14.11.16, Johns, Gender, Nation and Conquest

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Caroline Dunn

The Medieval Review 14.11.16

Johns, Susan M.. Gender, Nation and Conquest in the High Middle Ages: Nest of Deheubarth. Gender in History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 276. ISBN: 9780719089992 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Caroline Dunn
Clemson University

Touring around the castles of South Wales, one is struck by the frequent references to Nest, a pivotal yet shadowy figure from around the turn of the eleventh century. Nest was the daughter of the last king of Deheubarth, Rhys ap Tewdwr, mistress of the notorious philanderer Henry I of England, and grandmother of the prolific author Gerald of Wales. Susan M. Johns, as she notes in her preface, was also intrigued by Nest's story, and, happily, her interest ignited a scholarly investigation that has illuminated the history and legend of this prominent Welsh noblewoman.

The scarcity of contemporary sources renders traditional biography impossible and Johns instead uses the tale of this Welsh princess, and her intricate tangle of cross-ethnic alliances, to view the English conquest of Wales through a gendered lens. She takes issue with the standard periodization of Welsh history, which categorizes the eleventh through thirteenth centuries as the "Age of Princes," and highlights the central role of Nest, as well as other Welsh noblewomen, within relevant power structures, thereby returning them to a story that for too long has focused only on relations between men. Given the prominence of the Welsh kin group, and the centrality of family feuds in shaping Welsh (and English) history, the importance of women, not merely as breeders, cannot be denied.

Johns thus offers an analysis of Nest's role in the events of the early Norman forays into Wales, highlights the political prominence of other high-medieval Welsh noblewomen, and extends her inquiry to consider how early modern and modern scholars reimagined Nest's story in their narratives of conquest. This review will focus on the medieval elements of Johns' book as they are more pertinent to this audience.

The first half of the monograph considers how medieval sources depict Nest's story as well as examples and attitudes towards other women living contemporaneously. Chapter 1 begins with Nest's ancestry and the earliest depiction of her kidnapping, as portrayed in the thirteenth-century chronicle Brut y Tywysogion. (Three versions of this chronicle survive.) We learn that Nest, daughter of the king of Deheubarth, married the Anglo-Norman lord Gerald of Windsor. The abduction occurred, as told by the Brut chronicle, when Nest and Gerald were invited to a Christmas feast hosted by King Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. Cadwgan's son Owain, in one version "moved by passion and love for the woman" set fire to the building containing the bedchamber of Nest and Gerald, and Nest both convinced her husband Gerald to escape and showed him how to do so (somewhat ignominiously, through the privies). Nest was then stolen away by Owain, who, "violated Nest and lay with her and then returned home."

Chapter 1 also outlines Nest's later marital and sexual relations and her descendants. Most famous among her kin is her grandson Gerald of Wales, son of Nest's daughter from her marriage to Gerald of Windsor. In her lifetime Nest was wife or mistress to at least four men and it is surprising that Johns does not include a family tree, or make more of this unusual number of sexual partners and the resulting half-siblings. Instead, she concludes the paragraph on Nest's descendants with a decidedly neutral sentence: "Thus Nest was the mother of eight sons and two daughters" (22).

Johns focuses on how different versions of the Brut offer varying emphases and ways of telling the abduction story, which Johns, following earlier scholarly tradition, considers central to the narrative of relations between the English and the Welsh. In particular, one text narrating the abduction writes that Owain forcibly raped Nest, while another mentions his seizure of Nest, with no depiction of carnal relations, forced or otherwise. Johns suggests that this difference indicates conflicted loyalties among authors of the different versions; since they wanted to portray Owain as a Welsh resistor of English invaders, they demonstrate ambivalence about his alleged crimes. The text that speaks of forced sexual violence has him motivated by passion, instigated by the devil. They acknowledge that the crime happened, but work hard to avoid portraying Owain as a villain.

To better understand the context of Nest's abduction, Johns delves into Welsh legal sources to explore how the chroniclers understood marriage, rape, abduction, and the role of women in Welsh culture. She draws parallels between how different versions of the Brut seemingly conflate rape and abduction and how a similar conflation appears in English legal texts (although Johns' argument would benefit from engagement with more recent scholarship that emphasizes how rape and abduction are not always indistinguishable in England). It is surprising, moreover, that recent works on Welsh law by Sara Elin Roberts do not appear in her bibliography. Johns' analysis of Nest's abduction highlights several important themes, however. Nest's story demonstrates both her passivity and her agency--passive as a victim of abduction and perhaps rape, but also active in her ability to rescue her husband and manipulate Owain into releasing her children from captivity. Versions of the story also imply Nest's complicity in her abduction, or at least conflicted loyalties divided between her Welsh cousin and her Anglo-Norman husband. Johns concludes this chapter by highlighting how the tale of Nest's abduction breaks free from the other stories involving women in the Brut, which largely relegates women to spheres of marriage and genealogy. Nest's story is rare in how it also contains an important political component, which Johns suggests highlights the tensions in the area of at the time of the Brut's composition as well as during Nest's lifetime.

