Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Widows, memory and identity

I was reading a couple of days ago a chapter by Bernard Jussen: “Challenging the Culture of Memoria: Dead Men, Oblivious and the ‘Faithless Widow’ in the Middle Ages”[1].

Now, for a start, that’s an interesting premise: memory not just as an abstract concept but as a culture and set of behaviour that the abandoned wife performs, with the effect that she keeps her dead husband ‘alive’ to the community; that her remarriage ‘forgets’ him, implicitly killing him or consigning him to oblivion.

Jussen examines the story of the Faithless Widow[2] in its various mutations over the years (and it dates back originally to Ancient Rome) to show that the mediaeval versions focus less on the sexual misdemeanour than on the implications of remarriage.  For Jussen, that is where the threat lies, not in the (adulterous?) sex itself. He then extends this to examine the tension between a widow’s duty to the dead (mourning, fidelity, memory) and to the living (feeding and clothing herself and her children, maintaining the dead man’s house and social status), seeing the tension as ideally resolved with a set period of mourning.  The wife ‘dies’ with her husband (and he points to extravagant hopeless behaviour associated with the deserted wife at a funeral, including flinging herself onto the coffin and into the grave) and suffers a period of ‘death’, suiting her habit and social behaviour to this new (temporary) identity, before returning to life and the living (221-22).

Of course, this is very interesting to me, because it raises the question of a very particular kind of temporal identity – that defined by a period in one’s life, rather than within a broader social epoch.  Widowhood is in itself a kind of identity bestowed by temporality and focussed on the past (until and unless it is renounced).  Effectively, your time is over.  Mourning is much more intense, more prescribed, more culturally sensitive and more symbolic – but implies a return to some kind of life, albeit the life of widowhood that is, in itself, an end. 

How did women think about themselves as different during either period? or how were they told they should? Of course, it would always differ from one individual to the next; but can we see women looking forward to the end of mourning, seeing themselves as living within a death with expected resurrection, or was the ‘death’, while experienced, meant to be complete, hopeless? Do we find comparisons to purgatory, to hell, to the three days before the Resurrection? Or (re. either mourning or widowhood) to more ordinary, everyday experiences of religion than the spiritual – Lent, for example, turning the experience to simply a kind of fasting, a time in which behaviour is culturally restricted but identity is not fundamentally altered?

Can we usefully consider widowhood (or mourning) beside other liminal and peripheral social figures / states of being?

- More permanent models of death-in-life are offered by monks and nuns, or (more extremely) anchorites, with the habits (both sartorial and behavioural!) to match. For some (all?) of these, the change in identity may have a start date, but (most likely) not an end date, or not an expected one.  On the other hand, the expected or prescribed temporal shift here might be less to do with entering a new model of identity and more to do with modelling oneself on heavenly time, rather than earthly. In moving towards that kind of time, they place themselves closer to God, and their prayers gain (presumably) more effect with him to beg favour for others.

- What about lepers – with the ceremony of consecration that is so close to a funeral? with their special outsider status, halfway elevated and halfway lowered? This has a definite starting date, and it is not something undertaken willingly.  It also has an implicit end date, in that leprosy is an eventual sentence of death – you are on time that God allows you.  Lepers are also interesting in that that time they spend suffering on earth (earthly time) reduces not just their own time suffering in heavenly time after death in purgatory, but that of other people.  Their sentence to reduced time on earth, their physical bodily status within that time, their adherence to particular socially prescribed behaviour, has the power to affect the spiritual status of others, and their very relationship to God.

- Unchurched new mothers? This was a prescribed time out of society, like mourning – but with taints of uncleanliness, like leprosy, and with the very real threat of death for one or both parties.  Like widowhood, however, it has a stipulated ending, and offers the way to a joyous ‘rebirth’ into society for the mother, who has with her own body brought another Christian soul into the world, if all went well.

Widows are also special in similar ways – particularly during mourning, they are expected to perform certain behaviours that aid their husbands’ passage through purgatory and towards God. At the same time, society expects them to return to their duties to the living, and their husbands’ living house.  In the case of many women, the ability to support their children financially would mean marrying again, potentially endangering their devotions to the dead husbands.

I don’t think I’m aiming for any particular argument here, just tossing ideas around.  But we seem to have arrived at:

- People placed on the periphery of society, in privileged, socially prescribed positions that are analogous to death (and often compared explicitly to it by the behaviour and dress custom accords them) seem to be simultaneously ‘shut away’, hidden from view, and yet to have some kind of special access to the heavenly help line. 

- In drawing closer to heavenly time, how do they gain the ability to affect the spiritual state of others, with a focus on the time allotted others in torment after death?

- How does mediaeval theology distinguish between earthly time and heavenly? how did individuals understand themselves within this pattern?

- To what extent does failure to correctly adhere to the identity prescribed to the individual by their special status diminish or remove the effect of their influence, retarding the process of (eg) the husband’s passage through purgatory?

- Meanwhile, performing proscribed actions seem to be able to cause the husband to retrospectively ‘vanish’ from time altogether.  If the re-marrying wife who violates her mourning hangs her husband up in place of the nameless thief,  remarriage figures as oblivion/death, analogous to an eternal (or very very long) time spent in purgatory.


[1] In Patrick J. Geary, Gerd Althoff, Johannes Fried (eds). Medieval Concepts of the Past: Ritual, Memory, Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

[2] Newly widowed woman cries and weeps on the grave of her husband, refusing to leave it despite her family’s insistence that she ‘return to life’; passing soldier says the same thing and she has sex with him on her husband’s grave, promising/proposing to marry him; his neglect of his duty has meanwhile caused the hanged corpse he ought to have been guarding to be stolen, so she proposes they dig up her husband and hang him in the other corpse’s place to prevent the soldier being punished.


tenthmedieval said...

Interesting concepts. I could add to them a couple of Catalan charters known to me in which a donor husband makes a gift to his wife, or to a cathedral with life reservation to his wife, unless/until she remarries, at which point their children/the cathedral get the land and her upkeep becomes her new husband's problem. (I can dig up references if they would assist, but you may now of more convenient parallels.) This makes me wonder if we could see widowhood not so much as an outsider status, but a suspended one. Widows often have some public rôle that women otherwise don't, after all, as patrons and deo votae; but once they marry again, they are resubmerged into the regular gender expectations...

Ceirseach said...

Yes, that's an excellent way of putting it. Suspended. Hm. Like purgatory...