"Allegations that widows took fraudulent vows in order to remain free to lead a life of sexual abandon leave no doubt that the cloistering of widows represented an integral part of the church's effort to enforce monogamy. As this program met with success and the conjugal family emerged as the basic unit of society, the function of sheltering unmarried ladies, formerly assumed by extended families, was taken over by the convents. As in other spheres of life, her too the royal family led the way. Louis the Pious not only sent his notorious sisters to nunneries but also installed his widowed mother-in-law as abbess at Chelles."SF Wemple, Women in Frankish Society, 105
Granted, Wemple is sort of old news these days. But the ghost of this sort of scholarship is alive and well, I think. There's plenty out there that contradicts this interpretation, which rests in part on a feminist reading of the role of the church in the Early Middle Ages and indeed, on a function of monogamy that may or may not have been entirely true at the time. Most importantly, I think, is a more recent idea that we see in, for example, essays in de Jong's Topographies of Power, LeJan's Femmes, pouvoir et societé, and even in Goldberg's biography of Louis the German and Althoff's work on the Ottonians. That those all assume a degree of agency that Wemple doesn't is very important. That only one of them is in English is one of the reasons that I'm writing this stupid paper: despite the fact that more and more Anglophones seem to be reading German these days, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of synthesizing going on, or at least not on a level that is reaching more 'general' audiences. We have reached a point, I think, where we are no longer explicitly arguing against older assumptions (and I am not sure that we ever really did, because that would mean -- shock! horror! -- engaging in women's or even feminist history, which might undermine our standing as real historians who work with charters and stuff). Rather, we are arguing for a much more interesting and nuanced picture of women's roles in early medieval society that is still haunted by unresolved scholarly approaches.
Or maybe not. Stay tuned.