15.08.49, Sheehan and Dooley, Constructing Gender

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Lisa Bitel

The Medieval Review 15.08.49

Sheehan, Sarah and Ann Dooley, eds. Constructing Gender in Medieval Ireland. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. pp. 236. ISBN: 978-0-230-11525-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Lisa Bitel
University of Southern California

The editors of this slim volume of nine essays refer to their shared field of medieval Irish gender studies as "relatively new." This collection, they assert, is the first to treat "women, gender, and early Irish culture" (1). The editors' claims are technically true. Celticists and other medievalists have not previously produced a volume dedicated to gender in early medieval Irish texts. However, scholars have tackled medieval Irishwomen's history and made feminist approaches to medieval Irish literature before, beginning with the work of Margaret MacCurtain and Donnchadh Ó Corráin in the late 1970s. [1] Long before that, Celticists mined the medieval manuscripts for evidence about women's legal status, sanctity, and putative divinity in early medieval Irish epics. It could even be argued that a few topics--the cult of Saint Brigit and the character of Medb, Queen of Connacht, in the Ulster cycle of heroic tales--have attracted more study than they deserve. These essays continue lines of investigation initiated decades ago, focusing mostly on depictions of heterosexual women across the diverse genres of medieval Irish texts.

The collection does one thing new, though, and one other thing very well. The new thing: all nine authors take a consistently theoretical approach to the literature. The very well done thing: although not all of the theories deployed here are cutting edge, nonetheless, the authors' shared methods and concerns turn the book into a genuine conversation about the gendered implications of medieval Irish literature. I could see assigning this book to a graduate seminar in order to spark discussion about medieval gender (students would have to use a library version, since the volume is appallingly expensive).

Themes of gender performance and the flexibility of gender boundaries run through the essays. Several authors refer to the same texts or share methods. The first two essays compare medieval Irish legal texts with evidence about women drawn from sagas and stories. Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha maps women's access to private and public spaces by examining the representation of women's legal rights and restrictions in juridical treatises and then applying the rules to literary situations. Ní Dhonnchadha argues that both legal and narrative texts disapproved of peripatetic women-women who drank alcohol in public, performed publicly, or traveled freely threatened social order and gender boundaries (both archaeological evidence and studies of other medieval regions support this contention, although Ní Dhonnchadha does not cite them).

Likewise, Catherine Swift draws on the legal material, along with Christian scripture and church canons, to analyze attitudes toward marriage, divorce, and adultery in early Ireland. She interprets the behavior of female characters in medieval epics and myths in light of legal constructs. The motif of female abduction in heroic tales was, she argues, a literary response to the Christian canonical stance on divorce (as scholars have previously argued regarding continental romances of the eleventh and later centuries).

Several essays focus on texts little known to most medievalists, or even to most Celticists. Joanne Findon analyzes Tochmarc Becfhola (The Wooing of Becfhola, a 9th-10th-century text preserved in a 14th-century manuscript.) Unlike other Wooings, in this tale a woman rather than a man instigates romance. Becfhola arranges to meet the king of Temair and inveigles him into marriage, then tries unsuccessfully to seduce his foster-son. In a surprise twist (at least to those who know the Phaedra story or the romance of Tristna and Iseult), Becfhola later falls for an otherworldly princeling who takes her away in a bronze boat and they live happily ever after. Findon deploys methods drawn from speech act theory--a method she wielded with impressive results in her monograph on women in the Ulster cycle [2]--to lead us through multiple readings of this peculiar tale, pointing out "illocutionary acts" that Becfhola and other female characters presented for the medieval audience's appreciation. Findon notes the conflicting versions of the tale, as well as shifting gender ideologies in the period of church reform and argues that the story must be read on multiple levels. Although the king of Temair disapproved of his wife's adultery, and although Becfhola clearly acted outside of Christian morality, the story's happy ending suggests a more favorable interpretation of its heroine and thus resistance to religious restrictions on sexual behavior.

Amy Mulligan attacks the gendered stereotype of Mother Ireland, ancestress of the sovereignty goddess so beloved of early 20th-century Celticists. Earlier scholars interpreted aggressive female characters in early Irish tales as remnants of pre-Christian pagan mythology. That same iconographical reduction inspired Celtic revivalists and Irish nationalists to cherish, revere, and gender the island of Ireland. Mulligan relies on Judith Butler, among other muses, to help her reread the tale of Macha Mongrúad, a rare female warrior and ruler in the otherwise macho world of early Irish literature. Macha is one of several battle ready and sexually unconstrained women who appeared in tales of the early and central medieval periods. According to legend, Macha was the sole heir of her father, king of Ireland, yet she had to fight for her right to rule because women were legally unfit to reign. Mulligan examines Macha's speech acts and concludes that Macha's story was a sly critique of medieval kings and kingship. Macha proved a more able military leader and a more judicious ruler than any man. Medieval writers intentionally created a Macha fully aware of sexist literary tropes for power, Mulligan argues, who was both heroic and attractive to medieval Christian audiences.

Sarah Sheehan shifts attention to gendered visuality and specularity in her examination of similar stories from the Ulster cycle (these are tales related to the saga Táin Bó Cúailgne, Cattle Raid of Cooley, which Celticists have touted as the greatest example of medieval Irish literature). In diverse Irish texts, rules about who could look at whom were based on hierarchies of social class and gender. The visibility of characters in a tale to others within the story and also to the audience outside the story could be both empowering and perilous--whether the visible character was male or female. The heroes Fráech, Noísiu, and Cú Chulainn all displayed--to fellow characters and to audiences--their martial skills and physical beauty without any loss of power or status. The consequences of heroic display depended on plot rather than the gender of either the gazer or object of a gaze, Sheehan argues, although she admits that women's erotic gaze upon men often led to mayhem. She proposes that ambivalence about "the pagan cultural value of fame" influenced medieval attitudes toward heroic show-offs. (However, if medieval audiences were as smart as Mulligan argues, surely they understood literary tropes of public display to be more complex than simple pagan leftovers).

