Space and gender have been two of the ‘buzz words’ in archaeology over the last few years; and quite rightly so, since they identify two of the most crucial aspects of human experience. As we move around buildings today, we are all well aware of norms and restrictions — public spaces and doors marked ‘private’, lounges and bedrooms, stairways and corridors. We negotiate and respect these according to customs and habits learned mainly in childhood. What is true of our own society is true of every other society, past and present, and one of the challenges — not to say obligations — facing archaeologists is to gain some understanding of these spatial mores, even when presented with little more than a ground plan.
In Gilchrist's case-study of medieval English nunneries, the evidence is rather more substantial. Not only has some of the fabric survived — both of churches and their associated buildings — but there is a rich body of textual information about the nunneries, the nuns who inhabited them, and the Christian symbolism and belief which underlay the whole institution.
What better place to study gender and its material expression than in such a uniquely female institution as the medieval nunnery? Fezv would deny that archaeology can play a powerful role in helping us to understand these religious communities — enabling us to see beyond the confines of written records. The application of particular theoretical approaches, however, is somewhat more contentious. Just how well do they fit such a body of evidence? And on a subject where we already have a great deal of textual evidence, can study of the material remains — in layout of buildings, evidence of their use, and iconography — truly reveal new levels of meaning? In sum, how successful is this new analysis?
These are among the key issues which are discussed in the following pages. As usual, we begin this Review Feature with an introduction by the author herself, Roberta Gilchrist. Then follow four contrasting reactions, from archaeologists and historians, rounded off by Gilchrist's reply. Whatever our assessment, the interplay of gender and space has profound and far-reaching significance, and raises issues that no serious historical archaeologist — or indeed prehistorian — can afford to ignore.