Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Women and Aristocratic Culture in the Carolingian World

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Women and Aristocratic Culture in the Carolingian World

Article excerpt

Women and Aristocratic Culture in the Carolingian World. By Valerie L. Garver. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 2009. Pp. xxi, 310. $49-95. ISBN 978-0-801-44771-6.)

Carolingian elite women have received much scholarly attention in the last generation, ever since the publication of Suzanne Fonay Wemple's Women in Prankish Society (Philadelphia, 1981). Here Valerie L. Garver expands and builds on earlier work, with the purpose of demonstrating that aristocratic women in the eighth and ninth centuries, far from being relegated merely to the domestic sphere (although they certainly played a key role there), helped shape and disseminate much of Carolingian culture.

Garver begins by quoting Jonas of Orléans, who said that men desire women for their "family, prudence, wealth, and beauty" (p. 1). These four female characteristics, derived from Isidore of Seville and ultimately from Roman ideals of womanhood, become the outline of the present book, as the first four chapters address each in turn.A fifth chapter addresses textile work, which, although not directly referenced by Jonas or Isidore, was still taken for granted as appropriate for women and, Garver argues, brings together the four aspects of women's supposed characteristics.

This book, far more sophisticated (unsurprisingly) than Wemple's early path-breaking study, takes much of its strength from a wide-ranging selection of sources, including poetry, hagiography, and visual images as well as the more commonly used law codes, capitularies, charters, and chronicles. Throughout, Garver seeks to combine an analysis of how clerical intellectuals thought women ought ideally to behave, as seen in "mirrors" for laypeople and prescriptive ordinances, with a discussion of what aristocratic women's lives might actually have been like.

Thirty years ago it could have been assumed from the scholarship that medieval women barely existed. More recent scholars routinely characterized these women as marginalized, subservient, and unlearned, forced into convents by a misogynistic church and given little role to play even in their own families. …

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