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Book Review: A Medieval Woman’s Companion by Susan Signe Morrison

Book cover: A Medieval Woman's CompanionThis book is intended for high school and university students as an introduction to medieval women. While this is not a book for seasoned medieval scholars, (as the content featured here will not be new) it is an excellent book for readers who want a good starting point on their journey into women’s studies, feminism, and gender during the Middle Ages. Morrison states the purpose of how the book is to be used from the get-go,

“A Medieval Woman’s Companion introduces readers to medieval history, medieval women’s lives, Catholic beliefs, and the art and literature of the Middle Ages. The volume is intended for a general audience and to help students in high school and college to become familiar with a vast array of aspects affecting medieval women’s lives”

The book takes aim at many of the mainstream myths perpetuated about the lives of medieval women, such as, the idea that they lived horrible oppressed lives, and had little to no agency, or the notion that all medieval women were illiterate.

“We need to read medieval lives from a medieval perspective. A non-medieval perspective might suggest women were merely oppressed. The more one learns and knows about medieval culture and history, the more we can see ways that women carved out for themselves spaces of dynamic freedom” (p.209)

Morrison does her best to debunk these claims by providing over 200 pages of examples, from the Early Middle Ages to the beginning of the Early Modern period. She touches on lesser known women, such as Gudrun Osvifsdottir, Iceland’s first anchoress, and Teresa de Cartegena, the first Spanish feminist, fitting them in alongside popular figures such as Hildegard von Bingen, and Joan of Arc.

The book is broken into neat, bite sized sections, with titles such as ‘Pioneers’, ‘Fearless Females, and ‘Non-Conformists’. At the end of each chapter, Morrison provides references and web links for further study, making it easy for students to engage with the material and learn more. In the chapter on Christina of Markyate, she entices the reader continue reading by providing a link to ‘digitally flip through’ a psalter once owned the saint. Morrison also takes the time to point out what page the reader can turn to, to see an image of St. Christina. The book bridges the link between standard texts and the medieval digital world. Morrison also has a website and blog that she encourages readers to use alongside this book: www.amedievalwomanscompanion.com

A Medieval Woman’s Companion touches on women’s contributions to the development of language (Emma of Normandy), to medicine (Trota of Salerno), music (Hildegard von Bingen), and literature (Christine de Pizan). She also discusses how to approach medieval texts with a view to modern concepts of freedom and agency, saying, “Why would anyone put up with the oppression caused by husbands or fathers? If we ‘think medievally’, women and their actions can be understood in the time they lived in, not judged by us now. It is not necessary to agree with every view expressed by writers and thinkers. Rather, consider how a tenth-century Saxon girl would have read Hrotsvit’s plays…” she continues, “Self determination for a medieval woman might, at times, differ from the agency of a post-medieval woman. That is, it may not seem like ‘freedom’ to permit oneself to be walled up into a cell next to a church as an anchorite (religious hermit), but for medieval people, such a spiritual guide would be considered a woman of action and power, worthy of great respect.” (p.13)

The final section of the book discusses intersectionality, gender studies, and the future of the study of medieval women with insights into historical texts and modern feminist theory under writers such as Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, Kate Millet, Joanna Russ and Ann DuCille. While this book doesn’t delve deeply into these issues, and is more of a ‘beginner’s guide to…’, Morrison does a superb job of making medieval women accessible to mainstream audiences, and tying in traditional and digital sources.

Susan Signe Morrison is a professor of English at Texas State University and focuses her work on gender studies in the Middle Ages and Anglo-Saxon Comparative literature. She is the author of Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife.

Follow Susan on Twitter: @medievalwomen

For more information about Susan’s work, please visit: www.susansignemorrison.com


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