- Medieval Women Writers ed. by Katharina M. Wilson, and: Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives ed. by Mary Beth Rose (review)
- Studies in the Age of Chaucer
- The New Chaucer Society
- Volume 9, 1987
- pp. 271-272
- View Citation
- Additional Information
REVIEWS KATHARINAM. WILSON, ed.Medieval Women Writers. Athens: University ofGeorgia Press;Manchester:Manchester University Press, 1984. Pp. xxix, 366. $30.00. MARY BETH ROSE, ed. Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and HistoricalPerspectives. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse Univer sity Press, 1986. Pp. xxviii, 288. $29.95. Present-mindedness is always with us. Even the most wide-ranging histor ical study ofhow the past slowly became the present biases itselfaccording to the winners, to "us" and "here" and "now." Yet it would be falsely deterministic to assert that a leaning, a tendency, an interest must neces sarily be the concomitant ofbias, the distortion. One of the most striking features ofthe new concern with women's writing is the wayitcontributesto larger trends in historical scholarship: the breaking down ofcurrent genre categories with a contingent dissolving effect on our perceptions of what counts as literature, the increasingly multilingual and multinational ap proach which stresses the similarities of writers of the same status in their societies, the encompassing attitude to "popular" or "typical" writing. There are limits, ofcourse, andthere isno medical writingin thesebooks (it would be hard to argue for the inclusion of Trotula). It is good to see examples of the ars dictaminis; in addition to the inevitable HeloYse, the mystics Hadewijch and Catherine ofSiena are represented. Given that each chapter is dedicated to one author, it is understandable that the nuns ofLe Ronceray and the Paston women are omitted, and the thin but clear dividing line between dictation and consultation explains the inclusion of Margery Kempe but the exclusion of Christina ofMarkyate. As Wilson points out in her introduction, the unimaginative provincialism of the present has reinforced the inherited assumption thatliterature is largely by, for, and about men. The implicit questions posed by these essays (as by Peter Dronke both in his Women Writers ofthe Middle Ages and here, in an elegant study ofCastelloza), are, What writing remains worth reading, and Why? and For whom? and How is a canon created? and For whom? One does not have to subscribe to Bloom's anxiety thesis to recognize that one kind ofcanon is created by writers to define themselves against a self defining past. A more broadly historical view, which emphasizes style, form, and innovation less andrepresentativenessmore promises a different picture, one which perhaps treats the past less instrumentally. Medieval Women Writersappears, atfirst sight, to be a modest collection of essays plus extracts suitable for use as a textbook. It is more. Fifteen 271 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER chapters span the ninth to the fifteenth centuries; the languages repre sented (almost all in new translations) are Dutch, English, French, Ger man, Italian, Latin, Occitan, and Spanish; in addition to the authors already mentioned, there are chapters on Dhuoda, Hrotsvit, Marie de France (represented inevitably, but rightly, by the Lais), Hildegard, Mechtild, Marguerite Porete, Saint Bridget of Sweden, Julian, Florencia Pinar, and Christine de Pizan. The accent is onlove: romantic, maternal, or mystical. Each scholar provides an up-to-date bibliography for his or her subject, making this a book which can be used for undergraduates but which scholars also will wish to refer to, since it surveys the present state of knowledge about its subjects. The standard of the essays is consistently high, and their net effect one which might be described as optimistic: the essayists are enthusiasts, introducing the work of women they know well, and in so doing they introduce a remarkable amount of medieval culture, what we used to call "background." Like Eileen Power's Medieval People, this is a book to be read with pleasure as well as profit, and to be recom mended not only to the young but also to the nonspecialist. It is a fine example of collaboration. The other book under review exemplifies the miscellaneous noncollabo ration of the collection of conference papers. Despite its title, only two of the essays deal with specifically medieval subjects.Jane Schulenberg's essay on rape, especially of religious, and their possible defenses against it, particularly suicide and self-mutilation, handles a wide variety of sources with surecontrol. To her survey a useful addition wouldbe Ian Donaldson's The Rapes ofLucrece, which takes a...