Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

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On Empathy in Editing

Archived from its original publication at http://hortulus-journal.com/2015/06/06/digital-publishing-column-yvonne-seale-on-empathy-in-editing/

Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Charles VI. BL Harley 4431 f. 178. [Source]

Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Charles VI. BL Harley 4431 f. 178. [Source]

You’d perhaps expect to learn a great deal about the craft of writing when working as the editor of a journal like Hortulus. It’s true. I learned to wrangle wayward apostrophes, to figure out where an argument needed to be shored up with a contextualizing paragraph, and the tricky art of unearthing topic sentences from where they’ve been buried mid-paragraph. But what I didn’t expect to learn was something more profound: that you are not what you write.

Getting to grips with the mechanical aspects of editing is an important thing for any aspiring academic to learn, one which benefits both the article on which you’re working and, ultimately, your own writing. I know from my experiences as an editor and as a peer reviewer that figuring out how to phrase the suggestions you want to make to an author, thinking through how to articulate a hunch you have about why that paragraph needs to be moved there, can help you to truly internalize writing rules you’ve been hearing for a long time. It may be an old adage, but it’s a true one—you only really understand something if you can explain it to someone else.

Yet this is not the most valuable aspect of the editorial experience. That lies in the way that working with someone else’s prose can change your own relationship with your writing. One of the most difficult things for a budding medievalist to learn in graduate school—or at least so it was for me—isn’t getting to grips with paleography, or the myriad uses of the Latin ablative, or even how to get through a lengthy comps exam reading list with relative speed. (Though each of these things carry their own special brand of frustration.) The most important thing is learning that you are not your work.

I know that may sound a little corny, and as the product of a stolid Irish farming family, I resisted fully understanding the maxim for quite some time. I was raised to believe that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, and that you should take pride in a job well done. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those ideas, but I think that how I internalized them led me to confuse the end-product with the process. Looking back at my undergraduate career, and even my time as a Master’s student, I can now see how that confusion led to a lot of stress, frustration, and anxiety. It’s possible to make a sincere effort with a paper or an article, to do the best you can with the information that you have, and still end up with a piece of work that doesn’t entirely do what you want it to do. And yet the most difficult thing turns out to be not looking at that draft that’s not what it should be, and figuring out how it needs to be fixed; it’s realizing that producing an imperfect draft isn’t a measure of your ability as a scholar.

 Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais, a Dominican friar, writing at his desk. BL Royal 14 E I f. 3. [Source]

Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais, a Dominican friar, writing at his desk. BL Royal 14 E I f. 3. [Source]

What gives you a far better sense of your measure as a scholar is your ability to adapt your writing, to see the potential in your work, and to make something better of it. Working as an editor provides you with a good object lesson in the truth of this. Once an article has been accepted by a journal, an editor doesn’t work with just one version of it. At least during my stint at Hortulus, I got to see multiple versions of the same work: the original version (which was of course often itself the final iteration of many months of work), which I read through with an eye to identifying appropriate peer reviewers; the annotated versions which the reviewers return, marked up with what excited them or what they felt lacking; and then the revised version which the author returns, incorporating the reviewers’ suggestions. This version then goes through another round of line and structural edits before it’s ready for publication. The process allows you to see people making critiques, and then others taking those critiques and doing something with them—to see not just the polished final version, but also the various revisions of it along the way.

Getting to observe this process at a remove helps to break down some of the fear that there are other scholars out there—the nebulous “good ones”—who are able to produce perfect work without so much as a bead of sweat dampening their brow. When you get a seminar paper or a dissertation chapter back from an advisor and it’s liberally annotated with suggestions for further readings, queries about the framing of your argument, or even the occasional inscrutable ‘???’, it is in no way proof that you are less good than other graduate students, or that you are not working as hard as your peers. Critique is just one step in the process, one that will hopefully let you see the potential in your work.

Working as an editor also makes you see that you have something to offer as a scholar, that you have amassed a body of knowledge on your area of study on which you can draw. The work that you put into structuring the historiographical section of your master’s thesis—you can draw on that to provide advice to someone who’s struggling to make the framework of their article cohere. All that reading you did for your comps exams—that lets you come up with a reference to a journal article that will help to bolster the point that the author has made. As graduate students, there’s still so much for us to learn about the craft of being a historian or a literary scholar, but it’s not self-important for us to recognize that our own work is built upon a steadily expanding knowledge base.

BL, MS Harley 2850, fol. 47v. St Brigit of Sweden is shown writing.

BL, MS Harley 2850, fol. 47v. St Bridget of Sweden is shown writing.

Yet equally, to be a diligent editor also requires a recognition of the fallibility of critique, of the fact that those who review work are not omniscient. Their assessment may be wrong; they may want the author to have written a completely different manuscript. I know that when I edit something, I do so out of a sincere desire to help someone improve their work and the belief that my suggestions will help the author to do so. However, I don’t presume to think that my advice is always right just because it’s well-intentioned, nor am I so naïve as to think that all peer reviewers are working from the same good motivations. Having to critique others’ work has helped make it much clearer for me, that the critique which I receive on my work is something to be taken seriously and thoughtfully, but also as counsel rather than a final judgment.

Part of being a good editor is treating another’s work with empathy, mindful of the labor that has been put into it so far and looking always for its potential—and when you learn to do that with a colleague’s work, you learn to do the same with your own.