Judith Bishop uses bits of hagiography juxtaposed with the early medieval legal tract on sick maintenance, Bretha Crólige, to reexamine the gendered nature of power. The legal tract sets out rules for the care of ill and wounded patients, calculating the costs of care based on the event that caused the injury or illness, and the gender and social status of the patient. Actually, Bishop begins by wondering why famous religious women in early Ireland were never depicted as asexual or as cross-dressing ascetics, as were so many female saints of the Mediterranean region in late antiquity. After briefly discussing a mysterious episode in the 9th-century life of Saint Brigit, in which the saint is mistakenly ordained as a bishop without damage to her femininity, Bishop searches for answers in the laws. Irish Christians devised local terms for the exceptional status and power some women, such as abbesses and saints, based on native legal concepts found in tracts such as Bretha Crólige. Bishop does not refer to the classic article by Jo Ann McNamara on the same theme, published way back in 2003. [3] McNamara demonstrated that royal Frankish women were able to wield power despite gender restrictions because noble birth trumped gender. Yet Bishop argues for Irish difference.

Like Bishop, Jennifer Karyn Reid is interested in the melding of late antique Christian concepts and the unique gender assumptions of medieval Irish writers. Reid examines gender constructs inherent in Christian doctrine and their influence on Irish authors, and vice-versa--or, as she puts it, "the techno-poetic quality of text in gender construction" in a context "consonant with the ongoing creative techno-poetic enterprise that human beings use to define and transform themselves in their 'life-world' generally" (133). Simple empiricists like me may find this essay challenging because of its theoretical terminology, but may also find it to be the most innovative in the collection. Reid's interpretation of grammatical gender leads her to posit a distinctively Irish eschatology, which she supports with analysis of Marian prayers, the spell-like protective prayers called loricae, and the well-known poem Ísucán, in which Saint Íte imagines herself nursing the Christ child. Reid does not accomplish all that she claims (e.g., demonstration of "the impact of forces such as language media and Christian theology on anthropological formulations concerning gender within a given cultural context" [148]), but she makes important points about the subtle implications of seemingly gender-free Christian doctrines as explicated in Irish texts.

Giselle Gos returns to some stories mentioned by Swift and Findon: Eachtra Airt Meic Cuind (The Adventure of Art Mac Cuinn and the Wooing of Delbchaem); and Compert Mongáin (Conception of Mongán and Mongán's Love for Dub-Lacha), both later medieval Rómánsaíochta or romances. Like Mulligan, Gos urges modern readers to resist mythologically-inspired readings of these love stories in order to grasp historical medieval messages about gender performance and social norms. Eachtra Airt, for instance, has long been read as a formulaic Loathly Lady story. Set in legendary times, the romances feature powerful female figures who defy gender conventions yet, nonetheless, also lay more emphasis on marital fidelity and the preservation of women's chastity than earlier medieval texts. The sexiest females in these late romances are immoral otherworldly women who betray mortal men--as did like Becfhola--whereas good women in the tales are human wives who remain true to their men. This, Gos argues, accords with church reforms and clerical concerns about sexual purity and the sanctity of marriage.

The last essay, by Ann Dooley, touches on similar themes and on texts discussed elsewhere in the collection, but the essay focuses on a text that Dooley has made her own in her previous works: the 12th-century Acallam na Senórach or Colloquy of the Ancients. The Acallam is an ambitious collection of stories, framed as the narrative of Saint Patrick's journey around Ireland, during which he meets many ancient warrior heroes. The Fenians, members of the band or fian led by Finn Mac Umaill, recount their deeds to Patrick while another cleric writes them down for posterity. Dooley, like Gos, sees evidence in her text for changing ideas about sex and marriage. In Fenian tales about liaisons with otherworldly lovers, Dooley spots authorial efforts to reconcile ancient literary traditions with updated Christian doctrines. For example, in the story of Art Mac Cuinn, also discussed by Gos, seductive otherworldly women (such as Becfola) present "a constant danger to susceptible human kind...precisely because, as the most attractive devilish form possible, they can all the more easily destroy a man's Christian soul" (181). The text uses its characters to promote monogamy, the domesticity of women, and the chivalry of noblemen. "Out of sexual limitation," Dooley concludes, "is born the 'modern' Irish parent" (186).

Until the recent vote on same-sex marriage, the Irish have rarely taken a revolutionary lead in the battle for gender equity. The authors of this volume, led by Mulligan and Dooley, suggest that Irish ambivalence of about sexuality and gender boundaries has its origins in the medieval past. As the authors repeatedly remind us, the medieval Irish evidence differs from the evidence for gender constructs found in other medieval literatures. Still, other regions of medieval Christendom had their own local dialects of gender, which modern medievalists have too frequently collapsed and blended into one big Medieval Gender System. Our current job as medievalists is to shed our own gendered assumptions in order to more accurately discern the many shades of gender that flourished in the different regions and moments of the past. Only then will we be able to figure out what exactly was medieval and Irish about medieval Irish gender constructs.



1. Margaret MacCurtain and Donnchadh Ó Corráin (eds.), Women in Irish Society: The Historical Dimension (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1979).

2. R. Atkinson, The Yellow Book of Lecan (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy House, 1896); Joanne Findon, A Woman's Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

3. Jo Ann McNamara, "Women and Power Through the Family Revisited," in Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages, eds. Mary Carpenter Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 17-30.

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