Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Power of Women: A 'Topos' in Medieval Art and Literature

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Power of Women: A 'Topos' in Medieval Art and Literature

Article excerpt

Susan L. Smith, The Power of Women: A 'Topos' in Medieval Art and Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995 ). xv + z94 pp.; 48 plates. ISBN o-8I 2-z7g-8. L42.50.

This study grew out of a 1978 doctoral thesis, and happily supplements depth of research with an effective (and judicious) use of recent theoretical approaches to medieval art and literature. It examines `the representational practice of bringing together at least two, but usually more, well-known figures from the Bible, ancient history, or romance to exemplify a cluster of interrelated themes that include the wiles of women, the power of love, and the trials of marriage' (p. 2), offering not simply a survey but a well-organized and incisive investigation of the changing social and artistic functions of the topos during the Middle Ages. The first two chapters trace its background in classical rhetoric, its development in patristic writings, and the new meanings it acquired from the twelfth century onwards with the growth of secular literature. The third and fourth focus particularly on the story of the `mounted Aristotle', which first appeared in the thirteenth century, tracing its treatment in literature (where it can be used not only as a warning against the seductive deviousness of women but to celebrate the power of love) and the function of its visual representation, from about 1300 onwards, as a 'magnet' (p. 137) for other exemplifications of the same theme, facilitating the development of the topos in pure and applied secular art. The two final chapters discuss the use of the topos in visual art in the fourteenth century and the Renaissance. …

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