In Chapter 2 Johns explores how Nest's grandson, Gerald of Wales, depicts his maternal grandmother along with other powerful women in high medieval Welsh society. Interestingly Gerald, who acknowledges Nest's position at the center of both familial and political networks, avoids the story of Nest's abduction entirely. Johns suggests that this indicates that Gerald believed that Nest had conflicted loyalties in the episode. Yet he is proud to acknowledge Nest as a "founding mother" in his family ancestry; although he calls his kin-group the "FitzGeralds" or "Geraldines" after his grandfather, he places the maternal figure of Nest in a prominent position as the figure who produced the lineage and held the family together. Johns also examines how Gerald depicted other prominent women, such as Gwenllian who led an army and died on the battlefield in support of her husband, or the wife of the Irish chieftain Ua Ruairc, Derbforgaill, whose abduction prompted the Geraldine (and later English) invasion of Ireland. Johns emphasizes that even if Gerald of Wales displayed plenty of "contemporary anti-female stereotypes" (56) he also had a more nuanced approached towards women than many scholars have allowed. Women played important roles as mothers and sisters of powerful men and they were central for maintaining, not merely creating, political alliances. Moreover, depictions of women in both Wales and Ireland demonstrate the centrality of women, and sexual politics, as essential elements of conquest and narratives of conquest. In her examination of the twelfth-century chroniclers who discussed conquest in the British isles, it is surprising that Johns overlooked Kirsten Fenton's almost identically-titled book Gender, Nation and Conquest in the Works of William of Malmesbury.

In the third chapter, Johns explores two additional types of sources, seals and charters, which illuminate the opportunities, challenges, and experiences of noblewomen in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Wales. She illustrates, primarily through two case studies analyzing the roles of Joan, wife of Llywelyn the Great, and Senna, wife of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, how women wielded political and tenurial agency. In addition, Johns returns to the lawbooks, which, although written later than Nest's lifetime, demonstrate important ideas about women and queenship that relates to our understanding of Nest. Her depiction of marriage as a political partnership (108) brings to mind Theresa Earenfight's recent scholarship on medieval queens. Although Johns' comment that "women were at the heart of these political relationships" (105) probably goes too far, her exploration demonstrates the crucial intersection of gender, legitimacy, property, matrimonial politics, and ethnic allegiances that underlie Nest's legend, the experiences of other Welsh noblewomen, and the traditional male-dominated story of "domination and conquest."

In the second part of the book, Johns moves beyond the Middle Ages to explore early modern and modern depictions of Nest, her legend and the role of the abduction in the subsequent conquest of Wales. Chapter 4 considers Tudor portrayals of Nest, Chapter 5 examines how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians and travel writers represented her, and Chapter 6 discusses modern and contemporary representations by looking at both scholarly works and Nest's frequent appearances in tourism literature. Within each chapter, the analysis proceeds largely chronologically. For example, the examination of early modern scholarship by Welsh authors, in Chapter 4, begins with Humphrey Llywd's Cronica Walliae, finished by 1559, and ends with George Owen's Description of Pembrokeshire, of c.1610. Johns demonstrates how Tudor antiquarians linked the sexual conquest of Nest with the political conquest of Wales. Moreover, early modern authors recognized the importance of gender to issues of conquest, ethnicity, and nation-building. Implicit in Johns' analysis is the important question--where did the women go in the scholarly, male-dominated histories written in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century histories?--and the important recognition that earlier antiquarian scholars understood their significance even if they sometimes altered (primarily romanticized) Nest's story. Women did not entirely disappear, since the legend of Nest remained prominent (albeit oversimplified) in modern educational materials and tourist guides, but, as Johns argues explicitly, academic historians need to reevaluate the "Age of Princes" framework that they have developed for understanding Welsh history in the high medieval era.

Standing apart from the overall chronological organization of Johns' book is an interesting seventh chapter that considers Nest's role as the Welsh "Helen of Troy," as many writers have called her. Johns examines standards of physical attractiveness in the Middle Ages and discusses how versions of the abduction story emphasized how Nest's beauty, like Helen's, inflamed male passion in a manner leading to warfare and conquest. In the earlier chronicle narratives Nest's appearance helps readers understand what prompted Owain to abduct her and the subsequent political and military fallout of that act. Authors from the Tudor era and beyond emphasized Nest's beauty more for romantic reasons, while authors filled with nationalist Welsh pride sought to elide the sexual conquest, so that "the tawdry aspects of the abduction as a possible rape have been written out of modern views of the abduction in favour of a rose-tainted nostalgic view of the past which is based on myths" (225).

By investigating one pivotal story told in many sources across different genres and written in different eras, Johns' analysis provides a useful guide to how genre and chronology shape narratives. Organizing her book around how different sources narrate one tale does, regrettably, lead to repetition, but perhaps this is unavoidable. As stated already, Johns could have expanded her scholarship, at least from what works are evident in her notes and bibliography, and the text of the book could benefit from further editing. For example, sentences are sometimes repetitive and contradictory (84); one paragraph that goes on for three pages (88-91); and surely one should substitute "history" for "travel writing" on p. 163 (when Johns has recently concluded her discussion of travel writing and is starting a new section on histories). Finally, Johns too frequently resorts to telling, not showing, that something "is significant" or that she is providing "a gender-based analysis."

These criticisms notwithstanding, in exploring the mythology of Nest ,Johns has offered an important corrective to masculine-driven stories of military conquest by highlighting the role of women, women's sexuality, and sometimes women's agency, in conquest stories. Her examination of Nest is augmented by the well-grounded context of stories of other powerful Welsh women. Such tales parallel the relevance of the interplay between gender, ethnicity, and conquest in the overall relationship between England and Wales; Johns depicts how the Welsh were sometimes depicted as feminized in contrast to the masculine, conquering, English. This book is important for any student or scholar researching early English forays into Wales or the role of women in medieval Welsh society.

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Author Biography

Caroline Dunn

Clemson University