Mapping Hugo’s “Annales”

For historians, one of the most useful things about new digital mapping technologies are the new ways in which they let us approach our body of sources. As someone who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Premonstratensian Order in medieval France, I’ve spent much of the last few years immersed in the works of one man: Charles-Louis Hugo. His books—particularly the magisterial but uncompleted Sacri et Canonici Ordinis Praemonstratensis annales—preserved the text of many medieval documents which are otherwise lost to us. Without the Annales, my doctoral work—and the work of other people interested in the Premonstratensian Order over the years—would have been much more difficult, if not impossible.

However, when I mapped out the Annales—visualising the places from where Hugo got his information—it was very clear to me that it’s a work shaped by the particular moment in history when it was produced. The Annales has been shaped by the fact that it was produced in post-Reformation Europe, and we need to keep that in mind when using it as a source for the history of the order in the Middle Ages.

Who was Hugo?

The abbey church of Pont à Mousson. [Source]

The abbey church of Pont à Mousson. [Source]

Born in 1667 into a middle-class family into a small town in eastern France that had been profoundly affected by conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, Hugo took his religious vows while still a teenager. He did so in the Premonstratensian abbey of Pont à Mousson, the mother house of the reform branch of the order. Hugo spent time at the abbeys of Jovilliers, Jandeures, and Étival, before becoming prior of Saint-Joseph de Nancy in 1700. There he helped to reconstruct the priory and establish its library.

In 1713, Hugo moved to the abbey of Étival, one of the largest religious institutions in Lorraine. There he undertook his greatest works, the two-volume Sacræ Antiquitatis (1725) and the Annales (1734). His involvement in ecclesiastical in-fighting saw him sent away from Étival for a while, but papal and ducal favour allowed him to eventually return to the abbey. He died there in 1739 at the age of 71, having been a Premonstratensian for 54 years.

The Annales

Hugo acquired the material for the Annales by corresponding with people across Europe—much more material than was ever published, in fact, owing to Hugo’s death. (His notebooks containing a wealth of still-to-be-mined transcriptions and observations are now held at the municipal library in the French town of Nancy.)

Title page of the first volume of Charles-Louis Hugo's Annales.

Title page of the first volume of Charles-Louis Hugo’s Annales.

The first two volumes of the Annales are a kind of gazetteer of the order’s houses, with each entry consisting of a historical notice, together with a list of abbots or abbesses where known. Entries vary in length from a paragraph or two to several pages. The second two volumes are the probationes, the evidence—in other words, they contain the text of the charters, papal bulls, privileges, letters, and other documents on which Hugo drew. Publishing transcriptions of these documents was a substantial undertaking. As you can see from the index which I compiled of the two probationes volumes, there are 767 documents transcribed in the first volume, and 792 in the second. Some of these sources survive in the original, or in other medieval or early modern copies. Others are known to us only from Hugo’s transcriptions.

Mapping the Sources

Each circle on the map below represents a Premonstratensian community which was the subject of a document contained in the probationes volumes. The circles are sized proportionately: the larger they are, the more documents about that house. (In instances where a document is an agreement between, say, Abbey A and B, I counted that towards the total of both abbeys since Hugo could have potentially obtained a copy from either institution and he rarely states how he specifically came across a document. In instances where the document concerns the order as a whole, as with some papal bulls, I omitted it from the count.)

You can see straight away that there are regions which are home to clusters: where many Premonstratensian houses produced documents transcribed by Hugo and in large numbers. Unsurprisingly, these are in places like northern France and the Rhineland—where the order got its start—and in Magdeburg, where the order’s founding figure ended his days. Yet there are also some anomalies which appear when you compare this map with the distribution of the order’s houses as a whole. There were Premonstratensian houses in Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Cyprus, the Holy Land, but you would never know that from looking at this distribution.

This hints right away at there being regions which couldn’t answer Hugo’s requests for information. The eastern Mediterranean was largely under Muslim rule; Scotland and Scandinavia were decidedly Protestant in inclination; and while most people in Ireland were still Catholic, the English crown had ordered the dissolution of the island’s monasteries. The likely destruction of the medieval records from these regions means that there were histories which Hugo could neither write nor transmit—and so we have to be careful not to presume that the Premonstratensian Order in the Middle Ages was everywhere similar to those regions which remained politically and culturally Catholic.

Of course, this realisation raises yet another question: if the dissolution of houses in Ireland and Scotland meant that Hugo couldn’t gain access to documents from those houses, then why are English Premonstratensian monasteries represented on the map? Returning to the text of the Annales provides a possible answer. While Hugo generally copies out a medieval document in full, including preamble, date, and witness list, he doesn’t do so for the documents from English houses. They are all transcribed in a truncated format, and so my sense is that Hugo was copying from a register of charters that had been sent from England to a house on the continent at some point prior to the Reformation—most likely to the mother house at Prémontré.

If this register did exist, it has long since vanished—but mapping out the sources of Charles-Louis Hugo’s Annales lets us see the echo of it and other lost sources in the historical record.

Hugo’s Works:

  • Critique de l’histoire des Chanoines. 1700. [Read online]
  • La vie de Saint Norbert. 1704. [Read online]
  • Traité historique et critique sur l’origine et la généalogie de la maison de Lorraine. 1711. [Read online]
  • Sacræ Antiquitatis Monumenta Historica, Dogmatica, Diplomatica, Notis Illustrata, 2 vols. 1725. [Vol. 1] [Vol. 2]
  • Sacri et Canonici Ordinis Praemonstratensis annales, 4 vols. 1734. [Vol. 1] [Vol. 2] [Vol. 3] [Vol. 4]

Saint Anne: The Mother of the Mother of God in Medieval France

[Header Image: BL Harley 2846, f. 40v]

From the early thirteenth century onwards, the pilgrims who flocked to Notre-Dame de Chartres in north-central France were keen to venerate one of the cathedral’s most famous relics: the head of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary.

