restricted access Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre ed. by Karen Cherewatuk, Ulrike Wiethaus (review)
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REVIEWS KAREN CHEREWATUK and ULRIKE WIETHAUS, eds. Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre. Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: Uni­ versity of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Pp. viii, 218. $32.95 cloth, $14.95 paper. Feminist investigations of medieval documents have demonstrated that women successfully participated in the public culture of their time but resorted to differing forms and modes ofexpression. Yet to grasp the extent to which women were able to utilize the written word, we must turn to the mostly marginalized yet powerful genre of letters. In the present volume the contributors analyze the oeuvres ofsome ofthe most important women letter writers from the early to the late Middle Ages and thus are shedding new light on the broad spectrum of literary expressions, political interests, and religious inspirations medieval women were capable of. As the editors rightly point out, medieval letters transcended gender and educational bar­ riers (p. 3) and facilitated the transition from oral to written culture (see A. N. Doane and C. Braun Pasternack, eds., Vox intexta, 1991). As the present volume makes abundantly clear, the examination of women's letters opens our eyes to the hitherto not fully understood world ofwomen's intellectual life in the Middle Ages. This anthology aims, how­ ever, primarily at women's self-consciousness surfacing in letters, not at their role in medieval literature; their epistles are "the primary vehicle for {their} own voice" (p. 15). Beginning with St. Radegund's (ca. 520-87) Latin epistles, Karen Cherewatuk highlights the options which the writer had at her hands to influence public opinion through her texts and to maintain an authoritative position in society. Radegund heavily utilized contemporary and classical literature to formulate her personal concerns about political developments. Unquestionably she fell back to some Anglo-Saxon lament songs (p. 35), but Cherewatuk's claim that a similar tradition of literary laments by women extended into the Middle High German Minnesang (p. 37) cannot be confirmed. Gillian T. W Ahlgreen reaches similar conclusions regarding Hildegard von Bingen's letters through which she established her authority as vision­ ary. This in turn allowed her to intervene in disputes over administrative and theological questions in the church. A statistical analysis reveals that the writer claimed morevigorously her function as a vessel ofdivine inspi­ ration in letters to men of authority than in those to women, thus instru­ mentalizing her mystical experiences for political purposes. A similar phe­ nomenon can be observed in Catherine of Siena's letters, here analyzed by 169 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER Karen Scott, who demonstrates that the mystic explicitly derived from God her authority to speak up in political debates about the schism and other affairs in the church. In addition Scott notices the considerable self­ awareness and casualness with which Catherine composed her letters. In part they reflect oral culture, in part they derive their material from written culture, but the writer wanted them both to be preserved and to be distrib­ uted among her readers. Scott seems to fall into the traditional trap, how­ ever, of assuming that the author's straightforward writing style indicates "simply a form of speaking" (p. 109). Moreover, it amounts to a conven­ tional fallacy to claim that the rusticality of her letters helped her protect herself from misogynistic attacks (p. 113), because it ignores the stylistic strategies underlying the simplicity of her style. Finally, it negates the important factor of Catherine's reputation as a saint. Glenda McLeod offers a close reading of Heloise's letters to Abelard in which she naively builds on the assumption that the heated debate over the authenticity of the correspondence can be solved if we accept that Heloise fought for the establishment of her own self through these texts. I also believe that we can trust the letters as Heloise's personal statements, but no firm proofcan be adduced for this hypothesis. McLeod perceives a struggle in these epistles addressed to Abelard to maintain a personal integrity and to reach a level ofself-realization denied by her husband. It does not come as a surprise that the writer thematizes the conflict between public and private in her correspondence with the famous philosopher, but McLeod...