15.09.28, Schieberle, Feminized Counsel and the Literature of Advice in England, 1380-1500

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Christine Rose

The Medieval Review 15.09.28

Schieberle, Misty. Feminized Counsel and the Literature of Advice in England, 1380-1500. Disputatio, 26. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. pp. x, 224. ISBN: 9782503550121 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Christine Rose
Portland State University

Female counselors to monarchs or powerful men are portrayed in Middle English poetry of the late Middle Ages by Gower, in his Confessio Amantis; by Chaucer, in The Legend of Good Women and Melibee; and by two fifteenth-century male translators of Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea, Stephen Scrope and an anonymous poet. Schieberle argues that these four male poets align their poetic performances with the figure of the woman counselor, and assume a similar inferior-but-authoritative stance, enabling them, like their female poetic creations, to counsel influential males concerning matters of the realm and virtuous personal behavior without being considered threatening or insubordinate. They demonstrate that good advice may originate in any source. In addition, Schieberle poses, these male poets disrupt the traditional antifeminist stereotypes in Latin mirrors for princes such as Giles of Rome's De regimine principum or the Secretum secretorum and depict women as indispensable and respected political counselors, neither weak nor inferior in sagacity to those whom they advise. Using the literary topos of the woman counselor, poets could position themselves to criticize or advise great men and thereby effect political change by providing "feminized counsel," first to the great men or aristocrats addressed by the works, and then to the broader audience that Middle English texts attracted, that included gentry and women. The works Schieberle considers all portray "gender and authority as flexible and performative" (5). The women advisors in these late medieval poetic texts, such as Prudence in Chaucer's Melibee, prove also to be insightful interpreters of proverbial texts for their lordly audiences. Schieberle argues that the poets and works she studies here do not define masculine and feminine agency against each other, with the feminine as the less authoritative position. Instead, positioning themselves as the female marital partner, not a negative posture--subordinate, yet at the side of a magnate--the poets, through their female counselor characters, articulate positive role models for both men and women, and envision a state in which women and men work together for the improvement of individuals and the realm. The overall effect of admirable women counselors appearing in popular literary texts, says Schieberle, ultimately might endorse women in the role of confident, rational advisors of those men who would listen to them carefully. Schieberle concludes that such narrative depictions of women intervening to advise rulers raises the status of real women (196), a claim that is troublesome to grant based upon only these four literary selections, but one would wish it to be true.

Schieberle situates the vernacular advice literature she considers as descendants of the Latin mirror-for-princes tradition, yet the spin these Middle English authors put on this genre involves a feminization of the counselor, supplicating the monarch for a hearing, not threatening his authority, but ultimately persuading him of the rightness of the advice offered concerning actions he might consider. She also points out the tradition in chronicles of the queenly intercessor, based on the model of the Virgin interceding with God for mercy, yet notes how unexpected a source for ethical and political counseling women must have seemed (15). However, the late medieval poets examined here embraced the feminine as representing their own subordination to kings, patrons and authorities (17). The texts discussed use the exemplum to illustrate virtuous behavior, and Schieberle stresses that the feminized counselors demonstrate that interpreting exempla invariably depends upon the context. Just as all women cannot be tarred with the brush of inferiority and wickedness, exempla cannot be interpreted universally. The texts' female interlocutors teach the addressees how to read appropriately, and how proper reading, if internalized, can lead to virtue and reform. Like the women they depict, and writing in the mother tongue rather than the Latin of traditional authorities on kingship, the poets deferred to the authority of the monarch, delivering counsel and positioning themselves not to offend, whilst being regarded as full of sage advice and political wisdom. They can speak the truth because, in the guise of women or in a feminized position, they do not challenge political supremacy.

Beginning with Gower's Confessio Amantis, Schieberle notes that Gower portrays women as valuable members of medieval society who can speak the truth. The poet links political counsel to "overwhelmingly positive representations of women" (25). Counsel between husband and wife, as between king and his polity, is essential, and the metaphor of marriage throughout the Confessio denotes the closeness of a monarch and his advisor, of either gender, who uses "feminized discourse." Since thirty-seven of the Confessio's tales refer to counsel, the topic clearly concerns the poet. In this chapter Schieberle delineates the idea that carries throughout her discussion: that through the figure of a woman advisor, poets signify the necessity of interpreting, evaluating and reading advice--not always a talent of rulers, but a skill they might learn from wise women and poets. In the Confessio Genius teaches Amans how to make old books mean for new times. Gower demonstrates in two tales, "Florent" and "Three Questions," that feminized counsel can be an antidote for the prideful ruler (59). He does not, though, advocate autonomous authority for women in these tales, but reintegrates them back into the patriarchal system of marriage. They intercede from a submissive but active posture of deference (55).

In the chapter on Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, Schieberle observes that identification with the feminine transforms the male poet-narrator, and gives him freedom in that position of powerlessness to discuss good governance. Authority of all kinds constitutes the central issue of the Legend's prologue. Alceste models queenly intercession in her pleading with Cupid to behave mercifully, and thus she becomes a model for the poet himself and for others who must deal with a willful, wrathful monarch in a non-threatening manner (67). Schieberle points out that Alceste condemns prioritizing personal desire or passion over the chivalric duty of the ruler to his realm. So, the political message of the rape of Philomena by Tereus is read as a ruler allowing his urges to interfere with his kingdom; the story of Hypermnestra shows the misuse of power over a victimized woman (86).

