Good women were manly, virginal or dead

The Fragility of Her Sex? - Land of Women

November 29, 1996

Women were a sorry lot in the early Middle Ages: unwelcome as infants, under nourished and sometimes left to die; decimated through the horrors of primitive childbirth; controlled and discriminated against by men throughout their existence; and mistrusted by a Christian church which viewed daughters of Eve as being even more fallen than the male species. Lisa Bitel paints a dark picture of the early Irish world in which women struggled to survive.

Yet this is not a tiresome feminist book cataloguing man's inhumanity to women. A catalogue of injustice and restriction is there - and rightly so. But Bitel presents us with a serious attempt at balance and comes up with some surprising conclusions.

On the darker side, we learn how attitudes in a violent society, dominated by a male warrior aristocracy, coalesced with more cerebral male Christian prejudices to project an image of women as being prone to sexual excess, having too much to say, and being generally irrational and untrustworthy. Such creatures had to be controlled by their men if menfolk were not to suffer loss of status through the wilful behaviour of their women. So, women were rigorously restricted by law in the all-important business of whom they might marry and what limited property they might inherit or pass on to heirs.

The most depressing concept to emerge from Bitel's study of ecclesiastical attitudes towards women is "the idea that the best Christian was non-female - either born a man or become manlike through her efforts" or that a woman was only redeemable when "she was manly, virginal, dead, or all three".

But Bitel is sensible enough to know that a yawning credibility gap existed between idea and reality in early Irish laws and even in life. She strives successfully to dig deeper in her copious sources - which were written by men and intended largely for a male readership - to present us with an alternative picture of early Irish women, more in touch with what passes for reality rather than with that of prejudiced literati and clerics.

It is refreshing to read in a book by a woman on medieval women that not all clerics hated women and that not all men were over-sexed villains consciously bent on exploiting women. She challenges not only the medieval Irish male construct of female behaviour, but she is also courageous enough to question constructs of medieval women invented by modern Irish medieval historians.

Her examination of medieval courtship and elopement literature reveals how men and women connived to circumvent legal restrictions and taboos on sexual activity carried out beyond the scrutiny of church and kindred. We are shown a different world where women engaged in frank sexual negotiation with their men, and where far from being passive and repressed creatures, women took initiatives in arranging trysts and deciding who should come to their beds.

Bitel demonstrates that since women did not fit neatly into the networks of kinship, clientship and fosterage and were therefore not quite fully "human" in a male-dominated world, they nevertheless succeeded in operating through alternative channels in manipulating their men and in successfully negotiating with some of them.

It is rare to read a book on the early Middle Ages which is so well written and which contains passages of powerful prose. Bitel evokes a lost world where women spent their days confined to dark houses and farmyards in a rainy landscape and where opportunities to meet other women were restricted to going to the mill or to wash in the stream. Yet in the midst of all the restriction and deprivation, one comes away from this scholarly and interesting book with a powerful sense of having encountered many of those women whose forgotten and unidentified bones lie in the early Christian churchyards of Ireland.

While Bitel's book benefits from the stamp of a single author with a powerful and intuitive understanding of early Irish women, The Fragility of Her Sex? is a more diverse volume bolted together under the subtitle Medieval Irish Women in their European Context. Edited by Christine Meek and Catherine Simms, this book presents us with what is a detailed range of studies, not all of which, however, sit comfortably together.

The idea of this volume is to set Irish studies on medieval women alongside the wider European context. It may be because of the difference in source materials or because so much of this area of women's studies is still in its infancy, that the insular and the continental do not blend so happily together. I suspect, too, that in spite of sustained efforts on the part of many scholars to show that early Ireland was indeed in the European mainstream, the sources themselves protest against that approach, and Ireland will remain - for some levels of study at least - forever different.

That said, Bart Jaski's "Marriage laws in Ireland and on the continent in the early Middle Ages" provides a valuable comparative approach together with an excellent discussion on old Irish laws relating to marriage, divorce, concubinage, and the status of women which is in the finest tradition as established by Rudolph Thurneysen over 70 years ago. Thomas Clancy's piece on "Women poets in early medieval Ireland" takes too long to settle down but when the promised land is reached, he gives us a fine study of four works- jsuc n, St Brigit's Ale-feast, The Lament of the Caillech Berre, and The Meeting of L!adan and Cuirithir - handled with sensitivity, scholarship, and controlled speculation. The possibility of female authorship is explored at contextual and topographical level.

Mary McAuliffe takes us inside the Irish tower house and through a mixture of sensibly handled architectural and textual evidence allows us a fascinating glimpse of the lives of women who organised such grimly impressive households.

Elizabeth McKenna's study of Lady Margaret Butler and Lady Eleanor MacCarthy in one sense tells us what we might have already guessed of aristocratic women in the late 15th and early 16th centuries - ie their ability, within the constraints of their arranged marriages, to put the system to work for their own advantage. But we come away from McKenna's well-written piece, with the clear impression that we have encountered "real people" among the sisters and wives of the Fitzgeralds, MacCarthy's and Butlers.

Here are two books full of interest and easy to read - a rare feature of scholarly historical writing - which shed a flood of light on the lost world of medieval women.

Alfred P. Smyth is master, Keynes College, and professor of medieval history,University of Kent.

The Fragility of Her Sex?: Medieval Irish Women in Their European Context

Editor - Christine Meek and Catherine Simms
ISBN - 1 85182 172 4 and 1 85282 206 2
Publisher - Four Courts Press
Price - £35.00 and £11.95
Pages - 208

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