Academic journal article Medium Aevum

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

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

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

Article excerpt

Madeline H. Caviness, Visualising Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and Scopic Economy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001). IX + 231 pp.; 80 plates. ISBN 0-8122-3599-1. $; 5.00.

This is an ambitious book that attempts three goals: to read medieval iconography of women within a theoretical framework of feminist thought, to loosen the grip of Freudian and Lacanian theory on discussion of both gender and the gaze, and, by juxtaposing medieval and contemporary images 'so that they enter a dialogic relationship' (p. 15), to see medieval art in a new and different way. The format of the book reflects its project, as it comprises a series of discrete chapters which the 'Note to the reader' informs us can be 'read in any order'. A 'Prelude', 'The problem with Mary: disembodying motherhood', is followed by an 'Introduction: the "male gaze" and scopic economies'. Three 'case studies' - 'Good girls don't look: Lot's wife and daughters', 'Sado-erotic spectacles, breast envy, and the bodies of martyrs', and 'The broken mirror: parts, relics, freaks' - comprise the body of the book. In addition to providing copious explanatory notes, Madeline H. Caviness also structures her bibliography as 'lists of essential reading' appended to each chapter, 'intended as guides to the theoretical framework and to the most important literature pertinent to the case study' ('Note to the reader').

Caviness is concerned above all with the body, as it sees and is seen in medieval art as well as in contemporary theory. Throughout the book she notes the ironic fact that the prolific medieval production of images of women actually served to render women so depicted less visible, figures whose agency and subjectivity were destabilized by their shifting iconic, semiotic qualities. The 'Prelude' examines this phenomenon in relation to the Virgin Mary, introducing themes more fully investigated in subsequent chapters. The 'Introducing' engages the influence of various theoretical models both of the gaze and of gazer, both feminist and pre-feminist, particularly the work of Freud and Lacan, which Caviness asserts, has prompted feminist theory to define itself in opposition to their mistakes. …

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