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Response to Review no. 165

I thank Alexander Cowan for his long and detailed discussion of the volume I co-edited with Lyndan Warner. In my response, I will deal not so much with his comments to individual chapters but with his general understanding of our project, and restate the aims which underlie the collection and which, in my view, Cowan does not take in due consideration. It is significant that his first comment is based on a misreading of the title of the conference (held in Exeter in 1996) from which the volume arises. The symposium’s title (see p. vii of the present collection) was ‘Widowhood: Conditions AND Constructions’, not ‘Conditions OR Constructions’, as Cowan assumes; its intention was to integrate (not to oppose and contrast) approaches which are often kept separate in the study of widowhood – the analysis of ideals and prescriptions with the consideration of demographic and economic ‘realities’, so as to investigate the complex relationship between representations and social practice. This misunderstanding continues in the following pages, for Cowan entirely disregards those parts of the volume which clarify the rationale underlying the collection, what the book intends and does not intend to be. Forward and Introduction are ignored and the organisation of the volume in four sections is not commented upon. Part of the reviewer’s discussion revolves around concerns quite alien to those which are at the core of our project. So the volume is criticised for including a limited range of social conditions and religious confessions, an insufficient number of countries, and for its chronological ‘imbalances’.

Clearly Cowan has a model of comprehensiveness in mind which is quite distant from the one pursued in this volume. The purpose of the book, summarised in the Forward and discussed at length in the Introduction, was to explore new areas of research, new perspectives of analysis which could contribute towards a reassessment of accepted interpretations. This concern for innovative approaches has directed the choice of contributions (only partly based on the papers presented at the symposium). The title, as in many other volumes of the kind, simply gives an indication of what the collection does and does not include (essays on Europe, not just on England, but not on other parts of the world; essays on the medieval and the early modern period rather than on more recent or previous eras), it does not imply, as Cowan seems to assume, that ‘the history of widowhood’ will be given full geographical and chronological coverage.

The emphasis in the volume is rather on unfamiliar questions and on objects of study which may throw new light on our understanding of the subject. One of these novel dimensions, as suggested by Cowan, is the shift in focus from widows to gender. By concentrating on the experience of the widowed man and investigating, for example, his reasons for remarrying and the anxieties surrounding the lone male, essays in this collection operate a refreshing reversal of perspective, which moves the emphasis away from the vexed issue of female dependence and compulsion to remarry. Another example is represented by the new attention paid to children of the widowed – their presence or absence, their being male or female, from a first or a second marriage – an under-investigated factor in the literature which complicates our understanding of the relationship between widowhood and property and add nuances to the range of opportunities associated with this status.

A more general feature in this collection has been the attempt to balance the impact of imperatives, constraints and models and the working of human agency. This aspect of the project is discussed at length by Cowan who does however simplify the argument somewhat, by overemphasising the element of ‘choice’ and ’empowerment’ we see as existing in widows’ lives. In reality, essays in this volume overcome the tendency, often encountered in the literature, to reduce the image of the widow to the two opposite clich├ęs of the poor and dependent woman or of the powerful and resourceful virago. They pay thorough attention to the normative framework of widowhood and its formation but at the same time they stress the existence of competing logics in the normative discourse (religious, absolutist, patrilineal, etc..), and the fact that these could be exploited to negotiate inequalities, playing for example the language of motherhood or of piety against the social expectations surrounding widowhood. Articles in section I Defining widowhood deal with the emergence of a gendered terminology of widowhood in the middle ages and through the sixteenth century and stress the consequences on the differing visibility of widows and widowers in the sources available to the historian; section II Models and paradoxes analyse the normative images presented by moralists and legislators for the widow and widower, highlighting at the same time the internal contradictions in moral and religious imperatives which opened up room for negotiation. Section III, Marital and Family constraints turns to the kinds of conflict triggered by the death of a spouse, the legal and customary assumptions concerning inheritance and the unequal rights of mothers and fathers to exercise authority over their children. Chapters in section IV. Narratives and Constructions of widowhood focus on self-construction; they see in courts, institutions of poor relief, guardianship wards and convents some of the institutional contexts in which widows succeeded in subverting social expectation and legal prescriptions and manipulated stereotypes to their advantage.

These brief remarks will make clear, I hope, the kind of questions and methodological concerns which create a common focus for this collection. Clearly, these essays conceptualise important issues such as the role of religion in a way different from the one advocated by Cowan (for example, they are not concerned solely with the impact of the Reformation and Counter Reformation) but the religious dimension is far from absent from their analysis. Their shared concerns confer to the volume a unity which is often lacking in collections characterised by the more ‘balanced’ picture (in terms of time, place, religion, class) favoured by the reviewer. It is unclear why the presence at the same time of more countries, more social groups, religious confessions etc.. should in itself be an advantage. I wonder whether Cowan is invoking here a (questionable) criterion of ‘representativeness’.

Surely, the fragmentation of contexts deriving from a greater variety of situations would not make the volume more representative. And would it really increase possibilities for comparison ‘between different societies, religious confessions and social groups’? To be comparative the volume would need to have gone in a different direction than the one desired by Cowan, limiting rather than increasing the number of variables at play: it would need to have narrowed considerably its focus to examine specific aspects of the experience of widowhood (the relationship between widowhood and property for example, or widowhood and guardianship, etc..), applying similar questions to the same phenomenon observed in different conditions. Comparison in any case was not the prime purpose of this project. The objective was that of pushing out the boundaries, providing examples of new ways of approaching the study of widowhood. It is hoped however that the findings and methodological perspectives presented in the volume will stimulate research in different contexts and encourage cross-cultural comparisons.