14.05.13, Moss, Fatherhood and its Representations in Middle English Texts

Main Article Content

Marita von Weissenberg

The Medieval Review 14.05.13

Moss, Rachel E.. Fatherhood and its Representations in Middle English Texts. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013. Pp. ix, 224. ISBN: 9781843843580.

Reviewed by:
Marita von Weissenberg
Xavier University

Dr. Rachel E. Moss' examination of fatherhood addresses a remarkably large lacuna in the scholarship of the family and masculinity. By bringing letters and romances into a creative dialogue, this book discusses paternal power as well as the social and literary expectations of fatherhood. We are introduced to a variety of fathers in these texts: fathers as a force for masculinizing adolescents; fathers who shaped identities as well as narratives by being the figures against whom sons measured themselves, seeking to impress and eventually replace pater as heads of households. We encounter sons, stepsons, and bastard sons as subordinate men who were ruled by fathers in both literature and letters, just as wives and daughters were--as women. We read of good daughters as submissive, silent support of a father's authority over the household and their rare voices as reminders to be good fathers: to hold the good of the household and family at the forefront of actions and decision. The absence of a father and his authority or its misuse, we learn, caused anxieties in both social and literary fora.

Fatherhood was a form of authority. This notion runs like a red thread though the book, which ends with the observation that our conceptions of patriarchy must be revisited. Patriarchy was not, Moss argues, centered on male dominance, it was centered on fathers: "the complex dynamics of a system that privileges fatherhood" (190). Patriarchy, lineage, and fatherhood were intrinsically tied to power exercised by the head of the household--the father. A father's role and duty was to use his authority for the benefit and continuation of his patrimony, as this study shows, adding its methodology, sources, and analysis to an increasingly strong choir of scholarly voices on pre-modern men.

The fathers in Moss' study were essential to the gentry and mercantile classes. It was the fathers' responsibility to further their family, and emerging class, in political and economic success, ensuring continuation of the line. As vessels of patriarchal continuity, but also as practical and legal heads of households, not to mention through affective ties to members of the family, fathers filled important roles in society and literature. Fathers, in short, mattered (190).

Dr. Moss divides her study into five chapters. The first, "Situating Fathers: The Cultural Context," is more than a contextualization of the gentry and mercantile fathers she studies in their social, cultural, and literary milieu--it also places this rising group of Englishmen (and here "men" is of course essential) in a period of change in England. The "long fifteenth century" was a time when political representation in Parliament was broadened to include county landholders in addition to knights--the ability to wield a pen was more important for social mobility than skill with a sword (18). Indeed, their relationship to the written word in many ways characterized the gentry and mercantile men in Moss' book. The author not only introduces the reader to the gentry families she studies (the Celys, Pastons, Plumptons and Stonors, as well as Armburghs), but contextualizes the literary world that permeated their social strata and culture: exchanging letters and reading romances.

With the Paston family as example, Moss draws a picture of the gentry's written world. Recurring motifs, 'memes,' appealed to the reader's imagination (37) and made romances engaging to multiple generations of readers in gentry and mercantile families, in whose inventories most of the included romances appear. Many of these memes were based on family relationships that were eminently familiar and relevant to gentry audiences, as shown by their letters, also a genre heavily based on forms and conventions. Moss convincingly demonstrates that these two literary genres, in all their formulaic wording, indeed partly because of it, show fathers as occupying the same social and cultural roles, rights, and expectations, and that these tie intrinsically to questions of authority and lineage.

The book's second chapter, "Becoming a Father, Becoming a Man," uses the framework of examining letters and romances explained in the previous chapter to underline a well-established argument for medieval masculinity: fathering children was a key component of attaining mature masculinity in medieval society (see Moss' excellent footnotes for this scholarship). This is not a banal addendum to the scholarship--far from it. Through her careful method of placing romances and letters in dialogue, Moss adds nuance to the process of maturing from adolescence into manhood. She complicates fatherhood by comparing wedded and unwedded fathers--the latter who are returned to in Chapter 5--underlining that not all fathering gave adolescents access to adult manliness. Legitimate, married fatherhood was a key to socially acceptable masculinity, while unmarried fathering of children could, depending on the context, disprove manly self-discipline and maturity in giving into illegitimate and immature sexual escapades. Sexual capacity and resulting biological fatherhood was far from an automatic portal to full manhood. Mature, legitimate fatherhood, however, could be a demonstration of competency, the personal, financial, and social readiness for paternity and heading a household. Fatherhood was under heavy social controls, even if fathering may not have been, and this is evident both in letters and romances.

