18.09.05, Adams and Bradbury (eds), Medieval Women and Their Objects

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Amy Livingstone

The Medieval Review 18.09.05

Adams, Jenny and Nancy Mason Bradbury, eds. Medieval Women and Their Objects. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. pp. 304. ISBN: 978-0-472-13014-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Amy Livingstone
Ball State University

Medieval Women and Their Objects is a collection of twelve essays in honor of Carolyn P. Collette edited by Jenny Adams and Nancy Mason Bradbury, with a dedication by Arlyn Diamond. Taking Collette's research on gender in medieval literature and her interest in material culture as their departure point, with a few exceptions, this volume offers essays by literary scholars discussing women's use of objects and as object in late medieval literature, specifically that of England and France. The collection is divided into three topical sections: Objects and Gender in a Material World; Buildings, Books and Women's (Self-) Fashioning; and finally, Bodies, Objects and Objects in the Shape of Bodies.

An introduction by the editors provides a brief overview of recent scholarship on material culture and lays out the organization of the volume. In the first section, the reader will find three essays discussing gender and objects in three of Chaucer's works. Susanna Fein examines the "Thyng Wommen Loven Moost" in "The Wife of Bath's Tale." She makes the convincing argument that Chaucer's bawdy language and sexual innuendo in Alisoun's tale is similar to women's fascination with male genitalia and their desire for sex common in the French fabliaux. Hence, she proposes approaching "The Wife of Bath's Tale" as a "hybrid genre" (16) where the materiality of physical love trumps any romantic or abstract interpretation. Like the essays offered by Lynn Staley and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne later in the volume, this essay also underscores the intersections between English and French literary cultures. The next objects under examination are those of the Queen Zenobia in "The Monk's Tale." Nancy Mason Bradbury offers a different interpretation of Zenobia's trading in of her objects representative of her rule for those associated with domestic duties. Instead of viewing this exchange as signaling subjugation, misogyny and Zenobia's decline in power, Mason Bradbury presents a more positive view, suggesting that that her new head-covering and distaff reflect a companionate marriage and Zenobia's economic productivity through spinning. Howell Chickering's "The Object of Miraculous Song in the 'Prioress's Tale,'" closes out the first section of the book. Here Chickering takes three objects that appear in the story--a corpse, an antiphon and the "mysterious greyn"--to interrogate the intersections between the material and the spiritual. He also raises the important point of considering how listening and sound shaped the audience's understanding of the poem.

The next set of essays examines "Buildings, Bodies and Women's (Self-) Fashioning" and moves from women and objects in literature to historical women's relationship with material culture itself. Starting this section is Michael T. Davis's engaging analysis of Queen Jean de Navarre's foundation and design of the Collège de Navarre. Jeanne's innovative vision for education was reflected in the building of the Collège and reveals the prominent role she played as queen. Davis's contribution removes any suggestion that Jeanne was a passive participant in this project in particular or more generally in the running of the kingdom. Lynn Staley considers another royal woman, Anne of Bohemia, in her contribution "Anne of Bohemia and the Objects of Ricardian Kingship." With this essay, the volume again returns to the topic of woman as object in literature. Staley examines the writings of Chaucer and Richard Maidstone and finds that these authors gave Anne agency as the moral force behind the throne. She also traces the broader context of advice literature available to the late medieval queen and, as a result, connects Anne to the subject of the previous essay, Jean de Navarre, who likely commissioned the Speculum Dominarum. Staley concludes that Chaucer and Maidstone hoped to encourage Anne to take on more of a role as moral adviser to Richard II than she had to that point. Nadia Margolis' essay on Christine de Pisan's biography of Charles V explores the way that this text parallels a physical reliquary. This is a creative approach to the text and Margolis demonstrates how Christine reveals Charles's virtues much in the same way the elaborate reliquaries of the late Middle Ages allowed the viewer glimpses of the holy. The final two essays in this section take up women's relationship with manuscripts. Jill C. Havens considers the Psalter-Hours of Mary de Bohun. She demonstrates how a single object held a variety of meanings for the donor and the recipient. Likely commissioned by Joan Fitzalan, Mary de Bohun's mother, the images selected celebrated Mary's family and the book itself commemorated Mary's royal marriage to Henry Bolingbroke. For Mary, it was her devotional book that included images linking her to the Virgin; for her mother it was a memorial to the past and her daughter's recent alliance. Elizabeth de Vere and her book is the subject of Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's examination of "Parchment and Pure Flesh." Wogan-Browne argues that Elizabeth's status as a chaste-matron put her in a group of women who were essential to the production and dissemination of texts in late medieval England. She draws attention to the prominence of East Anglia as a center for Francophone spiritual literature, which tied this region to the continent as part of a larger Francophone reading community. This manuscript, although modest and well-thumbed, demonstrates the depth of women's reading and an adherence to orthodoxy--which provides a corrective to the assertion that English women were particularly attracted to Lollardy. Wogan-Browne also advocates for a breaking down of the boundaries between English and French literary cultures, for as she proves in this essay, the Francophone community of East Anglia had a foot in each camp.

