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16.11.32 , Doggett and O'Sullivan, eds., Founding Feminisms in Medieval Studies

16.11.32 , Doggett and O'Sullivan, eds., Founding Feminisms in Medieval Studies

This collection of fourteen articles is divided into four parts reflective of Jane Burns's major medieval French feminist research interests--gender debates, female clothing, geographical margins beyond France, and female authority in families, networks, and manuscripts. A well-illustrated festschrift, with thirty-six images, it also includes an introduction to Burns's work (1-13), her bibliography (15-18), and an afterword (237-246).

Burns, the author of five monographs, five edited books or journal special issues, thirty-nine articles, and eight book reviews, began her publishing career like so many women medievalists, by following a more conventional route, in Arthurian Fiction: Rereading the Vulgate Cycle (1985). As feminist theory and the study of gender began to permeate research in the nineties, she ventured into a new direction, in her recognition of the embodied female voice in the fabliau, in Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature (1993). Two later monographs continued her work on the female body by means of the study of clothing, specifically silk, in relation to courtly love and its material culture, in Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture (2002) and Sea of Silk: A Textile Geography of Women's Work in Medieval French Literature (2009). Her latest book, a collection of essays on embodiment and the idea of the human, coedited with Peggy McCracken, From Beasts to Souls: Gender and Embodiment in Medieval Europe (2013), extends the wide range of her feminist literary approach to other forms of diversity in embodiment, whether of woman or serpent, dragon, or werewolf.

In their introduction Doggett and O'Sullivan have supplied a concise history of the specific changes in Burns' feminism during her academic career and traced examples of her influence on other scholars. When the editors quote Burns in Bodytalk as writing about "how women's words, often dismissed and denigrated, had the potential to give voice to women's desires and wishes" (4), they might be describing the early situation of the marginalized female scholar projecting herself under the veil of her professional writing, given the absence of permission for voice for the untenured female scholar or even the woman professor--ironically, medieval scholarship itself as another example of text as embodiment.

The idea of creating a monument to an important stage in the history of academic inquiry--the creation and advancement of medieval feminist study--via a focus on the influence of a single female scholar on her field and profession--is itself innovative, as the first part of the title, Founding Feminisms in Medieval Studies, makes clear. I would add that the presence in the academy of women medievalists in sufficient number, or with any power to change the conventions of scholarly research, began to change only in the early eighties, given the postwar shaping of a patriarchal professoriate funded by the G.I. Bill. With the rise of post-war existentialism and postmodern theory, feminism also entered American popular and academic culture in the seventies and eighties, [1] followed by postcolonial and queer theory--and a cultural approach more racially, ethnically, and globally aware in the next three decades.

As testimony to the powerful influence brought to the profession by Burns, examples of inspiration and influence appear throughout, including several by notable French medievalist feminists. Each essay reflects only a limited aspect of Burns's wide-ranging research interests over her long, evolving career. In Part 1, "Debating Gender," Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner opens with "Natural and Unnatural Woman: Melusine" (21-31): An Aristotelian/Christian analysis of Melusine's hybridity, part woman and part monster, caused by her mother's curse after she and her sisters vengefully buried their father under a mountain following his failure to honor his fairy-wife's taboo. However, Melusine's lower body only morphs into serpent form on Saturdays. As a woman, Melusine remains natural and can continue as a Catholic but not as a fairy, once her husband Raymond has witnessed her animal nature while bathing. This gender reversal of the Fall--here, caused by mistrustful Raymond--results in her winged departure and his metamorphosis into a hermit (both results analogous to the exile of Adam and Eve).

In the three other essays in Part 1, new takes on old literary issues crop up. Kristen L. Barr resurrects the "Nurturing Debate in Le Roman de Silence" (34-44) by asking whether Heldris de Cornuälle is male or female; misogynistic or proto-feminist; and from Cornwall or La Cornuaille, near Nantes. And, of course, in relation to Silence, is she a product of Nature or Nurture? The debate, which makes for exciting class discussion, will seem familiar to scholars who have taught the work: the major characters are not wholly laudable, nor can Heldris himself be considered a very good narrator (at least from a feminist point of view) in his censure of women. The third essay, Daniel E. O'Sullivan's "The Man Backs Down From the Lady in Trobairitz Tensos," similarly reengages the question of perspective and gender, especially important in the tenso, in which a male author creates a speaker who extends his narcissistic point of view: he complains of a female beloved who spurns him, yet his fictional lady responds as an interlocutor, incorporating his own words. In Bertran del Poget's unusual tenso, "Bona dona d'une ne deman," his beloved--like a female author in a canso--instead projects onto her speaker suspicion of deception by her lover (50-51). In tensos between real men and women, the male is depicted as almost "pathologically afraid" of commitment (60). The fourth essay in this part, Lisa Perfetti's "Having Fun With Women: Why A Feminist Teaches Fabliaux" (61-70), considers the issue of why women are not considered funny to show how the use of "bodytalk" in the fabliau helps convince students that they are, an argument bolstered by popular media.

