Pauline Fest 2: gender, ideology and practice

One of the issues that kept coming up implicitly at the recent Pauline Stafford symposium in the papers on gender and women’s history was the relationship between gendered ideology and practice. It’s easy to point out how texts consistently point out the inferiority of women. It’s harder to be sure what effect that had on actual practice: societies seem to have varied greatly.

As one example where misogynistic theory and practice seem to have meshed together fairly comprehensively, we had Ross Balzaretti’s fairly depressing paper on ‘Fatherhood in Late Lombard Italy’. Ross said he’d tried to write something about Lombard women, but just couldn’t find much. He quoted some of the standard early medieval works on the subordination of women and sons known in the period: Isidore’s Etymologies, Pseudo-Cyprian’s Twelve Abuses etc, and then turned to look at narrative sources. These too, especially Paul the Deacon, persistently write out women from histories. Instead there is an emphasis on extreme paternal authority (even when, as in some ‘genealogies’, there isn’t actually a father-son transmission of power – for example in the ‘Carmen de Synodo Ticinensi). Ross also gave us a gruesome story from the Vita Walfredi (written 780×810, but still culturally Lombard), in which Walfred decides to enter the monastic life and forces his five sons to do likewise. His favourite son then runs off with horses and charters, is caught and has his finger chopped off as punishment. (Walfred’s wife, who entered a convent herself, is mentioned in passing in the Vita, but not in the founding charter of San Pietro di Monteverdi – again, showing how women get written out).

In stark contrast to this Lombard horror story, Anneke Mulder-Bakker gave us a very different female experience in her paper on ‘Agency and authority in medieval society: the case of Gertrude of Ortenberg’. Gertrude’s vita, recently discovered, describes how, after marrying a rich knight, she was widowed in around 1301, when in her early twenties. She settled down to a religious life, first in Ortenburg and then in Strasbourg, until her death in 1335. What was distinctive is that she appears to have practiced a new form of religious life (or rather a very old one): she was a widow, heading an ascetic household, without being part of any order or even a Beguine. She gave pastoral advice to the rich and powerful and also to individual sinners in the countryside around, she mediated in feuds, and (at least according to her biographer) was seen as a living saint, protecting the city from wars.

Anneke’s argument was that this was not solely a matter of Gertrude’s extraordinary charisma. Instead she should be seen as having authority, i.e. socially-sanctioned power. (Anneke used the metaphor of society as a woollen fabric, in which the warp was institutional order and church hierarchy and the weft was social conventions). Gertrude’s position as a wealthy widow, her personal prestige and her old age (a vision of death at around 40 appears to have marked her transition to a wise old woman), gave her a status that allowed her to be a spiritual leader.

In her two most controversial points, Anneke also wanted to link up Gertrude to earlier traditions. One was Gary Macy’s suggestion of women being ordained in the earlier Middle Ages. Even after 1215, Anneke suggested, to ordinary townspeople, vocation more than ordination may have been what counted in a spiritual leader. Finally, Anneke wondered whether Gertrude was actually part of a continuing tradition of domestic ascetic households, reaching back to late antiquity, which provided spiritual authority for some women.

These two contrasting papers have got me thinking more about the impact of misogyny, and how we should be analysing it. Perhaps we’re too often working with a simplistic model which imagines misogynistic thought as universally accepted, except by a few brave women who stand up and resist the oppression. (It may not be pure coincidence that that sounds like a convenient summary of the situation in the West in the 1960s and 1970s). Such a model is easy to confirm for the Middle Ages from the routine misogyny of writers (often clerics) and the hostility aroused by non-conforming women. But I think we need to look a little harder both at how such atypical women were received, and also at the possible failures of misogynistic propaganda. (Anneke, for example, was saying that her view of the position of religious women in the late Middle Ages was more positive than that of Dyan Elliot, partly because she was concentrating on narrative rather than normative sources).

A couple of interesting related points on reactions to women came out of Sue Johns’ paper on ‘Nest of Deheubarth: reading female power in the historiography of Wales’, which looked at how the story of Nest had been interpreted in later historiography. One was the existence of variants in the medieval versions of Nest’s abduction by Owain ap Cadwgan, her cousin, during her marriage to Gerald, Constable of Pembroke. In one version, this abduction is rape; in the other consensual. One of the audience wondered whether the ‘consensual’ version of the story reflected a different audience, softening the story, perhaps for an audience including women. It was also interesting to hear how some male Welsh antiquarians of the early modern period saw Nest positively in nationalistic terms, as a woman choosing her Welsh cousin over her English husband. Her ‘correct’ ethnic preferences were obviously seen here as more important than her adultery.

