17.04.03, Hermanson and Magnúsdóttir, eds., Medeltidens genus

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William Sayers

The Medieval Review 17.04.03

Hermanson, Lars and Auður Magnúsdóttir, eds. Medeltidens genus : kvinnors och mäns roller inom kultur, rätt och samhälle : Norden och Europa ca 300-1500. Skrifter utgivna av Medeltidskommittén vid Göteborgs universitet, 1. Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 2016. pp. 269. ISBN: 978-91-7346-862-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
William Sayers
Cornell University

This collection of nine essays written in Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish inaugurates a new series in medieval studies from Gothenburg University. The editors' introduction is accompanied by an English summary (although individual essays are not), in which the title of the volume is translated as Medieval Gender: The Roles of Women and Men in Culture, Law, and Society. The Nordic Countries and Europe, c. 300-1500. Compared to relevant earlier studies, e.g., what the editors call "women's studies," the focus of this book shifts "from a political and economic exercise of power controlled by men, to an approach based on interaction and communication between the sexes" (7). Gender is interpreted as a total social phenomenon comprising all spheres of medieval life. From this perspective, power is not seen to emanate from a single source nor to be dominated by a single sex. The all-embracing societal web was woven of mutual dependencies and cooperation among men and women, which in the present volume are illustrated in studies of social organization, law, and cultural activity. The editors have set out a debatable thesis and ambitious scholarly agenda, although their basic concepts and terminology seem taken for granted and the introduction is without theoretical underpinning. Editorial objectives find support and advancement to only a limited degree in the subsequent essays. These are gathered in three sections: women as culture-bearers, law and gender, and gender and social organization.

Ulla Haastrup and John H. Lind track the patronage of Queen Margrete Fredkulla of Denmark in the introduction of Byzantine motifs to twelfth-century Danish ecclesiastical art, primarily wall paintings. The stimulus lay in dynastic relations among the courts of Denmark, Russia, and Byzantium, particularly among their women. In many respects, this influence seems to have been active independently of political currents. This study usefully corrects the prior view that the influence of Byzantine art reached Scandinavia via continental Europe. Queen Eufemia and the translations from French courtly romance that she sponsored (Eufemiavisor in Swedish) are the subject of Henriette Mikkelsen Hoel's essay. Again a corrective to a widely held misapprehension is skillfully applied. The spouse of Hakon V of Norway, Eufemia of Rügen spent her early years in the learned environment of monasteries, convents, and refined courts of northern Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. Patronage of the arts extended to the translation of works from Latin into local mother tongues and, later, of French literature as well. The choice of Swedish as target language in Eufemia's project is judged to have been complementary to the greater political strategy aimed at closer relations between the Norwegian and Swedish courts, cemented by marriage. Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed examines the work of the nun Faltonia Betitia Proba and judges her Latin poem, a cento, more innovative than its "cut-and-paste" technique of quoting the ancients might suggest. Her assembly of verses from celebrated Roman authors was widely used in centers of teaching and learning over all Europe, not least as a Christian portal through which to approach the pagan classical works.

Essays dealing with the role of gender in the legal context are introduced by Auður Magnúsdóttir's examination of women and violence in medieval Iceland, with consideration of both perpetrators and victims. She examines women's roles in feud, its inception and resolution, in a social and legal environment where woman were explicitly subordinate to men. Women are seldom seen to exercise physical (as distinct from verbal) violence and then it is rarely taken seriously, unless the woman has acted as would a man in circumstances where no man was found to redeem family honor. This should not be mistaken for precocious female empowerment. Violence against women is contemptible, according to the saga ethos. But verbal violence, in the form of sexual slurs, could be directed against a woman (as well as a man) and thereby against her family, in particular its senior male. Rapes and abductions are also examined for the complications to which they lead in disputes over inheritance and property. This last-named topic, and control over women's reproductive futures generally, are taken up in Johan Zaini Bengtsson's study of the legal rights of illegitimate children in medieval Swedish jurisprudence. The perhaps most striking revelation is the recognition in the early Middle Ages of the moral and legal innocence of the offspring of extra-legal unions, and thus of their right to family care and a share of the paternal heritage. Under the influence of Christian canon law, with its emphasis on Christian marriage rites and monogamy, these rights were over time cut back, beginning in the thirteenth century. More wide-ranging is Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir's study of canon law and gender. Her sub-title is "the Christianization of marriage in Iceland 1200-1600.". Marriage--now only monogamous--became not only more Christian, as a sacred contract, but also more public, when the Church introduced norms for property rights and inheritances. Gender roles, now modified and codified, were no less fixed than in the pagan past.

