16.04.03, Cox, McAvoy, and Magnani, eds., Reconsidering Gender, Time and Memory in Medieval Culture

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Joanne Findon

The Medieval Review 16.04.03

Cox, Elizabeth, Liz Herbert McAvoy, and Roberta Magnani, eds. Reconsidering Gender, Time and Memory in Medieval Culture. Gender in the Middle Ages, 10. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2015. pp. xii, 203. ISBN: 9781843844037 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Joanne Findon
Trent University

This volume originated in a conference on "Gender, Time and Memory" held in 2011 and hosted by the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Research at Swansea University. Conference proceedings can sometimes lack coherence, but the papers in this volume intersect and interconnect admirably. Embodying in various ways Carolyn Dinshaw's recent arguments about the "queerness" of the medieval past and the ways in which the past is always with us, while also drawing on Mary Carruthers' work on memory and Luce Irigaray's theories, this volume adds gender to the mix to offer new readings of a range of medieval texts. As McAvoy notes in her introduction, medieval texts often resist or at least interrogate traditional masculine notions of linear time. In doing so they often reflect the paradox of the Christian view of time: on the one hand a linear progression of sacred history from Creation to the end of days, and on the other an eternal "now" in which such events are continually revisited and reenacted throughout the year in various rituals and feasts. Memory enables us to access the past; indeed, memory is essential to identity (7). But gender is also an important ingredient, particularly since women's lives tend to be defined more by the life cycle than by linear events. The essays here explore the inherent instability and fluidity of the traditional constructs of gender, time, and memory in medieval culture.

The first essay by Patricia Skinner draws on her experience of coediting a book of translated sources for secular women's lives. These sources are often problematic, rarely following one woman through the whole trajectory of her life but rather focusing on transitional moments (such as the loss of a husband). Reflecting on the difficulties of this project, Skinner argues for using the gendered life cycle as a structuring tool instead of the normative, linear progression assumed to govern men's lives. A woman's repeated pregnancies, births, and postnatal rituals necessarily removed her temporarily "from the linear flow of time within her community" (13). As a result, women and men in the same community likely remembered the same events quite differently (8). Indeed, such a "cyclical journey" through life may have reinforced women's memories through the repetition of events. Moreover, a woman's age, class, environment, and social ties could have crucial effects on how she progressed through these stages of the life cycle and thus how she experienced them.

Victoria Turner's analysis of the Old French romance Aucassin et Nicolette focusses on the concept of "expiration dating," in which "a relationship is characterized by its very lack of a future" (29). This romance portrays "cross-cultural, youthful love as a hiatus in the lives of the protagonists and thus as a moment where linear time is suspended" (29). In living for the moment, she argues, the characters experience "queer time" through a series of movements across time and space, exchanging active and passive roles even while they also move forward in age and maturity. Interestingly, she notes that the moments of "queer time" that they experience are not gendered, but in fact "alter according to their spatial coordinates" (43); when the lovers are separated, Nicolette (dressed as a man) is the masculine character and Aucassin the passive one, while the opposite is true when they are reunited. Turner suggests that this may not be so much about "gender troubling" but instead about "exposing competing experiences of time" (43). Although the romance ends with the couple's marriage, Turner argues that ultimately the tale is one in which "experiences of gender, class, space and time blur" (44).

The theme of the life cycle is picked up again in the third essay by Fiona Harris-Stoertz, whose examination of late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century "proof of age" records reveals the ways in which gender, time, and memory interacted to create communal histories. These documents are statements by male jurors to confirm the age of male heirs--statements that required these men to speak of events that happened as many as twenty-one years earlier. Harris-Stoertz points out that although the women could not give such evidence in court, the men who did so relied to a great extent on female memory of the events. Since men were very seldom present at births, "the experiences of women became the memories of men" (49). Important community rituals associated with births such as purification, baptisms, and family feasts, as well as birth dates' proximity to saints' days, contributed to the construction of these memories in the communal mind.

