Lisa M. Bitel. Women in Early Medieval Europe, 400-1100. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xv + 326 pp. $31.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-59773-9; $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-59207-9.
Reviewed by Constance B. Bouchard (Department of History, University of Akron)
Published on H-Women (July, 2003)
Medieval Women for Advanced Students
Medieval Women for Advanced Students
The Cambridge Medieval Textbooks series is not a collection of textbooks in the American sense of the term, but rather a series of books each designed to give an overview--with footnotes--of the current state of scholarship in a field. Here Lisa Bitel, a scholar best known for several very well-received monographs on religion and women in early medieval Ireland, gives a broad history of women's place in western European society from the late Roman Empire to the twelfth century. An unusual bonus is the incorporation of Jewish as well as Christian writings from medieval Europe. The result is a book that could be given to upper-level undergraduates as well as graduate students in either a medieval history course or a broader introduction to the history of women in western Europe. The book could also be read with profit by a scholar unfamiliar with the current state of research on medieval women.
A work like this, as Bitel notes, is difficult to organize. If one follows the long-established narrative of the collapse of the Roman Empire, followed by the slow rebuilding of the early Middle Ages with its concomitant Christianization of the population, culminating in the economic and social take-off of the twelfth century, one is writing a history defined by the actions of men, with women worked into the interstices. Alternately, if one follows a purely topical approach, one is in danger of implying that women's experience was unchanging over the centuries, which it certainly was not. Bitel attempts a compromise, with each of her chronological chapters devoted to a century or more of time, but each taking the opportunity to discuss a particular topic such as landscape, religion, or economic activity with examples taken from the period.
Another challenge in writing a book for readers who may not be familiar with medieval history is whether to concentrate on the best-known women, on such "women's concerns" as children and the household, or on issues of gender. Bitel tries some of all of these. She warns throughout that famous women cannot be taken as typical of medieval women in general, but such outstanding figures as Saints Genovefa and Radegund in the sixth century or the abbess Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth century are frequently seen. She argues that for the majority of women, most of the time, their primary purpose was to "make order in an often violent world" (p. 7), but she also realizes that the most interesting women and the ones most likely to be written about were the rule-breakers.
Although there is much to commend in this book, which will be far better to assign to students on the topic of medieval women than the popular (but fundamentally misogynist) trio by Georges Duby, one wishes that the image of women as marginalized and subjugated had not been so frequently rehearsed. Bitel suggests at the end that women gained more power in the late Middle Ages than they had had earlier, but the process lies outside this book's scope. Recent studies by Theodore Evergates and Fredric Cheyette, which unfortunately appeared too late for Bitel to incorporate, have argued convincingly that women well below the level of such queens as Radegund or Eleanor of Aquitaine could and did own property, make their own important choices, and even command and judge men. Just because medieval women (like western women in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, or many women in other parts of the modern world) did not have the rights that modern western women take for granted, it does not follow that to be a woman was automatically to be powerless or subservient.
Other problems are of the sort that are almost inevitable when one tries to cover a broad swath of time, space, and topic. The treatment of the role of women in medieval theology is oversimplified and would have been improved by the incorporation of the more nuanced analysis of Caroline Walker Bynum. Most early medieval women saints were indeed in the cloister rather than out in the world, as Bitel points out, but the same could also be said of early medieval male saints. To attempt to illustrate the challenges facing medieval women by discussing Grendel's mother in the epic Beowulf--a horrible monster far more fearsome than her son--seems novel but misguided. Whatever Beowulf's author intended, it cannot have been to show the difficulties of being a single parent (p. 156).
One could also fault Bitel, in many other instances, for accepting too uncritically medieval accounts of what women said and did, without sharing her own thoughts on what were the medieval author's source of information and purpose in writing. For example, we know Hildegard of Bingen primarily through her own writings, which can thus be taken as a good window into her ideas, but we know Genovefa only through a vita written a century after the events of this long-lived saint's girlhood, during which time much of the political, economic, and religious landscape had changed. The retold story of Brynhild, as emblematic of early medieval warrior-women (pp. 76-78), weaves together fairly indiscriminately versions taken from eight hundred years of literature. Bitel is also rather murky on the relationship between paganism and feminine power, suggesting at one point that the change from worship of the Great Goddess to Christianity weakened women's position--an improbable hypothesis that she indeed later refutes.
But overall this is a book that deserves the wide audience it will attract. It will probably replace Suzanne Wemple's excellent but somewhat dated overview as the most-assigned introduction to women during the early Middle Ages. (Interestingly, Wemple, unlike Bitel, saw the early Middle Ages as a period of potential authority for women, a difference in assumption which Bitel never directly addresses.) The book does assume some prior knowledge of at least the outlines of medieval history, but bright students should have no trouble with it. Clearly written, sometimes witty and always interesting, it will provide a good starting-point for those wishing to learn about the rapidly evolving field of the history of medieval women.
. Lisa M. Bitel, Isle of the Saints: Christian Settlement and Monastic Community in Early Ireland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).
. Georges Duby, Women of the Twelfth Century, trans. Jean Birrell, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997-98).
. Theodore Evergates, ed., Aristocratic Women in Medieval France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). Bitel cites this book once (p. 249), as an example of women waiting at home for Crusader husbands, rather than, as intended, for an illustration of women functioning perfectly well while their husbands were away. Fredric L. Cheyette, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001). See also Constance Brittain Bouchard, "Those of My Blood": Constructing Noble Families in Medieval Francia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
. Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987); The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
. Suzanne Fonay Wemple, Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981).
Constance B. Bouchard. Review of Bitel, Lisa M., Women in Early Medieval Europe, 400-1100.
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