MEDIEVAL WOMEN. Ed. by M. M. Postan by Eileen Power

MEDIEVAL WOMEN. Ed. by M. M. Postan

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The misogyny of the Middle Ages was real enough, despite the cult of the Virgin, but at all times women were more than ornaments or chattels. Eileen Powers died before she could write her projected full-scale study of medieval women; the present book, assembled posthumously by Postan from her popular lectures, is necessarily sketchy. Still there is enough material to point to a greater diversity in the condition of medieval women of all classes than we had suspected. Official doctrine, as laid down by the Church fathers, prescribed subjugation and humility; women from Eve on were regarded as snares and pitfalls to the salvation of men. (Canon law even sanctioned wife-beating.) Yet there were voices, some of them female, who demurred. Power singles out Christine de Pisan, the remarkable 14th century French ""man of letters,"" who wrote with some asperity: ""women slay no men, destroy no cities, do not oppress folk, betray realms, take lands, poison and set fire, or make false contracts."" From wills, manorial rolls and the statutes of apprentices, Powers was compiling evidence that women played a major role in medieval industry; they were not only ale wives and spinners. Married women, widows and femmes soles functioned as butchers, chandlers, ironmongers, merchants and doctors; while women were not organized in guilds in England, in Paris they were. And noblewomen frequently administered vast estates. Though chivalry and courtly love prized only the ""lady,"" Powers argues that the pedestal became a stepping stone to greater autonomy from the 12th century on. As always, Eileen Power deftly weaves the quotidian details of life into a pleasing whole and though she concedes that much medieval literature expressed ""rancour. . . intense contempt for women,"" her eclectic sources suggest that despite the law that decreed their inferiority, many women managed to lead productive and independent lives.

Pub Date: Dec. 26th, 1975
Publisher: Cambridge Univ. Press