K. Weikert u.a. (Hrsg.): Medieval Intersections

Medieval Intersections. Gender and Status in Europe in the Middle Ages

Weikert, Katherine; Woodacre, Elena
New York 2021: Berghahn Books
Anzahl Seiten
130 S.
$ 120.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Eva-Maria Cersovsky, Historisches Institut, Abteilung für Mittelalterliche Geschichte, Universität zu Köln

In recent decades, medievalists have begun to fully explore gender as a relational category of difference that affected women’s and men’s lives depending on particular contexts, interactions, and various intersecting factors, such as class/social status, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Engaging with the intersections of gender and “status,” the volume edited by Katherine Weikert and Elena Woodacre continues this trend and contributes to an important area of research.

The chapters in this interdisciplinary collection were originally published as a special issue of “Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques” in 2016. Republishing the articles as a book in 2021, the editors have adjusted the title to highlight the intended intersectional approach and reflect the volume’s focus on (western) Europe. The book also contains a new preface that summarizes some of the most recent anglophone research. The original articles have not been revised, although the new format would have given space to strengthen the links between them and, thus, enhance their coherence as a collection. While the introduction points to the importance of using intersectional theory in the analysis of gender, neither the editors nor the authors engage in depth with intersectionality as a concept. This is a missed opportunity, as the book could have offered a more significant methodological contribution to our understanding of gender and its interplay with other categories of difference during the medieval period.1

As the editors outline, the volume’s principal aim is to move beyond the study of binary gender difference and identity construction, thereby adding nuance to our understanding of “what it meant to be a person in the Middle Ages” (p. 4). The nine chapters certainly succeed in complicating the idea of simple gender binaries, not least because of their diversity: They cover several genres and fields, from history and literature to art history and archaeology, ranging from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries. The volume also utilizes a broad definition of “status,” which includes social, religious, or marital status, age, as well as societal groups such as rulers, monastics, knights, and the leprous. Missing, however, are hierarchies of religion, race, or sexual orientation.

The book can roughly be divided into four parts according to the chapters’ subject matter. The first two chapters focus on women and men occupying positions of power. Alison Creber examines the advice on good governance given to the margraves Godfrey of Tuscany and Adelaide of Turin by cardinal-bishop Peter Damian in the early 1060s. Carefully comparing Damian’s letters, she highlights the complexities inherent in the perceptions of female rule. Damian perceived Adelaide to be the more successful ruler with a wider sphere of influence, but still offered her gendered advice for achieving and exercising authority by customizing models for laywomen to fit a female ruler. While Creber compares constructions of governing identities, Linda D. Brown traces the range of identities that the princess-abbess Marie of Blois inhabited throughout her life in twelfth-century England. Drawing on written sources and seals, Brown explores Marie’s changing and overlapping religious and secular status, as a nun, abbess, (complicit) abductee, wife, countess, mother, and, again, as a nun: Returning to a cloistered life, Marie still considered herself married to her earthly husband, and left the monastery when her daughters needed her support. Both essays convincingly emphasize how flexibly gender and social status intersected to shape the opportunities and limitations in aristocratic women’s lives. Nevertheless, the chapters would have benefited from a more thorough engagement with recent publications on female power and rulership.2

Monastic or quasi-monastic contexts are at the center of the next pair of chapters. Mercedes Peréz Vidal takes a fresh look at Dominican nuns and the Corpus Christi devotion of late medieval Castile, drawing on liturgical texts, art, architecture, and objects like processional banners. Comparing her results with findings from different regions and religious orders, she suggests that liturgical performance depended less on belonging to a particular order rather than on the nun’s gender and social status. Nuns with an aristocratic background, in particular, found ways to negotiate the restrictions placed on women’s liturgical participation and shape their liturgical spaces by, for example, recreating civic liturgical performances within monasteries. Similarly, in their examination of late medieval royal edicts, vernacular literature, and theological sources, Christina Welch and Rohan Brown engage with questions of space by exploring how the (male, poor) leprous were constructed as liminal figures living in an earthly purgatory, institutionalized in the form of leprosaria. Although the authors touch on the more positive connotations of the leprous as God’s elect, they mainly focus on the image of the medieval leper as an “abhorrent outcast” (p. 53) in everyday society and, unfortunately, ignore how recent historians have profoundly complicated the narrative of stigmatization and exclusion.3

Another pair of essays deals with the representation of marital and relationship status in literary sources. Natalie Hanna analyzes gendered language related to marriage, social status, and moral conduct in Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale.” Comparing the uses of the terms “wyf,” “housbonde,” and “wedded man,” she reveals how Chaucer used semantic strategies to raise concerns about dominating men who purposefully married young wives of lower social status and were unwilling and/or unable to fulfill their emotional and physical duties as husbands. The chapter by Elizabeth S. Leet traces the representation of fairy queens and their knightly lovers through three versions of the Lanval myth, Marie de France’s twelfth-century original and two fourteenth-century Breton lays. Leet suggests that the fairies constantly move between objectification and autonomy in all three texts: While they are confronted with the voyeuristic dissection of their bodies, they also actively use their beauty and wealth to pursue the men they love and make them their prince consorts.

