14.01.10, Beattie and Fenton, eds.,, Intersections of Gender, Religion and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages

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Margaret Cotter-Lynch

The Medieval Review 14.01.10

Beattie, Cordelia and Kirsten A. Fenton. Intersections of Gender, Religion and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages. Genders and Sexualities in History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. x, 220. ISBN: 978-0-230-57992-7.

Reviewed by:
Margaret Cotter-Lynch
Southeastern Oklahoma State University

The essays in this volume explore a range of texts from the 9th through 15th centuries, all authored by male European Christians and representing various individuals or groups marked as "other" due to religion, ethnicity, and/or gender. As Cordelia Beattie points out in the introduction to the volume, together the contributors hope to elucidate what Patricia Hill Collins has called the "matrix of domination" (2), i.e. the ways in which multiple societal markers of difference interact and are, in fact, codependent in the ways in which power relations are constructed. This volume hopes to address a particular matrix of interactions--those of gender and religion/ethnicity (which Beattie argues are often used as interchangeable terms in many medieval texts). The volume is to be applauded for bringing together examinations of both masculinity and femininity, as gender difference is interrogated in both directions. The category of embodiment more generally is discussed as it relates to representations of gender and ethnicity (as religiously inscribed). Many contributors situate their arguments with reference to JoAnn McNamara's seminal work about the re-figuring of gender around the turn of the millennium that she termed "Herrenfrage," and all the contributors seek to add further nuance and detail to the ways in which we understand the discourse around gender difference in particular times and places in the Middle Ages. As in all such essay collections, the different chapters will be of varying use to different scholars; however, the contributions from Kruger and Aird make assertions relevant to the field of medieval gender studies as a whole.

In the first chapter, "'In what way can those who have left the world be distinguished?': Masculinity and the Difference between Carolingian Men," Rachel Stone takes as her point of departure a quote from the 811 "Capitula de causis cum episcopis et abbatibus tractandis," issued by Charlemagne. Stone traces changing metaphors attached to gender and religion in the Carolingian period to show a concerted effort to encourage unity amongst lay and religious men within the empire. Stone outlines two simultaneous rhetorics of masculinity, Christianity, and authority in Carolingian texts. One, inherited from Gregory the Great, focused on the pastoral role of not only priests and bishops, but also lay elites. The second "focused on the key intercessory role of pure male priests, and the monastery as the front line in the spiritual battleground" (19). The use of these two complimentary rhetorics established an authoritative space for both lay elites and professional religious. The late antique trope of faithful Christians as masculine--regardless of their biological sex-- and the faithless as effeminate is, in the Carolingian empire, transferred to a gendered and religious designation for men inside versus outside the empire. Regardless of ethnicity, Christian men faithful to the emperor are masculine, while those outside the empire, and not Christian, are described as soft and effeminate. Ultimately, Stone describes the Carolingian reform movement as an attempt to establish peace and inclusion through rhetorics of masculine Christian authority accessible to both lay and religious men.

In Chapter 2, "Ruling Masculinities: From Adam to Apollonius of Tyre in Corpus 201b," Carol Braun Pasternack undertakes a detailed analysis of the contents of Corpus Christi College Cambridge 201b, a mid-11th century codex which compiles a variety of ecclesiastical, legal, and literary texts. Pasternack argues that, taken as a whole, the codex "presents a vision for an England that unites the ethics of Christianity with the power of the king in order to save the people-- individuals and nation--from social disorder and eternal damnation" (34). In particular, Pasternack concentrates upon the ways in which the contents of the codex, their order, and, in at least one case, the interpretive choices made in the course of translation from Latin to Old English, highlight the (re)definition of masculinity, both ecclesiastical and lay, around sexual purity, and the positing of this purity as essential for the well-being of England as a whole. She suggests that the seemingly anomalous inclusion of the classical Greek romance, Apollonius of Tyre, here offered in an Old English translation of the Latin version, is in fact "providing an answer to the dissonance between all the texts that proclaim that chastity and strict monogamy are necessary for saving the temporal state and the eternal soul and the lives of the elite males that demonstrate the efficacy (and failures) of political and sexual potency" (54).

