Gendered Temporalities in the Early Modern World.

Hrsg. v. Wiesner-Hanks, Merry
Gendering the Late Medieval and Early Modern World
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Jill Bepler, Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel

This volume, edited by the historian Merry Wiesner-Hanks, brings together American authors from history, literary studies (mainly English) and, in one case, art history. Ten partly co-authored case studies focus on early modern period perceptions of time and whether and how gender or gender perspectives influenced them. The volume closes with an interesting reflection by Michelle M. Dowd on the status of the teaching of literature written by women in Early Modern English literature departments in the US today. She points to the fact that progressive literary theories that negate the role of the author have themselves evolved from an intensive study, edition and canonisation of texts by male authors. This intensity of scholarly attention has not yet run its course for female writing, indeed new developments in theory threaten to cut it short. Dowd sees this vitiating against the contextualisation and appreciation of the literary quality of texts by women, suggesting it may even be positive that these works continue to be taught in special „niche“ courses.

The texts in the main body of the book are divided into three sections: one dealing with time and materiality, one with the taxonomy of time and the third with embodiments of time: The first section contains two essays that look at time and gender in the household. Frances E. Dolan’s essay „Time, gender and the mystery of English wine“ uses a plethora of sources to highlight how past ideas differ from our modern perception of wine, with new wines being infinitely preferable to old vintages, time being not a positive force but a danger as regards their quality. Imported wines were liable to be spoiled in transport and were thus distrusted as „foreign“. In a positive way, women tried to mitigate the precarious and unpredictable effects of time on wine through recipes for enhancing spoiled wines or their repurposing in distillation processes. They also engaged in attempts to cultivate vines on English soil. Medical handbooks claimed that wine was bad for women, and in broadsheets and ballads wine consumption by women was decried. In drama and poetry, „wine and women“ was depicted as a man’s ruin too. In a fascinating section on women and wine-making, she uncovers several references to women working with innovative methods in this area in the books and correspondence of men like Barnabe Googe, Hugh Plat and Samuel Hartlib who were interested in husbandry and agricultural improvement. Hugh Plat, for example, noted that Lady Walsingham grew her vines up the outside walls of chimneys, thus giving them the warmth lacking in the English climate. Women’s household knowledge was thus deployed to experiment with extending the limits of seasonal time.

Sophie Cope examines how women marked everyday household objects and thus perpetuated their own place in memory. Her essay „Women in the sea of time. Domestic dated objects in seventeenth-century England“ concentrates on kitchenware objects such as skillets and embroidery that bear the owner’s name and a date, positing that their use on a daily basis marked the passing of time, reminding their owners of their own mortality and making them into personalised items to be passed down through generations. They thus linked „the quotidian and the eternal“ (p. 49). The moralising phrases sometimes included in such object markings were also omnipresent exhortations to charity and piety. As Cope herself stresses, all manner of other seemingly insignificant objects were marked by women and it is one of the benefits of the material turn that we are beginning to read them.

In the section on the taxonomy of time, Alisha Rankin explicitly builds on Thomas Ricklin’s work on medieval concepts of time and the body in relation to theories of humoral pathology. Focusing mainly on the correspondence between Electress Anna of Saxony and Dorothea of Mansfeld, Rankin examines how the success of women’s medical practices was determined by their deployment of various methods of timing, whether in the correct harvesting of herbs, in gauging distillation processes, or marking stages in pregnancy and childbirth. Horological time-keeping was clearly far less important than recognising biological, botanical and chemical markers of time in these contexts. Such competence contributed to what Pernille Arenfeldt, also drawing on the correspondence of Anna of Saxony, has defined as the role of dynastic women in the establishment of „authoritative knowledge“ in medical practice and knowledge distribution.[1]

Another area central to the status of dynastic women of the early modern period was genealogy. In her contribution „Genealogical memory. Constructing female rule in seventeeth-century Aceh“, Su Fang Nu highlights similarities between the strategies deployed by Elizabeth I and Taj al-Alam, who from 1641 was queen of the Sumatran state for 35 years. Both women presented themselves as martial rulers and sought to ignore their immediate predecessors on the throne, instead linking themselves with the memory of their fathers. Taj al-Alam did this by stressing in her titles in royal letters a genealogy that she could trace back via her paternal ancestors to Alexander the Great and by excising the memory of her late husband’s rule. English and Dutch merchants had to accommodate to these changes in their dealings with the court in Aceh when they found that contracts with the former king were not valid, whereas her subjects seem to have quickly learned to appeal to her father’s authority without mention of her husband when petitioning for redress of their grievances. The fact that she was followed by three other queens and Taj al-Alam’s success both in manipulating genealogical memory and projecting an image of legitimate and pious Muslim rule by a women led Europeans to think that Aceh had always been ruled by women.

In „Times Told. Women narrating the everyday in early modern Rome“, Elisabeth Cohen uses court records in which women from the lower classes attempt to specify time in their evidence. These verbatim protocols show women using space and location, sounds, light and religious duties, often sounded by bells, to define time. Seasons and markers like Carnival defined longer periods of time, or even events such as remembered famines, papal rules or wars, but Cohen concludes that these all reflect an oral culture in which gender was a minor factor.

In the final section „Embodied time“, Allie Terry-Fritsch juxtaposes the performance of a sacred drama on Judith written by Lucrezia Tournabuoni de’ Medici in the 1470s and the Judith statue by Donatello which at that time stood in the Medici gardens. Reading the text against the backdrop of the visual impact of the garden’s sculptures, Terry Fritsch interprets its spoken performance as a conflation of contemporary and biblical time. Lucrezia uses this strategy, she claims, to draw parallels between herself and Judith to comment on her own political role within the Medici family. Also looking at gendered roles within families, Grace E. Cooldige and Lyndan Warner use archival and visual sources from Spain to examine how high rates of female mortality in childbirth promoted frequent male remarriage. Large step families conflated or expanded the natural time span between family members and blurred generational boundaries.

As is to be expected, these and the other contributions in the volume do not coalesce to present a unified approach to the topic of gender and time, but they do highlight aspects of the highly differentiated early modern experiences and perceptions of time that shaped the material, literary and historical sources we use today – and, in return, were shaped by these. Gendered concepts of time, especially as they related to the body and nature, seem to have infused female discourse and lent it a specific authority. As in so many cases with such collected volumes, however, the diversity of the essays and the price of the book raise the question as to its intended market beyond that of large libraries.

[1] Pernille Arenfeldt, Wissensproduktion und Wissensverbreitung im 16. Jahrhundert. Fürstinnen als Mittlerinnen von Wissenstraditionen, in: Historische Anthroplogie (20) 2012, S. 4–28.

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