Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: Women’s History (Page 1 of 2)

The Lioness in Winter: Thinking About A Medieval Woman on Film

This month, many people trekked across a snowy campus to take in the first instalment of this semester’s Alan Lutkus International Film Series: the iconic The Lion in Winter (1968). Afterwards, I asked some of my students who were there what they’d made of it. One of them thought for a moment, and then said, “I was surprised it was funny. You never think of them as being funny.”

Pretty much every history teacher is aware of how helpful film can be in the classroom: how it can confront students with the humanity of others across great distances of space and time, how it can convey with immediacy the different ways in which people in the past spoke and lived and thought. We’ve likely all had conversations like the one I had with my students. But as I mulled over the movie on my way home, I thought that we forget sometimes that historical film can help us to think through our own emotional relationship to the research topics that we’re steeped in: in my case, the history of women in the High Middle Ages.

The Château de Chinon, setting for the action of The Lion in Winter, as it appears today following an extensive programme of restoration. [Link]

Let’s be clear: The Lion in Winter isn’t particularly interested in rigorous historical accuracy. Playwright James Goldman wanted to tell a story of a power struggle in a royal family, complete with melodramatic rivalries and biting dialogue, not to conjure up a photo-realistic recreation of the Middle Ages or to delve into historians’ competing takes on the Angevin Empire. Decades of dynastic disputes between Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children, are compressed into a single, imagined, heated meeting at Christmas in the castle of Chinon. In other words, it’s a bit of a soap opera. Goldman clearly did just enough research to help him set the scene, but Goldman presents many things as fact which are almost certainly post-medieval fictions—like Eleanor’s recounting of how she rode bare-breasted, dressed as an Amazon, while taking part in the Second Crusade. That’s even setting to one side the question of the anachronisms, Christmas trees and poison oak references being equally unlikely to crop up in twelfth-century northwestern Europe.

But what the movie does have is a powerhouse central performance in Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning turn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. (The Lion in Winter was remade in 2003 with Glenn Close as Eleanor, and has also inspired other works like the TV show Empire, with Taraji P. Henson as the Eleanor-equivalent, but Hepburn’s version is the definitive one for me.) Hepburn portrays her—this queen of England, duchess of Aquitaine, and erstwhile queen of France—as engaging, demanding, and mercurial in turn. In doing so, she creates yet another aspect of the myth of Eleanor which has grown up in the centuries after her death.

The famously independent-minded Hepburn once told journalist Barbara Walters that “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man.” Yet her Eleanor clearly enjoys being a woman. She doesn’t seem to think that her exercise of power is exceptional, and no one around her seems to think that either. (The way she wields it may of course be another matter as far as they’re concerned; James Goldman’s stage directions also make it clear that he does think of Eleanor as exceptional, somehow able to be both powerful and female.) This is, however inadvertently, very much of a piece with the work of historians of medieval women over the past thirty years or so, who have sought to recalculate the equation that in the Middle Ages, “any woman who exercised any sort of power or influence was considered in some way ‘extraordinary.'” There’s no attempt on Eleanor’s part to “overcome” her gender, for all that she is acutely aware of the ways that being a woman has constrained some of her options in life.

(Speaking to her sons by Henry about her first marriage to Louis VII of France, Eleanor says wryly, “If I had managed sons for him instead of all those little girls, I’d still be stuck with being queen of France, and we should not have known each other. Such, my angels, is the role of sex in history.”)

This is something worth lingering over, because from the Middle Ages onwards, Eleanor has been associated with a particularly female form of excess by various writers: according to medieval chroniclers, she had an affair with Saladin, she murdered her love rivals and paraded bare-breasted in public, and on, and on. All of this is, to the best of our knowledge, entirely slanderous. (At the time of Eleanor’s putative affair with Saladin, the future sultan of Egypt and Syria was just twelve years old.) Even in much otherwise excellent modern scholarship, which discounts these stories, Eleanor is defined by her relationship with men.