Sculpture of Anne holding the infant Mary; north porch of Chartres Cathedral. []Source

Sculpture of Anne holding the infant Mary; north porch of Chartres Cathedral. []Source

The relic arrived in France in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. Louis, count of Blois and a grandson of Louis VII, was alleged to have discovered the head in Constantinople and sent it back to his homeland shortly before his death in the Battle of Adrianople in 1205. His widow, Catherine, countess of Clermont, presented the skull and an associated cloak to the cathedral at Chartres on Louis’ behalf. According to the cathedral’s necrology, which contains an account of the donation, “the mother’s head was received with great joy in the daughter’s church.”

Mother and Daughter at Chartres

Chartres had been a focus of Marian pilgrimage since the Carolingian period, when the Emperor Charlemagne was supposed to have presented the church with the Sancta Camisia, a tunic or veil believed to have once belonged to Mary. This relic drew the faithful for generations. In the late twelfth century, the poet Guillaume the Breton wrote of the cathedral:

Countless the signs and favours of grace by which the Blessed Virgin
Shows that the Mother of Christ has a special love for this one church,
Granting a minor place, as it were, to all other churches,
Deeming it right to be frequently called the Lady of Chartres.
This is also the place where everyone worships the tunic
Worn on the day of the birth of the Lamb, by the Virgin as garment.

The cathedral therefore seemed an appropriate resting place for the relics of Mary’s mother, and in honour of Anne, the cathedral was decorated with sculpture and stained glass showing her holding the infant Mary.

The Origins of Saint Anne

In the later Middle Ages, Saint Anne was regarded as the matriarch of an extended Holy Kindred and her feast day was celebrated with great solemnity on July 26. Stories about Anne and her children were told, retold, and popularised in works like Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea and Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum historiale. This was all despite the fact that neither Anne nor any of her family (with the exception of Mary and Jesus) appear in the canonical Gospels, nor is there any historical evidence for her existence.

Anne teaches Mary how to read. Detail from Hours of Charles VIII. Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 24-1, f. 108v.

Anne teaches Mary how to read. Detail from Hours of Charles VIII. Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 24-1, f. 108v.

In fact, Anne first appears in texts like the mid-second-century Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal gospel that described Mary’s birth and childhood. The life story crafted for Anne by the Protoevangelium‘s author echoes that of the Old Testament figure Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel. Both women were devout and childless; the faith of both was rewarded with the birth of remarkable children.

Anne’s rise in popularity over several centuries—she appeared first in theological writings, then increasingly in popular accounts; first in the Greek East and then in the Latin West—depended on a number of factors. Anne’s presence helped to resolve some of the theological questions that surrounded just how a human woman could give birth to God—if Mary was conceived without original sin, what must her parents have been like? As a pious woman and doting mother and grandmother, Anne helped to humanise some of the more mysterious aspects of the Incarnation.

As the number of stories about Anne expanded, so too did the size of her family. By the later Middle Ages, people believed that Anne had married three times and had a daughter called Mary by each marriage. The three Marys then had children of their own: Jesus Christ and several of his disciples. This tangled family tree helped to resolve contradictory or confusing genealogical references in scripture. But likely much more immediately appealing to medieval people was that Anne—a mother and grandmother, a widow who remarried—provided lay women with a model of piety which was compatible with sexual activity within marriage. Unlike most people previously heralded as saints, Anne hadn’t abjured sex and parenthood in favour of saintly celibacy.

Of course, this didn’t mean that medieval theologians were keen on the idea of a saint enjoying sexual pleasure, however licit. They were firm in their belief that Anne married and had sex only to produce virtuous, legitimate children. Anxieties over Jesus’ grandmother being implicated in carnality gave rise to a legend popular in thirteenth-century France, one which extended Mary’s maternal line back further still. This story claimed that Anne’s own paternal grandmother inhaled the perfume of a flower that had been seeded by the Tree of Life—the tree believed to stand at the centre of the Garden of Eden—and immaculately conceived a child called Fanuel. Fanuel in turn immaculately conceived Anne when he wiped the juice of an apple with healing powers onto his thigh. The limb swelled and Anne emerged from it—a fittingly mythological origin story.

Relic of St Anne's finger held at Saint-Thomas-de-Corceriers. [Source]

Relic of St Anne’s finger held at Saint-Thomas-de-Corceriers. [Source]

Saint Anne in France

A noble family with royal connections brought Anne’s relics to Chartres in the early thirteenth century, and royal and aristocratic endorsement helped to further root the saint’s cult in French soil. However, over time Anne attracted the veneration of a much broader swath of the population, particularly seafarers, seamstresses, and the increasingly wealthy burgesses of the later Middle Ages.

Anne was also the patron saint of woodworkers—particularly those in Paris, who referred to the mixture of glue and sawdust used to plug holes in planks of wood by the vivid term, “St Anne’s brains.”

Anne was highly popular in Burgundy and in Provence, where the cathedral in the town of Apt was dedicated to her. Both at Apt and at Saint-Thomas-de-Courceriers, the faithful venerated relics linked to Anne. She became the patron saint of Brittany, where she is still regarded as the “grandmother of the Bretons.” A medieval Breton poem, Les Brez, makes clear the devotion that many felt to “mother Saint Anne.” If she helped him, the poet said:

If I come home again, mother Saint Anne, I will make you a present:
I will make you a present of a cord of wax that will go three times around your walls,
Three times around your church, three times around your cemetery,
And three times around your lands, should I arrive at home.
And I will give you a banner of velvet and white satin with a pole of polished ivory.
And I will give you seven bells of silver to sing gaily night and day above your head.

