Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: Religious History

Women on the March from Medieval to Modern

I was one of the thousands of people who gathered in Seneca Falls this past Saturday to participate in the Women’s March. This was just one of a whole series of popular protests which took place across the United States, but the gathering at Seneca Falls had a particular poignancy—because in this small, western New York town in 1848, the first convention aiming “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman” was held.

Almost 15,000 people gathered around the site of that first meeting before the march got underway, listening to an inspirational roll call of famous feminist activists—first wavers like Sojourner Truth and Lucretia Mott, second wavers like Gloria Steinem, and on. As a medievalist, this got me thinking about other times, other places. How far back could that roll call of women stretch?

The Women’s March, Seneca Falls NY, January 20 2018.

The answer is pretty far, but pretty tenuously. What sources we have for popular protest in the European Middle Ages are sparse. We know that people went on strike as far back as the thirteenth century. For example, crop failure and warfare pushed many Irish peasants to the brink of starvation in the 1290s, and the noblemen who made up the Irish parliament heard that “servants, ploughmen, carters, threshers, and [others] refuse to serve about the services for which they were accustomed to serve, on account of the fertility of the present year.”

Yet spontaneous popular protest was much less common in the medieval period than it is now, and the actions of these nameless people are known to us only through the records left behind by the rich and powerful, who cared about the desperation of peasants mostly inasmuch as it affected them, and who paid even less attention to the worries and concerns of women. Protesting women as distinct figures are a minority in the pre-Industrial West, and a rarity in the medieval world—after all, well-behaved women weren’t supposed to make their voices heard in public. There are few figures in the Middle Ages like the crowds of women who marched on Versailles in the early days of the French Revolution.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that medieval European women weren’t involved in protests. Many of them might be hidden in the crowd, so to speak: one of the many nameless gens, populares, communeté who are referenced in narrative accounts. Sometimes the sources provide glimpses of groups of women working together to combat unfair conditions. For instance, the people of the important trading city of Bruges revolted against an unpopular occupying French garrison in 1302, an event that’s become known as the Matins of Bruges. Eyewitnesses wrote that the city’s women fought ferociously against the French, “slicing [them] to pieces like little tunny fish (tuna)” and climbing up onto the rooftops in order to hurl the stinking contents of their chamber pots onto the soldiers below. Women marched with men and children during the peace movement of Parma in 1331 as they called for the overthrow of a despised ruler, chanting “Peace, peace” and “Down with the taxes and gabelles (salt taxes)!”

Most of the better documented cases of protesting women, though, come from late medieval Britain. Thirty women’s names appear on the pardon rolls for those involved in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. In 1427, a woman from the Stokkes—the market in London where meat and fish were sold—led an all-women’s march on Parliament to deliver a petition to its members, rebuking Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, for his ill-treatment of his wife and his open adultery. He was, they claimed, bringing the whole country into disrepute. In the English towns of Norwich and Yarmouth, women led riots in 1528 and 1532 over the high price of food; their leaders were publicly whipped in the marketplace.

The Matins of Bruges, as shown on in a carving on the contemporary Courtrai Chest. [Source]

Yet one of the key ways that women could have political influence during the medieval period wasn’t to form a group: it was to act individually, to intercede with the powerful on behalf of others in need. This form of action was mostly open to women of high social rank, particularly queens. They drew heavily on biblical imagery to frame their intercessory actions, wanting to be seen as a new Esther, pleading with her husband, the Persian king Ahasuerus, to spare the Jewish people, or as echoing the Virgin Mary, who as a heavenly queen was believed to persuade God to help the faithful on Earth.