And it’s true that almost all of Eleanor’s interactions in The Lion in Winter are with men, and that some of those interactions are framed in ways which make for uncomfortable viewing for an early twenty-first century audience. (Her son Richard’s preference for sexual relationships with men is not very subtly linked to his close emotional relationship with her. Her estranged husband, who has kept her under a form of house arrest for years, refers to her as “the great bitch in the keep.”) But part of what still delights me about the movie, so long after first seeing it and now having had the benefit of reading thousands of pages of scholarship about medieval society, is that I can see that Eleanor is no more and no less defined by her relationship with her family than is Henry. (Powerful men in the Middle Ages, too, were shaped by their biological and emotional ties and had gendered behavioural scripts to follow.)

It delights me, and gives me pause, because of how much I want this version of Eleanor to be true: to be a real glimpse of an intelligent, politically astute, lively woman who left such a mark on the history of western Europe. Historians often run the risk of falling in love with their subjects—or, perhaps, with what those subjects could symbolise, with the inspirational story of long-ago women overcoming the odds of a patriarchal society.

One of my favourite things in the Louvre: this rock crystal vase, the only known surviving possession of Eleanor’s. [Louvre Museum]

For instance, I’ve undertaken quite a bit of research on a contemporary of Eleanor’s: Agnès, countess of Braine, a noblewoman who married a brother of Louis VII. What I’ve pieced together about her life suggests she might not have been so dissimilar to Eleanor. Agnès made two politically advantageous marriages, she was a mediator and negotiator, she was a great patron. More than once I’ve told colleagues how fond I am of Agnès—but of course I’m not, not really. I’m fond of the patchwork composite I’ve pieced together from references in letters and the charters that Agnès issued. I appreciate the kinds of things that her career tells me about broader historical themes that interest me. But while I know some things that Agnès did, and can guess at kind of person she might have been, I can never know her.

It’s a frustrating kind of impasse: the historian’s eternal curiosity about the deep past pitted against our inability to know much, if anything, about the people who capture our interest.

In The Lion in Winter’s last scene, Henry hands Eleanor onto her royal barge so that she can be ferried, in great splendour, back to her prison. “You know, I hope we never die!” he calls out to her across the increasing distance as she waves at him. “You think there’s any chance of it?” And there’s the exhilarating thing that keeps us going—in the hands of historians, screenwriters, and novelists, they never will.

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.

The White Nuns? Cistercian Women and Whiteness in Marco Polo’s India

In part of his famous Travels, Marco Polo discusses an area he calls Maabar: the southeastern coast region of the Indian subcontinent, modern day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Polo’s interest was attracted by several aspects of the cultures of this region which seemed strange to a thirteenth-century Italian: clothing styles, ritual suicide or sati, bathing and hygiene practices, and more.

One passage in particular reads:

“Let me tell you further that they have many idols in their monasteries, both male and female, and to these idols many maidens are offered in the following manner. Their mother and father offer them to certain idols, whichever they please. Once they have been offered, then whenever the monks of these idol monasteries require them to come to the monasteries to entertain the idol, they come as they are bidden; and sing and afford a lively entertainment. And there are great numbers of these maidens […]

Several times a week in every month they bring food to the idols to which they are dedicated; […s]ome of these maidens of whom I have spoken prepare tasty dishes of meat and other food and bring them to their idols in the monasteries. Then they lay the table before them, setting out the meal they have brought, and leave it for some time. Meanwhile they all sing and dance and afford the merriest sport in the world. And when they have disported themselves for as long a time as a great lord might spend in eating a meal, then they say that the spirit of the idols has eaten the substance of the food. Whereupon they take the food and eat together with great mirth and jollity. Finally they return – each to her own home. This they do until they take husbands.”
The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. Ronald Latham

Polo goes on to describe how these “maidens” dance nude and perform some eye-wateringly acrobatic high kicks in front of statues of their god and goddess, in order to placate the god’s anger and to encourage the divine couple to copulate. The way that Polo frames the religious beliefs and practices of these people is definitely in what scholars might call an Orientalising mode: although not outright dismissive, his tone is faintly patronising and paternalistic, with the faith of these people something to be looked at and judged from the outside but not engaged with on its own terms. For example, we don’t so much as learn the names of these deities (“idols”, as Polo terms them), or get any great insight into the motivations of the worshippers.