Of course, some people did have lingering doubts about venerating a lay woman who’d been married not just once, but three times. Even as late as the fifteenth century, the reforming abbess Colette of Corbie balked at praying to Saint Anne because of it. However, Colette then had a vision in which Anne appeared, defending her sanctity on the basis of the undeniable virtue of her descendants. Colette then made a special point of instituting altars and devotions to the saint in all of the convents in her order.

Anne sits with her arm around Mary, distracting the infant Jesus with a toy. British Library Egerton 1070, f. 97.

Anne sits with her arm around Mary, distracting the infant Jesus with a toy. British Library Egerton 1070, f. 97.

After the Middle Ages

In the aftermath of the Reformation, Anne’s cult faded in Protestant areas but remained vibrant in mostly-Catholic France—this despite its condemnation at the Council of Trent. This was helped by the fact that in about 1625, a Breton peasant called Yves Nicolazic claimed to have seen apparitions of Anne. Ever since, pilgrims—including Pope John Paul II—have flocked to the basilica dedicated to the saint in the town of Sainte-Anne-d’Auray in Brittany. Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV, also credited her namesake saint with helping her to finally give birth to an heir after 23 years of marriage. In 1660, the grateful queen made a pilgrimage to the cathedral of Saint Anne in Apt.

At about the same time, French colonists were bringing the veneration of Saint Anne west with them across the Atlantic, where it flourished particularly in Quebec. She became that province’s patron saint. The shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in eastern Quebec, home to a statue and relic brought from France, is still an important site of pilgrimage in modern North America. The ceiling of the basilica there is decorated with an elaborate mural showing Anne, Mary, and Jesus—if the saint arrived in France by herself, she travelled to Canada with her family.

Public Talk: St Brigit Abroad

Next Wednesday, July 27, at 4pm I will be giving a talk at the Solas Bhríde Centre in Kildare, entitled “Brigit Abroad: The Reception of an Irish Saint in Great Britain and Continental Europe During the Middle Ages.” If you’re curious to know why and how a female saint from the Irish Midlands was known from Iceland to Italy during the Middle Ages, now is your chance to find out! Brigit’s cow—pictured above—will make a frequent appearance. The talk is free and open to the public.

[Header image: Detail of Getty Museum Ms Ludwig IX 3, f. 106]

Seventy-Seven Cents on the Thaler? Women’s Wages in the Middle Ages

[Header Image: Illustration showing women in a counting house, ca. 1400. BL Additional MS 27695]

How much is a woman’s work worth? Gender pay equity is an issue that’s come up frequently during the current U.S. presidential campaign. Some candidates have been in favour of legislation to close the gender pay gap; others oppose it; some think the problem doesn’t exist, and others think it exists but that it isn’t a problem. But while the nature, significance and causes of the gender pay gap are often debated, that it exists is well-attested.

Woman carries water using shoulder yoke. 15th c., Italy. BnF NAL 1673.

Woman carries water using shoulder yoke. 15th c., Italy. BnF NAL 1673.

The figures for the U.S. alone are stark: the National Committee on Pay Equality states that since since the signing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, the gender wage gap has narrowed by less than half a cent per year; the American Association of University Women points out that more education has helped, but hasn’t closed the gap; and statistics show that the gap is even more egregious when it comes to women of colour.

A Medieval Woman’s Work

The gender wage gap isn’t a quirk of recent history—historians have identified a very similar state of affairs in medieval Europe. Of course, most of the labour in the Middle Ages, whether carried out by men or women, wasn’t waged work. The household was the basic economic unit, and women’s work was fundamental to the smooth functioning of that unit and of daily life as a whole in the Middle Ages. The average woman (whether free or enslaved, rural peasant or town dweller) cooked for her family, brewed and baked, spun thread and wove cloth, managed poultry and milked cows, brought goods to market and carried water home from the well. She also raised children, oversaw servants, and tended to the sick, in a schedule that was no doubt full from sun-up to sun-down.

Rural women also laboured out in the fields alongside their male relatives, often undertaking back-breaking work from an early age. As a twelve-year-old, Alpais of Cudot worked the land with oxen and plough, and hauled loads of manure so heavy that her father had to tie her shoulder yoke to her forearms to stop her from falling over.1 Women’s work within the household was all economic in nature, helping to provide food, clothing, and shelter and even—in the case of the occasional surplus—a monetary profit.

A silver Bohemian thaler (1525); an example of the coinage from which this post's title derives its terrible pun [Source]

A silver Bohemian thaler (1525); an example of the early modern coinage from which this post’s title derives its terrible pun [Source]

Earning a Living

Some women, however, engaged in work on a larger economic scale. Though there were legal and social constraints on their activities, as single women, wives, and widows, women could and did conduct business on their own terms. In the later Middle Ages, for instance, women were particularly predominant in the production of luxury textile items. In Paris, female silk workers had their own guild, ran workshops, and employed apprentices; their counterparts in London didn’t have a guild, but between 1368 and 1504, they petitioned the mayor or parliament for protection from unfair competition at least six times—and they almost always won.2

Women also struck out on their own to work as merchants, traders, and landlords, and could acquire a sufficient business reputation to be considered credit-worthy. From a notarial record drawn up in early fourteenth century Crete, we learn that Viola Ovetaro of Candia bought a pound of silk on credit from her townswoman Maria Natale. Viola owed Maria the sum of three perpera four grossi, to be repaid within six months. Presumably Viola hoped to make a profit on the transaction.3 Likewise in 1248, the widow Gostiana of Marseilles rented out a shop and a house of hers to one Peter Regi, “from the next feast of St Michael for ten years at a price of fifty solidi-worth of current money at the time of payment, and this will be twenty-five pounds for the next ten years.”4 This is all clear evidence of the presence of enterprising women in medieval Europe.

