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Women Readers in the Middle Ages (review)

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 31, 2009
pp. 342-345 | 10.1353/sac.0.0068

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On its dust jacket, D. H. Green’s magisterial Women Readers sports Roger van der Weyden’s famous image of the Magdalene reading (dated before 1438), one of the few surviving fragments of what must have been a magnificent altarpiece. It tells a now-familiar story about medieval women and their books. By the end of the Middle Ages, high-status women (as the sumptuously outfitted Magdalene surely is) were routinely taught to read as an aide to domestic devotion. The currency of images like this is a testament to the pioneering work of scholars in the 1980s and early 1990s (dating back, at least, to Susan Groag Bell’s 1982 article in Signs), which put women’s devotional literacy on the critical agenda and, of course, to the considerable scholarship that has been produced since. But, paradoxically, it does little justice to Green’s volume.

The image of a solitary, reformed prostitute engrossed in a holy book works to confirm, rather than dispel, our preconceptions about the apparent limits of women’s literacy, preconceptions that often converge with the prejudices of Latinate clerics and anxious moralists. The fifteenth- century Austin Fishmonger, for instance, imagined reading as part of a punishing routine designed to discipline women: “It syttyt fwyll wele a woman to be newere idyl, but eyþer workyng, prayyng, redyng, spynnynge, sewyng or wepyng or morning for synne”; he would have approved of the bookish Magdalene. The achievement of Women Readers is its author’s insistence that we rephrase our questions: about women, about their reading practices, and about the rich body of evidence that survives.

The compass is broad: from Abbess Hilda of Whitby in the seventh century to Margaret Beaufort at the start of the sixteenth (with a particular focus on that perennial watershed, the twelfth century), in three countries (Germany, France, and England), and in no fewer than four languages. The examples Green uses are necessarily selective and he is palpably more at home in medieval Germany (of which he is a specialist) than England or, to a lesser extent, France, where his reliance on the accumulated insights of other scholars is most evident. This is not a criticism. One of the strengths of Women Readers is that Green readily acknowledges his perch on the shoulders of the proverbial giants. This is the first monograph to offer a comprehensive overview of a relatively new field of inquiry and, simultaneously, to try to think beyond the limits of individual case studies, many of which—like Roberta Krueger on women readers and Old French romance, Jeffrey Hamburger on the devotional images produced by the nuns of St. Walburg, Felicity Riddy on women “talking about the things of God”—are ground-breaking in their own right.

The volume is divided into two parts. The first, “Reading in the Middle Ages,” offers a detailed discussion of what it meant to read, as well as to be literate, in the Middle Ages, for both women and men. Green exposes the clerical definition of literacy (as coincident with Latinity) for what it is—a blatant ploy to monopolize the power attributed to textual culture for itself—and instead seeks to valorize not only vernacular literacy but a much wider spectrum of often indirect reading practices, including most importantly the common medieval equation of reading with listening (the widely attested practice of reading with the ears). Here the disjunction between Van der Weyden’s very modern solitary reader and the ones Green primarily charts is at its starkest.

It is in the second part, “Women and Reading in the Middle Ages,” that Green’s work is most exciting. The first of two chapters opens with a summary of recent scholarship on women’s education, highlighting the significance of the domestication of literacy in the High Middle Ages, before turning to a catalogue-like analysis of the different types of women readers: laywomen, nuns, recluses, semireligious, and heretics. The chapter is, quite literally, stuffed (Green is no stylist) with evidence—documentary, visual, monumental, implied—and its greatest strength is methodological. No longer restricted to women who read with their eyes (although he finds more than enough of those), Green is able to recover...



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