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Weaving a web of women

Tuesday, March 17, 2020 - 07:00

It's a tribute to how disrupted the normal patterns of my life are at the moment, that I failed to post this on it's sheduled Monday (though I did remember I needed to at several points in the day). As of last Wednesday, I'm under direction to work from home until this whole pandemic thing sorts itself out. I have the privilege and good fortune not only of having a job that can be performed in this way, but in having an employer who was ahead of the curve in setting up guidelines and structures, not only to comply with what is now a government mandate, but to protect our supply chain and patient-customers. (We produce biologically based pharmaceuticals. It isn't a production line you can stop and re-start arbitrarily. And even an unplanned shutdown of a couple of months would mean failing to provide our customers with lifesaving medications.)

On the one hand, not spending 1.5-2 hours commuting every day is giving me time to get some household projects done that usually get crammed into weekends. Even under our current "shelter in place" directive, there's an allowance for getting out for exercise as long as social distancing is maintained. I've taken up a routine bike ride on my lunch hour. And I have sufficient supplies that I haven't had to expose myself to grocery-hunting crowds in this initial realignment phase.

But it's a scary and unsettling age we live in. I'm not sure anyone can foresee what the long-term consequences of this pandemic will be on social and political structures. We can hope that there's a lesson to be learned about collective action for the collective good, and about how infrastructure that protects the poorest and most vulnerable is actually in the selfish self-interest of even the wealthy and powerful. Maybe there's a lesson about how intersecting the groups "wealthy" and "powerful" so completely is part of what got us here in the first place. Do I sound like a radical? Probably not as radical as I should be. I long to be able to do something concrete to support those who don't have the advantages my specific employment gives me. I comfort myself that while I may not be directly supporting Covid19 health care, I do support vital health care in my everyday job. But outside of that, the only concrete things I seem to be able to do is targeted shopping at small businesses who don't have reserves to fall back on. (I'm still feeling uncertain about the risk involved in ording take-out from small food service businesses whose employees may not be able to afford to admit health risks.)

In any event, here is your regular weekly Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog. A day late, but never a dollar short.

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Full citation: 

Verini, Alexandra. 2016. "Medieval Models of Female Friendship in Cristine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe's The Book of Margery Kempe" in Feminist Studies vol. 42, no. 2 365-391.

In reading this article, I couldn't help but think of the network of female friendships I've written into my Alpennia series--my "web of women." It has the same layered, multi-valent nature as what Verini describes. This is no accident, as I'm basing my world-building on my research into the lives of actual historic women, and that feature shines through as you read about women's lives. It may not be entirely fair to compare the prototypical ideal of men's friendships (focused on a single pair, viewed as being a bond of equals who share everything freely between them) with the emergent images of women's friendships extracted from tangential data (multi-faceted, distributed, often asymmetric, rarely exclusive to a single pair). The realities of men's and women's lives dictated some of the differences. A woman was rarely as free as a man to pledge all her resources to be shared in common with a friend (especially if married). But as Alan Bray notes in The Friend, celebrated male friendships often had an asymmetry of status or power, rather than the ideal of equality. And men, like women, had a wide variety of non-kin networks that included a friendship component. But I think Verini hits on some useful observations in this analysis that help us envision women's lives in the past.


Both historic treatises on friendship and academic studies of the concept have primarily focused on male friendships -- the historic treatises because they were written by men in the context of patriarchal societies, and the academic studies, because they largely focus on those treatises and their context. Male-oriented concepts of friendship typically focused on a bond between two men of relatively equal status and standing that represented a sense of “complete identity of feeling about all things” (Cicero) and that often was given formal standing within social and political structures. Historic authors often doubted that “true” friendship was possible either between women or between a man and a woman. Friendship scholar Alan Bray asserted that he could find no evidence for formal, publicly-recognized friendships between women before the 17th century.

Verini challenges this understanding, noting that while some female authors adopted the classical language of amicitia (friendship) for themselves, it can be more productive to identify concepts and philosophies of women’s friendship within texts whose focus is on other topics. For this purpose, she studies concepts of friendship within two 15th century texts: Christine de Pizan’s allegorical The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe’s autobiographical and visionary The Book of Margery Kempe. These very different texts approach concepts of friendship from different directions but evolve a number of similar understandings that contrast sharply with male-centered models of friendship.

Pizan develops  a proto-feminist allegory of a city built and inhabited by virtuous women drawn from across the ages, while Kempe describes a wide variety of communal interactions--primarily with women, but also with men--that sketch  a model of network-based communal reciprocity. Both--working with no formal guidelines for how to imagine women’s friendships--describe flexible, multi-faceted models that reflect their historic realities.

Pizan’s project is overtly a formal challenge to literary misogyny. It adopts some of the language of classical amicitia in viewing friendship as a “mirror of the self” that must be rooted in the virtuous nature of the participants. When applied to men, this was viewed as a complete intellectual unity accompanied by a willingness to share all material resources. (Male) humanist scholars excluded women from the possibility of such bonds on the basis that “their soul [does not] seem firm enough to endure the strain of so tight and durable a knot” (Michel de Montaigne). But within the allegorical world of Pizan’s City, this focus on the ideals of sameness and virtue is claimed by women.

The importance of similarity is represented by the tutelary figures of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice who instruct the author’s textual persona and who are described as resembling each other so closely they could scarcely be distinguished. The elitist nature of true friendship is ensured in the City by admitting as inhabitants only “women who have loved and do love and will love virtue and morality.” But alongside this appropriation of the sameness/virtue model, Pizan critiques classical forms by describing a community founded on multiplicity and difference, creating a diverse network of women who exercise their virtue in individual ways. Friendship within the City avoids the absolutes of the classical model by depicting variation between public and private spheres and emphasizing the relationship of individual personal affairs to communal interests. This structure envisions multiple sets of friendship bonds between different pairs or groups of women within the City, constantly intermingling and reassembling in different configurations.

This same multi-layered, diverse network of friendships is represented in another of Pizan’s works The Book of the Queen, which invokes a community of women drawn from different classes, eras, and geographic locations. This model, Verini suggests, reflected the everyday reality of women’s networks of female friends and relatives that typically operated across boundaries of geography, family, class, and the public/private divide.

Kempe’s book has an entirely different purpose, being represented as something of an autobiography/memoir of a woman who entered a solitary religious life in middle age, having been a wife and mother. Kempe describes her relationships and interactions with a wide variety of figures, both human and sacred, male and female, across economic and class divides, and for a variety of immediate purposes and goals.

Kempe relates to various sacred figures with a sense of equality and reciprocity: they provide her with life examples while she provides them with praise and publicity. But the diffuse, reciprocal nature of Kempe’s model of friendship is seen in more detail in her relationships with contemporaries of all classes and levels of religious dedication. These are depicted as involving a sense of equality even when the immediate material or spiritual circumstances of the women differ. What is exchanged may be material (charity, nursing), spiritual (prayer, inspiration), or intellectual (advice, guidance) and need not be returned in kind or even returned directly to/from the same pair of women. Instead of direct reciprocity, a network of friendships is woven from a sort of distributed gift exchange in which acts of friendship may be “paid forward” rather than returned directly.

Both texts meet in this model of a web formed by multiple types and degrees of friendship of different natures, rather than envisioning friendship as inherently limited to a binary pair and resting on identity of nature and interests.

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