Saturday, February 6, 2010

Feminist Readings: Aristocratic Women in Medieval France

(Yes, it's a book reviewish column - see the end for rambling about what I think I'm doing.)

Aristocratic Women in Medieval France (1999), edited by Theodore Everglades is a collection of five pieces on, well, exactly those women mentioned in the title. The first concerns one particularly powerful individual, the remainder examines all the women of whom records remain in particular regions of France. It's quite narrow in scope, the intended purpose being to expand scholarship on women living in the 11th through 13th centuries.

In this it succeeds, but the real value of the book to the casual reader is that it provides real, non-trivial examples of important women in the Medieval Era. Let me explain:

'Women in History' v. Historical Women

From the book:
At this level of analysis, the sources often reveal that women who embodied the joining of two families through marriage and child bearing were not merely passive pawns in power relations among groups of men; rather, they were active participant whose actions could affect ... the course of politically significant events.

The influence of feminism on historical thought and history education over the last half-century is fairly obvious. There's been a real attempt to add women to textbooks and discussions, to consider women as historically important figures. There's been criticism of this - not just by those whose patriarchal ideals are being threatened, but by otherwise well-meaning feminists. They claim that women have been oppressed to the extent that they really haven't accomplished much of worth before, say, the 19th century or so, and that we shouldn't try and pretend otherwise.

There's something too this - who hasn't read a sidebar about some minor female figure in an otherwise male-oriented work and wondered why they bothered including it (other than being 'politically correct') It's saddening, really, that they can't find anything better.

And that's where works like Aristocratic Women in Medieval France come in. The work presents, in meticulous detail, the recorded activities of a number of powerful women whose actions had a real effect on lives and events. They disperse money, give legal judgment in disputes, and sign official documents. They act in place of their absent or deceased husbands, maintain a position of power over male relatives, and even hold property in cases where it was previously thought to be an exclusively male privilege. In short, these women were important entirely in their own right.

Now, this book make no connection to larger scale, more general history, but I have no doubt that such a connection could and will be made. But for the purposes of this book there can be no doubt that women played an important role in this period of time.

On the other hand...

There are a couple of things to note: first, the book is only about wealthy women from powerful families - it would be even more interesting to look at the average women (perhaps in relation to aristocratic women). Not the focus of the book, but something to think about. Second, the book itself states that this was a sort of high point for women - after the 13th century, power began to be gathered more an more into the hands of a few patriarchs, who kept their 'lines' intact by way of sole male heirs - effectively shutting women off from sources of societal power.

In the end...

It's easy to be erased. Adela of Blois (for instance) was one of the most well-known figures of her era and locale, but by the standards of patriarchal history, she is unknown and worthless.

And that's what we should learn here. Insisting that women are equally important has to be an ongoing work - and restoring women to their proper place in history (and they do have an important place, not just as side notes) is a vital part of this process.

(What's all this? Basically, I spend an inordinately large amount of time reading various feminist/womanist/related books, and I've always been disappointed that out of so much interesting feminist thought and research, so little is actually discussed or even heard of. So, each week I'll take a book at random and summarize it, hopefully both disseminating new ideas and keeping old ones alive. For the academics reading this - I'm not in Women's Studies, I'm just an academic (science, in particular) type with too much time on her hands, so if I get something technical wrong don't roast me, okay?)

No comments: