- In the Singular and Plural Cases: The Lives of Medieval European Women
The lives of medieval European women varied considerably depending on social class, economic status, marriage choices, legal rights, and religious commitments. The books under review here follow the trajectories of [End Page 187] women’s lives and taken together suggest some commonalities shared by women from Ireland to Venice during the high Middle Ages (ca. 1000–1500). All of the books use gender, and specifically women’s experiences and actions, as a category of analysis through which to understand and reinterpret broader changes in the political, social, and religious landscape of Europe. In turn, by focusing on women, several of these studies offer important challenges to—and reassessments of—traditional paradigms of political authority, religious reform, and social change. In what follows, I review the works together, pointing out common themes while addressing the insights unique to each work. I conclude with a comment on the methodological challenges of premodern women’s history that arise out of viewing these works as a whole, that is, as a moment in the long history of writing about women in the medieval past.
Taken together the eight books under review here point to new trends in women’s history that come at the intersection of social and cultural studies. While several of the books focus on a singular woman and her achievements, whether as a countess, intellectual, or leader of a religious movement, in all cases the histories of these women go beyond simple reconstructed narratives to address the broader comparative framework of their achievements. In this sense, singular women are put within a pluralistic context and speak to broader themes of leadership, authority, motherhood, widowhood, reform, and religious ideals that affected many women over generations. By attending to the intersection of women’s social and cultural roles all of these histories address issues of gender and power, and the ways in which—as many of the authors point out—women’s roles also defined and circumscribed the expectations and behaviors of men. All of these books deal with challenges fundamental to medievalists and historians of women generally: the limitations of sources and the creativity necessary for reconstructing what women thought and how they experienced their worlds.
Kimberly A. LoPrete’s study, Adela of Blois: Countess and Lord (c. 1067–1137), addresses these challenges directly. Crafting what she calls a “comprehensive” study of Adela (1067/8–1137), LoPrete places the countess at the center of a complex and vividly depicted social and political context. Adela’s actions and ambitions were the linchpin of many critical changes affecting early twelfth-century France, but LoPrete is careful to draw comparisons between Adela and other women of her rank and ability, noting that although Adela was unique she was not wholly exceptional in her influence within her natal...