Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Megan Cassidy-Welch and Peter Sherlock (eds.), Practices of Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Brepols, 2008)

Megan Cassidy-Welch and Peter Sherlock (eds.), Practices of Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Late Medieval and Early Modern Studies 11.  Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Viii + 332 pp., 6 b/w ill. Hbk. ISBN: 978-2-503-52336-1. €60.

Reviewed by Erin Murphy

[1]  Practices of Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe states its two goals as the following: ‘The first is to explore the practice of gender in a number of specific historical contexts in order to add to our understanding of gender construction, representation, and experience.  The second purpose is to explore the idea of gender as an historical practice.  How do we, twenty years after Joan Scott’s invention of gender as a “category of historical analysis”, deploy and imagine that category in our historical writing?’ (1). In order to meet these goals, the collection brings together an eclectic range of essays by historians, covering the time period from approximately the fourteenth-century to the early eighteenth century and the expanse of Ireland, England, France, the Low Countries, Italy and Germany. The editors include both an introductory and a concluding essay, the former promising that the latter will ‘draw out the connections between the essays in relation to broader theories and practices of gender’ (6); yet neither piece provides a coherent frame for the sixteen essays that form the body of the book. As the editors tell us, this collection originated in a symposium held at the University of Melbourne in 2004. A collection drawn from a conference need not heed closely to one theme or set of questions.  Still, one might expect its editors to provide more analytic insight into the chosen essays than the category of gender alone or the loosely defined connections that pepper the opening and closing pieces. The lack of any sections separating the essays betrays a lack of synthesis, as essays on medieval German woman’s political activity, an early modern Italian woman’s personal letters, and sixteenth-century Neapolitan convent culture sit side by side with no explicit connection to each other. Rather than simply chalking up this incoherence to a light editorial touch or even a failure of stewardship, however, we may also view it as a symptom of the continuing fragmentation of the state of scholarship on late medieval and early modern gender.  Since scholars of gender have responsibly moved beyond broad essentialist narratives, we are still searching for sophisticated ways to consider issues of gender across geographic and chronological boundaries.  Unfortunately, this collection does little to help with this search. Instead, it offers a diverse set of analyses, most of which should be useful to specialists in particular areas of research, though some have broader appeal and have the potential to serve as touchstones in a more comprehensive analysis of gender.

[2]  The collection begins with Merry Wiesner-Hanks’ general survey, ‘Gender Theory and the Study of Early Modern Europe,’ which details major developments in this field over the last thirty years  The piece provides the theoretical background that would often appear in the introduction to such a volume. As a map of the last three decades, this piece is a useful review and would be a helpful piece to read in a graduate seminar introducing students to the field. That said, it does not provide much analysis of the developments it charts, and will be familiar ground to scholars already in the field. It could serve as a point of orientation for the fifteen essays that follow, but the connections are never made explicit.  Despite this limitation, five of the succeeding essays position their local findings within broader analytic conversations in ways that help illuminate their presence in such a heterogeneous collection.

[3]  The first piece that successfully takes up the challenge of considering how a particular archive might help us to reconsider issues of gender more broadly is Camilla Russell’s ‘Convent Culture in Early-Modern Italy: Laywomen and Religious Subversiveness in a Neapolitan Convent,’ which examines the case of Giulia Gonzaga, a laywoman living in the convent of San Francesco delle Monache from 1513 to 1566. Using donna Giulia’s situation as an example, Russell argues that convents could provide unmarried laywomen a ‘third space’ between marriage and the convent, between wife and nun. During her long stay in the convent, donna Giulia shared her residence with many women, demonstrating how such a space could serve as a ‘waiting room before marriage; a refuge from unhappy and failed marriages; a residence for widows who did not intend, or desire, to remarry; a place for women between marriages, and the most pedestrian, a place of employment’ (68). In addition to the heterogeneous ways that the convent could provide a ‘third space’ for women, it could also serve as a space for religious unorthodoxy.  In the case of donna Giulia, she used her residence within the convent as a setting for her activities as a member of the spirituali. Free to participate in religious culture as a woman married to neither man nor Christ, Giulia Gonzaga used the convent as a site of cultural power.  Russell’s analysis not only points to future avenues of investigation, it already helps us to reimagine the complex terrain of early modern convents.