William M. Aird's contribution, "The Tears of Bishop Gundulf: Gender, Religion, and Emotion in the Late Eleventh Century" focuses on the gendered imagery used to portray Gundulf's piety in the 12th century Vita Gundulfi. Gundulf is portrayed as a particular adherent of the cult of Mary Magdalene, and is himself notable for his prolific tears. Aird makes two important arguments in this essay: 1) that what we often think of as the characteristic aspects of late medieval women's affective piety in fact finds its roots in 11th and 12th century male Benedictine texts (and presumably practices) and 2) that we should re-examine some of the assumptions implicit in McNamara's description of Herrenfrage, since "the fluidity of the Vita Gundulfi's gendered representations of its subject should caution against oversimplifying medieval constructions of masculine identity" (76). Through a close reading of Gundulf's hagiography, Aird makes assertions with ramifications far beyond this single text.

Steven F. Kruger similarly makes claims with wider implications for medieval gender studies in his contribution, "Medieval Jewish/Christian Debate and the Question of Gender: Gilbert Crispin's Disputatio Iudei et Christiani." Kruger takes as his point of departure a late 11th-century disputation text in what is really a much larger argument about what texts are examined--and ignored--in contemporary gender and sexuality scholarship. He states: "It is, I believe, partly the strict delimitation of feminist and queer medievalist work to explicit depictions of gendered and sexualised subjects and bodies that leads to our repeated failure adequately to confront the ways in which gender and sexuality are wrapped up with categories like race, religion, and class" (86). By examining a text usually thought not to be about gender and sexuality, Kruger seeks to open a conversation about what is taken for granted in much medieval gender scholarship, and therefore, what is missed. He writes: "In accepting that some kinds of text and realms of thought are not 'about' gender, sexuality, and embodiment in any significant way, we run the risk of leaving unanalysed precisely the stable ground-- assumed and therefore not visualized or interrogated--of many gender/sexual constructions" (86). In short, Kruger asserts the importance of applying the questions raised by feminist and queer criticism to all texts, not just those that explicitly flag sex, gender, and the body. What follows is a careful consideration of the ways in which thinking about gender--especially the power relations implicit in discourses of masculinity--raises new and potentially fruitful questions about a text, and a genre, usually identified as purely abstract and intellectual. Kruger persuasively shows that the bracketing and then casting aside of categories infused with embodiment--masculine competition, physical violence, mercantile relations--show how this theological text stages the complex interrelationship of religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and power. Kruger raises more questions than answers--indeed, his essay is peppered with rhetorical questions--but nonetheless makes a convincing argument for the necessity of considering gender and sexuality in broad categories of texts heretofore under-examined by scholars of gender and sexuality.

In Chapter 5, "Gender, Jewish Creditors, and Christian Debtors in Thirteenth-Century Exeter," Hannah Meyer examines records from the Jewish Exchequer and Mayor's Court in Exeter to trace the money- lending activities and status of Jewish women. Based upon detailed analysis of who lent how much money to whom, and how the identities of both creditors and debtors were recorded, Meyer draws the following conclusions: 1) in the years leading up to the Expulsion, there was an increase in the percentage of money-lending activity undertaken by Jewish women as opposed to men; 2) there is no significant difference between the sorts of money-lending transactions--either gender of debtor or size of loan--amongst male versus female moneylenders; and 3) in the case of individuals involved in the lending of both money and commodities, there is no significant difference between the way men and women were identified in the court roles. Specifically, their religion--denoted as "Iudea" or "Iudeus," commonly abbreviated in both cases with the gender-neutral "Iud."--and the implied profession that went along with that religion (i.e. money- lending) was considered more important than their gender. This is a clear difference from the ways in which Christian women were usually identified in court documents, through reference to their familial relationships (e.g. "wife of," "daughter of," etc.) Finally, Meyer claims that "it did not matter whether you were male or female, what was important was the added descriptor 'Iud.' ...In this way Jewish men as well as Jewish women were 'ungendered' by their Jewishness" (118).

