Powerful books have been written, and will continue to be written, on feminism and Medieval studies, but Edith Ennen's The Medieval Woman is not among them. It is full of information, especially on matters towards the end of her period of study, and much of the information cannot help being amusing or thought-provoking, on an anecdotal level: how uniquely contemptuous it was to make the prostitutes of Cologne give sixpence a week each to the town executioner, the man responsible for flogging or hanging them if they defaulted! How strange it is that the famous ius primae noctis, great horror of the Middle Ages to such as Mark Twain, should have been recorded only among the aggressively democratic Swiss cantons round Zürich (perhaps proving that nobody ever meant it seriously). But these accidental virtues are too often spoilt by a strange and generalising vagueness. 'The German expected absolute moral purity from his wives and daughters,' we are told. When early Germanic women were captured, 'as prisoners and slaves they bore their fate with dignity and honour.' What, all of them? How do we know? Professor Ennen does start catching herself towards the end, as when she qualifies her remark that 'women clearly live on a more emotional level than men and have a strong religious need' with 'At least, this is true of many women.' But that does not repair the damage. She should have remembered her own dictum that 'the historian is concerned with the sober reality.' It may not be true, and there is much to be said for the imaginative speculation, but facts on their own would be better than stereotypes.
LRB 10 May 1990 | PDF Download