- Conflicting Femininities in Medieval German Literature by Karina Marie Ash
By Karina Marie Ash. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012.
The title of Karina Marie Ash’s book, Conflicting Femininities in Medieval German Literature, suggests a study of vast proportions. Luckily, the author does not attempt an examination as broad as the title of the book might suggest. Instead, Ash focuses on “the conflicts between two medieval ideals of femininity, a procreative and a celebate ideal” (3). Medieval German literature “not only reveals a specific anxiety about conflicting religious and lay femininities, but also offers idealized solutions to mitigate this conflict,” Ash writes (3). Her book traces those two models of femininity in medieval German texts, and covers a chronological period from the late twelfth century—beginning with Priester Wernher’s life of the Virgin Mary—to the mid-thirteenth century, using Ulrich von dem Türlin’s Arabel and Ulrich von Türheim’s Rennewart as the study’s chronological endpoint. The thematic and chronological focus of the study surprised at first, since the title of the book suggests something conceptually and chronologically broader. A more accurately descriptive title for the book, or perhaps a subtitle to guide readers’ expectations, would be helpful. That being said, it is precisely the book’s focus that allows for a superbly nuanced analysis of the materials under investigation. Ash adeptly traces historical changes in attitudes towards celibate and procreative ideals of femininity. In addition, she teases out—where possible—differences between idealized models of femininity in different vernacular contexts thereby implicitly making a case for the need to examine German literature in particular in order to understand the specificity of a particular cultural moment.
In Chapters 1–4, Ash examines how “anxieties [around women’s roles at court] are expressed in conflict scenes that are unique to late twelfth-century German adaptations of French and Latin narratives” (4). Chapter 1 demonstrates how small but significant variations in the different manuscript versions of Priester Wernher’s Maria reflect shifting attitudes towards female roles during the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Wernher’s adaptation of the Latin text completed in 1172 “emphasizes the choice the Virgin is compelled to make between two conflicting ideals of femininity: becoming a bride of Christ or becoming [End Page 138] a bride of a mortal” (14). The rewriting of a woman’s choice of celibacy—originally presented as a laudable, and morally and religiously motivated move, in later versions cast as a potentially dubious rejection of marriage—points to the importance the issue had for twelfth-and thirteenth-century audiences. In Chapter 2, Ash demonstrates how Hartmann von Aue’s Gregorius, an adaptation of the mid-twelfth-century French legend, La Vie du pape Grégoire, “appealed to the aristocratic values of Hartmann’s original audiences by defining the female protagonist’s piety through her affiliation with wealth instead of her rejection of it” (27). By means of a skillful comparative analysis of the primary texts under consideration, Ash argues that “the focus on the importance of the female protagonist maintaining her role in secular society and upholding aristocratic values appears unique to the medieval German version of this narrative” (34). Hartmann’s Gregorius thus promotes the attitude that a “salvific solution can always be found if women just conform to the expectations of the aristocracy and aspire to secular ideals of femininity” (38). Ash continues her analysis of Hartmann’s works in Chapter 3 where she traces how Strasbourg Manuscript A of Der arme Heinrich is inflected in ways that would have been “appealing to Hartmann’s aristocratic audiences” (47), notably by having Heinrich and Diu Maged marry at the end of the text, while the B manuscripts conclude with her entering the monastic life. Ash notes, “[t]hese two contrasting endings further confirm how the conflicting ideals of femininity were open to debate among German-speaking audiences in the High Middle Ages. […] both versions highlight the conflict between the religious ideal of female celibacy and a secular ideal of wifehood at that time” (49). Chapter 4 of Conflicting Femininities is devoted to...