Berman, Constance H.
Medieval Feminist Forum, Vol.37: 1 (2004)
Perhaps because medieval historians have such difficulties in treating the entire Middle Ages in a single semester, we split our courses into two, a bifurcation in our teaching that creates a tendency to adhere to Marc Bloch’s First Feudal Age, Second Feudal Age dichotomy.’ Such periodization, splitting the Middle Ages at the eleventh century, right in the middle of a time of considerable change, is distorting to the more general history, but creates an even more distorting periodization in medieval women’s history. Early feminist medievalists asked, as Joan Kelly did, “Did women have a Renaissance?” and tended to identify a Golden Age for women in the very early Middle Ages, even before 750 AD. They saw a decline of women’s position that started with the Carolingians and got dramatically worse by the twelfth century. If as the suggestions of Joan Kelly seemed to imply, women’s history was the reverse of the standard trope, then women did not only not have a Renaissance, but the periodization of early medieval! late medieval makes it appear that medieval women did not have a twelfth-century Renaissance, either; women indeed find little place in discussions of the discovery of the individual, the revival of Latin letters, the esteem for all things antique, and the new interest in science and the world of nature of twelfth-century Renaissance studies. Heloise, Hildegard, and Eleanor are too often left completely out of the story, or presented as evidence of progressive erosion of women’s power and authority.
In such early scenarios the reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine as Queen of France was pivotal: the last gasp of the earlier, better, Golden Age. If some of us also saw in Katherine Hepburn as our last great strong actress of the twentieth-century classic era of film, that only confirmed the “decline of women’s power and status after Eleanor” thesis. How could a Queen of England, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, locked up in a nunnery by her husband be anything but powerless? Such periodization should be resisted, replaced by something more subtle, with many ups and downs for different groups and individuals in different places.
Why was Eleanor the last gasp in that particular scenario? Early studies by feminist medievalists saw the later Middle Ages as dire, in part because modern (male?) historians had so often repeated what seem to be the increasingly misogynist statements about women by twelfth-century authorities like Bernard of Clairvaux; in that view medieval misogyny was a cumulative, ever worsening problem.