On propaganda (and masculinity), meanwhile, as well as Ross, we had Kirsten Fenton on ‘William of Malmesbury and the Anglo-Norman court’, looking at his gendered depictions of courts. This turned out largely to be discussing male behaviour (William says little about queens and women at court before the reign of Henry I). In contrast, William had a considerable amount to say about effeminate male courtiers, their long hair, their reluctance to remain as they were born etc. As a descriptive piece, this fitted well with some of other Kirsten’s work on masculinity and hair-symbolism, but I was left wondering how it fitted into wider pattern. As I pointed out, Carolingian writers criticise male courtiers dressing too fancily, but without accusing them of effeminacy. Why and when are charges of effeminacy used against other men? To what extent did complaints about male costume represent actual practice (there were comments about modern uses of hairstyles by young people to annoy their elders) and to what extent was it a created image to denigrate a particular social group? And if so, how successful was it? (William of Malmesbury had an anecdote in which a long-haired knight had a worrying dream in which his hair was strangling him. Once awake, he therefore cut his hair, and many others followed his example. But the fashion for long hair soon returned).

All this suggests that recognising gendered representations is an important part of scholarship, but we may also have to try and go further (however difficult that is) and see how they relate to reality, even as they help to create it. The final paradox came talking to Ross Balzaretti later. His eighth century Lombard Italy does look like a place where ideology and reality fit snugly together, marginalizing women in thought and deed. Discussing this, he saw it as characteristic of a wider and long-enduring ‘Mediterranean’ pattern (although conscious of the problems of how you define Mediterranean). This pattern is marked by particularly strong formal restrictions on women’s actions and yet, he thought, also considerable actual power for women behind the scenes (I suppose one could call it ‘private’ matriarchy). In other words, perhaps even with the Lombards, we still haven’t got to the bottom of how we can really know the truth about female power or its lack.


3 thoughts on “Pauline Fest 2: gender, ideology and practice

  1. I do like Anneke’s fabric metaphor. I think we can sometimes get a bit too hung up on the ‘warp’ of formal authority/ideology (often because the sources are simply much easier to find) and miss the subtleties of the ‘weft’ of social convention (partly because sources for that can be much more difficult to find and interpret). On accusations of effeminacy, I find it interesting how often these intersect with ideologies about political power, and who can and can’t wield it. I’m thinking for example of the complaints about Richard II’s kingship and the charges used to support his deposition, many of which were couched in very gendered terms.


  2. There is little if any gain to be got from suggesting that Ross might be wrong, but all the same I think the non-appearance of Lombard women could be down to shortage of sources as much as anything else (which is not to deny a rocirc;le to some other factors obviously). The reason I think this is because I remember Jinty Nelson making a point in an LSMS paper about how, when taking over Lombard royal property after 774, Charlemagne and Hildegard seem to assign to the queen that which had been the Lombard queen’s, suggesting that female position was worth preserving and so had been important in the first place. We’d never see this except from the charters.

    Similarly, you’re right to suggest that Gertrude of Ortenburg’s choice of life could equally be seen as a very old one: she reminds me of two things, I’ll come to the second in a minute but the first is Spanish deo votae. In the Visigothic period we do actually have legislation about these (but know of very few) but later on of course they only appear, again, in charters. From prescriptive sources (so often, as Chris Lewis might have it, a Benedictine project) I’m not sure we’d know they were there.

    Both of these cases of course hinge on women who had money and privilege. Apparently our subject societies could accommodate the anomaly of female independent status if there was money to back it, though it is certainly true that especially in the reform High Middle Ages vocal male bits of the Church don’t like it. This is exactly the dichotomy between ideology and practice that you start with and this question could be repeated in so many different places.

    Sometimes though perhaps it comes down to simple interests of the author. Gertrude is written up as almost a saint, by someone who was presumably profiting from his association with her; where women find a voice, is it not largely because they fund someone who later gives it them (even to the lowly extent of writing a charter for them)? It’s a terribly old-fashioned approach in some ways but I do wonder whether `who’s paying for the record’ might sometimes answer as much or more than `who’s chauvinist?’

    The other thing that Gertrude reminded me of was one of the papers given at the Haskins Society Conference, which covered a similar case (unlike Kirsten Fenton’s which appears to have actually been the same paper…). That case was Loretta de Braose, Countess of Leicester (1185-1206) who tried to become an anchorite (or similar) but who couldn’t escape being a patroness. This seems to me just the same as monks in the Athanasian Desert and their flow of petitioners. What we see here is women whom their contemporaries saw as having power, or at least influence. Whether that influence was malign or inappropriate probably mostly depends on how it was used, and the judgement of that would depend on who was watching and how they were affected of course. I suppose this is a plea for textual critique first and theoretical framework second, because as so often I don’t think our medieval people realised they were as bound by rules as we later see them, refracted through so narrow a scope. I’m sure that in fact society restricted their actions very closely, but whether they consciously realised that is questionable in many cases and in any case people did still act outside norms on occasions and still got recorded, which makes it difficult for us to tell.


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