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21.04.16 Crocker, The Matter of Virtue

The Medieval Review

21.04.16 Crocker, The Matter of Virtue

On the very last page of The Matter of Virtue: Women's Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Holly Crocker directly addresses her intended audience: "This book is written for an audience of premodern feminist scholars. It invites debate about what feminism might become, and in doing so, it affirms that feminism is just getting going as a critical practice that might help us see the premodern past differently" (352). This book and its sisters, the impressive and ever-growing list of new and innovative feminist monographs in Medieval Studies, do indeed affirm that feminism is going strong. When Nicole Nolan Sidhu published "Love in a Cold Climate" in 2009, "feminism's star," as she put it, had "fallen" (864). Thanks to Sidhu's wake-up call and to the work of scholars of all ranks, including this monograph by a full professor known for mentoring the work of others lower down on the ladder, that star is now high. The ambition of this renewed feminist movement in Medieval Studies is not only, as Crocker puts it in her conclusion, "to help us see the premodern past differently," but also to change the present. As Crocker writes in her introduction: "If we consider physical bodies as women more frequently experienced them, as fragile and open, as well as connected and subjected to others, then our virtues will be, like the worlds we share, transformed" (6).

In her introduction ("Virtues that Matter"), Crocker provides necessary background information: An overview of the history of virtue ethics from Aristotle to Shakespeare. This history enumerates many medieval meanings of "virtue"--from "virtue" in the sense of habit to "virtue" in the sense of the medicinal powers of rocks and herbs. As Crocker explains, women have been excluded from the dominant version of this history of philosophy, which associated, etymologically and ideologically, virtue with virility (6). And yet Crocker argues that, in another--and too-often overlooked--sense, women were also essential to the medieval understanding of virtue. Not only were the cardinal virtues allegorically represented as goddesses, but the building blocks of virtue--matter and habit--were also deeply associated with women. When virtue ethics died (as it did not coincidentally during the very historical span covered by this book, between the end of the Middle Ages and the early modern period), it died, Crocker claims, as a consequence of a misogynist suspicion of surfaces and appearances. After this cultural transition, ethics became the purview of individual subjects (white, male, privileged) clearly distinct from the objects (women, animals, plants, things) under their control. Crocker asks us to reconsider--and, ultimately, reawaken--the now-forgotten medieval ethical model of material virtue. Crocker ends this introduction with a persuasive close reading of Hamlet that models the historical shift she has delineated, finding in Ophelia's madness a virtuous counter-discourse to Hamlet's individualist ethics. This counter-discourse of material virtue, Crocker explains, flourishes specifically in literature thanks to the innovative artistic drive that resists rigid norms and limited ethical frameworks (38).

The body of the book is divided into three sections, the first of which ("Prescriptive Failures") focuses on the literary history of the character of Criseyde (or Cresseid, Cressida) in the works of English poets from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period. Within this section, the first chapter ("The Fragility of Virtue") begins in the late Middle Ages with Geoffrey Chaucer and John Lydgate--and specifically, in a reversal of custom, of Chaucer read through Lydgate (43-4). In this historical period, Criseyde, as Crocker points out, does not tend to find herself included in medieval catalogs of the ancient and legendary female worthies ("famous women" like Helen, Cassandra, and Penelope) who exemplify prescriptive virtues. Crocker explains that this is because Criseyde's virtues--contingent and material rather than transcendent and ideal--challenge these prescriptive ideals and the oppressive ideology ("the heroic tradition") from which they stem (42). The second chapter ("The Matter of Virtue") in this first section proceeds into the early modern period and tracks representations of Criseyde across the words of Robert Henryson, a host of sixteenth-century versifiers (including Thomas Proctor, George Gascoigne, and George Turberville), and William Shakespeare. In this chapter, Crocker charts the increasing didacticism in the representations of Criseyde written across the sixteenth century by versifiers like Proctor, Gascoigne, and Turberville, and details the ethical resistance to that prescriptivism mounted by Henryson and Shakespeare, who, each in his own way, according to Crocker, returns to the earlier tradition established by Chaucer and Lydgate of using Criseyde to critique "scripts of idealized femininity" (81) and the bankrupt heroic virtues of honor and conquest (107).

The second part of the book ("Grace, Enacted: Romance and Material Virtue") turns to the genre of romance, beginning again with Chaucer and ending, this time, with Edmund Spenser. The third chapter (the first in this second part), "Virtue's Grace: Custance and Other Daughters," focuses on the character of Custance from Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale while also comparing Custance to an interconnected network of late medieval virtuous heroines, including Saint Margaret (specifically from the Auchinleck St. Margaret), Saint Katherine (from John Capgrave's Life of St. Katherine), the Empress of Rome (from the Eton College Chapel murals), and Mary Magdalene (from Caxton's Golden Legend). Crocker departs from the given reading of Custance as an empty vessel of abstract virtue, interpreting her instead as an articulation of "a material virtue founded on endurance and receptivity, and mobilized through nonhuman encounters" (112). Through an intricate study of the theological meaning of grace in a late medieval context, Crocker argues that Custance embodies a kind of networked agency that "undoes the active/passive binary" undergirding our ingrained assumptions about virtue (112).

The fourth chapter in the book (and the second in the second part), "Virtue's Knowledge in Lodge and Spenser," brings the genre of romance forward to the sixteenth century, focusing in particular on the character of Margarita in Thomas Lodge's A Margarite of America (1596) and Florimell in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene(1590-1596). The theme of the previous chapter was grace--of this chapter, knowledge. Crocker argues that Margarita and Florimell, heroines known for (we might also say infamous for) their vulnerability and passivity, function as indictments of early modern rules of conduct that denied women's capacity for intelligence and discretion (155). Florimell in particular, Crocker argues, ultimately represents the material virtues of true beauty and ethical intelligence. Her struggles, then, "bespeak the need for women's ethical intelligence in a world riven by physical contingency" (156).

