A Medieval Woman's Companion
by Susan Signe Morrison

Oxbow Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-785-70079-8.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 02/14/2016

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

A Medieval Woman's Companion is—I'm not exaggerating here—the best introduction I know of to the widely-varied lives of medieval women. In this rich, information-filled book, Susan Signe Morrison gives women of the Middle Ages their due as explorers, creators, crusaders, sovereigns, physicians, innovators, lovers, matriarchs, poets, troubadours, reformers, and, yes, feminists. If these attributes (each of which suggests a particular and powerful agency) go counter to your own view of medieval women, it's no surprise. Historians, compilers of the literary canon, and creators of the popular media (most of them men) have generally marginalized medieval women, rendering them more or less invisible and, in effect, erasing them from history.

Morrison has corrected that error, in a book that surveys the lives of twenty-one powerful medieval women, each demonstrating strength and authority as she goes about shaping the world she inhabits. Morrison organizes these hugely varied stories into categories, emphasizing their individual achievements while putting them into a context that suggests commonalities. In Part IV, Non-Conformists, for example, women troubadours are paired with martyred heretic Marguerita Porete, reformer Birgitta of Sweden, and the peripatetic Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography in the English language. This richly detailed section also includes callouts that define courtly love, heresy, Lollardy; offer examples of verse from Muslim women poets, the Beguines, and a chanson to a same-sex lover; and briefly describe other, similar women: Julian of Norwich, St. Clare of Assisi, and St. Catherine of Siena. This section (like others in this Companion) is illustrated with manuscript pages, photographs of relevant settings, a stained glass window, and a pewter pilgrimage badge. "Learn more" activities invite readers to explore related materials on the Internet; in historical fiction, film, and literary masterworks; on World Heritage Sites; and in digital editions of available texts. Comprehensive notes to sources wrap up each entry. There is a full bibliography at the end of the book, as well as an extensive glossary. The book as a whole has its own website, designed and maintained by Morrison, with many of its pages created by her students at Texas State University in San Marcos.

In addition to detailed biographies, Morrison includes sections on language, the female body, and clothing—at a time when clothing carried more meanings than it does now. The section on "Textile Concerns" (subtitled "Holy Transvestites and the Dangers of Cross-Dressing"—the phrase is an example of the lightness of Morrison's artfully idiomatic style) asks readers to imagine what extraordinary boldness was required for a girl to put on a man's clothing, and thereby gets at the heart of the courage of Joan of Arc. "Her cross-dressing suggested to her enemies that she was making herself into a false idol, and idol worship was a heathen act that needed to be punished. Imagine," Morrison writes, "if girls and women today lived back then, wearing their blue jeans and shorts without a thought. Would we be called idolaters? Would you?"

Morrison has designed A Medieval Companion to be used in college and high school classrooms, and her frequent, casually-phrased direct addresses to the reader (see the example above) remind us of this. But the denseness and referential sophistication of the material and the author's deft mastery of its presentation take this book out of the classroom and offer it to the reader who cares about historical fact, who wants to look behind the canon to discover know what "really went on back then," but who wants to see historical people and events interpreted in the context of contemporary understanding. With that in mind, Morrison offers a concluding essay, "Contemporary Feminist Theory and Medieval Women" (Chapter 24), briefly framing women of the Middle Ages through the lens of Simone de Beauvoir, Gayle Rubin, Nancy Chodorow, Kate Millett, Susan Bordo, Monique Wittig, Gloria Anzaldua, and Paula Gunn Allen, provocatively suggesting how each approach reveals a slightly different view of their historical reality. Borrowing from the Irish poet Eavan Boland, she reminds us that the past needs us: "That very past in poetry which simplified us as women and excluded us as poets now needs us to change it."

And that, for Morrison, is the central point of all our learning and study and thought. As a teacher, she knows that "we need to understand the historical past of women to change the historical future of women ... As women historians and chroniclers of women's lives and writings, we ... have our work cut out for us."

As readers, too, we have our work cut out for us. And Morrison's Companion is exactly the kind of guide we need for the journey.

Susan Signe Morrison writes on topics lurking in the margins of history, ranging from recently uncovered diaries of a teenaged girl in World War II to medieval women pilgrims, excrement in the Middle Ages, and waste. She is Professor of English at Texas State University. She can be found at HomeFrontGirlDiary.com, GrendelsMotherTheNovel.com, and AMedievalWomansCompanion.com.

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