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13.05.11, Flood, Representations of Eve in Antiquity and the English Middle Ages

13.05.11, Flood, Representations of Eve in Antiquity and the English Middle Ages

Flood begins by describing both his theoretical framework and defining carefully the modern terms used to articulate it. He writes that his book takes "a feminist perspective, but it is not a work about feminism." It situates itself as a study that will use the term "profeminist" to "describe ancient and medieval attitudes that, in the context of their time, could be regarded as advocating the dignity of women." He cautions us rightly that modern readers see "medieval profeminism [as] always deficient" and that "[r]eading these texts requires a dual hermeneutic: a synchronic one that judges them in modern terms and a diachronic one that reads them in a context, the presuppositions of which are androcentric" (2-3). Overall, Flood successfully maintains his proposed "dual hermeneutic" and provides his readers with both a good overview of the many iterations of Eve across several centuries as well as some moments of insightful interpretation of his chosen exemplary texts.

The book opens with two chapters that do two things simultaneously. First, they trace the main intellectual currents of early Christian theology, as well as those from Judaism and Islam. This overview of the religious philosophies helps to contextualize ancient and later medieval representations of Eve and the Fall. Second, the two chapters catalogue and engage with several representative texts that discuss Eve. In the first chapter, "The Bible and Its Early Interpretation," and the next, "The Influences of Non-Christian Traditions," Flood excels. He moves over a vast range of authors and texts: from the well-known (Gregory the Great, Augustine of Hippo, Clement of Alexandria, Hildegard of Bingen, Juvencus) to the lesser known (Basil of Caesarea, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Philo Judaeus, Rabbi Hama bar Hanina, Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob-ha-Kohen, selected anonymous commentators on the Qur'an). In these two chapters, Flood not only documents the thinkers who write about Eve, but also provides many nuanced interpretations of them, helping his readers to see clearly where the authors have expanded on biblical material, how they are connected to each other, and where they support, or diverge from, one another's thinking.

An example of an intellectual thread that Flood traces in the first chapter and then continues to follow in the second is how the Fall came to be connected with the conventions expected in Western sexual behavior. Tracing the thinking which connected the feminine to the corporeal (and conversely the masculine to the intellectual and spiritual) in chapter one, Flood then shows how early Christian philosophers and theologians elaborated on the role of bodily temptation in Eve's sexual seduction of Adam to share her post- lapsarian fate. In chapter two on non-Christian influences, connecting beautifully to this thread regarding sex from the previous chapter, is a section detailing the divergent attitudes between early Christian and Jewish perceptions about sex and the corporeal. So, for example, Flood informs readers that, "Jewish exegesis was more sexually explicit than its mainstream Christian counterpart--in the Babylonian Talmud Adam has sex with all the animals 'but found no satisfaction until he cohabited with Eve'--thus the reader is informed that the serpent conceived an erotic desire for the woman" (44). Another very informative section of this chapter, and of the book as a whole, is that on the traditions about Lilith. This is very important work, as it succinctly, and soberly, documents where the Jewish traditions surrounding this magnetic figure appear and what was possibly transmitted, or not, to Christian tradition.

A third contextualizing chapter, "Later Medieval Theology," shares many of the strengths seen in the first two chapters as it successfully contextualizes the intellectual currents surrounding the Eve of the later Middle Ages. But the last section of this chapter, although interesting, seems a bit out of place in a book that states in its title that it examines Eve in the English Middle Ages, as it deals in detail with the Eve of Dante. The introduction states that "European texts are included where they were known by English writers or where they are analogues drawing on a common heritage of lore about Eve" (1), and Flood remarks that Dante's influence "in England is most clearly seen in Chaucer and to a lesser degree Gower and Lydgate" (77). Flood does indeed treat representations of Eve in Chaucer at some length, quite insightfully, in the later chapter on Middle English literature. But I would have very much enjoyed reading his insights into the Eves of Gower and Lydgate as well, and where Flood sees Dante's theology influencing the literary iterations of Eve from these two English authors too often overshadowed by Chaucer.

Chapter Five, "Defenses of Eve," has some good qualities, but suffers from the same problem as the "Later Medieval Theology" chapter. The texts concerning Eve that Flood brings to our attention are certainly worthy of it, but they are all continental European texts--from neither antiquity nor the English Middle Ages, even as broadly defined as Flood allows these two parameters to be. That said, the extensive treatment of Juan Rodríguez del Padrón's various texts and their place within the cultural context of medieval Spain is thorough and nuanced, and the shorter discussion of Christine de Pizan is nicely focused on her uses of Eve and the cultural and symbolic baggage the First Woman carries. I do wish, however, that Flood had more clearly demonstrated, especially in the case of Juan Rodríguez del Padrón, these continental authors' connection to their English contemporaries. Are there extant manuscripts of del Padrón's work in English libraries or scriptoria, or whose provenance places them in continental locations with known connections to England? Were del Padrón's texts translated into any other vernaculars? The overall effect of this chapter could lead a reader to wonder if continental writers were the only late medieval thinkers producing defenses of Eve. If that were the case, some suggestions as to why English medieval thinkers did not defend her, from a scholar evidently able to do so, would be welcome additions to the book.