The 11th-century Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, an example of the kind of sacred spaces Polo described. [Source]

But what particularly interests me about how Polo talks about the topic to a (mostly) Christian, European audience is some of the language he uses. In the original medieval French text, the women are described as nonain (The translator of the excerpt above, Latham, chose to translate this word into English as “maiden” but in French it more literally means “nun”), and the religious buildings in which they congregated were moister, or monasteries. Hindu worshippers in a Hindu temple become nuns in a Christian monastery. Polo reached for the terms that he knew, although they were only the vaguest of synonyms for the people and places whom he was describing. In doing so, he was was in a sense setting the stage for the later colonisation of India, long before a member of the British East India Company set foot there—presuming that the white, western, Christian experience was the default and interpreting the cultures he encountered through that prism.

Travel literature was widely popular in the later Middle Ages, and many manuscripts of Marco Polo’s book—often quite divergent—survive. One of them, which is now held at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, dates to the early fifteenth century and is lavishly and expensively illustrated. It was commissioned by Jean the Fearless, duke of Burgundy (1371-1419), for his bibliophile uncle Jean, duke of Berry (1340-1416).  The illustrator of this particular manuscript followed Polo’s lead by using Western iconography to make the religious practices of southeastern India more comprehensible to a European audience. In other words, he or she often veered from the text, altering clothing and settings to make them more familiar and get past the immediate culture shock—sort of like a modern-dress production of a Shakespeare play. The depiction of the “maidens of Maabar” is an interesting example of this bit of cultural translation.

Manuscript of Marco Polo’s Travels, ca. 1410-12; artwork attributed to the Maître de la Mazarine. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Français 2810, f. 80r.

 

There are no acrobatic nudes here. The six dancing women, the woman approaching the altar with an offering, and the statue of the goddess standing upon it, are all dressed modestly—and not just modestly, but as nuns whose black veils and white habits identify them as members of the Cistercian Order. The Cistercians are a monastic order, founded during the early twelfth century in France, whose way of life puts an emphasis on prayer, manual labour, and rigorous simplicity. In other words, not the kind of people you’d expect to find dancing, let alone in front of a depiction of a non-Christian deity. The only obvious change from the norm to the clothing of the dancing nuns is the fact that their scapulars—the long piece of cloth which hangs from their shoulders—have been knotted up at their hips.

Unlike the other figures, the statue of the goddess holds a book and a large piece of foliage. She also differs from them in skin tone: they are pale-skinned white, but she is unambiguously black. Marco Polo mentions that the people of Maabar thought dark skin the epitome of beauty. The depiction of this goddess might be inspired by that, or it might be a reference to the Black Madonnas: paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary, most commonly produced during the High Middle Ages (12th-15th centuries), which showed her with very dark or black skin and features.

The Black Virgin of Montserrat, one of the Black Madonnas of Europe. [Source]

How might fifteenth-century readers have interpreted the image of these dancing nuns? Would they have been intrigued? Would it have simply helped make the strange seem familiar to them, or would they also have felt a frisson at the subversion of comparing Cistercian nuns to dancing polytheist worshippers? Would it have encouraged them to continue to feel ambivalent about the eastern civilizations which Polo described, no matter how sophisticated or powerful?

Did the illustrator hope that the reader would find it funny, these supposedly staid nuns dancing in circles? (After all, she or he had no compunction about depicting nudity elsewhere in the manuscript, so keeping these women clothed was a deliberate choice.) Or, bearing in mind that a patron could have a great deal of say over a manuscript that they commissioned, are we simply getting a glimpse of an in-joke between the ducal uncle and nephew? (The mother abbey of the entire Cistercian order, Cîteaux, was located in the territory of the younger Jean, and Cistercian houses were spread across both their duchies.) Some mix of any or all of these things?

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to say. But what we can say is that these dancing women and the statue of their goddess encourage us to think about how medieval Europeans could bring together text and image in an attempt to think about other peoples and places—how Marco Polo’s “nuns” could be White Nuns who weren’t white, familiar and strange, all at once.

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.”

