- Women’s Power in Late Medieval Romance by Amy N. Vines
As its title suggests, Women’s Power in Late Medieval Romance investigates the scope and kind of authority displayed by leading female characters in late medieval English romances. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Amy Vines is especially concerned to demonstrate that this power is itself instructive: if it reflects late medieval social realities, it also lays out patterns of agency (or at least ‘methods of influence’ (p. 3)) for the necessarily attentive woman reader. The collective lesson articulated in these romances is so potent, indeed, that this instruction also serves to alert male readers to the advantages it elaborates for them, as for the women in their lives. Crucial to this argument is Vines’s claim that romance does not just deliver exemplary histories, but catches the reader into them, by presenting women’s agency, influence, authority in action, in parallel process, as it were. The point is important, since it supports the author’s conviction that romances provide in themselves substantial evidence of women’s cultural activity, rather than simply serving to illustrate findings drawn from more sober records. It also brings us immediately to one of the book’s major limitations.
The term used by Vines to characterize women’s authority is ‘sponsorship’, clearly drawn from modern, American culture, but drawn into teasing proximity to the influence exercised by the powerful in an apparently remote medieval culture, where patronage binds person to person – if not [End Page 290] normally in relation to commercial or cultural enterprises. I think there is a translation problem here, alas, of the kind described by Gideon Toury, where ‘textual relations obtaining in the original are modified in favour of (more) habitual options offered by the target culture’ (Descriptive Translation Studies – And Beyond (2012), p. 304). All too often, Vines seems to write as if she were uneasy about the difficulties of performing the kind of cultural translation called for in dealing with medieval texts. The particular form of sponsorship favoured by Vines proves not to be particularly corporate, in fact, let alone financial, but rather courtly and tutorial. The woman sponsor, confident of her surprising education in various kinds of scientific and chivalric knowledge inducts the frail male into ways of knowing and acting that assure his noble status, even hero-hood; this is heroic woman as business mentor. This mode of influence, of course, turns the blue-stockinged reader into a courtly lady, as much as it proves the courtly lady should manage to secure the advantages of the blue-stocking in a household that typically spent too much on its young men. Nevertheless, despite my reservations about the modelling, Vines does identify a peculiarly interesting form of powerful woman in romance, interesting not least because the real world equivalents all too often seem to serve patriarchal society, rather than engage with it, as these romance women do, circumspectly, but with full confidence in their agency.
Not all Vines’s women are confident, but most are – and all demand our attention: Criseyde and Cassandra in Troilus and Criseyde, Cleopes in Metham’s self-serving Amoryus and Cleopes, Melior in Partenope of Blois, and the queenly pair in Sir Launfal, Guinevere and Dame Tryamour. To list these characters, however, is to register the manifest shortcomings of Vines’s presentation of a perfectly reasonable argument about women’s authority: they don’t provide much of a database. Indeed, one might argue against Vines that the women in this small selection are worth reading precisely because they are exceptional, in belonging to romances that probably never circulated far, or by occupying roles that command respect, but briefly.
More important, the force of much of Vines’s discussion tends to remain within the chapter, in analysis of the text, rather than operate through the book, as an argument. Text-studies, then, supplemented by recurrent invocation of a set of terms, carry what passes here for argument, but amounts to...