17.11.12, Oxenham, Perceptions of Femininity in Early Irish Society

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Craig R. Davis

The Medieval Review 17.11.12

Oxenham, Helen. Perceptions of Femininity in Early Irish Society. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016. pp. xii, 219. ISBN: 978-1-78327-116-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Craig R. Davis
Smith College

The author (or her publisher) poses a set of questions on the back cover of this book: (1) "Was femininity in early Irish society perceived as weak and sinful, innately inferior to masculinity?" Or (2) "Was it perceived as powerful and dangerous, a threat to the peace and tranquility of male society?" Or (3) "Was there a more nuanced view, an understanding that femininity, or femininities, could be presented in a variety of ways according to the pragmatic concerns of the writer?" It is not hard to guess which is the correct answer to this interrogative formula: number three, of course, the mean between extremes, both of which could be called something of a straw man, or straw woman in this case, since scholarly interpretations of the female characters in early Irish literature have never been so simple. However, this new study offers a good step forward in understanding these figures, as the author surveys the main representations of femininity that appear in a variety of early Irish sources from the fifth through ninth centuries, most of which are preserved in later manuscript versions that were themselves subject to selective manipulation by scribes who had multiple, even competing, perspectives on the material they were copying. For instance, the recension of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle-Raid of Cooley) preserved in The Book of Leinster (ca. 1160) concludes with a famous double colophon, one in Irish, another in Latin: (in Irish) "A blessing on everyone who will memorise the Táin faithfully in this form, and not put any other form on it," and (in Latin) "I who have copied down this story, or more accurately fantasy, do not credit the details of the story, or fantasy. Some things in it are devilish lies, and some poetical figments; some seem possible and others not; some are for the enjoyment of idiots" (translated Thomas Kinsella [1969], 283). We will return to the Táin presently.

The author traces her approach to Judith Butler's classic theoretical manifesto, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), which interprets female gender roles primarily as a social construct or "performance" to which individuals conform (or from which they deviate) rather than the product of an inherent biological character enabling mature females to bear children with a concomitant set of hormonal or instinctual behaviors. Subsequent gender theorists have extended this emphasis on social performance over genetic predisposition to include male behaviors as well as female, yielding the plural constructions "masculinities" and "femininities" to describe the range of gendered repertoires available to individuals in a given culture, often depending as much on other key factors in their social identity: age, class, ethnicity, wealth, political power, marital or parental status, other family relationships, vocational or religious affiliation, etc.

Oxenham finds that early Irish authors, too, frequently prioritized other kinds of social performance over that of gender, but that for the most part they also remained aware of the male or female physical character of the figures they depict, showing little interest in considering "transgendered" possibilities--masculine women or effeminate men. All the figures depicted in early Irish texts as performing some kind of feminine role, Oxenham concludes, were understood by their authors to be "biologically female" (188).

Nonetheless, Oxenham conscientiously eschews an attempt to describe the actual experience of early medieval Irish women in Butler's terms, restricting herself rather to a review of the ways in which their feminine roles were depicted by early Irish writers, nearly all male clerics in religious orders. A taxonomy of these representations, she argues, has its own historical validity, not as a record of the lived experience of historical women, but as a catalogue of how such women could be perceived by the predominantly male writers who described them. The extent to which such perceptions approximated the real lives of women in the period is simply unknown, she avers, since writers had their own particular agendas that may have distorted social realities to an indeterminate degree. Nonetheless, Oxenham believes that her analysis reveals "how fluid constructions of gender could be" in early Ireland, though by "fluidity" she means not the movement from one performative repertoire to another during the course of a woman's lifetime nor even the simultaneous exercise of competing or complementary roles (say, those of both queen and mother), but simply that different authors describe different types of femininity in different texts for different reasons.

