The genre of medieval studies has for some time lacked the gender-driven analytical examinations of the role of fathers in the pre-modern era. There have been reasons for this lacuna. Feminist scholars have focused their attention on the experience of motherhood, a sub-field which continues to benefit from the rich historiography of women's history. Non-feminist scholars either lack the knowledge sufficient to do good gender history, or they eclipse the narrative into a reductionist equation: what men do is masculine, thus this is gender history.
Somewhere in between these two poles lies Philip Grace's Affectionate Authorities: Fathers and Fatherly Roles in Late Medieval Basel. Grace attempts to present a gender analysis focused on the culturally resonant role of father in the canton of Basel, an urban context which mirrors other urban centers in late medieval Europe. Grace's purpose is explore how "individuals of both sexes use the patriarchal conception of fatherhood in the service of their other agendas" (5) Grace argues that to understand how medieval patriarchy functioned, one must also understand how medieval people practiced fatherhood. This, he claims, will illuminate how men and women understood fatherhood, and how patriarchy survived as a result of the enduring role of fathers. Drawing upon a wide range of sources, both archival and printed, Grace shows the ideological role of fathers drawn from academic treatises alongside witness depositions and personal letters.
Chapter 1 sets the historiography and methodology, while chapter 2 examines the setting of late medieval Basel, while also providing an overly-detailed description of the sources used in the book. As Grace shows in his extensive footnotes, very few monographs have examined fatherhood as a practice; often fatherhood is lumped together in studies of the medieval family. Elsewhere, it is rarely subjected to a gendered analysis. While Grace has clearly read extensively studies involving patriarchy, motherhood, fatherhood and the family, his use of a theoretical foundation is not consistent throughout the book.
Chapter 3 begins the core of the book's argument, with a look at the practice of fostering and fatherly provision. It is here that Grace asserts that medieval society did not view fatherhood as an innate identity, but one which was performative. Adapting Judith Butler's theory of performativity, he asserts that "since fatherhood was expressed by a series of actions, people who were not biological fathers could nonetheless lay claim to successive layers of fatherly status by making the same series of moves" (44-45). This meant that even those men who were not biological fathers could step into these roles by taking on responsibility as a surrogate. In fact, Grace argues that provision for one's dependents was fundamental to social ideals of fatherhood and this reality meant that acquiring resources was intimately connected to providing for children.
In chapter 4, Grace tackles the practice of inheritance and dowry as types of fatherly provision. He argues that "medieval Baslers saw inheritance as an extension of fatherly provision for daily needs" (70). This was so ingrained into Basler culture that even illegitimate children were included in this practice, although by law they were excluded. In chapter 5, "Fathers and Masters," Grace shows how fathers utilized the vocational training of their children to secure their futures. While craft-masters could become surrogate fathers to apprentices, their relationships often lacked the affection of biological fathers. In chapter 6, "Fathers and Mothers," Grace looks at the place of moral discipline within parenting. Medieval fathers had important roles in shaping their "morally malleable children, avoiding both feminine 'softness' and excessive harshness" (116). While fathers had great duties to provide instruction and discipline to their children, it was their own behavior as moral leaders which had the greatest impact upon their children's development. Mothers might sometimes appropriate the language of paternal discipline, but they generally did not directly participate in instruction or discipline. In chapter 7, Grace continues with the same theme of instruction by showing how fathers competed with teachers in formal educational contexts. Fatherly discourse was so pervasive that educational writers routinely appropriated paternal language in their own didactic texts. Chapter 8 serves as the conclusion to the book, with a look at late medieval Basel on the eve of the Reformation. Grace argues that reformers of the early sixteenth century simply appropriated the images of the father from the later medieval context. Essentially, the role of the father in his household remained unchanged as the Reformation rolled through late medieval Basel.
This book began as a dissertation and it sometimes reads as one, particularly in chapters 1 and 2; here I was disappointed with the weakness of Grace's authorial voice. While Grace set up the theory behind his study, the concept of fatherhood was not interrogated consistently throughout the book. For instance, Grace argues continuously that fathers were "affectionate authorities" and points to the weaknesses of the master-craftsmen, who did not provide affection to their apprentices. What were the consequences of a father who did not provide affection or provision to their children? How did it affect their masculine status in the city? We know from the recent collection, Masculinity in the Reformation Era, edited by Scott Hendrix and Susan Narant-Nunn (2008), that fathers were held publicly accountable to enforced models of manliness, and that failure to care for children, even illegitimate ones, reflected poorly on one's masculine status. It seems odd to raise the theory of performativity without carrying through the implications of failure. What is lacking in Grace's analysis are the consequences in failing the patriarchal model. Is a father publicly shamed for not providing provision in late medieval Basel? Does this affect his masculine status in his community? Are there consequences for mothers who appropriate fatherly authority? In chapter 6, a great opportunity for a gendered analysis was missed. Here Grace took the time to build an argument showing that a father's own behavior was more important in influencing a child's moral development than anything that child was taught formally. How, then, did this affect the development of that child's gender identity? Yet this book is well researched, and Grace has a good range of documents to support his presentation of fatherhood.
Gender history must always have a strong, theoretical foundation; otherwise, the subjects studied default to a category of essentialism. Grace's invocation of Judith Butler's performativity theory raised hope that his arguments would follow along those lines. I found, however, that the theoretical implications of his analysis were lost, and many of his conclusions were unsurprising as a result. If the "fatherhood as performance" theme is put aside, this book offers a richly, detailed account of how fatherhood could function in a late medieval urban environment. One of the highlights of this book is the amount of attention paid to the cultural ideal of fathering as compared to the social reality. Basler fathers clearly could exercise pivotal roles as moral leaders of their children, and the city itself supported such roles. It would be interesting to see how this urban context compared to others in late medieval Europe, especially in comparison to households in a Mediterranean context.
Grace's book shows a solid depth of research, and a boldness to pursue an understudied category of social history from the perspective of gender and patriarchy. Affectionate Authorities contributes to the field of medieval gender studies and paves the way for future analysis of men and patriarchy within the late medieval household.