articulated in the period, so any imposition of such a characterization on the subjects of the articles is one mediated by modern perceptions. Niebrzydowski introduces this rather thorny issue by discussing extensively the classical and medieval definitions of the "ages of man"--usually comprised of three to seven stages of life from infancy to decrepitude. She (and the other authors who mention this point) must, however, admit that the main subject for these definitions is male. Aristotle's blatant lack of interest in women is legendary; Augustine et alia who followed were just as disengaged. Even Jacques's famous speech from As You Like It refers only to men. Therefore the attempt to sandwich women into these definitions is problematic from the beginning. Niebrzydowski does, however, discover one reference to middle age that is both medieval in origin and specifically addresses women. Once past the age of nubile fertility, women become "bene-straw": dried up husks. This rather unattractive description (indeed, it is deliberately disparaging) is the only one she can find that refers specifically to women. Therefore, unlike descriptions of men at middle age as being in their intellectual and even physical prime, middle-aged women are shriveled husks of their former beauty and lusciousness.

The other authors in the volume also struggle with these kinds of definitions, but like the editor they, in the end, abandon the attempt to identify a purely medieval conception of middle age in favor of a loose modern-day convention: middle age for women begins around the age of forty and continues to about the age of sixty, straddling the time when most women experience menopause. They all justify this definition on the basis of other life-stage categories--such as maiden, wife, widow--that roughly corresponded to the age-based distinctions now in common use.

Each of the articles approaches different aspects of womanhood and women's experience. The authors sometimes find themselves having to shoehorn the category of middle-aged women into a focus that doesn't fit comfortably into the schema but all take a stab at it. Some are certainly more successful than others.

The first article, by Anneke Mulder-Bakker, looks at two German women, separated by a century, who had new careers after they turned forty, and after moving from the position of wife to that of widow. Instead of being perceived as useless because of their lack of fertility, Mulder-Bakker presents these women as prized by the religious communities they patronized and as wise women of "discretion" by their associates. She concludes that their urban milieus conferred a measure of respect and status on these women, and that their unsexualized state (as post-menopausal) facilitated their move from dependent wife to independent middle-aged patron and colleague.

Sara Elin Roberts seeks to define middle age for women in medieval Wales, by looking at the Mabinogion and at the Laws of Hywel Dda. In this, rather less successful, article, Roberts finds herself seeking, but failing to find, evidence of explicitly middle-aged women in these texts. Young women appear in large numbers; old women less often but they still appear. She concludes that the invisibility of middle-aged women has a great deal to do with her sources and attempts to form conclusions based upon the lacunae in them. This is not the most satisfying of conclusions, although the problem inherent in trying to find patently middle-aged women in Welsh sources that fail to mention them clearly was a source of frustration to the author.

Corinne Saunders looks at the depiction of women in Middle English Romance, with a particular focus on the relationship between middle age and magic. Like Roberts, Saunders finds it difficult to specify women who are identified as middle-aged in her texts. Young women and crones appear, but even when one must assume that characters like Guinevere and Morgan le Fay are indeed middle aged by the end of the story, they are never depicted as such. The connection between magic (or "nigromancy") and middle-aged women, according to Saunders, is potentially dangerous because such women employ magic to disguise their age and gain agency.

Diane Watt and Clare Lees co-authored the fourth article, a queer analysis of the Old English Life of St. Mary of Egypt. Although this was one of the most interesting articles in the volume and, indeed, virtually the only one with a clear theoretical agenda, it also had only minimal focus on putative middle age, as St Mary tells her story when she is old, grey, and virtually unsexed. The main middle-aged character is instead Zosimus, who finds her in the desert and acts as a kind of amanuensis in the story. Watt and Lees conclude that both Mary and Zosimus are genderqueer--Mary because she forms a passionate attachment to the Virgin Mary and her life path parallels that of Christ, and Zosimus because he eschews any contact with women in favor of profound homosocial attachments, even when he realizes that the presumed man he encounters in the desert is Mary, effectively transgendered through a life of unremitting asceticism.