 

Not in This Day and Age? On “Feisty, Cheeky, and Rebellious” Women in History

In yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, reviewer Mark Lawson called for the makers of television programmes to “stop horrendously airbrushing history”, to “stop the madness” of producing period dramas featuring “characters with laughably liberal values for their day.” Lawson was responding particularly to Jamestown, a new series focusing on a group of young women who were sent across the Atlantic in 1619 to be the wives of men they’d never met, part of the first great wave of British colonialism in the Americas. He took umbrage with how they were presented as “feisty, cheeky, and rebellious”—personality traits which a woman of the twenty-first century might possess, but never one from the seventeenth.

It is true that the best historical fiction—whether in TV, movie, or book form—doesn’t content itself with using the past as set dressing. It’s wonderful to be able to encounter the differences of past ways of seeing the world, to grapple with what was once mundane but now seems surpassingly strange. (Although as historical consultant Greg Jenner has pointed out, no drama is ever able to be wholly accurate in its reconstruction of a lost world. Period dramas inevitably reshape the past to fit the present’s interests to some extent, because otherwise they would not be made.) I’ve not seen Jamestown, so I can’t speak to any of the show’s particular merits (or lack thereof). It may well be that it won’t rank at the top of anyone’s listing of great period drama series.

The sigh I heaved on reading the caption of this photo in the Guardian came from the very depths of my soul.

Yet what has frustrated me and many other historians about this article is the way that Lawson seems oblivious to the fact that just as the writer of a TV show may imbue their writing with anachronistic values, so too can the viewer watch that TV show through the lens of anachronistic assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions are relatively minor. For instance, my students are generally pleasantly surprised to learn that medieval castles were not all dark stone masonry, but were often lime-washed in bright colours like peach, pink and yellow. (The actor Jeremy Irons’ Irish neighbours were also surprised to discover this, though perhaps less pleased.) Sometimes our assumptions about the past carry more weight.

Lawson dismisses the female characters of Jamestown based, it seems, on no stronger evidence than the fact that they’re not what he thinks they should be. He seems unaware of the inherent subjectivity he brings to what he watches. (Lawson has past form in this area. In a 2007 Guardian article he fretted that attempting to reclaim past women’s artistic and cultural contributions was somehow “falsifying history”, that it is somehow a lowering of standards to “pretend that Aphra Benn and Shelagh Delaney were the equals of Shakespeare and Harold Pinter.” Standards of excellence being, of course, unchanging and objective and applied neutrally to all works no matter who their creator.)

The frontispiece—and one of the less explicit illustrations—to the seventeenth-century sex manual, The School of Venus, Or, The Ladies Delight, Reduced into Rules of Practice.

On Twitter, historian Suzannah Lipscomb has succinctly taken Lawson to task, drawing on her archival research on early modern French women to show that these women were anything but passive. (In fact, given the language that women hurled at one another, best not to click through to that Twitter thread if you’re in the work place or come over a bit queasy at the thought of people doing untoward things with farmyard animals.) Court records show that women could be bawdy, rowdy, and earthy with quick tempers and sharp tongues; paging through some Jacobean comedies demonstrate that sex was definitely invented before 1963. True, this kind of behaviour wouldn’t have been held up as a model for genteel young women, but it existed. Where, for instance, would the frank wit of Nell Gwyn fit into Lawson’s conception of the past? (“Pray good people be silent, I am the Protestant whore”).

And the seventeenth century was hardly a statistical blip. Women agitating for and exercising their rights has a long history, even though women were not on an equal footing with men and even though their conception of what was possible for themselves would have been trammelled by internalised misogyny. Lawson implies that he would see “a story of women willingly accepting sexual and social submission” as more historical, more truthful, than the one told in Jamestown. Yet this is not the past that I recognise from, for instance, my research into the women of the Middle Ages. The weight of patriarchy could crush, but it also inspired rebellions, whether small and symbolic or larger scale; it could restrict women’s conceptions of themselves, but there were always women who chose to bend or break societal prescriptions.