[4]  In their intriguing essay, ‘Gender, Hybridity, and Violence on the Frontiers of Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Ireland,’ Dianne Hall and Elizabeth Malcolm also sketch out some fascinating avenues for new work. Their two-part analysis begins with a discussion of how women helped to define the hybrid space of the ‘middle nation’ in late-medieval Ireland, then moves to consider the gendered nature of the violence that characterized that space. Though Hall and Malcolm admit that this work is in its early stages, their analysis already helps to illuminate the ways in which gender could be used both to bring together and drive apart diverse societies.

[5]  Rosa Salzberg’s similarly successful piece ‘“The richest man in Italy”: Aldo Manuzio and the Value of Male Friendships’ analyzes the prefatory letters of this scholar-printer at the turn of the sixteenth century. Through a careful reading of Manuzio’s writing and life, Salzberg makes a set of fascinating observations about the ways he negotiated different models of masculinity, performing the sometimes conflicting roles of humanist scholar and urban bourgeois.  As a scholar, he highlighted his male friendships, while his success as a printer was bolstered by his marriage to the daughter of the established printer Andrea Torresani d’Asola. Salzberg’s analysis demonstrates how the bonds of male friendship underlying the most dominant understandings of humanism (she does not discuss the female participation in the Republic of Letters charted by David Norbrook and others) competed with the heterosexual connections of the ‘professionally endogamous marriage [that] was already becoming common practice in the newly fledged printing industry’ (195). Thus, this essay makes an important contribution to demonstrating the complexity of masculinity in this period.

[6]  Providing the only real argument for comparative work in the collection, Elise Van Nederveen Meerkerk’s ‘Textile Workers, Gender, and the Organization of Production in the Pre-Industrial Dutch Republic’ contends that research on the gendered division of labor illuminates our understanding of the Netherlands during the early-modern period.  Through its careful analysis of the Dutch economy, this essay makes two crucial points regarding broader discussions of gender. The first is that ‘seemingly unilinear developments in the division of labor have to be revised’ (234).  The second is that ‘more empirical results and further comparative research can contribute to an analysis of early-modern economies and the role gender played in the division of labor’ (234). Rigorously detailed and broadly analytic at the same time, this essay is one of the collection’s strongest.

[7]  A much more modest piece, Elizabeth Kent’s ‘Agency, Women and Witchcraft in Early-Modern England: Rye, 1607-11’ still offers a clear and compelling argument in response to the editors’ question about how we deploy the category of gender in scholarship today.  Through a close reading of the witchcraft case of Susan Swapper and Anne Taylor, which occurred in Rye between 1607 and 1611, as well as three relatively recent scholarly accounts of this case (1991, 2000 and 2001), she demonstrates the distorting force of beginning analyses of gender with the assumption of women’s disenfranchisement.  Though this piece does not introduce new material from the archive, its focus allows Kent to offer a more subtle analysis of gender than some of the other essays.

[8]  Though not organized as such, pieces by Rayne Allinson, Natalie Tomas and Lisa Mansfield, implicitly form a suite of essays on the gendering of ruling bodies. Allinson’s ‘The Queen’s Three Bodies: Gender, Criminality, and Sovereignty in the Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” creatively riffs on Ernest Kantorowicz and Michel Foucault. Allinson analyzes the way that Mary Stuart’s execution constitutes the generative intersection of the “immortal body of the sovereign, the immaculate body of the female martyr, and the polluted body of the criminal’ (100), describing how both Mary and her executioners use her ritualized body to claim authority. Leaving Kantorowicz and Foucault behind almost immediately, Allinson provides an intriguing analysis of accounts of the execution. A more thorough dialogue between this particular episode and the theory of the king’s two bodies would have helped fulfill Allinson’s very promising premise. Still, this is an interesting and provocative piece.  Tomas’ solidly argued piece, ‘Commemorating a Mortal Goddess: Maria Salviati de’ Medici and the Cultural Politics of Duke Cosimo I,’ demonstrates the centrality of lineage and images of maternity to the duke’s claims of his right to rule. Mansfield’s ‘The Royal Art of Conjugal Discord: A Satirical Double Portrait of Francis I and Eleanor of Austria’ argues that this painting, probably commissioned by Henry VIII, reveals that husbands as well as wives suffered under the demands and conventions of early modern royal marriage. Since much of the essay is speculative, it ultimately leaves us with some interesting musings about royal husbands but without much development or concrete evidence.