An awareness of these tropes was why in 1275, a group of the townspeople of St Albans would approach the coach of Eleanor of Castile, consort of Edward I of England, pleading for her help in resolving their dispute over tithe obligations to the abbot of the local monastery. They sent a delegation (headed, interestingly enough, by a spokeswoman) and presented Eleanor with a letter stating that “all [their] hope” remained in her as it did in “that Lady (Mary) who is full of mercy and pity.” (en ky tote nostre esperaunce remeynt a touz iours cum a cele dame ky pleyne est de misericorde e de pite.) Marian imagery was clearly to the fore here. To this example of queenly action can be added many others. In 1264, for example, Violante of Aragon, wife of Alfonso X of Castile, pleaded for tax concessions to be granted to towns in the Extremadura region while she was attending the Cortes (main legislative assembly). The pregnant Philippa of Hainaut, in a very famous case, successfully persuaded her husband Edward III of England to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais in 1347; she claimed that executing the men would harm her unborn child. (Sadly, her son would die while still an infant).

Esther intercedes with Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jewish people. The Hague, KB, 78 D 38 II, fol. 15v.

Some queens even understood the power of street protest. Isabelle of Hainaut, queen of France, may have died shortly before her twentieth birthday, but she had already learned how to be a canny political operator. Married to Philippe II of France when still a child, she became aware that he was trying to repudiate her, something which would seriously damage both her reputation and the political standing of her family. So in 1184, at just fourteen years of age, Isabelle appeared in public dressed as a penitent with her hair loose and uncovered, and walked barefoot from church to church in prayer while dispensing alms to the poor—a PR master stroke which won popular opinion over to her side and sent crowds to chant outside the royal residence in support of her. Philippe was shamed into treating his young queen better.

All of these royal women—Eleanor, Violante, Philippa, Isabelle, and many more—would have been very sensitive to sentiments like those expressed by the thirteenth-century English theologian, Thomas of Chobham. In a penitential text, Thomas wrote that “no priest is able to soften the heart of a man the way his wife can […] and if he is hard and unmerciful, and an oppressor of the poor, she should invite him to be merciful.” Women, in other words, were believed to have particular powers of moral persuasion in the Middle Ages. When they could act—in public, in person—they could get results.

This woodcut by English artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) is from William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball. It illustrates the saying “When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman?”, an egalitarian slogan associated with the English Peasants’ Revolt.

There’s no singular inspirational lesson to be learned from this look at women and protest in medieval Europe—no clear tradition to be imitated, and some actions to be actively avoided. (I’d far rather make a placard or some phone calls than slice my opponents “to pieces like little tunny fish”!) Few women have the social status and authority of a queen, and even a queen-consort’s power was hampered to a certain extent by how much she could persuade men to agree with her. Unlike Thomas of Chobham, I don’t even believe that women are better suited than men at encouraging moral uplift in others—except perhaps inasmuch as experiencing oppression can make some women more aware of how societal forces affect them and others.

No singular lesson to be learned, except perhaps this: that when women organise, and agitate, and raise their voices, then as now, they can get things done.

Gendered Perspectives on Monastic Reform I-IV

This recap of four sessions on gender and monastic reform in the Middle Ages at the International Medieval Congress, July 2017—#s1030, #s1130, #s1230, #s1330—was originally published at Storify until that service closed down.

Recent years have seen tremendous progress in the study of how institutional, liturgical, and spiritual reform was planned, debated, implemented, and challenged in monastic communities of the medieval period. This includes a significant amount of research on gender aspects of monastic culture, and on male-female relations in the context of women’s monasticism: yet so far, discussions for distinct periods have rarely intersected. These four sessions sought to address this lack of cross-temporal debate.

Session 1030: Gendered Perspectives on Monastic Reform, I: Early Medieval Transformations

The first speaker was Anne-Marie Helvétius on “Reforming Male and Female Communities in Merovingian Gaul.”

The next speaker was Albrecht Diem on “Enclosure Re-Opened: Gender and Sacred Space in Early Medieval Monasticism”.

The last speaker in the session was Gordon Blennemann on “Who Has the Fairest Prayers of Them All?: Gendered Transformations of Monastic Liturgy in the Early Medieval West.