There are two chapters devoted to representations of Eve in the English literary tradition: "Anglo-Saxon Eve" and "Middle English Literature." Chapter three, "Anglo-Saxon Eve," is the stronger of these two chapters. It is an effective balance of, on the one hand, cataloguing Eve's appearances to give an overview of the theoretical trends in the scholarship surrounding Anglo-Saxon Eve, and on the other, providing some suggestive interpretations of particular texts. I do not always agree with Flood's interpretations of some of the representative texts, but often my disagreement stems from what seems to be an incomplete application of his stated theoretical framework. So, for example, in discussing Eve as she appears in Genesis B, Flood remarks, "even if Eve can legitimately be described as a peace- weaver, this is not as positive as it may sound as peace-weavers are doomed to fail. The role clarifies woman's intentions as positive ones, but at the cost of reducing her to being essentially ineffective. Even comparatively positive interpretations of Eve are clearly products of patriarchal stereotypes" (59). If reading from a feminist perspective requires that we become sensitive to ways in which a text challenges constructed normativities--whether they be feminine or masculine normative stereotypes--then one must recognize that within Genesis B and other Old English texts the poets undermine and reduce to inefficacy the stereotype of the masculine warrior as well as that of the feminine peace-weaver. Perhaps the challenge of finding a "positive" Eve necessitates moving away from placing the poems in a patriarchal-matriarchal social (secular) binary and to a more theologically-based (sacred) interpretive space in which the poets examine a non-gendered flawed humanity. That is, both the masculine and the feminine have strengths and weaknesses, and both have the capacity for equally sinful, or equally virtuous, behavior. It is a small quibble; and this chapter's general excellence would have strengthened the overall book if Flood had used it as a model for some of the weaker sections, particularly the chapter on Middle English literary representations.

It is surprising to find that--in a book which states in its title that its main focus is the English Middle Ages--the only other chapter on English literature is one of the least satisfying. The sections from Chapter Six, "Middle English Literature," on the English traditions of the apocryphal "Life of Adam and Eve"--a long section-- and those on Eve as she appears in Chaucer and Langland--short sections--balance themselves somewhat successfully between documenting the texts and providing some interpretation; though I was sorry that, given the time spent on continental Eves, the Irish Saltair na Rann in the context of the Vita Adae et Evae does not receive acknowledgement of its existence even in an endnote. But the vast majority of this chapter simply lists the different texts and any slight differences between them, and so the effect is that of a cursory inventory of where Eve appears in Middle English poetry, prose, and drama with very little contextualization or interpretation. This is particularly disappointing when it comes to Middle English drama, where Flood cites no less than twelve iterations of Adam and Eve and the various aspects of their story. He does an excellent job at pointing out the differences between them--as an example, those between the Armourers' Expulsion and the Coopers' Fall of Man--but does not provide us with even tentative suggestions as to why the two dramas could be different. In other words, why would the Coopers' Fall of Man have "the space to accommodate a longer treatment of the temptation scene than the other dramas looked at here" (111)? Were plays produced by Coopers traditionally allowed more time than those of Armourers? Were the different professions educated in different intellectual milieux specific to the particular profession, and so they encountered different "source" material? There is no denying that a catalogue of the many iterations of Eve in Middle English literature is very useful, but allotting more textual space to this later English Eve, and perhaps less to her continental sisters, would have been much appreciated.

Finally, there are some problems, in this reviewer's opinion, with the organization of the book. First, the book seems to be mistitled, as less than half of it is about what its title suggests the reader can expect. Of the six chapters, two combine representations in antiquity and theological contextualization, one provides late medieval theological context, one deals with continental European writers, and two discuss medieval English literary representations. To be fair, and as mentioned earlier, Flood does try to explain any apparent disconnect between title and content in his introduction, stating that he will not limit the definition of what constitutes the English Middle Ages geographically or chronologically, and that he will include those European texts seen as influential to English writers. But Flood does not always make explicit how some of the non-English texts actually fulfill the stated criteria. Additionally, the two-page epilogue, "Witches," reads less as an epilogue to the work at hand and more as a short abstract for a future project; I found myself wishing that Flood had spent the textual time in suggesting answers to the questions that were raised for me in the Middle English literature chapter, or (as mentioned earlier in this review) perhaps discussing the Eves of Gower or Lydgate rather than just stating that such Eves exist. In the end, other than the issues mentioned, there is more to praise than to complain about in terms of the book's content, and Representations of Eve in Antiquity and the English Middle Ages is a valuable starting point for both students and more advanced scholars beginning a study of Eve in the European Middle Ages.