Women in Early Medieval Europe, 400-1100
Women in Early Medieval Europe is a history of the early European middle ages through the eyes of women, combining the rich literature of women's history with original research in the context of mainstream history and traditional chronology. Beginning at the end of the Roman empire, the book recreates the lives of ordinary women but also tells personal stories of individuals, using the few documents produced by women themselves, along with archaeological evidence, art, and the written records of medieval men.
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As a graduate student focusing on ancient and medieval history, I looked forward to gaining a slightly different perspective on the subject. This book by Lisa Bitel, Women in Early Medieval Europe: 400-1100, was among the assigned reading for my graduate-level Medieval Women class. Since my focus is on precisely the period set out in the title, I felt the class would be off to a good start with this reading.
The book can charitably be called disappointing. Bitel has opted for an analytical, that is to say, a non-narrative approach to her subject, focusing on related issues in separate chapters. This is not necessarily a problem--I enjoy and have benefited from analytical history. But Bitel's organization is haphazard and clumsily arranged. Even within sections on specific topics, Bitel will lurch from a line of thought to a seemingly unrelated one with no warning.
But by far the worst thing about the book is that Bitel is essentially a polemicist. On the very first page of the introduction, she writes, "No one wrote stories about these women," something she herself will prove false in short order, "nor even remembered them after they died. Only stray manuscript references confirm that they did, indeed, exist. 'And then a certain woman came to the saint,' a hagiographer declared carelessly, dismissing all the woman's day in a casual few words before turning back to his real concern, a holy man." What Bitel seems to have forgotten is that that's what a hagiographer, by definition, did--write biographies of saints, not every person who happened to meet or visit them. This kind of petulance is fortunately rare in the book, but the worldview underlying it pervades every page.
I could handle Bitel's point of view if she were at least a good historian, but biggest problem with her book is that she simply doesn't respect the sources. She cites far more secondary sources by historians who agree with her than she does primary sources, from which she merely cherrypicks to support her points (I checked out nearly all the quotations and references to the sources in context, and she almost always misrepresents them). She gives her game away entirely in the second chapter, when she says "What [Gregory of Tours and other early medieval chroniclers] produced was fiction meant to identify a people and its kingdom(s)." This is doctrinaire postmodernism, and indeed, while references to "the text" are rare at the beginning of the book they are legion by the third chapter.
With this point of view, Bitel can ignore the primary sources--they're male-written "fiction" after all--except where they offer explicitly pre-feminist ideas (which she roundly condemns) or provide a chronological framework (which she mostly ignores). And her postmodernism and feminism constantly get the better of her. In relating the story of a Roman noblewoman who attempts to surrender her city to the invading--or migrating--Lombards and is raped and impaled on a pole for her troubles, Bitel interprets and encourages her readers to interpret the story as a attempt by males, aided by the phallic symbol of impaling, to keep women in their places. What she seems to forget is that the woman betrayed her city--certainly not behavior for which a noble would be rewarded by the conqueror, regardless of gender.
But not only does Bitel, seeing everything through a scrim of radical feminism, misinterpret many of the facts and much of the history she relates, she makes numerous bold assertions, some of them flying the face of fact or actual events, which she feels no need to support with argument or evidence. At the beginning of chapter two, covering the fall of Rome and the "barbarian invasions" that partly caused and followed it, Bitel claims that "The history of women in the fifth and sixth centuries helps us discard the very concept of invasion which for so long defined the period." She then makes little or no effort to prove this assertion, but does, however