Book Review for Women's History Magazine Issue 71, Spring 2013:
Women's Power in Late Medieval Romance
by Amy N. Vines
Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 2011. £52.25, ISBN 978 1 84384 275 0 (hardback), pp. xi + 169
Reviewed by Ruth E. Richardson M.Phil., author of 'Mistress Blanche,
Queen Elizabeth I's Confidante
Although this intriguing, densely argued book is deceptively short, time is needed to encompass the ideas discussed. Its premise is that previous studies concerning medieval women, and indeed men, have concentrated almost entirely on factual evidence arising from historical records which include wills, book inventories and dedications, and marginal notes made in manuscripts. Conversely, this book examines 'what medieval romances convey about the possibilities for female social and cultural influence in the Middle Ages'. The author seeks to re-assess the influence, primarily over men, accorded to female characters in these romances. She 'considers how female characters functioned as models of cultural, intellectual, and social authority in medieval literary texts'. This is no small remit.
In the comprehensive 'Introduction' the author explains her intentions, setting out reasons for them. She concentrates on English texts revised in the 14th-15th centuries. These revisions demonstrate what was considered important in this period by what was retained, what was changed, how it was changed and what was omitted from earlier versions. She addresses who actually read these romances, giving an example of a text William Caxton first produced in French for Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. She notes that Caxton subsequently translated it into English, which Margaret did not need for herself as she was proficient in French. Therefore, the likeliest explanation is that Margaret, who supported printing, wanted this book to be more widely read in England. The author discusses the probability that ladies such as Margaret, acting as they did in the context of a patriarchal system, saw written texts as part of a socially acceptable patronage.
The four chapters examine different mediaeval texts. Chapter One – Prophecy as Social Influence – discusses Cassandra and Anne Neville but concentrates on the Corpus Christi Manuscript of Troilus and Criseyde. This version of Geoffrey Chaucer's story is the only one of sixteen surviving versions that omits 'Troilus' dream and his ensuing indictment of Criseyde's character. Examination of the manuscript shows that here it was intentionally excluded and this makes Criseyde a more sympathetic character. The author postulates that Cassandra in the story is not 'so much a psychic as she is simply well–read', demonstrating how women could achieve an intellectual level through reading. This chapter has three black–and–white illustrations. Of these the reproduction of the frontispiece of the manuscript is extremely poor. Although discussed in the text, the picture is useless, which is a pity as this would have been clear if produced in colour.
The following chapters discuss further aspects of the methods women could use to hold power. Chapter Two – The Science of Female Power – looks at John Metham's Amoryus and Cleopes. Here Cleopes' knowledge of herbal sciences aids the success of the knight. Her Christian conversion does nothing to impair her intellectual ability and this, it is argued, appealed to the patrons of the story. The last two chapters move beyond intervention at opportune moments to a more comprehensive change in attitude, even though secrecy often had to be involved. Chapter Three – A Woman's 'Crafte': Sexual and Chivalric Patronage – focuses on Partonope of Blois. In this text the heroine, Melior, 'becomes the chivalric and financial patron of her lover'. She is a queen and as such has influence, but, even so, has to use it with circumspection in a male-orientated society. It is interesting that the story was probably