Barbara of Cilli (1392-1451) was the wife of Holy Roman Emperor and a successful administrator and political actor in her own right. [Source]

For example, in Berkshire in 1248, Margery daughter of Emma de la Hulle faced her rapist in open court and offered “to prove this [charge] against him as the court [saw] fit.” Impotence cases brought before medieval English courts often involved women mocking and goading the men in question: “show yourself for shame a man”. The early medieval princess Brunhilda of Austrasia, like many noble and royal women during the Merovingian period, showed no hesitation in participating in the acts of often brutally violent vengeance which marred the politics of the time. (Those who live by the sword die by the sword: Brunhilda’s death was apparently a gruesome one, rended limb from limb by wild horses.) Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies (1405) is a prose allegory full of vision for what women could achieve. To these examples I could add many others. Did these women represent the norm? Perhaps not. But it does a disservice to their contemporaries and to the complexity of their world to dismiss them as statistical anomalies.

Lawson writes that

the 17th-century shipped women in Jamestown were in some ways a Jacobean version of the jihadi brides flown out to Islamic State soldiers today, or the arranged marriages that still exist in some communities. It’s easy to see why programme-makers would feel queasy about not having such female submissiveness strongly contested within the storyline, just as in slave dramas such as Roots (of which Jamestown can be seen as a gender equivalent), the dramatic emphasis is, in the proper pursuit of a positive political message, on those who resisted and challenged their captors, whether or not that is generally representative. But however well intentioned, this tilting of the actual power relationships risks making the historical situations seem more palatable than they were.

Even setting aside the racist thinking underpinning this paragraph (Lawson’s binary gender vs race opposition of Jamestown and Roots shows that he’s never cracked the pages of All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men), I am compelled to point out that however well-intentioned, Lawson’s misconceptions of the actual power relationships in play risk making the women of the past seem more passive, and the circumstances of gendered oppression more inevitable, than they actually were.

A better issue to ponder might be why is it that so many (male) commentators in popular media are confident in dismissing representations of women’s history based on their assumptions of what women probably did and thought in the past.

#DressingLikeAWoman in the Middle Ages

One of the anecdotes that tends to stick with students in my survey courses, to the end of the semester and beyond, is that trousers were largely regarded with derision in the Classical world. For the inhabitants of the Greek city states, and for the Romans of the Republic and the early Empire, trousers were ridiculous and effeminate, fit to be worn only by the barbarians of Persia and northern Europe. No honourable man would have worn a pair in public. This throwaway piece of information sticks with my students because it’s strange to them, and it’s strange because it conflicts with one of their most fundamental, internalised assumptions: that there are innately “male” and “female” modes of dress, and these are the ones with which they’ve grown up.

If certain recent media reports are accurate, these assumptions are widespread ones: Donald Trump has reportedly ordered the female staff in his administration to “dress like women” and has pressured them to wear dresses or skirts on the job. This has gone over about as well as you might expect. The hashtag #DressLikeAWoman has been trending on social media, with many women—doctors, pastors, soldiers, politicians and more—pointing out that the only way to “dress like a woman” is to identify as a woman and, well, put some clothes on.

A woman called Walpurgis (left) wields a sword in this illustration from a ca. 1300 manuscript. Leeds, Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 f.32r.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a silly squabble about expectations of professional dress, but the #DressLikeAWoman debate is just the latest expression of deep-seated cultural anxieties about how women should visibly express their gender identity. It’s a conversation that has medieval antecedents. Texts and images from the Middle Ages show that then as now, clothing could make the woman—or potentially unmake her, if she transgressed contemporary expectations for how her gender should dress.

Clothing, hairstyles and accessories were all gendered in the medieval period, and yet women cross-dressing as men is a trope that appears frequently both in cultural fantasy and in actual practice during the Middle Ages, as women tried to pursue opportunities otherwise closed to them. There are several “transvestite saints” from Late Antiquity, women who assumed a male identity in order to enter a monastery. Theodora of Alexandria dressed as a man so she could become a monk in fifth-century Egypt. Marina, most likely from what is now Lebanon, shaved her head, donned male clothing and the name Marinus, and lived an ascetic lifestyle for many years with her brother monks. Though falsely accused of fathering a child with a local woman, Marina’s biological sex was only discovered after death and she was acclaimed for her holiness. Marina, Theodora, and the other “female men of God” were highly popular saints throughout the Middle Ages—praised by many as women whose holiness was made manifest through their denial of their femaleness and who had overcome the apparent limitations of their sex.