Of course, knowing that a woman engaged in business doesn’t necessarily tell us much about her overall financial worth or business savvy. Was Viola able to sell on her silk at a profit and repay Maria? Did Gostiana get fair market value for her rental property and a responsible tenant who was prompt about payment? We can’t know—nor can we know if they were able to buy and sell on the same terms as their male contemporaries.

Mary weaves while Joseph planes wood and the infant Jesus uses a walker. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Morgan Library MS M.917. [Source]

Mary weaves while Joseph planes wood and the infant Jesus uses a walker. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Morgan Library MS M.917. [Source]

The Evidence Problem

Waged work made up a far smaller proportion of the medieval economy than agricultural or domestic labour, but it is by comparison well documented (emphasis, of course, on the “by comparison.”) Where the records concerning, say, the agricultural labourers hired of a monastic institution survive, they can provide a picture of trends in waged labour in an area over a number of years and of the differences in men’s and women’s pay. We know that medieval women did many different kinds of jobs, working as brewers and rosary makers, artists and building labourers, carpenters and apothecaries and barbers.

However, even when relatively complete these records are often not so straightforward as they seem at first glance. For example, spouses often worked together so a single payment made to a man might include the “hidden” wages of his wife. Women also seem to have been more likely to undertake waged work on a part-time or irregular basis—fitting it in around the demands of child-rearing and housewifery—but this is rarely made explicit in the documents.

These documentary difficulties have contributed to a long-running debate between scholars about gendered wage differences in the Middle Ages, and how they may have changed over time. Some historians believe the documents provide a pessimistic view of medieval women’s earning power; others are more optimistic. Both sides, however, have to be careful not to fall into the trap of viewing a task as inherently less skilled, valuable, or physically demanding just because it’s carried out by a woman. As recent studies have shown, when women in the modern Western world move into a previously male-dominated field, pay declines because the job is perceived as less important.

Did the Black Death Have an Impact?

Eve spinning. Hunterian Psalter, Glasgow University Library MS Hunter 229 f.8r.

Eve spinning. Hunterian Psalter, Glasgow University Library MS Hunter 229 f.8r.

Of course, conditions weren’t static across the entire millennium or so of the Middle Ages. Historians, by training and inclination, like to look for change, and this has led many scholars of women’s work to concentrate on the fourteenth century, a time when war, famine, and epidemic disease caused widespread social change. In England alone, between a third to a half of the population died in the ten years or so following the first appearance of the Black Death on its shores in 1348; we know from the 1377 poll tax records that England’s population was about half that of the pre-plague levels. Such a catastrophic death toll undoubtedly exacted a deep emotional toll on an entire generation, but it had the unexpected side effect of spurring social mobility. The land and wealth of the dead were passed on to the survivors, food prices fell and wages rose.

Because of these changes, some scholars have argued that the years after the Black Death were a kind of “Golden Age” for women, particularly for women in England—the plague simply killed so many people that necessity required that women take up jobs formerly reserved for men, while the lack of ready hands meant that women’s wages rose to levels that almost or actually matched men’s. This is far from a consensus, though. Judith Bennett has calculated that in fourteenth-century England, the wages paid to a woman were on average about 71% of those paid to men.5 Even in the aftermath of the Black Death, while their rates pay increased, women were still paid less than men, at about the same rate as boys. Social precedent was powerful. Moreover, the fledgling labour laws which were passed—such as the Ordinance of Labourers (1349) and the Statute of Labourers (1351)—seem to have contributed to women’s geographical and occupational immobility in late medieval England.

Why Medieval Women’s Work Matters

Do the experiences of medieval women point to us being stuck forever in a kind of gendered holding pattern—will there always be a gender pay gap? At first glance, it might seem so. The gender wage gap in Europe and North America has fluctuated within a fairly stable range from the Middle Ages through to the Industrial Revolution and on to the present day, so that women have on average always earned somewhere between a half to three-quarters of the average male wage. Judith Bennett has termed this the “patriarchal equilibrium.”

Weaving, spinning, carding wool, and combing flax. BL MS Royal 16 Gv, f. 56.

But the devaluing of women and their work is not an immutable law of physics. The gender pay gap has persisted even when economics would suggest it shouldn’t (as after the Black Death) or when laws have been passed against it (as is the case with the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009). What a study of medieval women reveals is that the subordination of women’s work is a function of ideology rather than economics, law, or biology; that women have long found creative and flexible ways to supplement their families’ incomes or to support themselves; and that long-term change doesn’t necessarily result in a true transformation. It shows us that a failure to transmit awareness of women’s achievements and disappointments across the generations impoverishes current conversations, particularly those around the gender pay gap.

A thousand years after they brewed ale, traded in cloth, and laboured on building sites, medieval women’s work still matters.