In fact, this restrictive approach produces a fairly slim set of options, which Oxenham classifies as "normal," "powerful," "saintly," or "sinful." It is not completely clear how this quadruple taxonomy constitutes "a new interpretation of the position of femininity in the thought world of early Irish authors," as the book cover claims, or how it is really all that different from similar classifications of female roles in the other early medieval literatures of western Europe. Oxenham simply concludes that early Irish writers (in the aggregate) evince a multi-faceted view of femininity that resists "monolithic" generalization (4), by which she means, in particular, the kind of misogynistic stereotyping she attributes to comparable clerical writers on the Continent. Unfortunately, Oxenham simply reports rather than illustrates or explains this discrepancy, once again using it as a something of a straw man, since she never examines the degree or consistency of the misogyny she claims for continental authors of the period, content in the suggestion that they make early Irish authors look enlightened by comparison. This reviewer would very much have valued a more searching analysis of the supposed difference, especially since the author piquingly suggests that it may have something to do with the fact that Ireland was never part of the Roman empire and thus (presumably) never exposed to a masculinist imperial mentality or acculturated to Greco-Roman conceptions of gender identity. There were also sharp differences in the kinds of ecclesiastical authority exercised in city-less Ireland and continental Europe with its metropolitan organization. The distinctive cultural conservatism of de-centralized Irish society, governed in the earlier part of this period by competing royal clans who conceived of their primary political identity in terms of tribal lineages rather than territorial kingdoms, may also be relevant to the characterization of women in early Irish clerical texts, especially the prominence there of queenly, abbatial or saintly women, often of distinguished family heritage, who appear in powerful leading roles.

The most distinctive and complex female figure in all of early Irish literature must be the incomparable Queen Medb of Connacht in the Táin, a text full of strong characters, both men and women, boys and girls. Even so, Medb is matched in personal "agency," charisma and force of character only by Cú Chulainn, the beardless teenage prodigy who is spared, along with women and boys, from the curse of Macha upon the men of Ulster for having disrespected the pangs of a mother in childbirth, surely the quintessential "performance" of femininity the significance of which the epic saga sets out to explore in depth. The Táin teaches the men of Ulster what it feels like to be a woman--Macha pointing out that a mother bore each one them--but whether they finally learn their lesson or not is unclear. So perhaps the biggest disappointment to many readers of this book will be the author's decision to omit the Táin from her discussion, explaining that while many scholars would date the antecedents of the surviving versions, whether oral or literary, to the period she is examining, others are not so sure. Oxenham accepts without argument the assessment of Hildegard Tristram that a written version of the Táin "could not have been attempted until the eleventh century, when it could take as its model translations of late Latin macrotexts into Irish" (37). As Tristram observes, the surviving recensions of the Táin do indeed show the influence of Latin epics, as well as signs of later scribal embellishment. These considerations lead Oxenham to conclude that "the complications inherent in this text mean that, while accepting its great significance in the study of early Irish literature, the current study will not use it as a main, pre-900 text" (37). In fact, this is the last mention of the Táin in her book, although she does briefly cite the Compert Con Culainn (Conception of Cú Chulainn), one of the remscéla 'pre-tales' of the Táin also preserved in twelfth-century manuscripts, although for this episode of the Ulster Cycle, Oxenham is willing to accept the putative (and disputed) eighth-century date of a lost archetype (71). Similarly, she accepts proposed early dates for the Serglige Con Culainn (Wasting-Sickness of Cú Chulainn) and Tochmarc Emire (Wooing of Emer) (106-07), but why these brief episodes involving minor female characters of the Ulster Cycle are included, while major figures and episodes are not, is never addressed.

Also notably absent from Oxenham's discussion, as well as her bibliography, is Brent Miles's Heroic Saga and Classical Epic in Medieval Ireland (2011), which demonstrates that Roman classics were well known in Ireland from late antiquity when they were first introduced during the country's conversion to Christianity. Miles shows that "the reception of the classics in Ireland was always intimately bound up with the production of native literature" (13), such as the Hiberno-Latin Hisperica Famina (Westerly Orations) of the mid-seventh century, which reveal formal imitations of Virgilian epic similes and martial type-scenes. Latin poems and school texts supplied the literary forms and conceptual models that inspired the creative preservation of the oral genres of native Irish narrative and discourse. There never was a "renaissance" of interest in the Latin classics in the eleventh century, Miles finds: these texts had never been lost and showed Irish writers both early and late how to compose new classics about their own people in their own tongue.

