At its core, Karina Marie Ash's Conflicting Femininities in Medieval German Literature explores the tense relationship between what the author identifies as two medieval ideals of femininity, that of procreation and of celibacy. Reading a wide range of high medieval German narratives against Latin and French renditions of the same material, and in the context of contemporary homiletic and religious texts and traditions, Ash argues that "medieval German literature...reveals a specific anxiety about conflicting religious and lay femininities, ...[and] offers idealized solutions to mitigate this conflict" (3).
The introductory chapter lays out the author's modus operandi, and provides a brief overview of medieval attitudes to celibacy, in particular focusing on the role--and the effects on women--that the Gregorian reforms had in restoring the ideal of celibacy promoted by the early Church Fathers. Using hagiographic texts, Ash explores the high-medieval celibate ideal for women, identifying three options for women: enduring marriage ("marriage as martyrdom"), fleeing to a religious community ("escape-from-marriage"), and self-mutilation in order to avoid marriage ("martyring oneself") (7-10). These three options obviously offer women (literary) models that conflict with the (real) dynastic needs and goals of many aristocratic families; those conflicts, Ash argues, are reflected in the contemporary twelfth- and thirteenth-century German literature that is the subject of the rest of the book.
The Introduction is followed by fourteen chapters, ranging in length from six to twenty-six pages, most of which focus on the female protagonist (or other key female figure) in one or two medieval German texts; there is also a brief concluding chapter. Most chapters are grouped according to how the femininities and the subsequent conflicts are expressed and the ways in which these showcase "feminine compromises that address specific anxieties medieval German-speaking courts had about women" (4). To this end, Chapters 1 through 4 explore German narratives that contain conflict scenes absent in their Latin or French counterparts ("sources" in some, but not all, cases). Here we find a reading of Priester Wernher's Maria: Drei Lieder von der Magd of 1174, which, Ash argues, contains both the Virgin's "defense of her religious identity from the monastic perspective of a celibate" (15) and the conflicting model of femininity of procreation, voiced by the bishop Abiathar. Ash shows that the juxtaposition arising from this conflict "between celibate salvation and carnal damnation" (16), which is not found in Wernher's source text, is mitigated by a "partial concession" by the virgin: she will agree to marry, but not to consummate that marriage; in this way, she finds a compromise between the two ideals of femininity Ash has recognized. In addition to Priester Wernher's text, this chapter draws on Konrad von Fussesbrunnen's Die Kindheit Jesu (between 1190 and 1220). Other texts considered in these first four chapters are Hartmann von Aue's Gregorius and his Der arme Heinrich, Das Nibelunglied, and Diu Klage.
In a second set of narrative texts, treated in Chapters 6 through 8, Ash postulates a shift by German poets to the promotion of wifehood as a salvific choice. Here she draws on Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, with the focus on Herzeloyde and Sigune, and on his Willehalm, where she considers Giburc. These figures return in a third group of narratives, in Chapters 12, 13, and 14 (which also includes the figure of Arabel) in the re-creations and continuations of Willehalm's works, namely, the Jüngere Titurel of Albrecht (Ash notes that the designation 'von Scharfenberg' has been challenged), Ulrich von dem Türlin's Arabel, and Ulrich von Turheim's Rennewart. Ash argues that these texts elaborate an increasing separation between the two femininities--that is to say, that both Church and nobility seemed more concerned with "separating marriageable and married women from their saintly, celibate sisters" (165).
From the above summary, I have singled out Chapters 5, 9, 10, and 11, as these chapters show well the historical context and possible influences on the depiction of these conflicting femininities in the German narratives. Chapter 5, "Pastoral Persuasion and Mystic Rebellion in the Thirteenth Century," examines pastoral works such as Berthold von Regensburg's sermon on marriage that reveal a gradual shift away from advocating celibacy for women and towards a "gradual promotion of not only sex within marriage but also wifehood as a quasi-religious vocation" (64), and at the same time emphasize the growing appeal of and participation in women's lay religious movements. Chapter 9, "Turning the Saint into a Lady: St. Elisabeth in Thirteenth-Century Vitae" analyzes how different vitae, beginning with Konrad von Marburg's Summa Vitae (1232) and including Dietrich of Apolda's Vita sanctae Elisabeth (1289), as well as German Elizabethleben, present the conflict between a life devoted to virginity and dedicated to God and one as a married wife and mother. Chapters 5 and 9 connect on a thematic level as well, as the former marks the shift toward texts that begin to promote "wifehood as a salvific choice" (4), and the latter gives readers a concrete--and recent--example of a woman cast in her narratives as embodying both the ideal of religious piety and that of marriage and motherhood. Chapter 10 marks the beginning of the transition towards greater separation between the realms of married women in the secular world and celibate women in the religious one. Here Ash looks at Wirnt von Grafenberg's Wigalois (probably 1210-1220) and the anonymous German narrative Die gute Frau (1230). This transition is further explored in Chapter 11, "Keeping Female Religiosity a Secret in Der welsche Gast and Das Frauenbuch," through conduct literature as well as historical evidence (e.g., thirteenth-century claustration laws).
As the above paragraphs indicate, this book offers a wealth of material and, as reflected in the title, explores models of femininity presented in medieval German literature of (mostly) the thirteenth century. Its strength--namely the diversity of texts it explores including Latin, Old French, and German--is perhaps also its weakness, in that the range of material precludes the author from providing greater narrative contextualization of the various protagonists and their actions. For those working in the German literature of the High Middle Ages, this will be less of an obstacle, but for those whose specialty lies either before or after (or in another field), the Verfasserlexikon or an English equivalent will prove useful to have at hand. Ash is clearly well-steeped in the scholarship on her numerous sources; her footnotes are extensive, as is her bibliography. Her text resonates with references to contemporary culture; for example, not infrequently she begins chapters with quotations from twentieth-century songs (13, 51, 149) reflective of modern ideals of femininity. Though the reviewer was not always familiar with these references, they should appeal to those more versed in the musical scene.
The book would have benefitted from more careful copy-editing and could perhaps be more succinct (in places it reads rather like a dissertation), but these quibbles are not meant to discourage potential readers. Broadly speaking, Conflicting Femininities in Medieval German Literature showcases the role that literature plays in both reflecting and shaping contemporary thirteenth-century concerns about the conflicting models of femininity available to women. More specifically, Ash's work shows how German texts address these conflicts and the attendant, underlying anxieties they create, and that in doing so these texts differ from their Latin and French counterparts. Regardless of readers' familiarity with all of these German texts, those interested in gender issues in the Middle Ages will find much of value in Ash's book.