14.09.23, Bennett and Karras, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe

Main Article Content

Valerie L. Garver

The Medieval Review 14.09.23

Bennett, Judith M. and Ruth Mazo Karras. The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 626. ISBN: 9780199582174 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Valerie L. Garver
Northern Illinois University

This handsome and incredibly useful volume should be a welcome addition to the bookshelf of any medievalist, but particularly those who conduct research and teach about medieval women. The list of contributors includes many well-regarded scholars and some fresh voices. They include scholars of literature and religious studies, but the majority are historians. One could never hope to summarize each essay in such a large and varied collection in a short review; rather here I will mention specific essays to make points about the collection as a whole and individual book sections. A full table of contents is available at the Oxford University Press website listing for the book.

In their cogent and brief introduction, Bennett and Karras note that their focus on the medieval west and upon women limited their scope and their ability to cover the rich work that exists on medieval masculinity. They wished that they could have provided more coverage of the Islamic and Byzantine worlds, and readers will as well after seeing how a number of contributors provided rich comparative examples and stimulating essays concerning eastern realms. Sara McDougall, for example, usefully compares western canon law and Byzantine law, and Sarah Rees Jones makes apt use of eastern European evidence in her essay on "Public and Private Space and Gender in Medieval Europe." Kathryn M. Ringrose's essay on "The Byzantine Body" makes instructive comparisons both to western Christian ideas of the body as well as to Islamic ones. Yet one can easily imagine how the addition of further comparative views and individual studies of eastern societies would result in a multivolume work. Bennett and Karras have rightly pruned topics and given leeway to their contributors to write essays that speak to certain subjects in the history of medieval women and gender and that vary in organization, scope, and argument. The result is a well-organized set of pieces that reflect the diversity of subjects, opinions, and historiographies concerning women and gender in medieval Europe. The introduction outlines the seven sections of the book: "Gendered Thinking," "Looking Through the Law," "Domestic Lives," "Land, Labor, Economy," "Bodies, Pleasures, Desires," "Engendering Christian Holiness," and "Turning Points and Places."

"Gendered Thinking" covers Christian, Jewish, and Muslim views of women and gender broadly over time and space (Dyan Elliott, Judith R. Baskin, and Jonathan P. Berkey respectively). Another chapter covers the place of women in medieval medicine and natural philosophy with attention to Christian Jewish, and Muslim views and texts (Katharine Park). These four chapters provide an effective way to begin the collection, setting the stage for the subsequent sections. The stimulating essay by Amalie Fößel on female rulers in the Christian tradition seems a bit out of place in this section, although one could argue that the study of queens was central to the beginnings of the study of medieval women and therefore deserves an early prominent place in such a collection.

"Looking Through the Law" provides overviews of different types of law, including Germanic, civic, and canon law, and legal perceptions of women (Janet L. Nelson and Alice Rio, Carol Lansing, Marie Kelleher, and Sara McDougall). The essays also discuss whether and how courts enforced such views in practice. In addition Susan Mosher Stuard provides an essay, "Brideprice, Dowry, and Other Marital Assigns," that focuses on some of the most-discussed aspects of women's legal status. In "Domestic Lives" the majority of the essays concern the later Middle Ages, from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, no doubt a result of the much richer textual and material record from this era as compared to the early Middle Ages. Only Rachel Stone's essay takes the early medieval world as its sole area of concern, surveying some of the rich historiography concerning "Carolingian Domesticities," although other pieces in the section offer some early medieval coverage. Katherine L. French's essay takes material culture as its topic, but each of the essays addresses material as well as written evidence although to varying degrees. With chapters on demographic change (Maryanne Kowaleski), daily life in Jewish communities (Elisheva Baumgarten), public and private space (Sarah Rees Jones), and "Pious Domesticities" (Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane), this section provides an especially rich sense of the gendered experience of domestic life in cities from the twelfth century on. Kowaleski's judicious weighing of archeological and textual evidence concerning demography as well as her presentation of the many conflicting views on this subject among medievalists provides one of the most useful springing off points for further research in the entire volume.

"Land, Labor, Economy" contains four essays focused on rural and urban economies (Jane Whittle and Kathryn Reyerson respectively) as well as slaves (Sally McKee) and aristocrats (Joanna H. Drell). Some overlap among these essays was likely inevitable, and given the available sources, the emphasis tends to fall on the later Middle Ages, but the essays as a whole present the rich range of scholarship on work, economic activity, and on the use, cultivation, and ownership of land. Equally short is the section "Bodies, Pleasures, Desires," but its essays range over a variety of topics and major historiographical debates. From medical treatment of the body (Monica H. Green) to same sex desire (Helmut Puff), from conceptions of the body in the Byzantine world (Kathryn Ringrose) to the performance of courtliness (E. Jane Burns), the contributors provide rich fodder for those seeking future research topics. Their comments on the state of their specific fields are consistently incisive.