[9]  Beyond these pieces the collection is a mélange of pieces of varying quality, with little to unite them. Carolyn James, Suzanne Broomhall and Dolly MacKinnon all offer interesting archival material. Through an examination of 250 letters dictated by Margherita Datini between 1384 and 1410, James argues that even ‘formally illiterate’ women could find agency in epistolary culture. The blurring of the line of oral and textual that James demonstrates in Margherita’s letters points to an important arena for future research, though her discussion of this one figure provides only a tantalizing glimpse of the potential of such archives. Broomhall’s ‘Women, Work, and Power in the Female Guilds of Rouen’ provides a detailed account of the female linen drapers’ guilds of early-modern Rouen, noting their similarity to their male counterparts, and arguing against interpreting these female organizations as protofeminist. MacKinnon’s ‘Charitable Bodies: Clothing as Charity in Early-Modern Rural England’ argues that through the wearing of charity clothing ‘The deserving poor simultaneously reaffirm Protestant views of piety, social difference, and the appropriate gendered roles of the patriarchal household’ (238). The piece amply demonstrates the subtle significance of clothing and describes the varied modes for the transmission and acceptance of charity clothing, providing a wealth of detail and supporting its most basic claim that gender is performative.  What the stakes of these particular performances of piety, status and gender are in relation to any other such performances still needs to be clarified.

[10]  For a variety of reasons, the essays by Peter Matheson, Catherine Kovesi, and Grantley McDonald are less illuminating. Matheson’s ‘Pushing the Boundaries: Argula von Grumbach as a Lutheran Laywoman, 1492-1556/7’ explores how this particular woman drew on both biblical authority and her family’s traditions of defying princely centralism as she chose to transgress boundaries. Though Matheson makes some connections to broader political developments, particularly the Peasants’ War, his analysis ultimately seems to slide back into the category of searching for subversive women. Kovesi’s ‘Engendering Lust in Early-Modern Italy: Pisanello’s Luxuria,’ provides a very detailed close reading of this hermaphroditic figure drawn by this northern Italian artist between 1425 and 1430, and claims that the drawing depicts lust ‘without any moral warning’ (150). Though Kovesi does connect the details of Luxuria to other cultural texts, the piece is mostly an extensive description, with little sense of argument.  McDonald’s ‘Cornelius Agrippa’s School of Love: Teaching Plato’s Symposium at the Renaissance University’ offers a close reading of this sixteenth-century German humanist’s lecture on this influential philosophical work. Though he begins with a nod to Judith Butler, gender theory and queer theory, McDonald’s analysis immediately abandons them to unpack the many layers of Agrippa’s lecture in relation to the earlier analysis of Plato by Marsilio Ficino. Though McDonald’s insistence upon the importance of local historical context in analyzing issues of gender is a good one, his reliance on such a narrow context ironically limits his ability to engage this text on its own terms.

[11]  The final essay in the collection, Peter Sherlock’s ‘Patriarchal Memory: Monuments in Early-Modern England,’ begins with an extremely compelling question—‘how do the categories of “living” and “dead” relate to the dominant polarity of Western societies, “man” and “woman”?’ (279-80). In order to answer this question, he turns to a productive analysis of funeral monuments from the English county of Wiltshire, mostly erected between 1560 and 1660. After pursuing some interesting cases, Sherlock concludes that the monuments reflect ‘the deep seated nature of patriarchy as a system of social organization,’ but a system that nonetheless allows women to exercise agency in particular moments. This move provides an example of the limitations of the collection and many of its essays. The analyses rightfully insist that the superficial dominance of patriarchal structures had varied effects on the lives of medieval and early modern women, and sharply argue that the next stage of analysis must consider the constant local negotiations of power and identity, not just the occasional moments of subversion.  However, too many of the essays here do not move past these two claims to demonstrate what the stakes of these local negotiations are. Instead, the ultimate argument too often rehearses the same idea—there was officially gender hierarchy but, in practice, life was more complicated. Though such a claim is almost always true, it stops short of fulfilling the promise of the archival research on offer here. This common investment in the local does unite these essays, but it ultimately fails to address fully the question of why these individual essays are still all appropriately placed together in one volume. This collection does offer some rich scholarly contributions, particularly those by Russell, Hall, Malcolm, Salzberg, and Van Nederveen Meerkerk, but as a whole it does not serve to advance the conversation about what is to be gained from the amalgamation of such diverse investigations of gender.

University of Boston, February 2010

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