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22.05.21 Templeton (ed.), Grief, Gender, and Identity in the Middle Ages

22.05.21 Templeton (ed.), Grief, Gender, and Identity in the Middle Ages

The eleven essays collected in Grief, Gender, and Identity in the Middle offer new insights into the history of emotions in medieval lyric, drama, romance, hagiography, and historiography. This is not the first edited volume on grief and gender in premodern European literature: Jennifer Vaught’s collection Grief and Gender: 700-1700 is a significant precursor. [1] Where that earlier volume favored canonical grief literature--Old English elegies, Chaucer, Spenser, Hamlet--the current volume reveals how grief shapes a broader swathe of medieval genres and traditions.

Despite their varied objects of study, the essays in the volume make a coherent whole, a credit to both contributors and editor. In part, this coherence can be credited to the book’s constrained geographic and cultural scope: with the exception of Kim Bergqvist’s excellent essay on mourning kings in medieval Castile, “the Middle Ages” are represented here entirely by Insular and Scandinavian sources; aside from a few references to the pre-Christian North Atlantic and Bergqvist’s brief engagement with Islamic philosophy, the religious context is entirely Christian; and most of the grievers and grieved discussed in the collection come from the elite echelons of their societies, whether fictive or real.

But there are conceptual throughlines as well. As Templeton notes in the introduction, the essays share a set of theoretical references, most importantly Judith Butler’s Precarious Life. [2] More interesting than the touchstone references to Butler’s work, however, are the surprising conjunctures that arise across essays on otherwise disparate topics. So Inna Matyushina and Danielle Marie Cudmore, writing on Eddic poetry and Irish keening respectively, each show how women’s grief motivates poetic composition and bodily commitment; Bergqvist’s reading of medieval Castilian histories and Jim Casey’s reading of Macbeth both find that a nobleman was expected to express his grief through anger, not tears. Such connections arise organically, but essays in the volume also reference one another frequently, suggesting careful editorial guidance throughout.

Though Templeton’s introduction gestures at the book’s thematic structure, national literary traditions emerge as a more consistent organizing principle. Bergqvist opens the collection with his standalone study of the chronicles of the Kingdom of Castile and León. The essay identifies a thirteenth-century shift toward more literary conventions in Castilian history writing, a shift that brought with it a new “repository of emotional styles and source for emotional socialization” (21). Bergqvist traces a single story--the death of Alfonso VI’s son in battle in 1108, and the king’s subsequent mourning--as it is retold over time: Alfonso’s excessive sorrow is first tied to subsequent military disasters or even his own death from grief, then rewritten to recuperate his masculine valor by emphasizing his anger instead. Drawing on this case study and an array of briefer examples drawn from chronicles and chivalric romance, Bergqvist convincingly argues that noblemen (and one woman, Queen Berenguela, the exception that proves the rule) were expected to restrain their grief and, in the martial culture of the Reconquista, convert it into violent anger. The essay makes a strong start to the collection, introducing the ruling framework of the history of emotions and a set of ideas--on the norms of masculinity, the gendering of emotion, and grief’s relation to action and passivity--to which subsequent essays return.

Two essays on Middle English devotional literature follow, each illuminating a disjuncture between maternal grief and religious doctrine. Kisha G. Tracy reads the Dispute between Mary and the Cross, a fourteenth-century debate poem, for evidence of Mary’s fallible memory. Tracy argues that grief inflects Mary’s retelling of the Crucifixion, obliging the Cross to correct her. Jeffery G. Stoyanoff pursues a parallel reading of the Brome Sacrifice of Isaac. Sarah is an absent presence in the play’s exchanges between Abraham and Isaac, he argues, and an audience intimately familiar with child mortality is thus invited to inhabit her position, mourning their own children by imagining Sarah’s grief at the narrowly averted sacrifice of her son. The play ends with a moralizing epilogue that attempts to overwrite feminine grief with masculine obedience. Unlike Tracy’s reading of the Cross’s rejoinder to Mary, Stoyanoff argues that this didactic turn fails--it might be “consistent with Church theology, yet the affective structure the play uses clearly is not” (74).

Erin I. Mann offers a compelling reading of the Old English Life of Euphrosyne, profitably investigating intersections of temporality, patriarchy, and gender within the generic expectations of hagiography. Mann’s nuanced, thoughtful essay shows signs of the volume’s long gestation--namely, its reading of the life of the monk Smaragdus, born Euphrosyne, would have benefited from an engagement with the recent efflorescence of trans medieval studies--but it remains a valuable work of scholarship. It is the only essay in the collection that looks to grief’s negative potential as catalyst for coercion and repression.

