Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (d.203) to Marguerite Porete (d.1310) (review)
- Australian and New Zealand Association of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (Inc.)
- Number 4, 1986
- pp. 203-205
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203 Ernest Barker, Zachary Brooke, Helen Cam, David Douglas, G.N. Garmonsway, and many others. Such American-authored classics as Boyd H. Hill's Medieval Monarchy in Action (1972) or William A. Chaney's The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England (1970) are included, as are a surprising number of English-language works concerned with Scandanavia and with Gothic history. It may be stressed, in conclusion, that the work is a mellow distillation of much research, that high scholarship is born lightly and that the treatment is fresh, perceptive and remarkably readable. J.S. Ryan Department of English University of New England Women writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (d.203) to Marguerite Porete (d.1310), Peter Dronke. Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. xi and 338. This book presents the reader with an appealing paradox in its very conception. It sets out a distinctly personal view of personal writings, and yet those writings are for the most part fairly remote from the familiar paths of medieval studies. The texts discussed are those of women writers from western Europe, excluding Celtic and Norse texts. Most writing is related in some way to religious concerns, but there is a wide variety in literary type and point of view. It is a pleasant surprise to realize that so much writing by women is known from this early period; so much, in fact, that Dronke has rationalized his material, along certain guidelines. His main aim is to explore "texts in which women tell how they understand themselves and their world, or construct imaginative worlds of their own"; a secondary aim is to deal more with lesser known works and less with the more familiar ones. As it turns out, the lesser known works are often the very ones which, it is argued persuasively, have the most highly personalized and individual content. The result is that all relevant women's writings up to the early twelfth century are treated in some degree, while writings after that time are treated more selectively. Thus Marie de France is scarcely mentioned, while only some works of the prolific Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim and Hildegard of Bingen are treated in detail. Hrotsvitha and Hildegard, along with the Carolingian Dhuoda and Heloise, are discussed in separate chapters, while the other writers are grouped chronologically in three other chapters. A comprehensive Bibliography and Notes support the whole. Some works treated are plainly anonymous; but problems of other kinds arise in the attribution of some pieces to particular 204 authors. Perpetua's prison diary is a powerful account of her arrest and detention for adhering to the Christian faith, recording her practical experiences, her visions and her observations on both up to the day before she was to die in the arena. The diary is actually embodied in her passio, whose author claims to preserve her writing "as she left it, in her own way, and as it was set down by her own hand". This statement would justify its inclusion in the book; but some readers might have welcomed discussion of the grounds on which it should in fact be accepted as Perpetua's own finished work and not a reworking of, say, verbal or less cohesive written accounts. A similar situation might be perceived in the case of the autobiographical passages preserved in the vita of Hildegard; but contemporary respect for Hildegard and acknowledgment of her achievements as a writer, together with the fact that this later period is much better recorded, probably make her case less uncertain than Perpetua's. Another author considered, from the early fourteenth century, is Grazida Lizier, an unlettered peasant girl of Provence. Her understanding of herself and her world was recorded when she was interrogated as a witness for the inquisition into the Catharist heresy. Her statements bring us into contact with a kind of woman whose voice is little heard by medievalists, and they are therefore of special interest. There must, however, be some uncertainty about the degree of closeness of the record to what she actually said, as Dronke implicitly acknowledges. For one thing, her vernacular speech was being translated into Latin and presumably somewhat abbreviated...