The Medieval Review 17.09.11


Morrison, Susan Signe. A Medieval Woman's Companion. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016. pp. 244. ISBN: 9781785700798 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Mary Dockray-Miller
Lesley University
mdockray@lesley.edu

Susan Signe Morrison's new general-interest book about medieval women has been deservedly nominated for awards in women's studies, young adult non-fiction, and history. It is a wonderfully illustrated and pleasant read, touring its audience through short biographies of notable women of the Christian, European Middle Ages while simultaneously providing context and historical overview. Although I have reservations about the book's relevance, noted below, it is overall an engaging production.

In her introduction, Morrison makes clear that her intended audience is "students in high school and university and those just coming to the history of medieval women for the first time" (2). As such, I am perhaps not the best reviewer of this book; as a specialist in the field, I can say that I did not find Morrison indulging in the quasi-accurate sweeping generalization that characterizes much of the "popular history" mode. She provides information as basic as the answer to the question "What are the 'Middle Ages"?" even as she contextualizes more complicated issues around "Reconstructing the Past" (both phrases are subtitles in the introduction).

Morrison perhaps overreaches with connections between the Middle Ages and our contemporary culture, referring to Eleanor of Aquitaine as a "cougar" (65) and the Paston women as the "Real Housewives of Norfolk" (195) Along with allusions to Twilight and cyberbullying, these may indeed engage with Morrison's intended audience. I found them distracting.

Despite these potential contemporary cultural distractions, Morrison succeeds in her project to present an accessible and relevant group of medieval women to her audience. While most chapters ostensibly focus on one woman, each actually provides a wealth of contextual information; for example, the Joan of Arc chapter explains the Hundred Years War as well as connections between religious beliefs and cross-dressing. Other contextual items appear in gray boxes throughout the text, providing information about the printing press (166), Lollards (157), and heresy (132), among others. The choices made for the nineteen "biography" chapters will inevitably draw criticism for leaving out one reader or another's favorite medieval woman; there are many easily recognizable and expected names (Hildegard von Bingen, Marie de France) as well as some more obscure (Teresa de Cartegena, Margaret of Beverly). In addition to the short biographies, Morrison scatters throughout her text chapters on "The Importance of Language," "Understanding the Female Body," "Women Troubadours," and "Textile Concerns."

The book as a whole provides a friendly, accessible user experience. Morrison includes very high-quality black and white images in all the chapters, usually of manuscript miniatures, but also some artifacts (e.g. the Lewis Chess queen, pilgrim badges). The "learn more" sections at the ends of chapters include references to novels, video games, and movies as well as translations and scholarly work. The book's companion website (www.amedievalwomanscompanion.com) includes information about potential lesson plans, a curriculum guide, information about some women who did not make it into the print edition (e.g. Hild of Whitby), and brief remarks about some women who did (e.g. Christine de Pizan).

The book concludes with some overview and reflection on "Contemporary Feminist Theory and Medieval Women," where Morrison reveals her assumption of a female readership for her work, expressing solidarity with her readers "as we go forward as women into the twenty-first century" (215). While it is accurate that most students in most women's history classes are women, the language here seemed exclusionary to me, not just to men but to students of all gender identities other than cisgender female. Morrison is perpetuating the truism that women's history and women's lives are of interest primarily to women.

That assumption of a female readership points toward a larger problem with this book and its place within the work of feminist medieval studies in 2017. Digital media, new gender paradigms and categories, academic discourse on multiculturalism and inclusivity: these and many other cultural issues combine to make this book seem dated already. Information about all of these women and all of these topics is readily available online, almost always in an open-access format. The book is presented largely as a textbook, but its lovely images and heavy paper cannot compete with links easily pasted into a syllabus at no cost to the college student, who can then see similar images in color and high resolution on-screen. Similarly, I cannot imagine a high school class using this book, if only because our nation's insistence on standardized curriculum frameworks precludes such an opportunity even for the most well-intentioned high school teacher with the most enthusiastic students. The fault lies not with the book or Morrison's excellent distillation of medieval history into an accessible framework but with the changes in the intended audience in the past twenty years or so.

Numerous historians have commented on the end of the "exemplary women" or "exceptional women" phase of medieval feminist history that focused on biographies of high-status aristocrats, who were always white and almost always English or French. [1] As a field, we are moving towards an inclusive understanding of the Middle Ages through analysis of texts, images, spaces, and artifacts (as Livingstone concludes in her essay). This Multicultural Middle Ages demands more than a few sidebars about "Medieval Women of Color" (80), "Jewish and Christian Encounters" (198) or "Muslim Women's Literature" (129), although each of these would have been revolutionary only a few years ago. As such, Morrison's book, even with its references to Facebook and Harry Potter, is not the Companion that the study of medieval women, of all medieval people, needs now--that "companion" now resides online, in open-access digital humanities projects, blog posts, and curated websites that introduce the Middle Ages to general audiences around the world.

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Notes:

1. For example, see the excellent overview and citations in Amy Livingstone, "Recalculating the Equation: Powerful Woman = Extraordinary," Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality 51.2 (2015): 17-29. Available at:http://ir.uiowa.edu/mff/vol51/iss2/4



Copyright (c) 2017 Mary Dockray-Miller



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