Chapter 3, on the tale of Melibee from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, explores the function of the many proverbs used by Prudence, as she attempts to mollify her husband Melibee's anger and desire for vengeance against those who have harmed his family and his reputation. She schools him on alternatives to retaliation through reasonable argument from her feminine but authoritative position as both his wife and accepted counselor. Proverbs buttress her arguments. She instructs Melibee that while there are various ways to interpret each proverb, in the context of his dilemma, she can provide the right interpretation and instruction that will turn him towards the virtuous act that increases his worship, rather than the rash act that endangers it. Schieberle takes an interesting turn in the second part of this chapter by discussing San Marino, Huntington Library MS HM 144, an anthology of moral works including versions of Chaucer's "Monk's Tale" and the "Melibee," both unattributed to Chaucer and detached from their Canterbury Tales context. In this compilation, the scribe asserts in his addition to the work that Prudence's advice could prevent such falls of princes as appear in the manuscript's rendition of the "Monk's Tale." Thus, in this anthology, Prudence's story reaches beyond a woman calming her husband to avoid combat with local enemies, and instead functions as a political mirror for princes. Prudence chips away at Melibee's resistance to changing his irous nature, providing a model for helping a ruler to avoid vice and follow virtue, thus aiding him in stepping outside of Fortune's riotous rule. Virtue, according to the woman advisor, can keep men from becoming Fortune's victims. In the texts of HM 144, an immoral ruler causes tragedy, while morality supposedly assures worldly security (a "comforting fantasy") (127). Advice does not bring mastery, of course, for the lord must decide for himself whether to follow such counsel. However, princes neglect good advice at their peril. For readers, the words of Prudence express sound judgment and evince how Melibee's honor will be augmented, not besmirched, by mercy and openhandedness. Prudence does not use her gender or her marital bond with Melibee to gain mastery over his hotheadedness. Rather, she demonstrates strength through her feminine position, moral rightness and cool logic. She mirrors in her own conduct the patience and deliberation her husband requires, and demonstrates how to counsel a lord. The scribe of HM 144 emends the tale to make it less about the specific situation of Melibee's grievance and his mistakes in addressing them, and more about general political theory (128). The authority of Prudence herself is elevated in this version, and the scribe's moral message finally concerns avoiding covetousness and vengeance--not a customary reading of the tale. But covetousness as a vice damaging to the realm in England was a topic familiar to fifteenth-century audiences and readers of Lydgate. Thus, Schieberle notes, the version of Melibee's story in HM 144 was an "unmistakably successful counterpart to the de casibus failures" of the rendering of the "Monk's Tale" in the same codex (134), and a veiled warning to contemporary authorities.

Women, who in antifeminist literature are compared to fickle Fortune, in the works studied here become the agents of keeping Fortune's vicissitudes at bay by advising virtue as a remedy. In the final and strongest chapter, Schieberle discusses two translations of Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea in Middle English, one by Stephen Scrope in 1440, and another by an anonymous poet c. 1450 who titles it the Lytil Bibell of Knyghthod. Christine's work promotes women as valuable advisors to princes, and the fictional Othea guides the young Hector of Troy. Schieberle poses that both male translators strove to make room for voices of counsel typically excluded, and asserted their own authority through their identification with Christine's women counselors, who must be taken seriously by rulers on matters affecting the kingdom (141). What is new about Schieberle's work is her comparison of Scrope's translation with the Lytil Bibell. The latter work has been deemed a poor translation, whereas Schieberle claims that the poet's adaptation, far from being mediocre, transforms Christine's work into a lesson on arresting Fortune's wheel by attending to careful reading of exempla. Bad fortune ensues from the unwise choice not to practice those virtues advised by Othea. Schieberle argues that the Lytil Bibell's author infused his work with anxieties about "the most effective ways to teach moral virtues from a feminized position" (190). This recuperation of the Lytil Bibell reveals its poet to be one of Christine's most astute readers (191). Schieberle's promised new edition of the Lytil Bibell will invite others to investigate this relatively obscure work.

This book is fairly short, and one would not wish it longer. Several sections unnecessarily reiterate the notion of gender-as-performance and the authority of women gained despite their subordinate position. There were a few typos and mis-alphabetizing in the bibliography (Curtius before Crocker)--but these things happen. It was tricky at first to locate the bibliographical citation for the Lytil Bibell of Knyghthod edited by Gordon (first cited on 6, n. 13). It appears in the bibliography under the entry for Christine de Pizan, The Epistle of Othea to Hector..., with James Gordon's name buried within the citation. Perhaps an entry under Lytil Bibell or Gordon, would aid the reader, since it is not fully identified and discussed until the final chapter, and then it is clearly shown to be an "adaptation" of Christine's work, not a slavish translation. It needs its own entry, as it constitutes a crucial part of the argument of this book. Too many footnotes to the MED might be easier to cover parenthetically in the text, whereas some matter in the footnotes seems important enough to be in the body of text itself (e. g. 114, n. 49). The author otherwise deserves praise for her many careful readings and thought-provoking insights, especially in the final chapter. The grouping of these four works through the notion of the feminization of counsel proves to be a salutary contribution to the discussion of gendered performance by Middle English poets.

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