We turn to Old English literature with Elizabeth Cox's discussion of Beowulf, a poem which is, she maintains "about memory" (61). In particular, she focusses on the ways in which the poets of an oral tradition could use the stories of their ancestral memory to comment on and even critique the customs and values of their society in its past incarnations. Engaging with Luce Irigaray's discussion of the patriarchal exchange of women, Cox argues that the poem's depiction of the exchange embodied in the friđusibb ("peaceweaver") in the persons of Hildeburh, Wealhtheow, Thryth, and Freawaru actually calls for a shift away from viewing woman as a commodity of exchange. In remembering and recounting the tragic fate of Hildeburh in the Fight at Finnsburg, the poet "demonstrates the futility and inhumanity of the practice of exchanging women for purposes of peaceweaving" (63). Wealhtheow's speech in the "present" of the poem portrays her not as a passive gift between peoples but as a woman who intervenes in the masculine discourse in an attempt to influence events and change minds through her words. She is thus a "politically skilled" peaceweaver who "by her actions, unleashes the potential for a new type of society to develop with different values" (65), suggesting that the Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon society was not so golden after all.

With Ayoush Lazikani's contribution, attention turns to religious literature, and particularly the texts of the Wooing Group. In these anchoritic texts, the anchoress is encouraged to remember Christ by focussing on him intensely through meditation. Indeed, although Christ is absent, the anchoress's life is "defined by a need to make Christ also present--both spatially and temporally--through remembrance of him" (80). Such practice necessarily involves the anchoress "re-forming herself in her re-membering of him" (83). Particularly in the text On Lofsong of ure Lefdi the wording used refers to the chronology of Christ's life but also breaks free of it, so that the anchoress is "implicated in an ever-moving cycle; she is always suffering with Christ, entering the depths of each image of her Lover's pain" (90). Present and past merge.

Liz Herbert McAvoy continues this focus in her discussion of instructions to anchoresses and two texts by anchoresses themselves. In Aelred of Rievaulx's instructions to his own sister, he deliberately portrays her and the anchorhold itself as "constituting the memory of the paradisial originary space" (97). The anchoress's body mirrors this closed space, which is also "the site of memory in which past, present and future intersect" (97). As presented in Ancrene Wisse, the anchoress's body is also in need of reshaping through self-deprivation and suffering in order to become a suitable "container into which the stabilizing force of male discourse can pour" (100). In contrast, the writings of anchoresses themselves (such as Julian of Norwich) envision the anchorhold as "heterotopic space" as Foucault defines it; McAvoy argues that "Julian and her anchorhold form a dynamic heterotopia within which the series of intensely private, life-changing visions...is perpetually re-animated and re-membered..." (102). Thus, Julian's book "is a perpetual performance of her own making" (102), operating outside of linear time as it offers access to a visionary realm. Likewise, another female visionary the "recluse of Winchester," describes what she sees through her deeply personal female gaze. Using Irigaray's theory of espacement, which sees the feminine as spatial and the masculine as essentially temporal, McAvoy argues that these personal accounts by anchoresses reveal a type of subjectivity that breaks free from masculine paradigms.

Anne E. Bailey discusses the intersections of gender, time, and memory in the construction of the hagiography of William of Norwich, a young boy who was rumoured to have been killed by the Jews. William was an ordinary boy, and many witnesses to the events were still living when The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich was written. Thus, fashioning him into a credible candidate for sainthood was a difficult task. William had to be detached from his previous life and family and brought into the realm of sanctity. This was accomplished by moving his remains, in stages, from his home village to a privileged space within the priory church, and facilitated by the discourses of three women who told of discovering William's corpse, foreseeing his death, and broadcasting the news--thus alluding to the three Marys who played similar roles after Christ's death and resurrection. Women also venerated William at the site of his first grave in the woods, and reported healing miracles there. By using these village women as "his mouthpiece" and by "embellishing the ordinary actions of ordinary people with extraordinary significance" (121), the hagiographer Thomas of Monmouth bolstered his claims for William's sanctity. As Bailey argues, following Sherry Ortner's analysis of the traditional nature/culture binary, these women acted as "agents of conversion who, in utilizing their domestic and maternal skills, transform natural raw products into cultural artifacts" (125), transporting William across that nature/culture divide (126). Thomas was able to use this female discourse to construct William's new status as martyr and saint.

