Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Case for Women in Medieval Culture

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Case for Women in Medieval Culture

Article excerpt

Alcuin Blamires, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). vii + z7g pp. ISBN o-ig-8i8z56-z. 4o.00.

According to Alcuin Blamires, medieval writers on sex and gender were much exercised by the problems of male hairiness. Misogynists argued that hairiness meant that men were more efficient at purging themselves of gross humours through the extrusion of sweat and hair. Defenders of women argued that man had to be repeatedly cleansed of the beard that was part of the mud from which Adam had been made.

How seriously should we take this kind of argument? Alcuin Blamires thinks we should take it very seriously, and he proceeds to do so in this sober, learned, and elegant monograph. He scouts the idea that arguments for women's superiority were satirical, though he does not really say why. He is right to argue that the notion that such arguments can be dismissed as satire is narrow and unhelpful, but it may be that in removing the notion of satire he loses his sense of humour altogether, with consequences for the important argument he makes for the value of the writings he studies.

Blamires's book is a deeply informative and scholarly study of the defences of women produced in the high and late Middle Ages. Sound scholarship is everywhere on display, especially in tracing the textual and scriptural origins of the formal defence and its misogynous context, and in particular in identifying the importance of the third Book of Esdras as a source. He provides a useful history of formal defences of women from the end of the eleventh century, with summaries of their innovations. Blamires is especially interesting on the question of maternity, a question which has received its meed of attentive scrutiny from historians like Clarissa Atkinson (The Oldest Vocation (New York, 1991)). Those who advance women's status by pointing to the sufferings of pregnancy and birth offer 'a fiercely selective view of female experience' (p. 88). For Blamires this limits their pro-feminine posture, though it is interesting that recent books by feminists on pregnancy and motherhood fit Hali Meidhad's agenda much more closely than Blamires supposes. Those who are tired of being told that pregnancy is so much fun that they need no maternity leave, or that birth is a kind of super-orgasm, might well turn to the gloomy medieval moralists with relief, even if, as Blamires shows, such sympathy quickly melts into loathing of the whole messy business and the body that brings it about. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.