Jane Geddes's article looks at Christina of Markyate specifically through the device of the St Albans Psalter, which has been connected with her, and which Geddes describes as a kind of love letter from Abbot Geoffrey of St Albans to Christina. Connecting the Life to the psalter, Geddes suggests that the iconographic program was designed specifically to remind Christina of the temptations she endured and the life she abandoned in favor of an anchoritic existence. Christina seems to have entered the monastery before middle age--at around thirty-five, according to Geddes--but within the generic timeline of fecundity that the authors of the volume have agreed to use. Because her death occurred when she was around sixty years old (sometime after 1155), the material for her Life were almost entirely taken from her biography as a young woman. In other words, the association of Christina with middle age is quite tenuous in this article: she is presented as Abbot Geoffrey's middle-aged chaste girlfriend but her reality continues to lie in the years before she took the veil.

In another article on the connection between middle-aged women and their books, Carol Meale asks a specific question: "how did middle age affect women's roles as commissioners, owners and readers of books?" (83) Her subjects are three notable book collectors of the fifteenth century: Alice Chaucer, Cecily Neville, and Margaret Beaufort, but she also mentions a few other women who are identified with specific books. She concludes that middle age, in particular the concomitant life stages of having grown children and being a widow, opened opportunities for women to become collectors. Meale, however, finds it difficult to demonstrate that this flurry of book collecting occurred in middle age for all her subjects; Margaret Beaufort seems to be the only candidate for which this was demonstrably the case. Indeed, another of her subjects, Eleanor Ferrers, whose ownership of the Lambeth Apocalypse (created 1260-1265) occurred sometime during her marriage to the elderly Roger de Quincy, earl of Winchester, was not middle-aged at all: she was probably somewhere around thirty in 1260. [I discuss Eleanor in the context of her sisters and co-heirs in the first chapter of Portraits of Medieval Women, Palgrave, 2003].

Sue Niebrzydowski's article focuses on Margery Kempe and how her speech is reflected in her Book. In particular Niebrzydowski identifies differences between Margery's conversational tones and usage when reminiscing about her youth, and those speeches categorized as occurring in middle age. Not surprisingly, this article, written by the editor of the volume, connects the most strongly with the volume's topic. Niebrzydowski finds that Margery's speech is more direct and authoritative when she reaches middle age, and that she is less afraid of the condemnation of men whose acceptance she sought as a younger woman.

The last article, by Raluca Radulescu, is the third to investigate women and books; this time the subject is Margaret of Anjou. Radulescu looks at books commissioned by Margaret herself--in particular George Chastellain's Le Temple de Boccace--but also at negative depictions of Margaret in contemporary texts. She also states up front that she is less concerned with identifying Margaret as a middle-aged woman and more with looking at her reputation and how Margaret countered it through political acumen and intelligence. Although one of the more focused and compelling articles in the volume, it is also one of those that connects only scantily with the volume's title.

This book doesn't claim to be the last word on middle-aged women in the Middle Ages; nevertheless there are some challenging and provocative moments in the essays. There are also some rather surprising omissions, in both subject and bibliography. For example, although referred to by many of the authors, the preeminent middleñ aged woman, the Wife of Bath, does not have an essay of her own, even though references to her admitted that Alysoun's perspective on her golden years directly contradicts the cultural tropes of women's dryness and lack of sexuality. A glaring omission in the bibliography is Joel Rosenthal's Old Age in Late Medieval England (U of Penn Press, 1996). While Rosenthal certainly focuses more or less exclusively on men in his work, his methodology and conclusions could have provided a useful dialectical tool for the authors in this volume. This collection is worth perusing, but the topic is ripe for expansion and further exploration, using a wider range of methodologies and approaches.

Article Details

Author Biography

Linda E. Mitchell

University of Missouri, Kansas City