1 Elizabeth van Houts and Patricia Skinner (eds.), Medieval Writings on Secular Women (Harmondsworth, 2011), 54-55.
2 David Herlihy, Opera Muliebria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia, 1990), 480.
3 van Houts and Skinner, Medieval Writings, 107.
4 van Houts and Skinner, Medieval Writings, 237.
5 Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia, 2007), 9.

Cistercians, Chronologies and Communities Symposium

[Header Image: Livre des merveilles du monde. BNF MS français 2810, f. 80r]

This past weekend, the University of Iowa played host to a conference in honour of my doctoral advisor, Constance Berman, on the occasion of her retirement. I was one of the organisers, and we were thrilled to have so many people from across the US come to Iowa City and join us in sending Connie off to the next stage of her life and work.

The scope of the papers presented reflected the extraordinary scope of Connie’s academic interests over the course of her career: the power of women as lords and as queens; grappling with established historiographies which have dismissed women as historically irrelevant or which have tried to confine women to particular categories; the role of women and gender in the Cistercian Order; and women’s command of property and patronage. Many of the speakers prefaced their papers with tributes to how Connie had helped to inspire their work throughout the years. Given Connie’s commitment to supporting women’s history and female graduate students, it was only fitting that the symposium was held in the Senate Chambers of the Old Capitol—the place where in 1847 the state’s general assembly voted to establish the University of Iowa, the first public university in the United States to admit men and women on an equal basis.

You can find a round-up of social media posts about the event over here on Storify, as well as photos on Flickr.

History Carnival 155

Header Image: Detail of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” (1559). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

I’m delighted to host this round of the History Carnival—maybe not quite as riotous as the Bruegel picture above, but just as full of interesting things to explore, from historiography, to faith, to labour, the body, and unusual uses for a beetroot.

"The past and present merge to meet us here."

“The past and present merge to meet us here”: the imagery in Beyoncé’s latest album draws heavily on historical events.

Approaching the Past

Beyoncé’s recently released visual album, Lemonade, has sparked a lot of discussion. Lakisha Michelle Simmons explores how it critiques histories of the United States that omit black women, and the historical significance of filming Lemonade on the site of a former slave plantation in Louisiana.

Jerry Bannister reflected on a conference on Canadian history which he attended, and the benefits and pitfalls of national and transnational approaches to history. Is there a risk of “pouring old American and British wine into new theoretical bottles”?

Daina Berry explored the new TV series Underground, which follows the story of a group of enslaved people who made a daring escape from a plantation in Georgia in the 1850s. Can a show like this further a public conversation about slavery and its complexities? In a similar vein, Ken Owen tackles current Broadway hit Hamilton, and asks if a catchy tune makes hagiography acceptable.

Meanwhile, Laura Sangha kicked off a series of blog posts on periodisation in history, (use this tag to find the whole series) which explore how and why we chop history up into digestible chunks, and what consequences this has for how we think of the past.

Two Jewish men from 19th century Thessaloniki, Greece. [Source]

Two Jewish men from 19th century Thessaloniki, Greece. [Source]

Recording Faith

The Portuguese convent of Nossa Senhora do Bom Successo, despite its name and location, is the oldest surviving house of Irish Dominican sisters in the world. Bronagh McShane explores its long history and wonderfully preserved cloister complex.

In 1917, a fire rampaged through the Greek city of Thessaloniki, destroying its Jewish quarter. Joseph Leidy explores the responses of the diasporic Jewish community to the catastrophe, and argues that the ensuing debate shows “Salonica’s Jewish community at a critical juncture in its incorporation into the Greek nation-state.”

Nancy Mavroudi argues that the women of the Hospitaller Order were not “merely” nuns, but active participants in the life of their religious order—a much needed corrective to the characterisation of the Knights Hospitaller as solely male because it was a military order.

Digging Into the Archives

Sarah Bond works out some facts and figures of the pre-modern book trade—would you pay the equivalent of a day’s wages for a single page?

Leaving a book or notepad unattended near a small child is just asking for it to be scribbled on—and things weren’t much different in the Victorian era. Alun Withey blogs about some charming children’s doodles which he came across in a set of notes on medical lectures.

Emily Suzanne Clark asks about favourite primary sources to help teach the history of religion in the U.S.—do you have favourite images, documents, databases or archives to add to the list?

This beautiful purple velvet dress is believed to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln. Smithsonian COLL.MTLDRS.005003

This purple velvet dress is believed to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln. Smithsonian COLL.MTLDRS.005003

And over at “Not Even Past”, Chukwuemeka Agbo examines archival material linked to the burial of writer Amos Tutuola Odegbami and what it tells us about Yoruba culture and Christianity in post-colonial Nigeria.

Enterprising Women

History is full of examples of women who worked at jobs that aren’t thought of as traditionally female. Case in point, “the indomitable Catherine Murdoch” who served as keeper of the lighthouse at Rondout, NY, for half a century.

The Smithsonian’s blog shares the story of Elizabeth Keckley, a nineteenth-century African-American entrepreneur whose career “gives us a rare glimpse into the entwined histories of African American business, religion, and philanthropy.”

Over at Dianne Hall’s blog, we get a look at some of the ordinary women who did extraordinary things during the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland.

Kim Dramer looks back at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 and the 146 people—mostly female garment workers—who lost their lives in it, and asks how this tragedy can still be a catalyst for labour rights activism, a century later.