St Marina, dressed as a monk, kneels before an abbot and several monks, while inside the building her father lies on his deathbed. New York, Morgan Library, MS M.672-5 III, f. 279v.

This doesn’t mean that women wearing men’s clothing met with universal approval in the Middle Ages. Then as now, opinions were not monolithic and could even be contradictory depending on context. Patristic figures like St Jerome and later ones like Bernard of Clairvaux vehemently defended the importance of gendered distinctions in dress. Sumptuary legislation enacted during the Middle Ages defined clothing according to gender, age, and social class. Dressing in ways that defied such norms could be dangerous, but women did so anyway.

The medieval cross-dressing figure likely best known to modern audiences met an unpleasant end: Joan of Arc, the fifteenth-century French teenager who claimed prophetic visions, participated in military campaigns, and was eventually burned at the stake in 1431. Yet what is perhaps less well-known is that Joan was, strictly speaking, not executed for her political or military activities, but because she was convicted of  heresy—because she claimed to hear angels and because she wore male clothing. In her trial, she was accused of  wearing her hair “like a young coxcomb” and, by wearing “the garments of a man, short, tight, dissolute”, defying “Divine Law”. She carried and used weapons, something that wasn’t socially acceptable for women. In doing these things, according to the church, Joan of Arc committed blasphemy. Unlike the transvestite saints, Joan didn’t succeed in “transcending” her sex. This may have been because she dressed like a man but insisted firmly on her femaleness and referred to herself as la Pucelle, the Maiden. Joan of Arc was publicly female and yet, perhaps, just as publicly not a woman. For her contemporaries, this was a serious problem.

This 15th century miniature shows the biblical Judith (left) holding the head of Holophernes and Joan of Arc (right) holding a spear. From Martin Le Franc, Le Champion des Dames. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Français 12476, f.101v.

These examples of cross-dressing and gender transgression in the Middle Ages can be multiplied: the case of John/Eleanor Rykener, an English sex worker from the late fourteenth century who has variously been interpreted as transvestite or transgender; the fictitious Pope Joan, who was said to have ascended the papal throne in the ninth century claiming to be a man and whose deception came to light when she gave birth during a religious procession; Silentius, the main character of the Roman de Silence, a thirteenth-century romance in which a girl is raised as a boy and becomes a skilled knight. Taken singly or together, these accounts and many more are illustrative of how unstable gender can be even when it is presented as something innate and inviolable. They show that people have long been willing to transgress, break, redefine, or ignore gendered boundaries—and to punish one another for doing so.

They also underscore the fact that the dress code allegedly being implemented in the White House is nothing more than a regulatory fiction. Any attempt to make womanhood dependent on conformity to an arbitrary set of standards ignores the fact that if you want to #DressLikeAWoman, you’ve got a very big wardrobe to choose from.

Not Just Adam’s Rib: Including Women in the Medieval Survey Course

Sara Damiano’s post yesterday over at The Junto on assigning and using more primary sources by and about women in US History survey courses was a timely one for me, published just as I was working on my own syllabi for this semester. Reflecting on her experience teaching a “United States History to 1877” survey course, Damiano makes the point that working with primary sources by women throughout the semester allows for students to really grapple with gender as something that varies across time and space. Women aren’t just coralled into one special week on the syllabus and otherwise ignored.

I nodded along as I read the post: as someone who works on women’s history, how could I not? Last semester, I taught the first half of a survey course on medieval Europe, covering roughly the period 300-1000, and one of the themes I tried to emphasize throughout the semester was the ways in which power and gender intersect throughout the Middle Ages. My students and I explored the ways in which the empress Theodora of Byzantium, could at once be incredibly powerful and subject to smears about her sexual morality, and how hair (or the lack thereof) could make or break a Merovingian king. They were quick to pick up on the ways in which gender shaped the ways in which both men and women wielded power.

