Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Book Review: Constructing Gender in Medieval Ireland

This is another book I got from the library during the school holidays (and of course after confidently declaring that it "won't take long" to get through them all, I'm two books down and due to return them in two days....).

Before I get into the review itself, I think it's worth mentioning an article I read a while back that's titled 'One Flesh, Two Sexes, Three Genders?' by Jacqueline Murray, which you can find in a book called Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe, edited by Lisa Bitel and Felice Lifshitz. This was another library find, and while I didn't read the whole book (it wasn't quite what I was looking for – there wasn't much on Ireland at all), Murray's article caught my eye and had quite a bit of interesting food for thought, which I think is relevant in terms of discussing the book I'm about to review. For one, it introduced me to the concept of the "third gender," which the article broadly equated with a "clergy gender."

This third gender essentially encapsulates the idea that people who devoted themselves to religious life in medieval Europe in effect othered themselves from otherwise normal expectations of their gender. Whereas "normally" men and women occupied fairly well-defined roles based on their gender – getting married, having babies, taking on certain kinds of domestic roles or duties, etc. (for example, the focus of a child's education was very different depending on whether you were a girl or a boy, in preparation for those kinds of roles you'd be expected to take on as an adult) – people who dedicated themselves to a religious life as priests, monks, nuns, or hermits, effectively stepped outside of those expectations. Instead of a "normal" life, they were expected to be celibate and couldn't marry, and in the case of monks and nuns, they might live in fairly secluded, women- or men-only monasteries or nunneries, with only limited contact with those of the opposite sex. Because of this, there was more leeway in terms of the kinds of roles that they might take on – having to adopt roles that weren't typically associated with their gender. In secular society, things like that might be frowned upon, but the rules were different for religious dedicants (of one kind or another), whether out of necessity or for other reasons, so it was more accepted and expected, arguably, than people who occupied other areas of society.

To be clear, this is a concept that isn't explicitly articulated in medieval Europe – there's very much a gender binary view of "male" and "female"/"man" and "woman" (hence the examples of "gender norms" I gave above) – so this "third gender" is something that's implied, more than anything. So in practical terms, it's more of an academic concept that can be useful in discussing certain subjects, though it's by no means necessarily universally accepted and agreed upon. It's also a relatively recent concept, as far as I'm aware, and not something you'll encounter in most books that find their way onto reading lists you might find on various websites.

Anyway. Onto the review. Yes, it's time to talk about the cross-dressing nuns (or lack thereof).

Constructing Gender in Medieval Ireland
Sarah Sheehan and Ann Dooley (Editors)


There aren't very many books that deal exclusively with gender or sexuality in terms of Irish studies, so this volume here goes some way towards filling that gap (as the editors themselves note). Although it should be said from the start that if you're looking for any in-depth articles about attitudes towards anything other than heterosexual relationships or sexuality, you're going to have to look somewhere else, I'm afraid.

The book contains nine articles from nine different authors, and as usual I'll concentrate on the ones I found to be the most interesting, throught-provoking, or useful. Some of them weren't as engaging for me as others were, but the ones I did enjoy gave me a lot to think about, especially because the authors consider not just the historical view of things – this is what we see in the sources, so when we put it all together this is how we see society was, etc. – but they also consider how historians have dealt with the materials before now and how different approaches, different ideas and social attitudes or trends, and personal biases, have influenced our own interpretation of things as the field of Celtic Studies has evolved. This is especially important when we consider some of the better-known figures in Irish myth, like Medb and Macha, who both present a very atypical expression of gender expectations of the time, and both of them are discussed at various points in the book.

We get off to a good start with the first article by Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, with a look at 'Travelers and Settled Folk: Women, Honor, and Shame in Medieval Ireland.' It's an obvious choice to put first because this article introduces the differences in expectations between men and women, and the kinds of gender roles that were expected of them (by and large), which are important to undersand in helping us interpret what we find in Irish myths, laws, and other historical sources. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, and these are considered as well, and in particular Ní Dhonnchadha touces on the topics of female poets and warriors – both of whom would have had to travel as part of their jobs.

