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  • Assessing Patriarchies: Continuity and Change for European Women
  • Katharine W. Swett (bio)
Antti Arjava. Women and Law in Late Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 304 pp. ISBN 0-19-815033-4 (cl).
Judith M. Bennett. Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 260 pp. ISBN 0-19-507390-8 (cl).
Peter Berresford Ellis. Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature. London: Constable and Company Ltd., 1995. 288 pp. ISBN 0-8028-3808-1 (cl).
Anthony Fletcher. Gender, Sex, and Subordination in England, 1500–1800. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. 442 pp. ISBN 0-300-06531-0 (cl).
Margaret R. Hunt. The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender, and the Family in England, 1680–1780. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 343 pp. ISBN 0-520-20260-0 (cl).

The common themes that animate these five books are among those most important to historians of women and gender: continuity, change, and understanding the operation of patriarchies. Taken together, these themes testify to the care needed when we use the word “patriarchy.” On the one hand, patriarchies should always be used in the plural, for their manifestations are inflected by context and cannot be abstracted out of their specific historical settings. Moreover, any given historical patriarchy takes a plurality of forms within that society. Yet patriarchy also possesses a singular constancy in these books, which attests to its resilience, adaptability, and endurance over the eighteen hundred years of European history they cover.

Peter Berresford Ellis’s Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature, which begins earliest and addresses the longest timespan of the books reviewed, engages the tradition of gradual decline from a freer, more egalitarian past for Celtic women. Author of several books on Celtic subjects, Ellis’s principal theme here is a qualified defense of native Celtic [End Page 224] society as a progressive environment for women in comparison with the dominant contemporary cultures of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Anglo-Normans, and, finally, the English. The first half of the book surveys women in the mythology, religion, literature, history, and laws of early Ireland, with some attention to Scotland and Wales. A central issue Ellis confronts in this section is the uses of ancient Irish stories as historical evidence. Christianity, medieval women, personal adornment, witchcraft, and erotic poetry comprise the book’s second half, which closes with an epilogue that moves forward through the past three centuries. In this section, the Catholic Church takes on a villainous role as fortress of patriarchy (a word Ellis rarely uses), although he makes some effort to contextualize the church within a more than a millennium-long erosion of native Celtic attitudes and social practices under the influence of other cultures. Ellis never says explicitly, as Antti Arjava or Anthony Fletcher would, that this erosion happened, in part, because it was a trend which suited Celtic men of property and position. In this work of secondary scholarship, Ellis argues gently with the historians who are his authorities, reserving his sharper comments for the scholars and editors (especially Irish Catholic clergy) who have suppressed women’s writings or evidence of their contributions as historical actors.

Ellis’s Celtic Women is at once too general and too detailed. The book has a bibliography but no notes; it appears to be aimed at the educated, general reader. Specialists might be uninterested, as the text does not build an argument carefully from evidence, and other readers may be dissatisfied with its exhaustively anecdotal style—descriptive but often muddily so, and packed with digressions. This is history as one thing after another, with casual chronology and some discussion, but no well-organized evaluations of sources. One of the chapters on laws simply enumerates them, and the medieval history chapter is potted biographies with such section titles as “Some Scottish Ladies” and “Some Welsh Ladies.” Yet the book assumes considerable knowledge of British history, geography, and literature; and Ellis inserts many one-sided debates with Celtic scholars which might be of little interest to the general reader. Historians may dislike the prospect of literary scholars relying on him for historical background; indeed...