At the heart of the book are four learned and ambitious studies, two on Old Norse literature followed by two on Irish literature. Matyushina argues that women’s grief in Eddic poetry is a kind of objective state of harm, not a subjective overflowing of emotion, only remedied by heroic action; by contrast, the masculine mourner in skaldic verse is emotionally effusive. The grieving poetic voice thus marks a deviation from the gender norms of the broader culture. Kristen Mills in turn focuses on death from grief, drawing most of her examples from the sagas. Women die--by suicide or simply by emotional excess--for their husbands, men for their sons and lords, pointing to a gendered hierarchy of “grievable life” (in Butler’s terms). Though this hierarchy is not necessarily surprising, Mills’ essay is wide-ranging and rewards close attention. One thread of the essay, for instance, offers a fascinating account of fatal “bursting from grief,” complementing Sarah Baccianti’s recent essay on bursting emotion in Old Norse, probably too recent to be cited here. [3]

Marjorie Housley’s essay on Cú Chulainn and Derdriu’s mourning in the Táin Bó Cúailnge is often referenced by other contributors, for good reason: it is an accomplished reading of the epic’s inset mourning verses, particularly distinguished as the volume’s only substantive engagement with queer theory. Unlike most of the other chapters, which focus on expression, constraint, and moralization of emotion, Housley focuses on what emotion accomplishes, arguing that mourning verses “build relationships after they have failed through violence and feud” (164).

Cudmore, in turn, traces a vivid image that recurs in both anti-Irish polemic and Irish literature and folktale, “at the limen of a real practice and the imaginative representation of it in literature” (166): a mourning woman drinks the blood of the man she grieves. This striking bodily act is preface to her verse keening over the dead. As Cudmore shows, in a bravura exposition of a thousand years’ worth of writing, blood-drinking thus makes women poets when they would otherwise be forbidden, thus literalizing conventional bodily metaphors of poetic production. Cudmore’s essay alone justifies the price of admission here. The essay will surely be cited henceforth as the authoritative study on this particular image. But it is also a strange and beautiful work of scholarship, well worth the attention of scholars beyond its subfield.

The collection closes with three essays on Middle English romance. Drew Maxwell examines “grief-madness” in Middle English Arthurian romance, arguing that well-known scenes of masculine madness and flight are paralleled by women’s grief-madness. Templeton focuses on Sir Orfeo, the Middle English adaptation of the Orpheus myth. In his reading, buttressed by its engagement with Butler and Derrida, the grieving Orfeo sheds his chivalric masculinity, building an alternate masculinity through music--a masculinity that is not entirely dispelled even when he, unlike Orpheus, successfully reclaims his wife. (Though Templeton does not raise the point, his reading dovetails with the post-Ovidian medieval tradition that made the bereft Orpheus an exemplar of male same-sex desire.) Casey closes the collection by examining men’s mourning in Malory and Shakespeare: men can cry in the former, provided they avoid crying like women, but Shakespeare’s men can only cry as prelude to action, lest they lose some essential quality of masculinity in the process.

Taken as a whole, the collection offers a valuable account of the intersection of gender and the practices and representations of grief on the northern and western edges of medieval Latin Europe. The book benefits from its comprehensive bibliography and index, and only a few minor copy errors have slipped through. It is a worthy and necessary addition to the scholarly literature on grief and gender. Even with two volumes on the subject, however, methodological tensions and divergences here suggest avenues for potential future work. Some of the essays in this collection insist that lyrics and romances straightforwardly represent medieval social norms, for instance, while others understand literary convention as its own domain. The place of literature in the history of emotions has been explored before--most importantly, in an essay on the sublime grief-poem Pearl by Sarah McNamer (whose work is a palpable absence from this book’s bibliography)--but it clearly remains an unresolved question, deserving of further reflection. [4] Similarly, these essays repeatedly posit strict medieval gender binaries, only to find that those binaries break down in their specific object of study. Taken in aggregate, their findings suggest that we should perhaps be more ready to assume--as Maxwell proposes at the end of his essay, and as several generations of feminist and queer medieval scholarship have variously proposed--that however assigned, regulated, and moralized it might have been, gender past (like gender present) was never an entirely fixed entity, but always a category in the making.



1. Jennifer C. Vaught with Lynne Dickson Bruckner, eds., Grief and Gender: 700-1700, ed. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003).

2. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence(London and New York: Verso, 2004).

3. Sarah Baccianti, “Swelling in Anger: Somatic Descriptors in Old English and Old Norse Literature,” in Mary C. Flannery (ed.), Emotion and Medieval Textual Media (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), pp. 51-73.

4. Sarah McNamer, “The Literariness of Literature and the History of Emotion,” PMLA,103.5 (2015): 1433-1442.