Sarah Dunnigan, C. Marie Harker and Evelyn S. Newlyn, eds.
Woman and the Feminine in Medieval and Early Modern Scottish Writing.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. xxx+238pp. ISBN 1 4039 1181 9.
University of Northumbria
Robinson, Jon. "Review of Sarah Dunnigan, C. Marie
Harker and Evelyn S. Newlyn, eds. Woman and the Feminine in Medieval
and Early Modern Scottish Writing." Early Modern Literary Studies
12.1 (May, 2006) 8.1-5<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-1/revdunn.htm>.
- In the introduction to this collection of essays from well-known and some
less familiar names, Sarah Dunnigan suggests that the collection is a preliminary
step toward a fuller understanding of women and literature in medieval and
early modern Scottish literature. To a certain extent the collection adequately
fulfils this remit through suggestive, imaginative readings and analysis of
both canonical and non-canonical Scots texts, such as the frequently studied
Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, and the newly
discovered verse of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross.
- The distinguishing mark of this collection is its serious negotiation on
multiple fronts with the way in which ‘woman’ was portrayed by male authors
in their literary works and the thoughtful exploration of the way in which
feminine selfhood could be both an explicitly gendered and non-gendered form
of identity in the works of female writers. In the first section of the tripartite-structured
collection, “Written Woman”, the six essays explore, within the paradigms
of feminist theory, new historical and contextual readings, how the representation
of ‘woman’ in late-medieval and early sixteenth-century Scottish poetry, prose
and drama is imbued with aesthetic, cultural and political meanings that are
underpinned by the misogynistic theology, culture and philosophy of the dominant
patriarchal ideology of Europe.
- The essayists adopt varied and at times contradictory viewpoints. In the
first essay Elizabeth Ewan provides a fairly conventional feminist delineation
of how sixteenth-century chronicle writers, such as Sir Richard Maitland,
under the pressure of political exigencies, vastly diminished the heroism
of the historical female figures of Lady Seton of Berwick, and Agnes, Countess
of Dunbar. In doing this Ewan argues that they reinforced the patriarchal
ideal of male heroism and contained the threatening possibility of female
excess. The following essay similarly addresses how literary works could be
used to contain transgressive females. In an interesting analysis of the two
fifteenth-century poems ‘Chrystis Kirk on the Grene’ and ‘Peblis to the Ploy’,
C. Marie Harker places anxieties concerning female behaviour evident in the
misogynistic themes and tone of the poems within what she argues was a clash
between the wealthy burghal class and the lower-class women of the surrounding
rural countryside. Another interesting essay in this section is Garrett P.
J. Epp’s, ‘Chastity in the Stocks’, in which he suggests that Lyndsay is preoccupied
throughout Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis with a misogynistic drive
to regulate sexual desire and determine the proper definition of gender. Janet
Hadley Williams, however, discreetly but forcefully disagrees with such readings
and many of the assumptions made by many of the essayists in the collection.
Williams is careful not to overestimate the misogynistic element of Lyndsay’s
poetry and drama, and in a particularly sophisticated, nuanced and progressive
feminist analysis of Lyndsay’s portrayal of women in his works, she shows
how vested interests, strategies of praise and the contexts of courtly, cultural
and political relationships inform his writing in ways that were far from
being cynically misogynistic.
- The second section of the collection, “Writing Women”, looks at the works
written by female writers during the early modern period. It continues the
suggestive and imaginative feminist approach of the first section with an
article by Evelyn Newlyn in which she expands upon her previous studious and
invaluable work on the Maitland Quarto manuscript to argue that much of the
anonymous verse in the manuscript may have been written by a woman and in
particular, quite possibly Mary Maitland. Certainly, the argument Newlyn puts
forward is credible, and as Dunnigan suggests in the introduction, uncovers
a rich potential in the Maitland manuscript , but Newlyn’s methodological
approach is tenuous and more convincing criteria for deciding what texts were
written by female writers are necessary if her claims are to be seen as little
more than a feminist means of appropriating anonymous writing into the canon
of women’s writing.
- The six essays that complete this section vary greatly in subject matter:
from Morna Fleming discussing the politically charged and rhetorically nuanced
letters exchanged between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth of England,
to that of Gordon DesBrisay and David George Mullon’s examination of Scottish
women’s religious writings. Of particular interest is the essay by Colm O
Baoill on Scottish Gaelic women poets and the political and social world of
the panegyric codes of clan poetry in which they produced and performed their
songs: an area of Scots literary culture that has received little critical
attention. Much of the material that this section discusses is indeed being
introduced to the wider scholarly community for the first time and will provide
invaluable insight into possible avenues of future research for those interested
in Scottish women’s writing during the early modern era. The two essays that
make up the final section of the collection, “Archival Women”, would have
been more appropriately included as appendices. Jamie Reid-Baxter’s five and
a half-page claim to have found new verse by Elizabeth Melville in the MS
volume of sermons by Robert Bruce, and Suzanne Trill’s ‘checklist’ of early
modern women’s writing in the Edinburgh archives – which to be of any real
value should have included brief annotation of the texts she lists – are far
from being essays. This collection’s major distinction is the complex intellectual
energy that the essayists infuse into their work and the heterodox nature
of their criticism. As I mentioned at the outset of the review, the collection
adequately fulfils its remit and will hopefully help to stimulate further
interest in the literary and historical value of Scottish women’s writing
of the late medieval and early modern era.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).