NPJ Book Review: Gender in the Early Medieval World, East and West, 300-900, Ed., Leslie Brubaker and Julia M. H. Smith

NPJ Book Review: Gender in the Early Medieval World, East and West, 300-900, Ed., Leslie Brubaker & Julia M. H. Smith (2004)

What is gender? What is its etymology?  Is gender limited to that which generates, i.e., biological. What is male, female, masculinity, femininity, slave, eunuch and more….this is an in depth look at gender in the early Medieval World from diverse essays that includes source material with a thought-provoking introduction from the editors.

The book has been sitting on my shelf for some time. I have periodically read each of the essays. It’s the kind of academic leaning work that is suited for a large urban or academic library and anyone interested in the political, cultural and social nature of the role of gender in history, and as the editors state, “ In as much as the study of gender has the capacity to revise our concepts about humanity and nature, and enlarge our sense of the human predicament, we publish these essays as a contribution to that end.”

One learns quickly in these essays that hegemonic masculinity was relative (hegemonic masculinity in part meaning the practice of legitimizing the most valued form of socially acceptable masculinity that a man should aspire to, while justifying the subordination of the common male & female population.)

The essays in part, expose our “understanding of the sexed human body as culturally conditioned. In dismantling any lingering idea of the ‘naturalness’ of gender it contributes a sharpened sense of the ways in which even at a physiological level the sexed body is a malleable object of a politics of power and interpretation.”

The essays include: Gender and ethnicity in the early Middle Ages by Edward Pohl;  Clothes maketh the man, power dressing and elite masculinity in the later Roman world by Mary Harlow;   Social transformation, gender transformation? By Shaun Tougher;   Sex, lies and textuality: the Secret History of Prokopios and the rhetoric of gender in sixth century Byzantium by Leslie Brubaker;  Romance and reality in the Byzantine Bride shows by Martha Vinson;  Men, women and slaves in Abbasid society by Julia Bray;  Gender and politics in the harem of al-Muqtadir by Nadia Maria El Cheikh;  Dressing Conservatively: women’s brooches as markers of ethnic identity by Bonnie Effros; Gendering courts in the early medieval west by Janet L. Nelson;  Men, women and liturgical practice in the early medieval west by Gisela Muschiol;  Gender and the patronage of culture in Merovingian Gaul by Yitzhak Hen;  Genealogy defined by women: the case of the Pippinids by Ian Wood;  Bride shows revisited: praise, slander and exegesis in the reign of empress Judith by Mayke de Jong;  “What is the Word if not semen?” Priestly bodies in Carolingian exegesis by Lynda Coon; Negotiating gender, family and status in Anglo-Saxon burial practices, c. 600-950 by Dawn Hadley.

The essays are accessible with a little effort and stimulate the reader to look deeper and perhaps wonder what will be the role of gender tomorrow?  Today we are experiencing a transition in our understanding of each other. Political polarization appears endless at the moment as the world is experiencing a raucous if not divisive transformation. The future? Today’s understanding offers refection on the meaning of yesterday.