A large part of the issues surrounding travel were on safety and sexual propriety, and the latter point follows on nicely into chapter 2, 'Sex in the Civitas: Early Irish Intellectuals and their Vision of Women' by Catherine Swift. Swift starts off with a quote from Yeats – "After Cuchulain, we think most of certain great queens – of angry amorous Maeve with her long pale face, of Findabair... of Deirdre who might be some mild modern housewife but for her prophetic vision... I think it might be proud Emer... who will linger longest in the memory, whether she is the newly married wife fighting for precedence, fierce as some beautiful bird or the confident housewife who would waken her husband from his magic sleep with mocking words" – noting that these references to "queens and housewives" speaks more to Yeats' own view and expectations of women than how it was for the women he's talking about; Emer or Deirdre, as women of high status, were hardly housewives. They had servants and slaves to be doing all of that while they had the freedom to pursue all the things expected of a lady of good breeding. From this we move on to how these attitudes are prevalent throughout time, especially when it comes to looking at the kind of sexual mores we find in early Ireland. Aside from the myths, which often play with themes of gender expectations and sexuality, our view is mainly involved by the men of the Church who wrote extensively about what marriage should be, how sex should be, and the kind of penances that should be performed when transgressions were made, and they had their own biases, of course, and the views they espoused are often contradicted by the myths.

This article has a lot of post-it notes from me, and another one that got the same treatment was Amy C. Mulligan's 'Playing for Power: Macha Mongrúad's Sovereign Performance,' which takes a fascinating look at the story of Macha Mongrúad's reign. Mulligan discusses a lot of good points about the story, though I anticipate her view that the Macha we see here is not an expression of a divinity per se, but is rather a figure who contains elements of a sovereignty goddess, is not something that will be met with universal agreement...

Skipping ahead to the cross-dressing nuns ('They Kept Their Skirts On: Gender-Bending Motifs in Early Irish Hagiography,' by Judith L. Bishop), this was another article I greatly enjoyed, and it's what made me mention the stuff about third gender above, because it seems to fit in with the "gender-transgressive" theme of the article, especially in the sense that it's specifically in the context of religious expression and attitudes towards gender. In particular, one of the main threads of the article here is that gender transgressive acts in Irish hagiography ("saint's lives"), where saints are forced, or choose, to dress in clothes that are the opposite of their gender, just aren't a thing, even though it's clear that the stories of such saints from further afield were definitely known to the Irish. It's interesting, then, that there aren't any stories of Irish saints that picked up this theme and ran with it, even though we do see, in a broader sense, there are certainly examples of saints who engage in "gender-transgressive" acts – Brigid being ordained a bishop, say, even though women can't normally be bishops. In spite of this fact, the ordainment is said to have been accepted and Brigid remained a bishop, although as Bishop notes, she's never seen performing the trappings of a bishop. In fact, there are references made about the fact that she's unable to fulfil certain roles associated with that of a bishop specifically because of her gender.

There's plenty more that's worth a read here, but I don't want to go on for too long. As much as I'd recommend the book, I think it's probably going to appeal to people who've already got a pretty good grounding in the basics and/or have an interest in this particular area of study. This is very much an academic read, so if you're looking for some light bedtime reading, I don't think I'd count this one as falling into that column...

I did feel that (at times) different articles touched on themes that had already been dealt with elsewhere, in a way that felt rather repetetive. That's only a very minor quibble, though, and perhaps it's inevitable when it comes to a book that's so focused on a particular theme. I suppose my biggest disappointment is the lack of any discussion of anything other than heterosexual relationships. For one, scant though the evidence is for lesbians (or bisexual women, etc. Perhaps I should say "Women who sleep with women, though not necessarily exlusively?") and "playful mating," we do have the tale of Niall Frossach that I think would be worthy of attention from the kind of approach towards gender theory and gender studies found here... So I guess, in conclusion: More please. And more diversity? That would be very much appreciated.