Elizabeth L'Estrange, Holy Motherhood: Gender, Dynasty and Visual Culture in the Later Middle Ages

Article excerpt

Elizabeth L'Estrange, Holy Motherhood: Gender, Dynasty and Visual Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2008). 282 pp.; 16 plates, 52 figures. ISBN 978-0-7190-7543-8. 60.00 [pounds sterling].

The historiography of medieval motherhood, childbirth, maternal devotion, and health has welcomed several significant additions in the past decade (Elisheva Baumgarten, Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe (Princeton, NJ, 2004); Monica H. Green, Making Women's Medicine Masculine." The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology (Oxford, 2008); Miri Rubin, Mother of God." A History of the Virgin Mary (London, 2009)). The intersection of gender, social practice, and feminine agency underpins much of this literature. Elizabeth L'Estrange makes an important contribution not only to these debates, but to the fields of medieval art history and manuscript studies. This book is positioned firmly within these debates, interrogating the meaning of gender and agency in ways of viewing childbirth and motherhood. Her interdisciplinary approach concentrates on visual remnants such as marginalia and images in books of hours, in tandem with more traditional records including letters, medical treatises, and records of household goods.

The book is arranged into two sections, the first elaborating on methodology, and the perspectives and social milieux of aristocratic patrons and audiences. These initial chapters lay foundations for the second half, a group of case studies focusing on manuscripts from the houses of Anjou, Brittany, and France. In her introduction, L'Estrange recognizes the limitations of reading social practice from visual sources, acknowledging that they 'cannot be used unproblematically to access "normal" medieval childbirth practices' (p. 8). This chapter also provides an insightful critique of existing feminist historiography on gender, motherhood, and the female body in late medieval religious culture. The study reiterates the importance of texts dealing with childbirth and infertility to male aristocratic viewers, who 'read' these as concerned would-be fathers and heads of failing dynasties. A number of recent studies have attempted to recover the marginal role of fathers in the late medieval birthing chamber (Becky R. Lee, 'Men's recollections of a women's rite: medieval English men's recollections regarding the rite of the purification of women after childbirth', Gender and History, 14 (2002), 224-41; Becky R. Lee, 'A company of women and men: men's recollections of childbirth in medieval England', Journal of Family History, 27/2 (2002), 92-100). Several of these draw on the evidence of jurors given in proof of age material, suggesting that male participation in childbirth was broader than previously imagined. …