The title of Björn Bandlien's provocative article might be translated as "in the borderland of the sexes" (I kjønnets grenseland). The author examines not so much the construction of gender (by default, male) in the early medieval north as its performance and evaluation. The locus of gender realization is the home and the thing (local judicial assembly). On the periphery of society in the natural world are outlaws; in the preternatural world, monsters; in the mythological world, the agents of chaos. Bandlien's hypothesis is that in the Viking era and early Middle Ages a correspondence was perceived between transgressions of the boundaries between and around the two sexes, and the crossing of topographical boundaries in the natural world (187). In the reviewer's estimation, an analogy has been pushed too far. The trolls and giants on the periphery of human habitation are natural, not freaks. Although sexual innuendo had a powerful effect on honor and status, and thereby on basic social and political functionality, allegations against a man that he was the willing or unwilling participation in sodomy did not result in ostracism. Conversely, gender integrity is not threatened by expulsion: the outlaw is not unmanned. In the world of myth, such gender transgression goes without sanction (but not without mockery), since it is generally in the service of some immediate gain, e.g., Loki giving birth to Odin's eight-legged horse Sleipnir.

Between the household and the courts, legal and princely, lie a number of mesocosms (the reviewer's term), among which sits the medieval guild. Lars Bisgaard examines various kinds of accounts (of membership and attendance at beer-fed banquets by members and their guests) for trade guilds, here seen as self-contained venues for meetings with mixed-sex and mixed socio-economic-strata participation. Women seem to have enjoyed near-parity with men in the guilds but this is perhaps less surprising than the author would have us believe, since the metaphorical model for the guild was the human family, where complementarity between the sexes, if not parity, was self-evident. Many guilds had aristocratic female patrons as well as patron saints. Bisgaard emphasizes the socio-religious role of the guilds, a shift in perspective from the common assumption that their value lay chiefly in pragmatics and economics.

Last in the volume is the essay that may have the greatest impact on medieval studies in the Scandinavian north, Jessica Sundström's consideration of shield-maidens (sköldmöer) in the Icelandic sagas of olden times (fornaldarsagor). Her subtitle is "The warrior, the woman, and marriage," life stages for these Nordic Amazons, who are to be distinguished from supernatural valkyries and fetches. Her provocative new thesis concerning these--from the vantage points of other Icelandic sagas--anomalous female figures is that their life histories run their narrative course in support of the Church's principles of social organization based on life-long monogamous marriage. The shield-maiden, unvanquished, represents neither the Christian ideal of chastity nor the contemporary convention of the subordinate housewife. When she is eventually overcome in combat by a worthy warrior, her martial superior but social equal, she freely agrees to marriage and thereafter fully engages in its Christian praxis. In the vogue of such sagas, well-born descent would be traced along both paternal and maternal lines. The shield-maidens' transgressive heroics athwart the sexes reflects and furthers society's adaptation to new social norms. In her choice of spouse she assumes an arbiter's role very different from that in the sagas of Icelanders, in which women's public judgment of men generally consists of an indictment for cowardice. Yet, although male adequacy may be measured in the female gaze, its effective judgment is by fellow males.

These are solid and well-researched essays, deserving of a readership beyond those with a knowledge of the Scandinavian languages, but are largely independent of the editors' agenda for the volume. Making sex/gender (how solid? how fluid?) the field against which historical events and fictional narratives are seen to play out contributes very little to enrich the conclusions of the individual studies. These reflect gender roles whose dynamic is most often inherent in conventional rights and responsibilities rather than arising from their infraction and reformation. With the exception of women's membership in guilds, the shadowy mothers of illegitimate offspring or victims of domestic abuse, the lives of the ordinary women who did not seek to reshape society from positions of male-conferred privilege find little echo in the volume. Nor is there any study devoted to the subjective experience of gender.

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