14.09.05, Muravyeva and Toivo, eds., Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe

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Arlene Sindelar

The Medieval Review 14.09.05

Muravyeva, Marianna G. and Raisa Maria Toivo. Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Routledge Research in Gender and History. New York: Routledge, 2012. Pp. 240. ISBN: 978-0-415-53723-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Arlene Sindelar
University of British Columbia

Judith Bennett's 2007 erudite and smart analysis of feminism and history in History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism asserts that not only does history--especially pre-modern history--matter to feminism, but that feminist concerns should matter to women's history. Her provocative argument challenges both the presentism evident in the field of women's history and the unintentional effects of the cultural turn, "focusing more on representations of past lives than on lived experiences, more on the performative creation of gender rules than on the effects of male power." Recent scholarship in women's history, she points out, has eschewed the terms "patriarchy" and "oppression" in favor of the more neutral "gender hierarchy and inequities." [1]

The editors of Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Marianna Muravyeva and Raisa Maria Toivo, have chosen to invoke and counter Bennett's charge in their introduction to the volume's collection of case studies. They challenge her view as "dichotomous and hierarchical" (3), and maintain that recent scholarship still assumes and uses the hierarchical or dichotomous pairing of masculinity and femininity or male and female, precisely in the way that Judith Bennet [sic] emphasizes (4). [2] They appear to overlook Bennett's argument that stressing the continuity of the "patriarchal equilibrium" does not mean acceptance of "an essentialist and stable dichotomy" (5) which her careful presentation of her own research on brewsters reveals. [3] Bennett's critique that the necessary articulation and acknowledgement of patriarchy in the past is necessary before historians can analyze and understand why and how it persisted across contexts and from one era to the next does not limit but uncovers subtleties and differences.

In the present volume, part of Routledge's series on Research in Gender and History, the editors have grouped the case studies into four parts: the Historiography and the Politics of Gender; Female Spirituality, Religion, and Gender Identities; Gendered Witches and Nordic Patriarchal Compromises; and Laws, Genders, and Deviancies. The first essay, "Historiography and the Politics of Gender," by Androniki Dialeti, is the only article that directly tackles one of Bennett's criticisms. "From Women's Oppression to Male Anxiety: The Concept of 'Patriarchy' in the Historiography of Early Modern Europe" investigates the decreasing use of the term "patriarchy" in early modern historiography of the last fifty years and concludes that early modern historians have generally not employed it as an analytical tool "in its radical feminist sense," but rather in the traditional sense of male authority over the household. Recent studies of masculinity have revived the use of the term to explore the nuances in the relationships of men and have noted how patriarchy "was not equally oppressive for all women," but even these insights remain in the context of the household. Dialeti comments that viewing patriarchy "as a particularly complex phenomenon that calls for a more nuanced investigation into the dialectics of power," does not mean "decentring feminist pursuits," but can lead us to "examine female subjugation from a new perspective" (32). Rather than countering Bennett's critique, this appears to be what she has called for and celebrates in the new scholarship. [4]

The second study in Part I by Ilse Paakkinen argues in "The Metaphysics of Gender in Christine de Pizan's Thought" that Christine's "phoenix-like transformation from a poor widow into a masculine woman philosopher called into question the gendered norms" of the fifteenth century (48). Her personal experience in taking on the offices and functions of a male as she struggled to survive separates malleable gender from her apparent sex. Paakkininen ascribes this transformation to the influences of Italian humanism and voluntarist philosophy, particularly Jean Gerson, her contemporary and friend. Her clear articulation and explanation of Christine's gender philosophy and metaphysical explanation for her transformation, however, is what will place it on my course's reading list.

Anne-Marie Kilday plunges into "Gender, Violence and Criminality in Early Modern Britain," first by reviewing the historiography of female criminality and then by examining in detail women's involvement in homicide, infanticide, and assault. Her conclusions do not challenge the historiography that Early Modern British women were not commonly involved in crime compared to men. But she has discovered sufficiently bloodthirsty crimes to emphasize that women were capable and ready to behave aggressively and independently with physical force in defense of their own or their families' interests, not merely as abettors and accomplices under male command.

Part II, Female Spirituality, Religion, and Gender Identities, include three articles that focus on female behavior and gender construction in various contexts in Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa examines the gendered discourses in demonic possession in late Medieval France and Italy, but also picks out the complexities of marital relations in such lived situations. Her sources are the delivery miracles recounted in depositions for various canonizations, depicting victims' rescue and redemption from evil. Typical characteristics of femininity, she argues, were used to explain both positive and negative behaviors that did not conform to the idealized models of clerical texts, revealing the fluctuating nature of gender.

Päivi Räisänen-Schröder investigates the question of gender equity within Anabaptist communities through the perspective of the cultural turn. Thus far scholarship has studied the experience of martyrdom, but Räisänen-Schröder focuses her lens upon everyday life in the Lutheran duchy of early modern Wuttemberg. Her essay follows the volume's now established pattern of a survey of relevant historiography followed by a report of her own research and her conclusions. She emphasizes that "gender was not an isolated or stable entity, but rather part of a complex social and cultural matrix" (99). There is so little known of the everyday attitudes and practices of the ordinary Anabaptists, that specifically male or female behaviors and responses cannot be distinguished. This article, too, makes the case that although gender is a vital criterion of analysis, it is persistently complicated and negotiated with other categories of difference. Her final word is that if Anabaptists' cultural understanding of gender and relationships may not have been precisely the same, they did not significantly differ from the Lutherans among whom they lived.