More Than a Spoonful of Sugar Needed

The herb betony—a "weapon against the devil." BL Egerton 747 f. 14r

The herb betony—a “weapon against the devil.” BL Egerton 747 f. 14r

Worried that you might have the pox? Never fear, the Early Modern Medicine blog can help you out. I just hope you have some beetle fat handy. If that seems like too lightweight a treatment, the Hoxsie blog looks at some nineteenth-century New York advertisements promising cures for all kinds of venereal diseases, using only the finest of mercury.

The chances of getting a venereal disease from a beetroot are almost non-existent, but I still wouldn’t advice the course of action adopted by this young man as an, ahem, “cure for piles” in 1840s Virginia.

And if those posts leave you feeling a little queasy, you can always try an Anglo-Saxon detox diet.

Keep an eye out over at the History Carnival site for the next monthly showcase! You can nominate new historically focused blog posts using this form.




Time for Some Thank Yous

Dissertations are read by comparatively few people, in the grand scheme of things—certainly by far fewer people than helped me towards the completion of mine. Doctoral research has deep roots; those of my own work stretch back not just through my years at the University of Iowa, but back to my time as a Master’s student in Scotland and my formative years in Ireland. The debt of gratitude I owe to so many makes me disinclined to keep the acknowledgements section between the covers of my dissertation, so I reproduce it here below.
Header image: Hortus Deliciarum, f.32

Research for this dissertation was supported in part by the Presidential Graduate Fellowship and by the Fellowship Incentive Program of the Graduate College at the University of Iowa, by a Stanley-UI Foundation Graduate Award for International Research, and by the William O. Aydelotte Dissertation Fellowship awarded by the University of Iowa’s Department of History. I am extremely grateful for the financial support which made this dissertation possible.

My dissertation advisor, Constance Hoffman Berman, has directed my work at Iowa since my earliest days in the program. Her forthright championing of scholarship by and about women has been inspirational to many, and I am so glad to be able to contribute to a tradition of amplifying women’s voices. I am grateful also to the other faculty members and staff of the University of Iowa—particularly Kathleen Kamerick, Jennifer Teitle, Raymond Mentzer, Keisha Blain, Sarah Bond, Michael E. Moore, and Katherine Tachau—for the advice, guidance, example, and encouragement which they have provided me over the years. Especial thanks must also be given to the administrative staff of the Department of History—Pat Goodwin, Sheri Sojka, Heather Roth, Jean Aikin, and Mary Strottman—whose good humor, efficiency, and photocopier skills were always invaluable. Amy Livingstone, my external committee member, was an invaluable source of good-humoured and no-nonsense critique.

There were also many people who helped to shape me as a researcher and a scholar before I came to the University of Iowa. Little did I suspect when Dolores Healy was drilling me in French grammar when I was a student at the Brigidine Convent Secondary School, Mountrath, just how valuable that careful training would one day be or how far it would take me. During my time as an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin, Christine Meek taught me to look for the women in the sources, and Terry Barry showed me the importance of grounding history in the material world. As a Master’s student at the University of St Andrews, I gained my first experience in real historical research under the fastidious guidance of Frances Andrews.

I must also acknowledge the invaluable and helpful assistance of the staff of a number of institutions: the University of Iowa Library, particularly the InterLibrary Loan Department, who sourced many antiquarian articles of surpassing obscurity for me; the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; the Archives départmentales de l’Aisne, Laon (particularly M. Jean-Christophe Dumain); the Archives nationales, Paris; the Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris; the library of the École nationale des chartes, Paris; the Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, Paris; the Bibliothèque municipale, Soissons; the Société Archéologique et Historique de Soissons (particularly Mme. Monique Judas-Urschel); the Pôle archéologique du Conseil départemental de l’Aisne (particularly M. Thierry Galmiche); and the staff of the Mitchell Library, Glasgow (particularly Archie Fisher, Patricia Grant and Susan Taylor). Various aspects of this research were presented at annual conferences of the Midwest Medieval History Conference, the Haskins Society, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, and the Women and Gender Historians of the Midwest Society; at the Jakobsen Graduate Conference of the University of Iowa; and at the Forum of the Graduate History Society of the University of Iowa. I am grateful for the feedback and advice provided by the attendees of those meetings, which has proved instrumental in my work.

This dissertation would not have been possible without the numerous friends and family members who have provided unceasing emotional support, good cheer, and cups of tea over the years. I especially thank Catherine Denial (my big sister in every way that counts), Claire Conway (my partner-in-crime since childhood), and Anna Kaufman (my brain twin), for their level-headed advice and writing feedback. In Heather Wacha, I have had a knowledgeable, enthusiastic collaborator, trustworthy sounding board, and good friend—mille fois merci! I must also thank members of my graduate student writing group and pre-modernist cohort: Noaquia Callahan, Kristi DiClemente, Katherine Massoth, Marlino Mubai, Briana Smith, Rebecca Smith, Scott Sulzener, Gabe Baker, and Allison Wells. Finally, my deepest thanks to my parents, John and Pauline Seale, to my sister Lorraine, and to my wider family, particularly my beloved grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They have been extraordinarily patient about having a daughter living 6000 kilometers from home. I could not have achieved this without them.

The Carnival Returns

[Header image: Montpellier, B. u. Médecine, H 196, f. 088]

Next month, this blog will host the History Carnival—a monthly showcase of the best in blog writing about history. It’s hosted at a different blog each month to provide a variety of approaches and perspectives. Check out the History Carnival website for examples of examples of past carnivals and lots of great things links to explore.

You can submit nominations until April 30—I look forward to reading and sharing some of the best in online history writing!

You can nominate by using this form, sending me an email, leaving a comment on this post, or getting in touch on Twitter.

