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Biography 23.4 (2000) 775-777

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Elizabeth Sutherland. Five Euphemias: Women in Medieval Scotland, 1200- 1420. New York: St. Martin's, 1999. 244 pp. + notes, maps, tables, and photographs. ISBN 0-312-22284-X, $35.00.

Elizabeth Sutherland is a writer specializing in Scottish history and historical novels. Five Euphemias: Women in Medieval Scotland, 1200-1420 extends her research into the lives of aristocratic women in particular. As an [End Page 775] attempt to include stories about women in the historical narrative, it is a modest success, but it cannot be considered "biography" since the information about the five Euphemias is so scanty. The Euphemias thus become the vehicles for synthesizing a great deal of general data about the lives of medieval women, as well as an opportunity for writing the turbulent history of the Ross dynasty. As Sutherland points out in her Acknowledgments, the five women are used "as symbols of their age . . . to show how aristocratic women coped with the culture clash between Anglo-Norman and Celt, what it was like to be a lone wife in the Wars of Independence, or a nun in a busy Cistercian convent" (11).

The women around whom this volume is structured are (1) Euphemia, daughter of the first Earl of Ross (13th century); (2) the mysterious Euphemia who was the wife of the third Earl of Ross (late 13th century); (3) Queen Euphemia (14th century); (4) her niece, married to a crusader (14th century); and (5) Dame Euphemia, the hunchback heiress who entered a convent (15th century).

The idea for writing this book came from an amateur historian, a Dr. A. C. Gordon Ross, who had done considerable research on the five Euphemias, and suggested to Elizabeth Sutherland that she write a novel based on their lives in Ross. Sutherland ultimately decided to write the account as non-fiction, but perhaps Dr. Ross's original conception would have made for a more satisfying read. I was continuously annoyed by the locutions to which Sutherland must resort since she is writing so speculatively about the lives of these women. Such phrases as "would have," "must have," "might well have," "it is possible that," "it is probable that," and "perhaps" structure nearly every sentence concerning the five women in the book. Except when discussing the occasional law suit or donation document, Sutherland is declarative only when writing about aristocratic Scottish males, whose activities form the majority of the historical record.

Furthermore, since the author is not doing original historical research, the book is a synthesis of what other historians have discovered. With regard to male histories, Sutherland draws on substantive publications on Scotland, but her sources for the history of women tend to be French (Georges Duby) or English (P. J. P. Goldberg, Henrietta Leyser, Eileen Power, Sally Thompson). I longed for more immediately pertinent information on the lives of women in Scotland, instead of recycled generalizations about female experience based on other places and often other times.

With these caveats noted, I tried to imagine who would enjoy reading this book and decided that it would most appeal to someone with a passionate interest in medieval Scottish history who had a regional affiliation [End Page 776] with the places named. The volume contains numerous black and white photos of surviving monuments, buildings, and artifacts associated with the historical figures discussed. It also contains maps and numerous genealogical tables.

My own favorite passages were those where the author was integrating Highland folklore into her social descriptions, or those where she quoted from medieval chronicles. There the somewhat dry piling up of "facts" gives way to concrete voices of the period which, if they may not always give us firm data, at least convey a medieval (and often politically interested) point of view. The Frenchman Froissart, for example, refers to the Scots as "bold, hardy and much inured to war." They carry no provisions, he says, "for their habits of sobriety are such, in time of war, that they will live for a long time on flesh half sodden, without bread, and drink the river...