In Part 2, "Sartorial Bodies," Madeline H. Caviness, in "Hats and Veils: There's No Such Thing as Freedom of Choice, And It's A Good Thing, Too" (73-95), plays with Stanley Fish's 1992 essay, "There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too," to show that dress, like speech, is never free because it always has consequences. Dress codes play a role in identity politics, as do hats, headdress, and veil, especially in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures and according to the medieval sumptuary laws and codes that work to differentiate social classes. Its manuscript illustrations depict head coverings (and cropped hair) for religious and holy women, although Hildegard of Bingen argued for women's long hair as a gift for Christ as bridegroom, and Heloise, for uncovered long hair for virgins.

Sarah-Grace Heller, in "When the Knight Undresses, his Clothing Speaks: Vestimentary Allegories in the Works of Baudouin de Condé (c. 1240-1280)" (97-110), examines male military garments in Baudouin, his illustrations of which place them within the bestiary tradition to help remediate what he perceived as the decay of the social order. Heller's sections illustrate the flaws of avarice in the distribution of clothing to the lord's men; of the ill-fitting gardecorps, or outer garment, that does not adequately protect the body; of unattractive garments inadequately reflecting the "mantle of honor"; and of the donation of luxurious clothing to unworthy minstrels and heralds.

Ruth Mazo Karras and Tom Linkinen, in "John/Eleanor Rykener Revisited" (111-121), describe the late-medieval London crossdressing transgender prostitute of their title, about whom Karras and David Boyd had written several articles in the nineties and Linkinen, in his 2013 dissertation and subsequent 2015 book. Both male and female clothing were available to Rykener, as well as male and female sexual partners, opening up questions about what was felt here--not verifiable, of course, in the court rolls from 1393, but imagined in a contemporary Finnish performance and video, John/Eleanor. The authors note that clothing and work do not necessarily convey sexuality: "Rykener performed feminine gender in a variety of ways, not limited to the sexual" (115).

Part 3, "Mapping Margins," seems mysteriously opaque without reference to Burns's own work, Textile Geography, or to its article titlrd. Both Sharon Kinoshita's "Silk in the Age of Marco Polo" (141-151) and Helen Solterer's "Another Land's End of Literature: Honorat Bovet and the Timbuktu Effect" (153-168) suggest pushing the boundaries of European maps in comparative literary excurses. However, Laine E. Doggett's "Women's Healing: From Binaries to a Nexus" (125-139) fits less geographically and more metaphorically, in reference to gender margins. That women might heal battle wounds in medieval French romance/epic is hardly revolutionary and, while it is clear the gender binary is still in existence at that time, the concept doesn't seem to work as an original extension of Burns' work in the same way as in the two essays that follow.

Kinoshita argues in "Silk in the Age of Marco Polo" that silk production and its trafficking in Eurasia during 1250-1300 served cultural hegemony, as depicted in the Franco-Italian work coauthored by Marco Polo and Rusticello of Pisa, Le Devisement du monde (The Description of the World) (1298), and other works, because of the importance of textiles to Mongol political culture. Silk was also considered a luxury in Latin Europe and the import of Chinese designs revolutionary in medieval Mediterranean silk production, at least until the overthrow of Mongol rule.

