medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture
From: Kurt Sherry <[log in to unmask]>
> Okay, I'll bite. What exactly are monstrous gender positions?
i'll be jiggered if i know, Kurt.
i just assumed that they had something to do with "poststructuralist feminist
theory" and definitely wanted to know More. while i still have my health.
imagine my disappointment when, alas, though the reviewer mentions the
"monstrous female body" --which i find to be a rather curious (albeit Kinky)
concept in itself-- several times, she doesn't elaborate at all on what these
tantalizing "positions" mentioned in her first paragraph might be.
i can only assume that this Cynthia person is totally in cahoots with the
publisher, trying to ensnare hapless old would-be preverts like you and me to
go out and pay $0.50 per page in hopes of finding out, via what appears to be
a Christianized Kama Sutra, more about this fascinating subject.
to add Insult to Injury, the title information provided doesn't mention the
book's having any illustrations or diagrams at all (drat).
apparently, it's just not a "how to..." sort of book.
which, at $95.00, is something of a Let Down, to say the least.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: medieval-religion - Scholarly discussions of medieval religious
culture [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Christopher
> Sent: Tuesday, May 08, 2012 8:54 AM
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: [M-R] Fwd: TMR 12.05.07 McAvoy, Medieval Anchoritisms (Camp)
> medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture
> thought this might be of interest to some here.
> of course, what caught my eye was "her ...earlier studies dealt with
...normative and monstrous gender positions."
> which sounded like a Hot Topic i needed to pursue.
> turns out, it wasn't what i thought it was.
> be that as it may, here's a 201 page book for only $95.00.
> ------ Original Message ------
> Received: Tue, 08 May 2012 09:44:40 AM EDT
> From: The Medieval Review <[log in to unmask]>
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: TMR 12.05.07 McAvoy, Medieval Anchoritisms (Camp)
> McAvoy, Liz Herbert. <i>Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the
Solitary Life</i>. Gender in the Middle Ages 6. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.
> S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. ix, 201. $95.00. ISBN: 978-1843842774.
> Reviewed by Cynthia Turner Camp
> University of Georgia
> [log in to unmask]
> Scholars of medieval anchoritism will be familiar with Liz Herbert McAvoy
through her studies of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe as well as her
contributions to and editorship of several volumes on medieval gender,
experience, and anchoritism. These earlier studies dealt with female space and
embodiedness, with normative and monstrous gender positions, and with the
<i>longue durée</i> of the medieval anchoritic tradition, topics that
<i>Medieval Anchoritisms</i> extends significantly. Different portions of the
book appeared in prior essay collections, but this work is more than the sum
of its parts, for McAvoy has synthesized these ongoing interests to produce a
holistic examination of how male and female writers work within and against
the dominant feminization of solitary ascetic space.
> In <i>Medieval Anchoritisms</i>, McAvoy argues for reading the anchoritic
life as "a vocation particularly haunted by a femininity that was often
reified and just as often subliminal," a gendering of the calling--and the
space that defined that calling--that haunted the discourse of the male
recluse and would be, in time, embraced and modified by later female
anchoritic writers (7). In McAvoy's study, the enclosed, solitary "desert" of
the cell, a traditionally feminine space of seclusion and renunciation, must
be re-negotiated in every anchoritic text: by monastic writers seeking to
preserve the male solitary's masculinity within the anchorhold's feminizing
space; by male writers imagining enclosure as a protection for the
otherwise-monstrous female body; by female anchoritic writers who refashioned
the cell as a space enabling a female imaginary; by chorographers who imagined
the female anchorhold as stabilizing a dangerously fluid Welsh March
> In her explication of gendered anchoritic space, McAvoy turns to
poststructuralist feminist theorists like Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva as
well as theorists of space like Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault. One of the
strengths of McAvoy's work is her sensitive use of <i>écriture féminine</i>
as a heuristic for examining a discourse that, as she shows in her first
chapter, was rooted in patristic concerns about the feminizing potential of
eremitic renunciation. By considering how these texts discursively produce
ideal subject- positions for their anchoritic readers, McAvoy performs a
historically informed explication of the latent, suppressed, overt, or
deflected fears concerning normative gender roles and gendered spaces.
McAvoy's use of poststructuralist feminist criticism is supple, nuanced, and
ultimately enlightening. Through this lens, McAvoy not only finds that which
one would expect such an approach to unearth (i.e., Cassian's insistent
gendering of the male recluse as a <i>miles Christi</i>, the <i>Ancrene
Wisse</i>'s creation of a "monstrous" female body to be contained by ascetic
practice)--but also uncovers the unexpected (a Carthusian identification of
the male recluse with female harlot desert-saints; Goscelin of St Bertin's
self-emasculation in the face of Eve's absent, enclosed body) in ways that
prevent any simplistic reading of anchoritic discourses of gender and space.
> As may already be clear, the book's other major strength is its scope.