The last group of chapters explores constructions of gender and status by focusing on the masculine ideals of social elites. Sean McGlynn examines the role of sports games, hunting, and tournaments in shaping the martial values and skills of (mostly aristocratic) young men. Based on sources such as chronicles and statues from late medieval England in particular, he argues that these were not only games and/or spectacles to showcase masculine prowess, but also serious training for war, fostering male bonding and at times escalating into violent riots. Rachel E. Moss turns to Middle English romances to show that fainting was also understood to be a central part of knightly status. Her fine analysis reveals that this physical expression of emotions did not undermine strength or prowess, but instead served to promote the important social and political values of elite masculine culture, the heroic capacity for feeling, and the formation of affectionate male bonds. The final essay by Frank Battaglia focuses on burial objects and highlights their significance for understanding the intersections of gender, social status, and kinship networks in fifth- and sixth-century Anglia. In this region, the increasing decoration of female bodies with wrist clasps communicated women’s ethnic and social status in relation to their male relatives and, therefore, he argues, reveals an emerging system of patriliny that replaced matrilineal tribal identities.

The collection’s broad thematic, temporal, and geographic range constitutes both its strength and its weakness: The volume portrays diversity, but only provides snapshots, leaving a more systematic analysis of the intersections between gender and other identities—and, above all, their specificity to particular societal groups, places, and periods—for future research. Nevertheless, this is a stimulating collection overall that contains a number of well-written contributions inviting any reader to ask more questions. The book convincingly shows what paying attention to the construction of gendered identities can bring to our understanding of medieval societies, their texts, and objects.

1 For methodological perspectives on the use of intersectionality as an analytical framework for premodern history see, for example, Andrea Griesebner / Susanne Hehenberger, Intersektionalität. Ein brauchbares Konzept für die Geschichtswissenschaften?, in: Vera Kallenberg / Jennifer Meyer / Johanna M. Müller (eds.), Intersectionality und Kritik. Neue Perspektiven für alte Fragen, Wiesbaden 2013, pp. 105–124. There are also two previous collections on gender and its intersections with categories of difference which engage with methodological questions of difference and dominance, but are not referenced in this volume’s introduction: Sharon Ann Farmer / Carol Braun Pasternack (eds.), Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages (Medieval Cultures 32), Minneapolis, MN 2003; Cordelia Beattie / Kirsten A. Fenton (eds.), Intersections of Gender, Religion and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages (Genders and Sexualities in History), Basingstoke 2010.
2 To only name a few contributions by German historians to this rapidly expanding field, see: Jörg Rogge (eds.), Fürstin und Fürst. Familienbeziehungen und Handlungsmöglichkeiten von hochadligen Frauen im Mittelalter (Mittelalter-Forschungen 15), Stuttgart 2004; Amalie Fößel, The Political Traditions of Female Rulership in Medieval Europe, in: Judith Bennett / Ruth Mazo Karras (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (Oxford Handbooks), Oxford 2013, pp. 68–83; Claudia Zey (eds.), Mächtige Frauen? Königinnen und Fürstinnen im europäischen Mittelalter (11.–14. Jahrhundert) (Vorträge und Forschungen 81), Ostfildern 2015; Anne Foerster, Die Witwe des Königs. Zu Vorstellung, Anspruch und Performanz im englischen und deutschen Hochmittelalter (Mittelalter-Forschungen 57), Ostfildern 2018.
3 See, for example, the overview by Elma Brenner, Recent Perspectives on Leprosy in Medieval Western Europe, in: History Compass 8,5 (2010), pp. 388–406; and two of the most recent contributions to the field: Elisabeth Clementz, Les lépreux en Alsace: marginaux, exclus, intercesseurs? Position d’habilitation, in: Revue d’Alsace 145 (2019), pp. 313–326; Elma Brenner / François-Olivier Touati (eds.), Leprosy and Identity in the Middle Ages. From England to the Mediterranean (Social Histories of Medicine), Manchester 2021.

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