Constanta Vintila-Gitulesku's essay explores women's sexuality in eighteenth-century Romania, using secular and canon law texts, a 1710 manual for the training of Orthodox priests, and petitions for divorce in ecclesiastical courts on the basis of male impotence or sodomy in which women frankly report their marital experiences. Her findings that despite the more frequent cases invoking male infidelity and sexual experimentation with either men or women, "the leniency and collusion of their community" (115) reveal that female sexuality was yet considered more threatening and required to be contained within marriage.

Part III focuses on the most notorious of gendered encounters in the early modern era, witches and witch trials. These three studies on Northern European, Denmark, Finland and England reveal both similarities and regional differences in the gendered construction of the witch. Louise Nyholm Kallestrup employs sources from the courts of the town of Ribe to determine the gendering of the witch in Denmark in theology, secular law, and popular perception. She analyzes individual accusations of witchcraft leveled by the community against women, the court's application of the law, and the theological preconceptions revealed in the summaries of the confessions of witchcraft. Each, she concludes, envinced a specific construction femininity and masculinity that carried a particular threat. against the domestic gendered sphere, public order, and the spiritual welfare of the Christian community, by constructions of specific to each.

The surprising trend in Finnish territories, counter to the rest of seventeenth-century Europe, is the larger percentage of male witches, revealed in the article by Raisa Maria Tovio, one of the editors of the book. She begins with a review of the historiography of traditionally gendered witchcraft in Europe, followed by a discussion of the tietäjä, or "semi-professional," usually male, Finnish witch. As the title conveys, "Male Witches and Masculinity in Early Modern Finnish Witchcraft Trials," the three cases of witchcraft she analyzes indicate more about the construction of masculinity than the practice of witchcraft. She concludes that the most important ingredient of masculinity was control over and protection of the household and farm in this rural society, and that male competitiveness ought to be appropriate to position within the family and status within society.

David Nash asks a different kind of question in "Gendering Moral Crimes in Early Modern England and Europe--Blasphemy the Mirror Image of Witchcraft?" The community took upon itself the need to police such misbehaviors as witchcraft and blasphemy, usually focusing on those marginalized in specifically gendered ways. The two archetypes--the female witch with her ill nature, isolation and poverty, and the male blasphemer by his drunkenness, gambling and other reckless behavior--broke their contract with God in the "divine economy" (153) and threatened the welfare of the household and community. Nash suggests that perhaps early modern Christian society used the laws against blasphemy and witchcraft as a means to control those who threatened its stability.

Linked by their use of legal records and law codes of northern and eastern Europe, the topics in the fourth and final section of the collection range from gendered suicide through the perils of seduction to homosexuality and masculinity. Issues of criminality and the centrality of family life in Christian society loom particularly large in these three studies, and they offer excellent examples of the cultural dynamics of law and society.

Riika Miettinen tests the conclusions of previous scholarship in "Gendered Suicide in Early Modern Sweden and Finland." The court, she finds, investigated significantly fewer female suicides than male. This reflects the current historiography that she briefly traces in the beginning of her essay, but Miettinen also raises several pertinent issues in her analysis whether the gender gap was a wide as it appears. Nevertheless, she does not discount the possibility that these early modern men did more successfully commit self-murder than women in these societies. It is her discussion of court testimony that most intrigues and richly reveals the culturally gendered attitudes and interpretations offered by the members of the community. Concepts of gender, Miettinen contends, were especially important in these crises where personal and family honor and reputation were at stake.

Mari Välimäki examines gender roles in early modern Sweden breach of promise cases, analyzing the Samblebook, one of the guidebooks for negotiating the secular and ecclesiastical laws that regulated people's lives and relationships. She concludes that these cases portray markedly different gendered behavior than the typical passive feminine acceptance of active male sexual attention or aggression. Välimäki argues that seventeenth-century legislation on premarital sex and breach of promise inverted the gendered characteristics of self-control and reason by emphasizing the responsibility of women in avoiding seduction by acting in their own best interests with sense rather than sensibility and providing themselves with evidence of written or witnessed marriage proposals. In contrast, men were no longer under strict obligation to marry women whom they seduced and could more easily act according to their feelings with less regard to legal and social consequences.

The final selection, "Personalizing Homosexuality and Masculinity in Early Modern Russia," by co-editor Marianna Muravyeva, introduces current gender scholarship in her study of legal treatises, laws, and records relating to the prosecutions of homosexuality. The sources, she says, highlight the overwhelming heteronormative perspective of this society, and that it regarded same-sex desire and relations as immoral acts of unrestrained and misdirected sexuality. Thus, since all secular men prosecuted were married, homosexual behavior did not threaten or lessen their masculinity, but rather described it as uncontrollable, a characteristic of the energy and dominance of masculinity in a particularly hierarchical society.

A valuable quality of this collection of research essays is that half of them provide access to Eastern and Northern European scholarship not often available in English. Useful, enlightening and excellent, these contributions to medieval and early modern gender scholarship enrich and broaden the scope of current historiography. Its worth to students and scholars of early modern social and cultural history in general will long outlast its binding (my copy came unglued after a couple of weeks of use). Nevertheless, they leave the impression that however complex, fluid, and negotiable the relative gender status of men and women of all social ranks were in these various contexts, the continuity of male dominance over women--the patriarchy--persists and is worth emphasizing, despite the authors' disinclination to use the term, substantiating Bennett's point rather than challenging it.



1. Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 24-25.

2. Although it is correct in the footnotes and elsewhere, throughout the introduction Judith Bennett's last name is misspelled "Bennet."

3. Bennett, 72-78.

4. Bennett, 18.

Article Details

Author Biography

Arlene Sindelar

University of British Columbia