In "Another Land's End of Literature: Honorat Bovet and the Timbuktu Effect" (153-168), Helen Solterer provides one of the most original essays in the collection: a postcolonial and multicultural comparison of Honorat Bovet and his own veiled self in his Apparicion Maistre Jean de Meun. Here, a Saracen and man of color, who "ventriloquizes" the menace to the French within "Muslim tradition" (155), joins a physician, Christian (Dominican), and a Jew in a debate moderated by the Prior of Salon before poet Jean de Meun. This debate veils what Solterer characterizes as the "innovating" of Bovet's own writing in undercutting Muslim fictions of his own creation. While Ramon Lull of Majorca similarly disputes with Muslims and actually offers a similar debate between Jew, Christian, and Saracen in Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men, Solterer finds Bovet's debate more "politically minded" in its discussion of the theological problem of the schism, with Christian and Muslim in accord. The "Timbuktu Effect" refers to the glamor of alien cultures that nevertheless appear as threatening. The "Land's End" of the title is the Islamic South that edges into Africa. The irony here is that the Saracen is "the most noble and frank [franc] interpreter in all the Muslim world" (161): Solterer asks if he is more "franc" than the French (161). Through this literary device of an alien persona Bovet speaks his own mind.

The impressive Part 4, "Female Authority: Networks and Influence," ends the collection with responses to how women organized their social and cultural networks in France and elsewhere in Europe, or staged their authority in their own emblematized or illustrated manuscripts. Cynthia J. Brown begins with the female lineage of two royal French women, a queen and a duchess who was a daughter and sister of kings, in "Anne de Bretagne and Anne de France: French Female Networks at the Dawn of the Renaissance" (171-186). Although neither produced male heirs, both created for daughters manuscripts whose production they oversaw and inscribed with emblems and images in what became a "collective female memory" passed down to subsequent female generations.

Roberta L. Krueger, in her excellent article, "Staging Female Authority in Chantilly MS 252: Marguerite de Navarre's La Coche" (187-203), discusses Marguerite's courtly-love debate among three unhappy women, which she wrote during a self-imposed exile in the country and then presented in a handsomely illuminated manuscript to Anne de Pisselieu, mistress of King François--Marguerite's brother. This work, written while the marriage of Marguerite's daughter was being negotiated and intended to be read to the king by his duchess mistress, was intended to undercut the court's masculine hegemony and promote Marguerite's own authority in a manner similar to that of Christine de Pizan. The illustrations and/or legends in the four manuscripts emphasize emotional crises through text interplay with image or "stage instruction."

Ann Marie Rasmussen, in "Babies and Books: The Holy Kinship As A Way of Thinking About Women's Power in Late Medieval Northern Europe" (205-218), describes the importance of Saint Anne, the maternal grandmother of Christ, depicted in the Rodsted altarpiece created around 1500 in Germany and sent to Denmark. In it, Anne is surrounded by daughters and grandchildren in what is known as a "matriliny." This "Holy Kinship" depends upon a "virtuous femininity" Rasmussen perceives as a site of power for women through their roles in the family. The extensive description of the altarpiece--the gendered placement of women at the front and its emphasis on childbirth and childrearing along with the depiction of Anne reading a book-- suggests an Anna Trifold, mother, matriarch, learned woman.

The last essay in this section and collection is provided by Nancy Freeman Regalado, "Page Layout And Reading Practices in Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea: Reading With The Ladies in London, BL, MS Harley 4431" (219-233), who examines the page layout of illustrations in the Harley Epistre Othea as a guide to reading (inspired by Christine's second manuscript illustration, in which the queen's ladies are seen reading). Regalado's charting of how Christine intended this work to be read by women is correlated with specific illustrations.

At the end, the "Afterword: A Response to the Volume," by Elizabeth Robertson, looks back and ahead, mostly in relation to what feminists were doing in late Middle English and French studies in the nineties and why they seem to have stopped doing this, at least in Robertson's view (Burns's view is that feminism and gender studies have been incorporated into what we now do). Robertson's conclusion focuses primarily on her own Middle English literary research and British academic experience, omitting many other medieval areas of research, theory, and thought. And her description of collection articles is more appropriate to the introduction. Better to have ended instead with Regalodo's last sentence: "It is a pleasure also to celebrate Jane Burns, whose sassy scholarship, which links Heidegger to Mae West, delights us women readers" (233).



1. One obvious early example is the joint creation by Burns and other women medievalists of the Medieval Feminist Newsletter (later known as the Forum) in 1986, not 1985 (238), and the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (1992), a safe place to write feminist criticism. See Johns Hopkins's Catalyst, at, accessed 10 September 2016. Several of us discussed the possibility of creating a feminist newsletter while awaiting to depart Kalamazoo Airport in May 1986, which Beth, Jane, and Roberta followed up on, although I bowed out, busy with incorporating and directing TEAMS.