Session 1130: Gendered Perspectives on Monastic Reform, II: Establishing Gendered Realities in the High Middle Ages

The first speaker was Jirki Thibaut on “Canonicae vivere, claustra tenere’: The Negotiation of Reform in Female Monastic Communities in 10th-Century Saxony.

The second speaker was Sarah Greer, who spoke on “Sophia the Proud?: Gender and Imperial Identity in the Gandersheim Conflict.”

The third speaker was Tracy Collins, who gave a paper entitled “Transforming Women Religious?: 12th-Century Church Reform and the Archaeology of Female Monasticism in Medieval Ireland.”

Session 1230: Gendered Perspectives on Monastic Reform, III: Negotiating Communal Identities, 1050-1250

I was the first speaker, presenting, “‘Concerning the Sisters Who Persist in Their Stubbornness’: Gender and the Abbot Gervais’s Programme of Reform for the Premonstratensian Order.”

The second speaker was Sara Moens, whose talk was called, “‘Moniales incorporatae sunt’: The Role of the Bishop and Abbots in Institutionalizing Female Religious Fervor in Liège in the 13th Century.”

The last person on the panel was Kirsty Day, who spoke on “The Role of Franciscan Women in Transmitting, Developing, and Implementing the Mandates of the Fourth Lateran Council.”

Session 1330: Gendered Perspectives on Monastic Reform, IV: Late Medieval Reflections and Responses

The first speaker in the final panel was Julie Hotchin, who looked at “The Provost as ‘Wise Architect’ of Reform: Gender and Material Culture at Ebstorf in the Late 15th Century.”

The day’s final speaker was Jennifer De Vries, who spoke on, “Reforming the Semi-Monastic: Beguines and Male Authority in the Late Medieval Low Countries.”

 

Building A Wall Against Gog and Magog

A wall cast a long shadow across the recent U.S. presidential election: the 1,954 mile-long wall which Donald Trump has promised will soon stretch the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Whether a foundation will ever actually be dug for this wall, or what that wall should look like, are matters of hot debate right now. Archaeologists and historians have pointed out that there is little historical precedence for the efficacy of these kinds of border walls. Still, its proponents are adamant that a wall is necessary to preserve the integrity of the United States: that fearsome and alien things lurk just on the other side of the border, that a wall can be a firm dividing line between “us” and “them”.

This understanding of a wall—one built as much out of rhetoric and identity as it is out of bricks and mortar—has a long history. Medieval Europeans’ sense of themselves was defined in part by what they were not. They believed that they were normal, while the far reaches of Africa and Asia were inhabited by all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures barely recognisable as people. The blemmyes had no heads but rather faces that were embedded in their chest; the homodubii were a kind of centaur with the body of a donkey; the panotti had ears so large that they could wrap them around their bodies like blankets, protection against the cold of their homeland in the far north. The most ferocious of these quasi-humans were the peoples of Gog and Magog, cannibalistic invaders who were kept at bay only by the walls which had been built around them.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 24364, fol. 60v, leaves containing recension of Thomas de Kent, Roman de toute chevalerie; Gallica digitized image. ca. 1308-1312.

The cannibalistic inhabitants of Gog and Magog. From a recension of Thomas of Kent’s Roman de toute chevalerie, ca. 1308-12. Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 24364, f. 60v.

Gog and Magog loomed large in the medieval imagination. They appear in the Hebrew Bible (Yechezkel/Ezekiel 38-39), in the Christian New Testament (Revelation 20:7-8) and the Qur’an (Surah Al-Kahf, 83-101). While the exact details of who they were and what actions they were prophesied to carry out varied, all faith traditions agreed that the inhabitants of Gog and Magog were a wild and fearsome people who were held at bay for now, but who would one day help to bring about the end of the world. Though relatively obscure figures in religious scripture, they took on a life of their own in popular legends and stories, particularly in the series of interconnected and apocryphal tales known as the Alexander Romances.