In the next chapter, "Fathers and Sons," Moss further contextualizes adolescent and mature masculinity in the relationship between fathers and sons. Both letters and romances were characterized by the absence of the father. The letters are written to a father, by necessity because he was not present; romances are filled with sons' quests to find the father and his lineage, or blood, and by extension his identity as a man. A son became a man through filling the conceptual space of the father. Letters demonstrate the issues of heading a household and how sons approached fathers as supplicants, but also reveal the father as a coach to whom a son can, and must, turn to for advice, rulings, affirmation, and models of manliness. Successful fathers maintained rule over their household and raised their sons to be able to take over as patresfamiliae themselves--when the time was ripe. The paradox in the success of fatherhood--raising competent men out of sons--is that many of the tensions between fathers and sons rose as sons challenged the father's authority as well as his social and narrative place.

Moss shows that this juxtaposition is also a demonstration of the most important aspect of the father/son relationship: mutuality. The mutuality fathers and sons demonstrated socially, legally, and emotionally are an important factor in both romances and letters. The romance son finds his identity as a man--here Moss brings in her work for the previous chapter on masculinity and identity--when he has established his relationship with his long-lost father. The son's identity is dependent on the identity of the father and these men's relationship to each other, as well as their common lineage. This was expressed in letters through a language of formal duty and obligation. This has often been dismissed as formulaic by critics, who may, Moss generously hints, forget that letters, like any genre, are based on expectations, tropes, and formulas. Fathers and sons depended on each other in both the present-time of the written word, be it romance or letters, and for the future, above all the future of the lineage and continuation of paternal authority.

The importance of paternal authority and patrimonial lineage is emphasized by a creative and illuminating analysis of the relationship between daughters and fathers in Chapter 4, "Fathers and Daughters." Daughters did not write to their fathers. However, they did write to their friends, mothers, husbands, as well as sent greetings to their fathers via their husbands, brothers or mothers. Hence, there was something in the relationship between fathers and daughters that precluded daughters putting pen to paper. Where the son's relationship was based on mutuality and formation of manhood with an eye to succession and success of the family, the daughter's and the father's relationship was one of opposites: he was the father, pater, of patriarchy, she the member of the family with least power and hence in complete submission to the father--or at least that was the social and literary expectation. Daughters were silent in their letters because they were obedient and submissive, they did not need to communicate, only to obey.

In romances the authority of the father was further highlighted in incestuous and semi-incestuous relationships. This is a literary forum where otherwise prolific father/daughter relationships contain profound silences. Moss criticizes interpretations of incest scenes as having relied on medieval female culpability tropes and lifts to the forefront the question of what these narrative motifs tell us of fathers, not daughters. The father's authority was absolute. With this power came responsibility: for the daughter, the family, the kingdom, patrimonial continuity. A man who focused on his personal desires, be they lust for a daughter or over-protectiveness and refusal to allow a daughter to marry (often interpreted as unfulfilled incest by critics), jeopardized the long-term continuity of the family-line. It is here that the daughter is allowed to speak, to voice criticism of a tyrannical father.

An interesting example is that of Emaré, who resists the advances of her father, Artyus. Later, when the father sentences the daughter to death, she is silent (122-126). The daughter speaks up against her father's selfishness that risks the family/kingdom's future by damaging her value on the marriage market as a virgin, but submits to death silently. A father's rule was absolute for the household, essential to fatherhood, and hence romance allows the daughter to be killed. Romance does not, however, allow a father to damage his lineage, and hence the daughter's silence is lifted by the author. The essential nature of authority in the social, legal, and cultural role of the father is clarified by Moss where the focus has traditionally been on the daughter.

