• Thelma S. Fenster
  • Clare A. Lees
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Toril Moi’s What Is a Woman?, which makes a strong case for liberating the word “woman” from its “binary straitjacket” of essentialism on the one hand and social constructivism on the other, marks an important stage in modern theoretical debates about women. Those who argued for the constructivist view had often interpreted Simone de Beauvoir’s thinking in The Second Sex as providing crucial support, but Moi brings a welcome qualification to that idea, stating that for Beauvoir the “body both is a situation and is placed within other situations.”2 Moi points out that “most feminist theories today rely on a universalized and reified concept of ‘femininity,’” whereas Beauvoir herself had written: “Surely woman is, like man, a human being, but such a declaration is abstract. The fact is that every concrete human being is always in a specific situation.”3


Thirteenth Century Moral Knowledge Cultural Space Creation Story Woman Question 
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  1. 1.
    Toril Moi, What Is a Woman? And Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 9.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Moi, p. 8; Moi’s translation corrects J. M. Parshley’s in The Second Sex (New York: Vintage, 1989; reprt. of Knopf edition, 1952), p. xx; Parshley translated, erroneously: “The fact is that every human being is always a singular, separate individual.” In this Beauvoir appears to have anticipated modern gene research. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy quotes sociobiologist Mary Jane West-Eberhard: “Nothing is genetically determined in the sense of determined by genes alone. No gene is expressed except under particular circumstances…. It’s a kind of biological illiteracy to talk about a gene for anything other than a particular protein molecule” (West-Eberhard, lecture, University of California, Davis, May 4, 1998; comprehensive treatment in preparation; Hrdy, Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species [New York: Ballantine, 1999], p. 56). Hrdy sees as unjustified the charge of “genetic determinism” leveled against early sociobiologists, who well understood that “genetics does not equal biology” (p. 66).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil, Jr., Her Immaculate Hand: Selected Works by and about the Women Humanists of Quattrocento Italy, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies (Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1992).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For the period from the French Revolution forward, see Joan Wallach Scott’s penetrating critique in Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    See for example Joan Kelly, “Early Feminist Theory and the Querelle des Femmes,” in Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly, introduced by Blanche W. Cook, Alice Kessler-Harris, Clare Coss, Rosalind P. Petchesky, Amy Swerdlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984; Women in Culture and Society series), pp. 65–109. In this connection, Alcuin Blamires has stated in his book: “The existence of substantial antecedents [to late medieval authors such as Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pizan, and Jean LeFèvre], especially for Christine’s arguments, has not been adequately recognized. There is a tendency to think of her as sui generis, as constituting in herself the roots of feminism” (The Case for Women in Medieval Culture [Oxford: Clarendon, 1997], p. 3).Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    On this subject, see Helen Solterer’s book The Master and Minerva: Disputing Women in French Medieval Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995). A more general recent discussion of “contraries” in medieval literature is Catherine Brown, Contrary Things: Exegesis, Dialectic, and the Poetics of Didacticism (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Gerald J. Blidstein, In the Rabbis’ Garden: Adam and Eve in the Midrash (Northvale, N.J., and Jerusalem: Jason Aronson, 1997), p. xii. Here Blidstein also says: “Certainly the Jewish tradition—if we may mount so brazen a generalization—approaches the genesis narrative differently than does Christianity … Adam and Eve are, quite frankly, less central to Judaism as a whole, which finds its foundational figures and locates its significant narrative elsewhere.” See also John A. Phillips, Eve: The History of an Idea (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), which reads Eve from the Christian perspective and remarks that “the stories of Adam and Eve do not occupy for Judaism the crucial position they occupy for Christianity” (p. 30).Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Three Medieval Views of Women: La Contenance des Fames, Le Bien des Fames, Le Blasme des Farnes, ed. Gloria K. Fiero, Wendy Pfeffer, Mathé Allain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 9; this portion by Wendy Pfeffer.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    See Blamires, The Case for Women, pp. 26–27, and Roberta L. Krueger, “Constructing Sexual Identities in the High Middle Ages: The Didactic Poetry of Robert de Blois,” Paragraph 13 (1990): 105–31; at pp. 114–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 14.
