In the sixteenth century an unidentified party intervened in the so-called “Medieval Housebook” (c. 1475-93) by portraying a female figure observing a military encampment illustrated in the volume. In a forthcoming essay I use this heretofore overlooked detail as a prism for exploring anew the gendered nature of the Housebook. With evidence for female spectatorship culled from tournament and military contexts, I show that the figure aligns with these sources in claiming agency for female beholders, who helped to define elite masculinity in such contexts. Furthermore, this figure operates in contrast to one that inspired it, in which female agency is elided, such that it counters the passivity of its prototype.
The point-counterpoint strategy of these two figures corresponds with previously unidentified ways in which the volume invites its consumers to shape meaning across the illustrated folios. In short, the manuscript represents positive behavior to emulate and negative behavior to avoid. The lessons are conveyed in large part by alternatively endorsing and vilifying the behavior of men, and by vilifying to a greater degree the behavior of women, especially in the area of sex. This strategy of opposites has additional implications, however, for through it several sections of the volume that were formerly deemed unrelated are revealed as intercoherent and mutually supportive in their pedagogical directives. These relationships suggest that for some viewers, the drawing of the female observer could have pushed back against not only the passivity of its counterpart but also the largely negative characterization of women throughout the volume.
“Rethinking the ‘Medieval Housebook’: A Gendered Intervention and its Consequences,” in Attending to Early Modern Women: Action and Agency, ed. Merry Wiesner Hanks, 2020.
Presented as a Dorothy Ford Wiley Lecture, Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, 2018.