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The History of British Women’s Writing, 700-1500, Volume One

Reviewed by Rebecca Hardie


Published:

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2012   |   296 pages

“Nothing by a female mendicant or nun (so far as we know) survives [today] in Middle English” (David Wallace, Cambridge History of Medieval Literature, 1999).

Caveats like Wallace’s “as far as we know” are the fodder of scholarly progress, prompting works like The History of British Women’s Writing, 700-1500, which aim to unearth the previously neglected or suppressed, to confront and rethink the ingrained and assumed. The period itself seems to elicit investigation and theorizing. Consider the ambiguities and provocations already inherent in the title of this collection. For example, what is meant by “British”, an anachronistic term in this context? Further, does the gendered (“Women’s”) writing under discussion refer to books written by women, about women, for women, (scribed) in a female hand, or commissioned by women? And does the “literature” of the title refer to conventionally literary genres such as hagiographies, romances, fables, and poetry, or does it extend to functional, practical letters such as epistolary conventions (both personal and business), wills and last testaments, conduct manuals and translation?

The History of British Women’s Writing, 700-1500, comprised of 23 short essays, collectively engages with these questions, and is governed by the presiding conviction that, as McAvoy and Watt write in their Introduction, ‘the attempt to write histories needs to be flexible in its definitions’. Throughout, the essays acknowledge, and examine, their (mis)placement of modern perspectives and ideologies upon the historical. The essayists are careful when applying contemporary theory, political thought or ethics to discussions on gender in medieval writings, to avoid eliding the difference of cultural and political formations in the Middle Ages and the fact that medieval thought is pre-Cartesian. Contemporary perspectives are evoked with caution, but also to great effect, especially for clarifying the continuities and discontinuities between past and present. Individually, the essays treat a specific writer, genre, language, geographical centre or literary network as their focal point, but together they function as an illustration of the plethora of approaches to practicing a history of a particular field of writing.

Despite the diversity of subjects and perspectives included here, certain common themes do emerge. For example, the modern term “author” – a difficult concept to avoid using – is fundamentally an anachroninstic concept in discussions of medieval literature, often composed collaboratively, performed orally, and extant today anonymously. In the medieval period, the notion of authorship – derived from the Latin term, auctor, meaning “authority” – referred instead to the authority behind a work, usually pointing backwards in time to male patristic sources, but sometimes gesturing towards contemporary patrons or royal supporters. It is crucial to note, however, as this text consistently reminds, that forms of female authority – including female patrons, readers, translators, amanuenses and queens – very much did exist, and demand scholarly attention.

The History of British Women’s Writing, 700-1500’s essays are divided into four main sections, and organised thematically rather than chronologically, a structure which cogently challenges common assumptions about historical breaks. Section 1, ‘Pre-texts and Contexts,’ collates essays on pre- and post- Norman Conquest writing in Old English, French, Latin and Welsh. These pieces push the verified commencement of “British” women’s writing back in time, and expand their range outwards, geographically and across various European languages. Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing, Catherine A. M. Clarke, Catherine Batt, Jane Cartwright and Anke Bernau all contextualise the thematic interests and critical challenges that a history of women’s writing poses, especially concerning the philosophical and religious backdrop to the extant “literature” of the period. A trending emphasis in these essays is the continuing marginalisation of women’s authority and agency in contemporary discussions of the medieval, one strain of its analysis of the wider network of marginalisations (of genres, cultures, discourses of “subjectivity”) past and present. A crucial conundrum is raised in these essays: to what extent does the evolution of women’s writing, from the medieval to the modern author-centric conception, succeed in achieving real progress and/or liberation, or fail due to the political, moral, and aesthetic cooptation by a market driven towards radical individualism?

The thematic concerns of the collection’s second group of essays are aptly summarised in its title: ‘Bodies, Behaviours, and Texts’. Shari Horner, Michelle M. Sauer, Corinne Saunders, Sue Niebrzydowski and Myra J. Seaman guide us through male-authored texts across a range of genres – including Saints’ Lives, Devotional literature, Romance, Marian texts and Conduct Literature – that are addressed to and about women. These texts, in their efforts to govern the female body and its actions and reactions, can be understood to have fabricated ex nihilo a gendered, performative subject. The idea of agency as problematized is itself problematized elsewhere in the collection, in investigations of reading and writing as collaborative processes. These essays respond to a mutual interest in performance and the performative, and collectively explore the analogy between the gendered bodies of the text’s subject, writer and reader. They demonstrate how the body, in performance – acting and reacting – is itself a text of sorts, one used for interpreting, understanding and adopting. This is most powerfully investigated by Michelle Sauer in her research into devotional literature, which shows how ‘medieval treatises for women constructed an image of woman and an accompanying gender identity for its readers’, and thereby insisted that women ‘strive to uphold certain standards of behaviour’ and ‘perform in a proscribed manner.’

The collection’s third section, ‘Literacy and Literary Culture’, addresses limitations of historical research and reasoning in appraising women’s (often censored or delimited) position within the history of writing. Carol M. Meale, Lara Farina and Alexandra Barratt challenge misconceptions about women’s illiteracy that arose out of a historically contingent overemphasis upon the importance of Latin learning. These critics crucially prompt a reappraisal of the use of the vernacular languages as a legitimate claim to learning, and no mere secondary form of illiteracy in comparison to the mastery of Latin. Liz Herbert McAvoy and Elizabeth Robertson’s structural exploration of ways texts and networks of textual production can themselves be understood as gendered is extremely illuminating.

The essays of the collection’s last section, ‘Female Authority’, record specific, late-medieval instances of women negotiating their own authority publicly, a list which includes Christine de Pizan, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. This section investigates these authors both according to the modern conception of the author as an autonomous individual, and also – in further structural analyses by Nancy Bradley Warren, Jennifer N. Brown, Laura Saetveit Miles, C. Annett-Grisé, Amy Appleford, Diane Watt and Mary C. Erler – as a more decentered, collectivized entity. The often-ignored impact of male editors and redactors on Christine de Pizan’s writings is investigated, as is the multi-vocality of the life of Margery Kempe (scribed by a man writing under the gaze of male religious authorities).

Throughout The History of British Women’s Writing, 700-1500, the essays have a self-reflective style that acknowledges the anachronistic perspective of the modern reader and critic via the juxtaposition of a range of parallel readings of later authors and writings, such as Jane Austen, Angela Carter, Alice Munro, and even Doofus’s and Darling’s 2009 satirical Manners for the Modern Man: A Handy Guide for Today’s Ambiguous Etiquette Situations. These incorporations are a theoretically and pedagogically effective response to the resistance modern readers and scholars face in accessing and interpreting medieval material.

McAvoy and Watt aim with this volume to establish a more engaging and relevant dialogue between past and present, and they succeed. The History of British Women’s Writing, 700-1500 is, in fact, an exciting and valuable contribution to the study of medieval literature and feminist studies. This volume is, of course, by no means the final word in the investigation of women’s presence in the medieval period. But it is a next, and significant, step towards future research into this still insufficiently explored subject. It makes significant progress towards the realization of Joan M. Ferrant’s essential formulation: ‘history in any form from the Middle Ages to the present which does not include the role of women is not true history’ (To the Glory of her Sex, 1997).


Rebecca Hardie did her masters in Medieval Literature at University of Oxford. She lives in London, where she is a PhD student at King’s College, London, and a part-time secondary school tutor.

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