According to many medieval tales—based in part on the stories of the first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus—Alexander the Great had come across wild and unclean peoples as he and his forces pushed eastwards across Asia. To keep these peoples from destroying humanity, Alexander drove them between two huge mountains, then prayed that God would push the mountains together and so imprison them. His wish was granted. This story was repeated and embellished on in later influential medieval texts, such as the seventh-century Syriac Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the Alexander Romance cycle, where the peoples imprisoned by Alexander became identified with Gog and Magog. In some of the stories, Alexander orders his army to build a set of gates across passes in the Caucasus mountains to keep back these apocalyptic forces. These gates—variously described as of iron or bronze—were coated with a fast-sticking kind of oil.

bnf9342_f131v

Alexander the Great’s army build a wall around the people of Gog and Magog. 15th c., France. BNF MS fr. 9342, f. 131v

As the Middle Ages progressed, western Europeans began to look beyond their home regions, to become aware of the scale of the globe in a way they had not in generations. They produced mappa mundi, maps of the world, of increasing complexity and sophistication. Gog and Magog appeared on many of these maps, though the location of their homeland and their affiliation shifted according to contemporary concerns and fears.

The Ebstorf mappa mundi (a detail of which appears in the header image of this post), shows a walled-off area labelled Gog and Magog where the monstrous inhabitants are in the act of devouring a disfigured victim. On the border of the same map, closer to Europe, there is also text which describes the “city and island of Taraconta which is inhabited by Turks of the race of Gog and Magog, a barbarous and wild people who eat the flesh of young people and aborted foetuses.”  Other maps identified Gog and Magog with the Lost Tribes of Israel, showing iudei inclusi (“enclosed Jews”) or “Red Jews” on maps of Asia and creating artwork depicting Gog and Magog that drew on overtly anti-Semitic imagery. Hostility towards Islam and Judaism clearly drove these identifications on the part of medieval Christians.

The people of Gog and Magog attacking a city. From a French/Anglo-Norman verse apocalypse, ca. 1220-1270. Toulouse, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 815, f. 49v.

A depiction of the people of Gog and Magog attacking a city, with distinct anti-Semitic undertones. From a French/Anglo-Norman verse apocalypse, ca. 1220-70. Toulouse, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 815, f. 49v.

When the Mongol empire was at its height in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, many Europeans came to the conclusion that they—appearing suddenly out of the east and sweeping all before them in the creation of an empire of unprecedented size—were the peoples of Gog and Magog, or sometimes descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel who had abandoned Judaism. What else could they be but harbingers of the apocalypse? Not only were they conquerors but their way of life was alien from that of the vast majority of Europeans.

In an age of Google Maps and accurate cartography, it’s tempting to consign the land of Gog and Magog to the past, as simply yet another funny and ignorant quirk of the medieval European worldview. Yet to do so is to ignore that even at the highest political levels, many nowadays still believe that was was written in the book of Ezekiel will literally come to pass, even if they don’t imagine a lost, walled-off city somewhere in Eurasia. For instance, in 1971, Ronald Reagan—then governor of California—explicitly stated that the “communistic and atheistic” USSR was the fulfilment of the prophecy in Ezekiel. It’s been claimed that in a 2003 phone call to Jacques Chirac, George W. Bush cited end-time prophecies about Gog and Magog in an (ultimately futile) attempt to persuade the French to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

The inhabitants of Gog and Magog, shown in Turkish dress, attack a European city in this scene from the Lübeck Bible. British Library

The inhabitants of Gog and Magog, shown in Turkish dress, attack a European city in this scene from the sixteenth-century Lübeck Bible. British Library

It is also to overlook the ways in which modern people are still capable of making sharp divisions between “us” and “them” based on little if any evidence. Political rhetoric turns desperate refugees into an overwhelming horde; it conjures up a criminal threat poised just the other side of the border. Whether in medieval Europe or the modern West, people tend to define themselves by what they are not—but as was the case with Gog and Magog, these fears do not truly originate behind distant mountains in lands with unfamiliar names. Their origins lie far closer to home.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

css.php