Miles's study does not solve the question of dating the core narratives of the Ulster Cycle, of course, or clarify the purpose of the composers of the Táin in offering such a panoply of striking and diverse female characters, but Oxenham's decision to rule it out of court seems an unusual choice for a scholar who has set out to survey the range of perceptions of femininity in early Irish texts, most of which are equally problematic in terms of their date, provenance and extant form. More importantly, from this reviewer's perspective, the Táin could have served the author as her very best example, the clincher of her thesis that depictions of femininity in early Irish literature are truly dynamic, "fluid" and over-determined by multiple simultaneous perspectives on the character and identity of women. An analysis of the many different female figures in the Táin--Nes, Macha, Derdriu, Deichtine, Emer, Scáthach, Medb, Finnabair--especially as they are foiled against a full cast of equally complex male characters--Cathbad, Conchobor, Fergus, Noisiu, Sualdam, Ailill, Cú Chulainn, Ferdia--would have added so much depth and value to a work that stops unnecessarily short of its potential with a list of unobjectionable, but not unfamiliar types of female character. I much admire, as will many others, the author's learning and scholarly care, and sincerely hope that she will one day return to this project and finish it with a study of what she herself calls "the most famous of all Irish prose tales" (37), one where perceptions of femininity in early Irish society are most memorably and fully dramatized.

There is another irony to observe about this study. Its author declined at the outset to address the implications of these textual representations of femininity for our understanding of the actual lives of early Irish women, but where else are we to go for information about them, if not to these very sources? Fortunately, Oxenham honors her own self-restriction in the breach in that her study does suggest conclusions that, in this reviewer's mind, shed considerable light on early Irish women's history. First of all, she notes that, although men appear more frequently than women in sources from the period and the free, armed male layman is considered the most representative member of early Irish society, free women are also ubiquitous in these texts. The society that produced these depictions may have been dominated by men, but it clearly recognized and valued the social and legal status of women, who enjoyed a formal honor-price and were entitled to sick-maintenance, compensation for injury, the right to own, buy, and sell property or enter into contracts, and, in some cases, act as witnesses in a court of law. A woman could divorce her husband for sterility or impotence or for otherwise causing her shame and embarrassment. A free woman's legal powers and protections were thus substantial, though more limited than those of men and often dependent on her relationship with a father, brother, husband or son.

These texts thus provide a good bit more historical insight than the author claims for them. Women in early medieval Ireland were clearly capable of playing different roles throughout their lives as daughter, sister, wife, mother, foster-mother or widow; as princess, queen, nun, abbess, heiress or dowager; as catechumen, communicant, penitent or aspiring saint; as milk-maid, wet nurse, concubine or cumal (a slave-girl notionally worth the value of three milch cows). On this last point, Oxenham notes that differences in the importance of gender fade away toward the upper and lower reaches of the social hierarchy. It is virtually irrelevant to the legal status of slaves, male or female, while sanctity transcended gender in the depiction of saints like Brigit, who works Christ-like miracles just like her male counterparts and is miraculously ordained a bishop, though her female physicality makes threats to her virginity a far greater part of her spiritual drama and hagiographers simply finesse her performance of male priestly functions such as baptism or officiating at Mass. In penitentials, too, early Irish authors perceived a sharper divide between secular and religious than between male and female: all in holy orders were required to preserve their chastity, the genders separated not only from the laity, but also from each other. There may be a greater number of male saints depicted, but so are there also many more male "sinners," so that sanctity was not considered to be the particular province of men nor sinfulness the special vulnerability of women.

Oxenham has thus accomplished both more and less than she gives herself credit for. She has excluded consideration of the Táin that would have contributed much to her thesis, but also added much to our understanding of the social identities available to women in early medieval Ireland. These were much more multifarious and fluid than the author's own neat taxonomy of four types would suggest, since the texts she has chosen offer only a restrictive prism through which to observe refractions of femininity in that society. Yet, these sources often tell us more than they intend, serving as invaluable witnesses to how women were perceived by their contemporaries, that is, as active members of their social world with considerable personal agency, legal protections and moral responsibility.

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