> McAvoy ranges widely over the literature of enclosure and solitude, drawing
from both well studied and lesser-known (sometimes unedited) texts in roughly
chronological progression. She begins with patristic and early monastic
treatment of male eremiticism as an extension or perfection of cenobiticism,
examining the gendered imagery in John Cassian's <i>Collationes</i>,
Benedict's <i>Rule</i>, and the tenth- century <i>Regula solitariorum</i> by
the German monk Grimlaïcus of Metz. This focus on male eremitic practice is
continued in the second chapter, which considers the presence (and sometimes
absence) of the "spectral" feminine in English advice to later medieval >
hermits: <i>The Reply to a Bury Recluse</i>, Aelred of Rivaulx's <i>De
institutione inclusarum</i>, and the <i>Speculum inclusorum</i>, possibly
written originally for Carthusian recluses and later translated (partly for a
female audience) as the <i>Myrour of Recluses</i>. The third chapter moves
into male-authored treatises written (at least ostensibly) for female
anchoritic readers, as McAvoy pairs her treatment of the <i>Ancrene Wisse</i>
and related texts with a consideration of Goscelin of St Bertin's <i>Liber
confortatorius</i> written for (although not necessarily received by) Eve, a
nun of Wilton who retired to a continental anchorhold. This chapter functions
as a pivot-point in the book. Goscelin's inversion of typical gender roles
culminates the earlier section on the construction of masculinity in the face
of potentially feminizing enclosure, while the <i>Ancrene Wisse</i>'s
polarization of the female body as both abject and transcendent, and of the
cell as the site of contest between these two states, establishes a discursive
norm against which McAvoy reads the female-voiced anchoritic texts in the
> That fourth chapter covers texts and concerns most commonly encountered in
the criticism: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and the question of how the
devout woman writer can "avoid male interpellation,...achieve endorsement
and...gain ultimate authority" by refashioning established discursive
practices (114). Pairing these familiar (and arguably "special case") texts
with <i>A Revelation of Purgatory</i>, recently identified as the work of a
fifteenth-century Winchester recluse , allows McAvoy to argue that late
medieval female anchorites had established a discursive space and devotional
language that resisted the abjecting imagery of the <i>Ancrene Wisse</i>.
<i>Medieval Anchoritisms</i> ends by moving away from the ideal
subject-creation of the earlier chapters to the creation of a stable
geographic and social space in the anchorholds of the Welsh marches; both
writers (like Gerald of Wales, Lucian of Chester, and the <i>Chronicle of
Lanercost</i>) and rulers of this contested space imagine female enclosure to
"anchor" a stable national and spiritual identity within a borderland
otherwise characterized by flux.
> This critical approach to these widely ranging sources is coupled, on the
one hand, with deep explication of select passages. McAvoy's close reading of
the <i>Liber confortatorius</i> and its negotiation of Goscelin's carnal and
spiritual desire for the absent, superior Eve, for example, was for this
reader one of the book's most compelling moments precisely because it
displayed the interpretive suppleness of McAvoy's chosen critical approach.
Her detailed assessment of the (ungendered) horrors of purgatory in <i>A
Vision of Purgatory</i> is similarly effective; its distance from the
<i>Ancrene Wisse</i>'s tendency to make monstrous the female body, when paired
with Julian and Margery's feminizations of the divine, makes persuasive
McAvoy's claims that late medieval anchoritic discourse fully enabled the
female "gaze" or subject-position. On the other hand, McAvoy balances her
poststructuralism with forays into the historical situations behind certain
(often less broadly studied) texts. For instance, she contextualizes the
<i>Letter to a Bury Recluse</i> within its manuscript witnesses and within the
practice of monastic <i>ludi</i> or retreat at satellite granges. Her fifth
chapter on the
recluses of the Welsh marches looks in detail at the sociopolitical
relationship between Wales and England alongside the discourses of nationalism
and identity instability (drawing on the work of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen)
circulating in these borderlands. As such, McAvoy's book both depends on and
complements more historically framed studies, such as Ann Warren's historical
and documentary work on English anchoritism. 
> McAvoy's use of poststructuralist feminist theory to unpack this wide range
of texts will not appeal methodologically to all readers, and the study's
weaknesses are those endemic to this theoretical approach: a dependence on
oppositional binaries, a reduction of all experience to discourse, and a
tendency to make diffuse rather than precise, exact claims. Yet these
weaknesses are mitigated by her supple, non-dogmatic
treatment of such a diverse range of texts and by her ease of movement between
"theoretical" and "historical" approaches (demonstrating indeed that there
need not be any opposition between them). Scholars of both male and female
anchoritic life will welcome McAvoy's compilation and synthesis of concepts
she has aired in other contexts, and those interested in poststructural
feminist criticism will find much to admire in her work.
> 1. Mary C. Erler, "'A Revelation of Purgatory' (1422): Reform and the
Politics of Female Visions," <i>Viator</i> 38.1 (2007): 321-83.
> 2. Ann K. Warren, <i>Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England</i>
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
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