Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Medieval Women Are 'Good to Think' With

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Medieval Women Are 'Good to Think' With

Article excerpt

Medieval women are 'good to think' with Review of: Therese Martin, ed., Reassessing the Roles of Women as 'Makers' of Medieval Art and Architecture, Visualising the Middle Ages, volume 7,2 vols, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012,1,280 pp., 287 b&w illustrations, 32 colour plates, ISBN: 978-90-04-18555-5 (hardback), E-ISBN: 978-90-04-22832-0, Euro 215.00 / US$ 299.00

In the Fall of 2010,1 team-taught with Fiona Griffiths of New York University's Department of History a graduate colloquium titled 'Women and the Book: Scribes, Artists, and Readers from Late Antiquity through the Fourteenth Century'. The goal of the course as set out in the syllabus was to examine the cultural worlds of medieval women through particular attention to the books that they owned, commissioned, and created, and to consider the evidence for medieval women's book ownership, scribal and artistic activity, and patronage in relation to larger issues of women's authorship, education and literacy, reading patterns, devotional practices, and visual traditions and representation.

During the first class meeting, Professor Griffiths and I posed a series of questions to the students enrolled: was there still a need to teach a course of this nature, one focused solely on women's engagement with books? Or, after four decades' worth of scholarship aimed at 'writing ... women into' our respective fields, as historian Joan Scott put it,1 had the moment arrived to consider medieval women's activities within the framework of a broader course on 'medieval people and the book'? Indeed, did making gender an organizing principle of the course contribute to the marginalization of medieval women and their artistic, intellectual, religious, and cultural activities and sustain their relegation the realm of the aberrant? Had we, through the very nature and structure of our course, foreclosed the possibility of viewing women's bibliophilie activities as a 'normative' aspect of medieval culture?2

The thirteen women and one man enrolled in the colloquium were unanimous in the opinion that a course devoted to 'women and the book' was still the right forum for an investigation of our topic. They shared Therese Martin's conviction, articulated in her introduction to Reassessing the Roles of Women as 'Makers' of Medieval Art and Architecture, that scholars still approach medieval art and architecture not from a 'position of neutrality', but rather from one that regards the material as 'masculine in origin and intent' and in which women, by virtue of the 'real limits' to which they were subject in medieval society, 'play secondary roles' (1-2). Moreover, the students concurred with Martin that, in order to appreciate the full range of medieval women's artistic and cultural activities, scholars must abandon the existing analytic framework by which female patrons and artists are regarded as 'the exception^] that prove the rule' and replace it with a new framework or lens, one through which women's artistic agency is viewed as a 'new rule waiting to be recognized' (1). Yet the students also acknowledged that medieval women, like Claude Lévi-Strauss's 'natural species', are 'good to think' with.3 Publications like Reassessing the Roles of Women as Makers' of Medieval Art and Architecture force us to examine whether, and how, our 'operative assumptions' differ when analyzing women's patronage, consumption, or production of art and architecture, as opposed to the activities of men.4 In studying medieval women, we must continually ask ourselves whether we set the bar at different levels when evaluating the evidence for women's and men's engagement with art and architecture, and whether, in every instance, we are justified in doing so.

As Martin explains in her 'Acknowledgements', Reassessing the Roles of Women as 'Makers' of Medieval Art and Architecture had its genesis in a graduate seminar she taught at the University of Arizona in 2008. The contours and content of the collection were shaped by a pair of sessions Martin subsequently convened at the 44th International Medieval Congress (Kalamazoo, MI), held in 2009 and sponsored by the International Center of Medieval Art (ICMA), and an international conference she organized the following year at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, which she joined in 2009 as Científica Titular in the Instituto de Historia (Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales) (xxxi-xxxii). …

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