The section "Engendering Christian Holiness" follows a rough chronological order. The essays cover the conversion of northern Europe (Lisa M. Bitel), early monasticism (Albrecht Diem), central medieval Christian reform (Fiona J. Griffiths), devotion among the female laity in the later Middle Ages in northern Europe (Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker), the cult of saints (Miri Rubin), later medieval heresy (John H. Arnold), and later medieval cultures of devotion (Kathleen Ashley). The only essay that strives to offer full coverage of the entire Middle Ages is Rubin's wide-ranging discussion of the cult of saints, in which she connects late antique and early medieval evidence with that from the later Middle Ages. Most contributors to this section, aside from Bitel and Diem, focus mainly on the centuries from 1100 on. The essays in this section consistently provide clear and useful ideas about future research, making this portion of the handbook particularly valuable to those seeking and developing new areas of research on medieval women and gender. John Arnold's "Heresy and Gender in the Middle Ages" offers a particularly cogent analysis of scholarship on heresy and gender, breaking down the major arguments in the field concisely and offering useful advice not only for the study of female heretics but also for the study of gender and religion more broadly.

In the final section "Turning Points and Places" each contributor focuses on a key transitional moment in the history of medieval women and gender: late antiquity (Kate Cooper), the central Middle Ages (Constance H. Berman), the transition to merchant capitalism (Martha C. Howell), the beginnings of the witch craze (Laura Stokes), and the origins of feminism, defined here as defense of female morality, intellect, and contributions to family and community (Roberta L. Krueger). When reading this section early medievalists will wish for more attention to their period, arguably also an era with key transitional moments and subjects, some of which are touched upon elsewhere in the volume, including marriage, monastic life, and Christian reform. Yet the three essays focused on the transition from the medieval to the early modern work extremely well together, signaling the emergence of new gendered experiences and sources while often muddying traditional periodization. The lack of a sharp break between the late medieval and early modern has been well accepted for some time, and these essays as a group do an excellent job of demonstrating continuities as much as ruptures. In particular, Stokes' elegantly concise essay "Toward the Witch Craze" vividly conveys this gradual turn from one era to another. As a whole the final contributions end the volume effectively and efficiently.

The volume consumed as a whole makes for pleasurable and edifying reading, but many will read only portions of this handbook: an essay here and there or perhaps over time many ingested in fits and starts and all out of order. Any approach will be profitable for the reader. Students and scholars alike will find much of use in this collection and in individual essays whether learning about a subject for the first time, preparing to teach class, or doing initial research. Each piece offers historiographical background, current arguments and debates, references to some primary sources, and well-grounded overviews of work done in the field so far. Within each section and indeed within many of the essays, one could suggest missed subjects or details, but these absences only underline how rich the study of medieval women and gender has become and emphasize the enormous task the editors and contributors faced in making decisions about what to include and exclude. In fact, the book functions as a springboard to further research, an aid for teaching, and a resource for students in no small part because Bennett and Karras note exclusions as do quite a few of the contributors. Rather than aiming to achieve the impossible--comprehensive coverage--most essays introduce broad areas of historical concern while providing new research and insights. The essays "Women and Laws in Early Medieval Europe" by Janet L. Nelson and Alice Rio, "Caring for Gendered Bodies" by Monica H. Green, and "Women and Reform in the Central Middle Ages" by Fiona J. Griffiths are exemplary in this regard.

The authors often anchor or enrich their pieces with recent research. Kate Cooper, for example, examines three means of understanding late Roman Christian women and the texts that some of them read in her piece "The Bride of Christ, the 'Male Woman,' and the Female Reader in Late Antiquity." Taking examples from her own research Cooper is able to offer insightful points, especially about the female reader, helpful not only for historians of late antiquity but for any historian of women and gender. Carol Lansing employs a single court case to discuss civic courts more broadly in her essay "Conflicts over Gender in Civic Courts," and Robert Krueger focuses on one author, Christine de Pisan, in order to reflect more widely on textual advocacy for women's intelligence, fortitude, and morality. Others focus on a specific period while considering a broad topic. Katherine French, for example, employs late medieval evidence to discuss material culture and gender more generally while Albrecht Diem examines the "formative—or experimental--phase of medieval monastic life" (433), that is up to the monastic reforms of the Carolingian world in the ninth century, as a way to discuss "The Gender of the Religions: Wo/men and the Invention of Monasticism," commenting on the long historiography of monasticism and later medieval conceptions of gender in the monastic life.

The book is well-edited and easy to use. Each chapter includes a list of further reading, usually Anglophone texts, in addition to endnotes. These lists will be invaluable to students and to scholars embarking on new paths of research. The index is helpful. In sum, medievalists, historians of women, and students will find this handbook a useful resource.

Article Details

Author Biography

Valerie L. Garver

Northern Illinois University