- Fatherhood and its Representations in Middle English Texts by Rachel E. Moss
For the medieval period ‘fatherhood’ is an essential concept. Acknowledging that much has been written about patriarchy in the medieval world—its silent acceptance of such phrases as ‘God the father,’ the king as ‘father to his people,’ a priest as ‘father to his congregation,’ along with the preoccupation of its land owners and mercantile class with social position, inheritance, virginity, father-daughter incest, patricide, the role of paternal permission in marriage making, didactic literature on father-son relationships, etc., Rachel Moss’ superbly thought-through book on fatherhood addresses ‘an odd critical lacuna’ in medieval gender studies, namely, the exact role and nature of what ‘fatherhood’ means to the socially privileged. Medievalists have been ‘interested in the products and process of patriarchy, but they have very rarely been concerned with the lynchpin of the system, the father himself’ (7). Moss’ book fills admirably this gap in gender analysis through its juxtaposing of romance fiction with non-literary historical discourse. [End Page 170] The term ‘texts’ in Moss’ title refers to Middle English romances (particularly, Bevis of Hampton, Le Bone Florence of Rome, Chevelere Assigne, Emaré, Guy of Warwick, Havelok the Dane, Lybeaus Desconus, Octavian, Sir Degaré, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Gowther, The Squire of Low Degree, and Torrent of Portyngale), but also to historical documents, particularly the Armburgh Papers on the Brokholes inheritance in Warwickshire, Hertfordshire, and Essex (c. 1417–c.1453), the Cely Letters (1472–1488), the Paston Letters (c.1460–1500), the Plumpton letters and papers (latter half of the 15th century to c. 1515), and the Stonor letters and papers (c. 1290–1483). Moss includes appendices summarizing both kinds of ‘texts’ (pp. 191–205).
The first chapter considers literacy among families, the creation of reading groups, and the relationship between these new vernacular affiliations, patrons, and the compiling of codices, to determine, in part, at least, who might have been acquainted with popular romances. Chapter Two, ‘Becoming a Father, Becoming a Man,’ explores sexual activity of young men before marriage and after, and the importance of such proofs of ability and fecundity, as well as failings in these regards. Moss’ exploration of infertility motifs in various romances (Sir Gowther, Octavian, and Chevelere Assigne) exemplifies well the tensions that are felt within marriages where no heir has been engendered, including situations where the male accepts his fault in the infertility, rather than simply putting the blame on the woman. A man without heir is not a man—‘he is still a son . . . and so is still in a subordinate position . . . In the end it is continuity that is heroic’ (p. 71).
Chapter Three, ‘Fathers and Sons,’ considers problems of father/son rivalries, along with an exploration of the vocabulary of fatherhood—the formalities of such relationships and why they matter, whether in fiction or real life. Related to these issues are the proprieties of affection and reciprocities between fathers and sons, and the responsibilities of each to each. Moss makes good use of the Stonor papers as well as moral treatises on appropriate behavior of the wise father teaching his son. But in many ways the most informative discussion in this chapter deals with sons in search of missing fathers, exemplified in fiction by Sir Degaré and Lybeaus Desconus, tied in with discussion of sons and heirs in the Celey and Paston letters, where the relationship between fathers and sons ought to be simple, but seldom is, though it is clear that they need each other, at least legally.
Chapter Four focuses on fathers and daughters, drawing mainly upon literary examples, because the letter collections are silent on daughters. The power dynamic of fathers and daughters is in vital need of discussion, because it provides ‘the greatest freedom in exploring the nature of paternal authority’ (p. 112). The romances, on the other hand, ‘are rife with father-daughter interactions: loving, supportive, abusive, destructive’ (p. 113). In the medieval period...