Pamela E. Morgan's essay continues the discussion of gender in hagiography with an analysis of the life of St. Congar as a liminal text that explores differing masculinities. In a twelfth-century text written at the confluence of Britain's Anglo-Saxon and Norman eras in Britain, Congar emerges as a figure whose performance of masculinity also situates him within the blurred boundaries between the literary genres of romance and hagiography. Congar's character takes shape within a narrative that is "a palimpsestic, multilayered record" (128) which amounts to a "cultural appropriation of the Anglo-Saxon past" (131) by the Anglo-Norman writers who preserved and reshaped the earlier text, possibly in order to lay claim to lands and property. As a handsome youth who rejects the trappings of chivalric manhood and avoids marriage, Congar takes part in a cultural redefinition of masculinity by demonstrating physical endurance through protracted prayer rather than deeds of arms. Similarly, in maturity Congar is presented as both powerful knight and saintly hero who travels to and appropriates a sacred space for himself, then defends it from secular rulers, in the process disrupting the usual linear trajectory of "becoming a man" (139) to participate instead in a "much more organic, cyclical and fluid presentation of the hero" (139). The result, Morgan argues, is a text which "represents both the Anglo-Norman desire to project itself into the past and an appropriation of the Anglo-Saxon period as an English past imbricated firmly in the present" (141).

In the next essay, Daisy Black examines Joseph as "A Man out of Time" in the N-Town Marian plays. Medieval drama formed a powerful point of intersection between biblical time and the medieval present, allowing viewers to experience biblical events in their own historical moment. Black suggests that in arguing over Mary's pregnancy, Mary and Joseph "debate a moment of change as Old and New theologies grapple over Mary's pregnant body" (149). She argues that Joseph's Doubt "expands Irigaray's model of gender roles at points of transition" which can cause shifts in male-female relationships (150). When God enters her body, "Mary contains both space and time" (150). If Joseph is to accept her pregnancy as divine, he must also accept a break between traditional "Hebrew" time and the new Christian time (150) and must "learn a new way of reading his wife's body" (156). In contrast, because she possesses knowledge that Joseph does not, Mary is able to read her own body "typologically" (159), viewing Hebrew law "not as a contradiction but as a verification of her new status" (159). Likewise, in the N-Town Marriage of Mary and Joseph, the Old Law is about to be replaced by the new Christian doctrine. Since Joseph experiences time differently from Mary, he is unable to integrate his past beliefs with what he is experiencing in the present. Ultimately, Black argues that "performing a moment of theological transition demands multiple negotiations of times, spaces, genders and memories" (162).

The final essay returns to Old English literature with William Rogers' fresh examination of The Phoenix, a poem which partly reflects the gender confusion of its Latin sources (164). Rogers seeks to "pinpoint the spectral role of the phoenix's female sex" and analyze it within the poem's "construction of time, memory and old age" (164), in which the bird retains its wisdom and knowledge (through memory) over multiple lifespans. In its continual cycle of rebirth, ageing, death, and renewal, the phoenix "disrupts both normative sex and normative time" (165). Although the poem invokes masculine written authorities, it ultimately presents opposing ideas of time, gender and age without resolving these contradictions (164). In doing so, the poet presents the cyclical existence of the bird as an allegory for Jesus and/or for faithful Christians (166). Yet in the process, the life cycle of the bird suggests "feminine agency and importance" (170) in its endless self-regeneration. Ultimately, Rogers suggests, "even in apparently masculine discussions of embodied temporalities and markings of gender, traces of 'woman' might still be discovered...the unknown gender of the phoenix cannot erase the biological necessity of feminine agency for reproduction" (177).

The articles in this volume often refer to each other, and this creates a sense of lively conversation between the contributors. The resulting collection is a stimulating dialogue that engages a number of theoretical approaches in exploring the fluidity of gender, time, and memory.

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