Madeline H. Caviness

Reframing Medieval Art:
Difference, Margins, Boundaries

Table of Contents:



Note to the Reader

Introduction: Soundings/Sightings

Chapter 1: Writing Women: Problematics of History and Language

Chapter 2: Norman Knights, Anglo-Saxon Women, and the "Third Sex:" The Masculinization of England After the Conquest

Chapter 3: Hedging in Men and Women: The Margins as Agents of Gender Construction

Chapter 4: Edging Out Difference: Revisiting the Margins as a Postmodern Project

Afterword: Social Control through Multivalent Images

Reader Comments


 Introduction: Soundings/Sightings.

Outlines the project: The analysis of sex/gender arrangements at different moments that bracket the high middle ages, providing an index for the changing status of women in lay society. The relationship of feminism to Freud and to Marxism, and a brief overview of modern and postmodern theories of gender. This book develops a dialogic relationship between medieval works of art, their cultural context, and feminism.

1. Writing Women: Problematics of History and Language.

An excursus to underline the fact that the nineteenth-century construction of "medieval history" coincided with losses in women's rights, colluding with their silencing in history, and the ways in which modern academic discourses are enmeshed in gender asymmetries in language. In the first part, two stories are told: of Agnes of Braine who as a landed widow rebuilt and important Abbey Church in northern France around 1200, and of Mary Richardson whose endowments to Tufts University around 1900 included the chair I hold. Both women's achievements had been silenced in the historical record, a process that I examine along the way. A guide to the literature on the intersection of gender and language, and a practical table of m/f/neutral terms follows.

2. Norman Knights, Anglo-Saxon Women and the "Third Sex."

The masculinization of England after the Conquest. The point of departure is an analysis of the concept of exclusion of absence as used in deconstruction theory, especially the notion that non-presence is a structuring term of presence. Scrutiny of the Bayeux "Tapestry" renamed Embroidery to recognize women's stitchery), which recounts the Norman conquest of England in 1066, reveals that women are denigrated as attributes of the defeated Anglo-Saxons, and that with their virtual exclusion (there are only six versus hundreds of men), their position in the gender hierarchy is taken by a "third sex," the defeated Anglo-Saxon men. This enemy other is not feminized, except in their longish hair; rather, their representation accords with the Old Norse and Norman-French epithets for unmanly men. The exclusion of women from representation in this version of political history presages their real loss of visibility in post-conquest England.

3. Hedging Men and Women: The Margins as Agents of Gender Construction.

The chapter opens with an overview of ancient and medieval theories of sex difference and gender construction, as revealed by Aristotle and in medieval manuals of instruction for royal and aristrocratic children and adolescents. I return to my earlier study of the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, in which I claimed that many of the marginal elements had sexual connotations that were grotesque and anti-erotic. A dozen manuscripts, almost all made in Paris in the early fourteenth century, are examined for similar elements, and distinctions are found between books made for men, books made for married women, and books made for nuns; there are for instance no fecundity symbols in the nun's books. The insistence on gender differentiation appears as a corrective to the prevalent concept of biological sex difference operating on a continuum; difference is a social imperative, as Braudrillard perceived.

4. Edging out Difference: Revisiting the Margins as a Postmodern Project.

"Thick" history and modern and postmodern gender construction theory are brought to bear on the same manuscripts. Their moralizing discourse is placed in relation to the tightening of morals at the French court in the face of the several disasters that earned the name "the cursed kings" for a generation of Capetian rulers. The theoretical framework is developed from a critical overview of the concept of gender from Margaret Mead to Judith Butler. Modern analyses after Mead had tended to align gender as a binary difference in parallel with polar sex difference, a way of thinking now charged with essentialism. Acknowledging the multivalence of many of the element sin the margins, they are deconstructed as variously colluding with dominant moralities or allowing subversive glimpses of creatures that defied m/f polarization.