Kirsten A. Fenton's "Gendering the First Crusade in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum" examines the use of gendered language in Malmesbury's account of the First Crusade in order to make two, perhaps not very surprising, points: 1) "Malmesbury appears to have defined the crusades as 'Christian masculine space,'" praising the virtus of the Christian crusaders and figuring the Turks in terms of feminine weakness; and 2) in the majority of mentions of women in his account of the crusade, Malmesbury seems primarily concerned with the danger implicit in femininity, and specifically female sexuality, as represented by his negative references to female sexual organs. This negative association of femininity seems to transcend religion and ethnicity, as it applies to both Christian and Saracen women. However, Fenton also shows that Malmesbury's representation of gender is not as monolithic as these generalities might indicate. In the case of the first assumption, Fenton shows that Malmesbury's identification of Christian masculine virtue is achieved after a quite deliberate enumeration of the ways in which common religious faith on Crusade forges a unified, virtuous identity from diverse and often pejoratively-defined ethnicities (e.g. Scots, Welsh, Dane). In the case of the second generalization, while the negative representations of female sexuality are dominant, they are not monolithic, as there is clear evidence of Malmesbury's at least tacit approval of women's participation in crusade both as lawful, respectable wives and as perhaps less lawful and respectable but nonetheless approved-of mistresses of Christian background. In all, Fenton's essay provides further example of the complex ways in which religion, ethnicity, and gender interact in the construction and representation of medieval power relations.

In Chapter 7, "Prince Bohemond, Princess Melaz, and the Gendering of Religious Difference in the Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis," Simon Yarrow reconsiders the almost certainly fictional episode from Orderic Vitalis' Ecclesiastical History in which Prince Bohemond is rescued from captivity by the Saracen princess Melaz. This episode has long been maligned by historians due to the interpolation of a clearly fictional event into a supposedly historical chronicle. Yarrow suggests that we instead ask a different question: why might Orderic have chosen to include the episode, and how might a close reading of it help us to better understand Orderic's rhetorical goals in writing his history? Yarrow asks that we look at this and similar passages in supposedly historical works as "inflections of genre that occupy a mediating position between reality and audience" (141). By including the figure of Melaz as "a composite of elite aristocratic lady and saintly intercessor," Orderic uses the episode to dramatize religious difference and competing aristocratic ideals amongst Christians and Muslims, clearly demonstrating the superiority of the former, while mitigating the potentially embarrassing implications of Bohemond's military failure and captivity. According to Yarrow, "the sheer elasticity of Melaz's gender roles enabled Orderic to gauge, scrutinise, and contrast two forms of elite male politics and morals, and to map them onto their corresponding religious affiliations in a powerful Christian polemic that managed the tensions between monastic and secular narrative genres" (151-152).

In "Chaucer's Viragos: A Postcolonial Engagement? A Case Study of the Man of Law's Tale, the Monk's Tale, and the Knight's Tale," Juliette Dor revisits the topos of the "virago," or manly woman, in Chaucer's works, through the lens of postcolonial theory, in order to demonstrate how the categories of religion, ethnicity, and gender are all problematized in interconnected ways. She claims that Chaucer's portrayals of women who challenge the traditional gender binary cannot be read apart from his simultaneous interrogation of assumptions about race, ethnicity, religion, nation, and colonialism. She ultimately argues that "by discrediting the reliability of his narrators, Chaucer simultaneously blurs the categories of difference that they strongly advocate, thus creating a space in which the medieval racial and racist clich├ęs concerning Oriental viragos may be reconsidered" (176).

In the final essay of the volume, "Warriors, Amazons, and Isles of Women: Medieval Travel Writing and Constructions of Asian Femininities," Kim M. Phillips sets out to disambiguate three categories of "othered" women in medieval historical and literary texts: warrior women, Amazons, and inhabitants of legendary "isles of women." She claims that these three categories have been too often conflated in modern scholarship, yet were clearly separate for medieval authors and audiences. She examines a variety of texts, from both Europe and Asia, literary and historical and in between, in order to show the differences between these three literary tropes, as well as to establish them as tropes, rather than representations of historical facts. Phillips claims: "the value of these works is that they represent European thinking on Eastern Otherness before colonialism, before Orientalism, and beyond the need to stereotype Islamic and Jewish Others" (184). Her insistence on the distinctness of these three categories is convincing, as is her examination of a range of texts with a view to their varying historical authority. Her claims about the intent of medieval authors are less convincing, and I would question the possibility of looking at these medieval texts as unequivocally "before colonialism, before Orientialism," or otherwise beyond the need to stereotype. She nonetheless opens up a useful discussion about the ways in which "aberrant" forms of femininity, according to the increasingly structured gender norms of 13th century Europe and later, were imagined as non-threatening and potentially value-neutral as long as they were clearly distanced in time and/or space, as in legends of ancient and distant Amazons.

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Author Biography

Margaret Cotter-Lynch

Southeastern Oklahoma State University