- Representing Medieval Genders and Sexualities in Europe: Construction, Transformation, and Subversion, 600-1530 ed. by Elizabeth L'Estrange and Alison More
There is still a tendency for edited collections purporting to deal with gender or sexuality, to actually be concerned primarily with women, sometimes to the complete exclusion of men. While seven of the ten chapters in Representing Medieval Genders and Sexualities in Europe do deal specifically with women, there are three chapters focusing on masculinity - welcome indeed. The aim of the collection is to look at how gender identities were forged, subverted, and transmuted, using sources as varied as hagiography, art, literature, and epistles.
In their introductory chapter, editors Elizabeth L'Estrange and Alison More note their wish to highlight some of the ways in which women's and gender studies have developed as a discipline, 'particularly in relation to those areas of scholarship that are intrinsic to the contributions to this volume, such as masculinity studies, religious studies, literature and art history' (p. 2). Initially this approach seems to differentiate masculinities as a separate field to gender studies, but the three chapters that take a masculine focus do use it as an inherent part of gender investigation. Not only that, but the editors go on to make the very pertinent observation that 'neither the masculine gender role nor its associated characteristics are exclusive to men' (p. 3). This approach has been noted in modern psychological and sociological work on gender and sexuality as well, and has much to give historical research in these areas. It is encouraging to see this spelled out so clearly here.
The articles with a focus on masculinity are worth noting in detail. In her contribution, Cassandra Rhodes discusses how different masculine ideals were at play with Anglo-Saxon male virgins in two prose hagiographic works from the seventh and tenth centuries. She contextualizes her research within work on female saints, noting two conflicting masculine aspects, the secular, virile military masculinity and the spiritual, chaste religious male ideal. Alison More's essay illustrates how gendered imagery was used as a symbolic language to discuss the journey of religious conversion. She argues [End Page 265] that biological sex became an aspect of human nature to be transcended, regardless of whether one was male or female. Fiona S. Dunlop's study confirms what concurrent research on early modern masculinity has already shown - namely, that there was a rise in an ideal of masculine identity that valued self-control and self-governance over anything else in elite men. Her work shows that the transition from a martial masculinity to a more cerebral, intellectual gender identity was not necessarily a smooth, unconscious process, but had to be learned and, at times, carefully negotiated.
Elizabeth L'Estrange's analysis of fifteenth-century Tuscan deschi da parto - 'large, round wooden trays' (p. 126), gifts that marked the birth of a child - is an insightful look at how historical artefacts can show implicit gender dynamics not usually found in written sources. She reads the depictions on the deschi, as well as their very existence and use, as illustrating the conflicted relationship women had with childbirth. It was a dangerous event, but, if successful, could also be a very positive fulfilment of the female role. At the same time, L'Estrange sees women being able to subvert dominant gender hierarchies by noting the power that giving birth to a healthy son could bring, a subversion she sees literally illustrated in the art of the deschi.
The book's index and well-populated bibliography will make it of use to undergraduate students starting to discover the range of approaches available for the study of gender in the medieval period. Each chapter stands well on its own and, given the range of temporal, geographical, and theoretical approaches, will be a helpful addition to the libraries of students and scholars alike. Its use of varied theoretical approaches will appeal to disciplines not instantly associated...