A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Palaeography of Medieval Manuscripts

[Header Image: Cambridge, Queen’s College MS C.13.16]

Today, together with my colleagues, Heather Wacha, Sarah Bond, and Katherine Tachau, I led a workshop on “Latin Paleography and Transcription”, under the auspices of the University of Iowa Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio. The workshop celebrated the launch of a new feature of UI’s DIY History website: a translation feature to join the site’s pre-existing transcription function. It also introduced participants to the hundreds of medieval Latin manuscript leaves held at the University of Iowa Special Collections, but which DIY History now makes available worldwide to students, scholars, and anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages. This is a great new tool for both research and teaching.

Palaeography is the study of historical handwriting; reading archaic hands is a highly necessary skill for historians, but one that takes a lot of practice to acquire. Digital tools can help make it easier for a budding medievalist to get to grips with sources in the original, both in terms of transcription and of translation. They can also help more established scholars to push discussion of manuscripts in new directions, by allowing for the easier comparison of a whole corpus of digitised manuscripts, their letter forms, and internal structures.

The resources listed here are some of those which I touched on in the workshop. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but one designed to provide a jumping off point for future exploration of digitized manuscripts.

British Library Cotton Caligula A.xv, f. 132r.

British Library Cotton Caligula A.xv, f. 132r.


DigiPal is designed to allow you to see samples of handwriting from the period and to compare them with each other quickly and easily. It is focused on eleventh-century English hands, like the one in the manuscript pictured left. It uses lots of different kinds of annotations applied to individual letter forms or symbols so that you can really drill down and compare different manuscripts on a fine-grained level. This is good practice for working out how to identify individual scribal hands.

The Album interactif de paléographie médiévale, hosted by the University of Lyons, offers a useful selection of practical introductory exercises that will help you get your eye in on a variety of Latin, French, and Italian scripts from the 9th to the 15th centuries. (Thanks to Rosemary Moore for the heads up about this site!)

If your focus is on a slightly later period, the French Renaissance Paleography site, recently launched by the University of Toronto and the Newberry Library in Chicago, is a really great resource. It contains more than a hundred French manuscripts dated 1300-1700, with tools for teaching and transcription and some associated historical essays.

And if you really want to practice on the go, you can download the Medieval Handwriting App [iOS/Android] that lets you get your eye in on 26 different manuscripts. It includes primer pages and the opportunity to check your work.


Every so often, even the most intrepid paleographer can be stumped by a word—whether because of damage to the manuscript, because a string of minims can be difficult to parse, or because of an unusual word abbreviation. There are some digital tools that can help you out in these situations, like Enigma. If you type the letters you can read and add wildcards for those you can’t, Enigma will list all the Latin words that it could be. This tool has saved me from tearing my hair out on a number of occasions.

Portrait of the scribe Eadwine. English, ca. 1147. Cambridge R.17.1, f.283v.

Portrait of the scribe Eadwine. English, ca. 1147.
Cambridge R.17.1, f.283v.

Latin was the language of scholarship, law, administration, and diplomacy in the Middle Ages, but it was not quite the same language that had been spoken during the Roman Empire. Christian terms were borrowed from Greek and Hebrew, while regional vernaculars also shaped the vocabulary and syntax of medieval Latin. This means that medieval Latin manuscripts often contain words that you’re not going to find in a standard Latin dictionary.

That’s where the work of a French nobleman, Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange (1610-88), still comes in useful for modern scholars. Du Cange wrote a multi-volume work, the Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis (“Glossary of medieval and late Latin”, though it’s almost always referred to simply as “Du Cange”), which has gone through various editions over the centuries. One of its later iterations is now available online courtesy of the Sorbonne in an easily searchable digital edition. (I’ve also previously put together a handlist of dictionaries for those working with medieval Latin and French (langues d’oïl) texts which might be useful.)

Capelli’s dictionary of Latin abbreviations was published in 1912, but it remains an indispensable reference for medievalists. My ever more battered print version accompanies me on all my archival research, but if it’s too bulky for you or you want to look things up on the fly, you can refer to a copy which has been scanned and put online. There is a browser-based app (which is also mobile compatible) called Abbreviationes which draws on a much larger range of manuscripts than does Capelli, and is updated occasionally; however, it’s pretty expensive and has some clunky restrictions on how a subscription can be used.

If you’d like to work on transcriptions of medieval manuscripts that are not part of the University of Iowa collections, it’s worth checking out the T-PEN project at the University of St Louis. It hosts more than 4000 manuscripts that can be transcribed or annotated, and also allows you to upload your own manuscript images to create transcriptions through its online interface. You can work alone or in small groups, but for copyright reasons—and unlike DIY History—the projects can’t be public or crowd-sourced on a large scale.

Read More

If you’ve been bitten by the palaeography bug (it happens) and want to know more about how to read manuscripts and how to use them as historical artefacts in and of themselves, there are lots of resources out there for you to explore. The Sorbonne’s Theleme website hosts a bibliography with over 1500 entries (French language), all on palaeography from Late Antiquity to the modern era.

There are an ever-increasing number of websites which host manuscripts digitised by libraries and archives across the world. The easiest way to get a sense of the breadth and variety of digitised medieval manuscripts is to visit the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts site. It hosts links to more than 400 institutions and tens of thousands of manuscripts. DMMaps is a crowd-sourced project and is updated regularly.

If you know of any tools or resources that you think are useful for the budding digital palaeographer, feel free to drop a link in the comments below!

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