Iterations of fatherly authority are further highlighted in Moss' examination of step-fathers and fathers of bastards--"False Fathers?" as she titles Chapter 5. Gentry and mercantile letters show that when a man married a widow, he was expected to become head of the household and father to all the children that were part of it, both his own and his wife's. In some cases the relationship between a stepfather and a son were openly acrimonious, but more often they were framed in the same language of deference and respect as letters to biological fathers. Again, stepdaughters were silent, although they and especially their marriages were discussed in letters by others.

The bastard and his father, however, had a complex relationship where social acceptability and affective relationships could be at odds. In some cases bastards were close to their fathers and useful servants of the family, while in other cases resentment was evident. The relationship was always marked by social norms. For example, a bastard could be written about in letters, but not as the letter-recipients child. Instead, he or she was referred to in relationship to the mother: not "your daughter" but "Margere ys dowghter," Margery's daughter (175). Maternity served as social context. This matrilineal language of course further emphasized the importance of the patrilinear and father, even in, or especially by, their absence.

Stepfathers and illegitimate fathers had fatherly relationships with their sons and stepsons in all the complex, challenging, loving, and mutual complexities of legitimate, biological fathers and sons. Yet a negative stereotype of these relationships is evident in the romances, if not the letters, where for example "steffader," stepfather, in Guy of Warwick was shorthand "for something unfortunate or injurious" (161).

Guardians were also "false fathers," but falser, perhaps, than stepfathers and fathers of bastards. The guardian was not expected to take on any affective responsibility for his ward, nor was there any shame as with bastards. Indeed, wardship was a legal transaction tied to financial gain and opportunity. Wardship entailed to some of the revenue of inheritance until the ward came of age, as well as the benefits of contracting marriage. These were lucrative business relationships and could be bought and sold for profit. More importantly, these examples show the limitations of social expectation in filling the space of a father: guardians had to assume the power and the responsibility to protect the patrilinear family, but not the affective role. Again, the father's absence highlights his social importance to late medieval England's gentry.

Dr. Moss brings both literary and historical sources together in a convincing and welcome book that will profit anyone interested European family history, romances, letters, English gentry, literature, or masculinity. The careful contextualization in time (long fifteenth century) and place (England) is successful, and her conclusions and arguments offer much to an increasingly broad and international community of scholarship, both on England and broader themes shared across Europe.

However, this also frames a major challenge for some readers. The evidence Moss presents is firmly, and commendably, anchored in the Middle English texts, but a reader who is not a native English speaker, or practiced in the earlier iteration of the language, will find the Middle English quotes an unwelcome challenge. Some passage- analyses contain enough summary and explanation to make the author's points easy to follow, while other analyses require reading the quotes--which also offers profitable insights into Moss' methodology, analysis, and the highly interesting sources themselves. Although space is limited and publishers may arguably have a negative view of including translations into modern English of so many vital quotes, given the international and non-Anglophone composition at the past year's conferences and articles in relevant fields, this reviewer is concerned that a portion of Moss' valuable work may go unexamined.

Another question is what happens to the gentry and mercantile groups' changing situation (17). In her early contextualization of the sources and families, Moss highlights the era as important for social mobility as well as the socioeconomic rise of the gentry and mercantile class. One cannot help but wonder, when reading the conclusions, how the examination of fathers presented in the later chapters ties to this evidently important development?

Moss includes two helpful appendices, although they lack somewhat in copyediting, a problem the rest of the text avoids. The first appendix is a series of concise introductions to the gentry and mercantile families from whose letters the study draws. The second appendix is a summary of most of the romances referred to in the text. Both are very useful references for a readership not familiar with all the sources, and served this reader well. The appendixes are an example of the book's excellent organization both in content and readability. Dr. Moss' study is a welcome contribution to several fields, most prominently, from the point of view of this historian, the study of family history and masculinity studies.

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Author Biography

Marita von Weissenberg

Xavier University