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23.08.18 Lochrie/Vishnuvajjala (eds.), Women’s Friendship in Medieval Literature

23.08.18 Lochrie/Vishnuvajjala (eds.), Women’s Friendship in Medieval Literature

Karma Lochrie and Usha Vishnuvajjala’s new edited volume narrates dozens of female friendships in a wide range of texts and genres, for which they already achieved one of their central goals in assembling this collection: revising a social and literary history from which women’s friendships mainly were missing. The reason, as they explain in the introduction, has to do with classical definitions of friendship: “The likeness between friends about which Aristotle writes is based on equality and a similitude with respect to virtue, a quality presumed to be possessed by men but not by women” (4). They later remind us that such ideals were not the only way to engage with friendship, as lived experience often challenges ideal friendships. The various studies offered in this book capture this female experience even when engaging with more literary texts, and decipher friendship in sources that often do not seem to say much about female friendship--until we begin to listen more closely.

The first part of this collection is dedicated to lay and religious women and examines primarily hagiographic texts. Written primarily by men, most vitae focus on male-female friendship, “with the female visionary friend to, and championed by, the male priest who authorizes her mystical activity for a suspicious church hierarchy” (19). Yet attention to female-female friendships reveals that these bonds were an essential condition to the visionary’s success, as in the case of the correspondence between the twelfth-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen and Elisabeth of Schönau (studied by Jennifer N. Brown), in which one encouraged the other to embrace her role as a visionary.

The case of Marie de France’s The Life of Saint Audrey, in Stella Wang’s chapter, demonstrates the importance of female authorship: while previous accounts emphasized the saint’s “contemplative solitude,” “Marie’s hagiography focuses on the saint’s spiritual contributions through her communal obligations” (47). Chapter three, by Andrea Boffa, suggests that female friendships allowed lay women to become independent from masculine authority (for which some writers downplayed such relationships). Boffa shows that even the thirteenth-century Florentine Umiliana de’ Cerchi, who enclosed herself in a tower, still received friends in her cell and even went out to visit them.

In chapter four, Alexandra Verini writes about spiritual friendship in Syon Abbey in England during the fifteenth century. She shows that the rules demanding uniformity among the Bridgettine sisters--they needed to mirror the Virgin and Saint Bridget of Sweden in the exact same way, like “wax impressions” (81)--did not leave room for friendship, especially since such rules also did not encourage mutual exchange among the sisters. Verini’s reading raises the important question, relevant as well to other ideal and egalitarian communities (and even to the modern socialist experiences of the twentieth century), of whether friendship can still exist in a society that calls for complete unity.

Chapter five is one of the best studies in this volume. Lydia Yaitsky Kertz analyzes the anonymous Middle English poem Emaré through the perspective of material culture and shows how women could share friendship based on their shared skill: silk embroidery. This chapter is a good reminder of the fact that many amical moments did not take place in spaces of leisure, but in workshops and other similar settings where labor was performed alongside workmates who spent long hours together, and also how one’s hand-made gifts could promote intimacy long after they were created. Shared labor, profession, or skill brought women together, and even in cases when one woman was serving as the other’s teacher or mentor, regardless of this clear hierarchy.

Chapter six recovers Guinevere’s amical ties with the Maid of Ascolot in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur. Such relationships involving sympathy and empathy were often overlooked due to Guinevere’s (called Gaynor here) popular image as a “cheater.” Nevertheless, these important relationships allowed this character to express her more repressed emotions. “In a largely masculine community of knights, which Gaynor is very much a part of,” explains Usha Vishnuvajjala, “she needs the company--real or perceived--of other women in order to be free to succumb to affective responses to events and to vocalize her emotions” (133). Not every woman could benefit in such a way from the company of friends. The widow Criseyde in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is often depicted as “friendless.” In chapter seven, however, Melissa Ridley Elmes makes the point that it is not friends in general that the woman was lacking, but only ones “to whom she can reveal her fears or express her emotions so that they are understood” (141).

Carissa M. Harris’ excellent chapter eight applies Karma Lochrie’s model of “cummarship”--one that signifies “female intimacy that is both pedagogical and raucous” (159)--to “alewife poems” in which women were depicted drinking with their female friends and discussing their marriages and sexual life in a language which was not considered decent. This genre appeared in the second half of the fifteenth century, as increased wages after the Black Death allowed higher spending on alcohol consumption, and as more women left the countryside to work in cities and towns--often in alehouses. Such social circumstances are a good example of how the abstract ideals of friendship were shaped by a concrete new material reality, here bringing to the feminization of the alehouse. Advice on sexual education was shared between the female friends to help them obtain pleasure with their husbands, and “as a form of feminist consciousness-raising, with each woman sharing her private experience in order to generate knowledge about deeply entrenched inequalities that affect them all” (165).

That their husbands were one of the main topics of conversation should not dismiss its amical quality, explains Karma Lochrie in chapter nine, where she questions the popular “Bechdel Test” (the one asking whether a film includes two female characters who talk to one another about topics other than men, to determine the level of women representation in a film). Instead, Lochrie offers a more flexible framework, looking for identity of feeling, “godsibbe femininity,” and cross-species empathy (as between women and animals, such as falcons). She gives as an example the relationship between the Christian Custance and the Muslim Sultaness in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, as it “works against the narrator’s project of unifying and heroizing Christian identity against the religious Other in his tale” (185). Godsibbe is gossip, but Lochrie seeks to shift it from its negative context to gossip “as the community in which an important kind of female fellowship, intimacy, transgression, and knowledge transmission occurs” (187). Solidarity is also at the center of chapter ten, Christine Chism’s essay on Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies. This Book, she argued, fostered friendship between future female readers in the centuries after its composition, since the “most crucial friendships for Christine’s projects are not those she depicts within her vision-texts but rather those that her books provoke readers to enact” (211).

Chapter eleven moves to the modern period, when imitating inspiring medieval friendships “ameliorated the anxieties of modernity, particularly the alienating individualism fostered by capitalism” (220). Laurie Finke explores whether that was also true for the female participants in fraternal organizations and during the initiation rituals of Freemasonry, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and twentieth-century Wicca. In the last chapter, Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing read historical fiction, such as Nicola Griffith’s Hild, which is based on the life of the medieval Abbess by the same name. Similar to Emaré, here as well “old women with old, young with young, women who had woven and spun and carded together for yours” (246-247) are able to form friendships with one another through their craft.

The books ends with an afterword by Penelope Anderson, who more than a decade ago, when reviewing recent scholarship on friendship, turned our attention to “The Absent Female Friend,” as the name of her 2010 article (published in Literary Compass). A few years later, this volume makes an important contribution to the field in making female friendship present. It should be read by anyone interested in the history of friendship, and by scholars beyond literary studies who are working on the topic through the perspectives of anthropology, sociology, and, of course, gender, as it introduces many insightful questions and innovative research methods to the study of amical representations, discourse, spaces, and practices. It will benefit both medievalists and early modernists in their ongoing effort to reconstruct “messier” social interactions and kin-relations. Finally, this book provides a good example of an edited volume in which different studies speak to one another directly, in what makes a coherent and thought-provoking volume--what must be the outcome of an inspiring intellectual friendship.