    Recent studies of medieval Latin literature, even clerical culture, point to its specific local and national uses, however. See for example David Townsend’s “Omissions, Emissions, Missionaries, and Master Signifiers in Norman Canterbury,” Exemplaria 7.2 (1995): 291–315, and more generally The Tongue of the Fathers: Gender and Ideology in Twelfth-Century Latin, eds. D. Townsend and Andrew Taylor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 16.
    The term “privileges” appears to be a translation from the Latin term as used, for example, by Jacques de Vitry in his sermon ad coniugatos. He says: “Noluit igitur deus feminam homine conculcari, quam tribus privilegiis specialiter exornavit: unum, quia mulier facta est in paradiso, vir autem factus est extra. Aliud, quia homo factus est de limo, femina de pulchra costa. Tertium, quo deus voluit habere feminam matrem, et non hominem patrem” [Therefore God did not want woman to be despised by man, for he especially adorned (exornavit) her with three privileges: One, because woman was made in Paradise; man on the other hand was made outside it. Another, because man was made of slime (limo) while woman was made of a fine (pulchra) rib. The third, because God wanted to have a woman as his mother, not a man as his father]” (David d’Avray and M. Tausche, “Marriage Sermons in Ad Status Collections of the Central Middle Ages,” Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age, 47 (1980 [1981]): 71–119). A manuscript identified by Paul Meyer contains a list in Latin of what Meyer calls theological arguments in favor of women (“des arguments théologiques en faveur des femmes”). These are: that Adam was made of the mud of the earth, Eve from bone; that Adam was made outside Paradise, Eve in Paradise; that woman conceived God, which man was not able to do; that Christ appeared first to a woman, namely, Mary Magdalen, after the Resurrection; that woman, in the form of Mary, is exalted above the chorus of angels (Paul Meyer, “Les manuscrits français de Cambridge, ii: Bibliothèque de l’Université,” Romania 15 (1886): 236–357.Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    For a useful recent discussion of Ambrose’s views on women, see John Moorhead, Ambrose: Church and Society in the Late Roman World (New York: Longman, 1999), pp. 40–70. Moorhead makes clear Ambrose’s advocacy of virginity but comments that whereas Ambrose is “generous in the dignity he offers virgins, he holds back from genuine empowerment” (p. 69).Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    Saint Ambrose, On Paradise, in Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel, tr. John J. Savage (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1961), pp. 285–356; at p. 301. Cited by Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny, “Comment les théologiens et les philosophes voient la femme,” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 20 (1977): 105–29; at p. 108; and by Moorhead, op. cit., p. 45.Google Scholar
  14. 20.
    Humbert of Romans, “XCIV, For Women in General,” Early Dominicans: Selected Writings, ed. Simon Tugwell, O.P., Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), p. 330.Google Scholar
  15. 24.
    Jacques Le Goff and Jean-Claude Schmitt, “Au XIIIe siècle une parole nouvelle,” in Histoire vécue du peuple chrétien, ed. Jean Delumeau. 2 vols. (Toulouse: Privat, 1979; here, vol. 1, pp. 259–78).Google Scholar
  16. 26.
    The contrast with Humbert becomes clearer when we consider how in-frequent are direct addresses to women even in the vernacular preaching literature of the early Middle Ages. For a discussion of women in the clerical literature of Anglo-Saxon England, see Clare A. Lees, Tradition and Belief: Religious Writing in Late Anglo-Saxon England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), chap. 5.Google Scholar
  17. 27.
    Christine’s control and distribution of moral knowledge is the subject of Rosalind Brown-Grant’s Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defence of Women: Reading beyond Gender (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  18. 29.
    “The Herrenfrage: The Restructuring of the Gender System, 1050–1150.” In Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, ed. Clare A. Lees, Medieval Cultures 7. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 4.Google Scholar
  19. 30.
    Ibid., p. 5.Google Scholar
  20. 31.
    The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life, Cambridge Monographs on the History of Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 91.Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (New York: Free Press, 1964), p. 17; French: Les règles de la méthode sociologique, 18th ed. (Paris: PUF, 1973), p. 18; as quoted in Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology 16 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 74; French: Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique (Geneva: Droz, 1972).Google Scholar

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© Thelma S. Fenster and Clare A. Lees 2002

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  • Thelma S. Fenster
  • Clare A. Lees

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