The third part of the book ("Homely Virtues") consists of the fourth chapter, "Shrewish Virtue, from Chaucer to Shakespeare," which analyzes the inextricable pair of the positive and negative exemplar of wifehood in late medieval and early modern English literature. In this chapter, the role of the good wife is played by the Patient Griselda, and her story begins with Chaucer's The Clerk's Tale and Envoy and then extends to Thomas Dekker, Henry Chettle, and William Haughton's The Pleasant Comodie of Patient Grissil (circa 1599-1600) and an array of early-modern adaptations of Griselda's story (like, for example, the History of Patient Grisel from the 1619 prose chapbook). Crocker reads Griselda against the grain, not as passive or complicit but rather as a purely virtuous moral agent who embodies "patience, humility, steadfastness, and submission" (199). When Griselda "takes on subjection voluntarily," Crocker argues, she "undermines her husband's claims to control" (199) and "challenges the masculinist absolutism of the early modern household" (201). The second half of the chapter discusses negative exemplars of wifehood, shrews like Shakespeare's Katherina and Fletcher's Maria (from The Woman's Prize, or the Tamer Tam'd). Crocker reads Katherina and Maria, like Griselda, as embodiments of "homely" and "unappealing" material virtues that do not "fulfill the expectation that ethical fitness be expressed through gestures of public autonomy, resistance, or sovereignty" (250).

The book ends with a conclusion that focuses on Chaucer's Legend of Good Women and (in a return to the introduction) Shakespeare's Hamlet. If one were looking for an easily digestible excerpt from this book to assign for a graduate seminar or even an undergraduate course, I would recommend this conclusion, which puts across the argument of the book clearly and concisely in twenty pages. In this conclusion, Crocker responds to the counter-arguments and criticisms that the book raises. I find Crocker's most fundamental and urgent intervention in the critical conversation completely persuasive. Crocker points out that generations of scholars, including and especially feminists, have interpreted the heroines of this monograph as "stupid" damsels in distress who "get what they ask for" (258-9). Crocker makes it simply impossible to disagree that this victim-blaming is unacceptable, and demands redress. This book provides that necessary redress. When my students say, as at least one or two always do, that Ophelia or Griselda had it coming, and brought it on herself, and deserved what she got, I will direct them to this book. I trust that it will put them right. I value how hard this book made me think about the "unappealing" feminine virtues--like patience, vulnerability, self-sacrifice, and passivity--that so discomfort contemporary feminist readers, myself included (250). Crocker has convinced me that our discomfort is part of the problem, and I thank her for the lesson. She has given me pause, and made me think.

But when it comes to the other counter-arguments that Crocker addresses in her conclusion, things are more complicated. Crocker denies that her argument endorses quietism, essentialism, or the idolatry of the traditional canon of dead white men. She answers each of these accusations in her rebuttal in the conclusion, and also throughout the book, with compelling thoughtfulness. And yet these critiques seem bigger than this book: They address feminism in pre-modern studies more broadly. The Matter of Virtue encourages the virtues of "vulnerability, endurance, and openness to others" (6). With these ideals in mind, I find myself wondering how we might do better. First, in response to the accusation that we continue to persist in our old habit of laboring to rehabilitate and redeem the Great Men of the canon, I resolve to heed the call to subject Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare to the new critique (best exemplified by the exciting work of Carissa Harris) informed by the #MeToo movement. [1] Second, in response to the accusation that feminism in Medieval Studies continues to rely on and reify a false gender binary, I resolve to study the teachings of trans feminist leaders in our field, like Gabrielle M. W. Bychowski and Blake Gutt, [2] and beyond our field, like Grace Lavery and Sophie Lewis, [3] and learn from them new ways of thinking beyond the binary. Third, in response to the accusation of quietism, I resolve to take in and help support the ongoing intersectional critique of the history and practice of feminist scholarship in Medieval Studies, especially where it overlaps with white feminism.

But to return to the subject at hand: The Matter of Virtue is timely and instructive. It is erudite and yet also accessible, suitable for a wide range of readers and interests. It is deeply versed in the history of philosophy and a vast network of critical conversations within medieval and early modern studies, and it treats the scholarly work of others with enormous respect and generosity. Its central theses are bold and thought-provoking. The book's check of the bad habit of victim-blaming and ambitious reimagining of what it means to be human linger in the mind, as do the many deeply researched and informative paragraphs about the cultural history of the materiality of virtue, like the study of the medicinal powers of Ophelia's plants (32–5), or the reading of the humoral imbalance of the shrew (224). In short, this study of the materiality of virtue is a welcome addition to feminist research on the pre-modern, especially in the dark winter of 2021.



1. Carissa Harris, Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018).

2. Dorothy Kim and Gabrielle M. W. Bychowski, "Visions of Medieval Trans Feminism: An Introduction,"Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality vol. 55, no. 1 (2019): pp. 6-41; Blake Gutt, "Medieval Trans Lives in Anamorphosis: Looking Back and Seeing Differently (Pregnant Men and Backward Birth)," Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality vol. 55, no. 1 (2019): pp. 174-206.

3. Grace Lavery, "The King's Two Anuses: Trans Feminism and Free Speech," differences 30, no. 3 (2019): pp. 118-151; Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2019).