Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and the Scopic Economy

By Nolan, Kathleen | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2003 | Go to article overview
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Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and the Scopic Economy


Nolan, Kathleen, The Catholic Historical Review


Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and the Scopic Economy. By Madeline H. Caviness (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2001. Pp. x, 231. $55.00.)

Madeline H. Caviness spent the first several decades of her career writing books on medieval stained glass that were widely-acclaimed models of archaeological method and text-based erudition. Ten years ago she transformed her research through her current project, "reading as a woman," which brings feminist theory to bear on medieval visual culture. Her essay, "Patron or Matron? A Capetian Bride and a Vade Mecum for her Marriage Bed," in the April, 1993, issue of Speculum proposed a revolutionary reading of a famous fourteenth-century manuscript, overturning traditional readings of marginal imagery as humorous examples of artistic freedom and substituting their interpretation as gynephobic instruments of social control.

The engagement with neo-Freudian theory begun in the 1993 essay is yet more forceful in Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages. Caviness problematizes the concept of "the gaze," developed for film criticism in 1973 by Laura Mulvey from Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, and rapidly and broadly applied to the history of art. The volume begins with a theoretical introduction that scrutinizes gaze theory, followed by three case-study chapters that examine the representation and fragmentation of the female body in medieval and late twentieth-century imagery.

The "Introduction" is the major contribution of the volume, applying as it does the archaeological rigor of Caviness' stained glass monographs to post-modern theory. Caviness reviews Mulvey's use of the Freudian concept of the scopophiliac gaze and Lacan's notion of the mirror phase of self-realization, pointing out Mulvey's selective use of these theories. In this exhaustive critique of the implications of Freud and Lacan for feminist thought, Caviness inter-weaves the views of writers from multiple disciplines, from George Bataille and Kaja Silverman to Rosalind Krauss and Caroline Walker Bynum.

While Caviness suggests that the selections of the book can be read in any order, the case studies seem to depend heavily upon the introduction. Chapter 1 discusses the proscriptions on a woman's gaze and the consequences of violating that ban, through the story of Lot's wife and daughters.

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