Comparative Literature, Winter 1997 by Denise L Despres
Given the breadth and richness of recent criticism and scholarship on medieval women writers, their textual communities, female book ownership, and the female reconstitution of male literary genres and discourses, one might question the necessity of a teaching volume of essays whose central purpose is to demonstrate that "'feminism' is not a historically portable term" (p. 1), and that to "historicize is both to seek for historical meaning and to recognize the limits of those meanings" (p. 2). Certainly this generalization applies to all post-New Critical readings, and the editors might have better served students preparing for the rigors of current literary debate about the cultural construction of gender with a coherent methodology or principle of selection. The Introduction is full of disclaimers: the book represents "the liveliness of feminist readings of medieval texts," but its "political impact is less easy to calculate" (p. 18); the "volume deliberately does not set out to offer either a coherent narrative of that critical history from the 1970s to the present or a series of new essays on the cutting edge of high theory" (p. 6), although it does present a partial narrative and includes challenging pieces by some of the most innovative scholars in the field. As one might expect from the book's subtitle, half of the essays focus on Chaucer, who has already received exhaustive attention in both undergraduate and graduate courses in medieval literature. In its exploration of critical trends of the 1970s and glimpses of exciting new poststructuralist approaches, Feminist Readings is perhaps more appropriate, as a whole, for a course whose main subject is the history of criticism rather than literature. Undoubtedly, selected essays could be used in a variety of courses. Despite these reservations, I think instructors will applaud the book's genuine commitment to teaching both canonical and non-canonical texts from theoretically dynamic perspectives. The Introduction to Feminist Readings is a valuable pedagogical tool, presenting a critical overview of the debates that have revised (and revived) medieval literary studies-debates that students are all too likely to take for granted. Mary Carruthers's seminal essay (the first in the volume), "The Wife of Bath and the Painting of the Lions," presents an obvious argument to readers trained in a poststructuralist classroom, but the editors remind students that, until very recently, the dominant paradigms of reading in the academy were the Robertsonian exegetical hermeneutic and the depoliticized source study. Moreover, unlike Victorian and Edwardian literary studies, for example, medieval literary criticism has been "deeply resistant to new critical methods and to the intellectual challenges posed by the newer disciplines" (p. 7). Mary Carruthers's "Afterword"-a self-reflective discussion of her original intentions, reactions to the controversy the essay generated, and subsequent consideration of "The Wife of Bath's Tale" in light of recent theoretically charged arguments-ought to unsettle students. Rather than crystallizing her position on the Wife's tale, Carruthers insists that "closure comes from us, the audience, and we shall probably have no more success at it than her fictional audience did" (p. 44) .
The essays that follow offer
strategies for exploring issues of gender in medieval literature, such as
"how to negotiate the alterity of the medieval past and attend to the
meaning of its specific historical systems of difference . . . how to interpret
the various acts of medieval ventriloquism: the female voices which proceed,
for the most part, trom male authors" (p. ). While students may