The last four essays in the book are collected under the title of "Bodies, Objects and Objects in the Shape of Bodies." The first essay picks up the theme of women as object in literature once again. Eleanor Johnson examines two female characters from Chaucer's corpus, Dorigen and Virginia, to consider what Chaucer had to say about women's experience in the law. Based on consideration of the Physician's and Franklin's tales, Johnson argues that the positive view of women with agency under the law offered in Dorigen's experiences in "The Franklin's Tale" was modified by Virginia's in "The Physician's Tale" to show that women were the object of men's law with little agency. Robert R. Edwards follows the topical thread of women as object in literature in his essay, "Galatea's Pulse: Objects, Ethics, and Jean de Meun's Conclusion." Here he considers the role of material objects in de Meun's conclusion by focusing on woman as physical object by examining two statues utilized by the poet, one described in the Roman de la Rose, the other the statute of Galatea from an embedded retelling of the story of Pygmalion at the end of the poem. Specifically, Edwards explores the intersections of the conclusion of the poem with Ovid's rendering of the tale of Pygmalion and Galatea to highlight de Meun's assertion that knowledge can be obtained through the material. Jenny Adams's essay combines analysis of physical objects--in this case chess pieces--and Chaucer'sThe Book of the Duchess. This is a fascinating contribution that seeks to reframe the chess scene in this literary piece. To do so, Adams explores the history of chess focusing on the changing status of the queen. She argues that, because a pawn who made it to the final row of the chess board could take on the characteristics of a queen, this represents the queen as a transgendered figure. The concluding essay by C. David Benson serves as a fitting reflection on the intersections among the material, the spiritual, and literature. Benson examines two texts, Gregorius's Narration of the Marvels of the City of Rome and the Middle English Stacions of Rome, and two statues, a classical rendering of Venus, the other of St. Cecilia. By putting these texts and objects in dialogue, he interrogates the role that the physical/material world can play in spiritual enlightenment. Benson surmises that relics and statues were believed to play an important role in helping the medieval believer reach a deeper spiritual understanding and awareness.

As the editors themselves signal, the "volume tilts decidedly toward the literary" (5). Consequently, the balance of this collection is not so much about medieval women and their material objects, but rather the objectification of women and medieval women's interaction with objects in literature. The first section contains essays that consider fictional women and their relationship to objects in three of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The second portion examines how flesh-and-blood medieval women used objects, both in literature and as patrons/owners. Three of the essays in this section interrogate medieval women's interaction with specific objects of material culture. The last group of essays examines women's bodies as object in law, literature and as subject to the gaze. Since the volume is focused entirely on late medieval England and France, a subtitle that refined the rather all-encompassing "Medieval Women and their Objects" would have helped better capture the volume's contents.

This essay collection hangs together well. The contributions build upon and respond to what the editors have identified as central to Collette's scholarship: "seeking out the kinds of knowledge and agency [medieval women] managed to muster despite the odds against them in a culture that offered women many fewer opportunities for education or intervention in public life" (10). The volume contains several stand-out essays that answer this call by challenging current interpretations of women in late medieval culture. Mason Bradbury's analysis of Zenobia's objects forces reconsideration not only of this literary figure, but also how material culture associated with women is interpreted. Is a female-gendered object like a distaff necessarily indicative of less power than those objects associated with male rulers? Similarly, Jenny Adams's analysis of the chess scene in The Book of the Duchess reframes the queen as a powerful figure capable of transecting gender boundaries. In her consideration of Anne of Bohemia, Staley shows that real-life queens--like the chess queen--could exercise a special moral power on the political chessboard of late medieval England. Davis's examination of the design of the Collège de Navarre puts Jeanne front and center in its conception and realization, building on recent scholarship that moves women from the shadows and gives them agency in such projects. Wogan-Browne and Havens's interrogation of devotional manuscripts owned by two medieval women sheds further light on women's networks--familial, spiritual, and intellectual. Hence, they deepen understanding of late medieval women's literary agency and their books.

Medieval Women and Their Objects demonstrates how analysis of material culture in literary texts, as well as texts themselves as objects, can yield exciting new information that challenge long-held notions about women in late medieval Europe. Similarly, those essays examining women and physical objects establish women's agency in their development, creation and dissemination. As such, the volume serves as fitting tribute to the scholarly contributions of Carolyn P. Collette.

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