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3 - Women, Memory and Agency in the Medieval English Church Courts

from Part I - Shaping Women's Testimony

Bronach Kane
Affiliation:
Bath Spa University
Bronach Kane
Affiliation:
Bath Spa University
Fiona Williamson
Affiliation:
National University of Malaysia
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Summary

In a late fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman allegorical treatise, the Mirour de l'Omme, John Gower seemingly disparaged the memorial authority of women. Characterizing female remembrance as unstable, he complained that ‘if you search for the record of their memory, you shall find it written in the wind’. The denigration occurred in his account of Matrimony, the third daughter of Chastity, in an expansive treatment of governance in marriage. Just as the sieve fails to hold a measure of balm, Gower noted, neither do ‘women retain the counsel that you give them’. This supposed inability to remember male guidance was attributed to the vagaries of female memory and identified by a peculiarly feminine form of forgetting. In the Mirour, women were endowed with the ability to remember, a marker of human rationality, but were unable to master their faint and unruly memories. Maligned for its apparent lack of order, women's memory was reified in gendered tropes of behaviour, as male agency was contrasted with female passivity. This codification of the relation between gender and remembrance embodied broader anxieties concerning female memory, which was depicted as unreliable, uncontrollable and even wilfully recalcitrant. Such treatments crystallized the relationship between memory, agency and formalized records, reflecting the degree of authority afforded to women in representing the past.

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Publisher: Pickering & Chatto
First published in: 2014

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