But was I backing up my discussion with what I had my students read? I went back and looked at my syllabus. Of the twenty-two primary sources assigned, 17 (77%) were either by men or anonymous but likely written by men (such as the Nicene Creed or a Carolingian-era capitulary). Five of the sources were by women (like the poetry of Rabi’a al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya or Dhuoda’s Handbook for William) or substantively about women (like Venantius Fortunatus’ life of Radegund). The textbook was written by a man, and of the eight additional secondary sources, five (62.5%) were written by men.

Now, sources from the Middle Ages—particularly the early Middle Ages—are very different beasts to those from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America. There are fewer of them in absolute terms, produced in a society where a smaller percentage of people were literate, and a smaller number again of women. Given that most of the students I teach are not fluent in a language other than English, let alone conversant with medieval Latin, only the small proportion of those texts available in translation are accessible to them. It’s always going to be more difficult to approach gender parity in sources from medieval Europe. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t primary sources by and about women out there which I could use but which I haven’t—on reflection, I think because I thought there were some well-known sources which I should include, thanks to the grim and hovering spectre of Are You Providing Full Coverage, This Is A Survey After All.

So I took up Damiano’s challenge and over-hauled my in-progress syllabus for the survey course I’m teaching this coming semester: the second half of the medieval survey, covering roughly the period 1000-1500. Now, of the eighteen primary sources I’ve assigned, 8 (44%) are by women: not quite gender parity, but a marked improvement on the first half of the survey course. I’d always planned to include writers like Marie de France and Christine de Pizan but now I’ve gone back to include voices that are heard less often, like the legal testimony of Grazide Lizier, a woman accused of heresy in the early fourteenth century and or this love poem between two women. Deliberately keeping women in the foreground as I was working on the syllabus meant that I rethought my approach to a number of topics—for instance, my students are now going to be introduced to the social and political tensions of the Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland in part through the tale of Alice Kyteler, the fourteenth-century Kilkenny woman infamously accused of witchcraft.

It took me longer to pull together the schedule of readings than it would have done if I’d stayed with a more familiar (to me) set of primary source readings. Yet the onus is on me as a teacher to think of new ways to use and to pair sources in the classroom: to be continually attentive to undermining assumptions, even when they’re my own. I’ve no desire to simply stand at the top of the room and regurgitate a canon.

Will this approach work? Only the next few months will tell. But I do feel optimistic that if I feel the syllabus is both challenging and honest, the students will pick up on that and respond to it. After all, one of my favourite moments of last semester came when a student dropped by my office hours to talk over the draft of the paper she was writing for my course. She’d chosen to focus on the ways in which early medieval women could exercise power and authority, and it was exciting for me to see primary sources about a topic I know so well through fresh eyes. Half-laughing, half-stunned, my student pointed at the pages and said, “These women weren’t stupid, they knew what they were doing! These women were smart.”

These women could speak, too, and I look forward to hearing what they have to say for us this semester.

The Veil in the Middle Ages

The recent decision by several communities in France to ban the burkini has received a lot of attention around the world—and rightly so. It is a piece of legislation that is as poorly thought-through as it is self-defeating. As I stated in an interview with Sarah Bond, to mandate what a woman should not wear is no more feminist than to tell her what she should wear. Proponents of the ban claim that it will encourage laïcité, but limiting a devoutly religious woman’s ability to enter public space and move through mainstream secular society hardly seems like a logical way of encouraging social integration and cohesion.

Of course, France is not alone among European countries in passing or drafting legislation aimed at Islamic dress in its various forms. Legislators are often keen to stress that these laws are aimed at the emancipation of women, or are applied equally to forbid anyone, regardless of gender or religion, from covering their face in public. Yet the Catholic nun’s veil isn’t targeted in the same way, or an Orthodox Jewish woman’s head covering, and in fact most of the German states which have banned religious symbols and dress make explicit exemption in that legislation for Christian or Jewish cultural traditions. The Western debate over the burkini—or the hijab, niqab or burqa—is often less a conversation about women’s rights than it is using women’s clothing to make statements about identity and group morality.

Female saints wearing double veils. From the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, late 10th c. BL Ms ADD 49598, f.2

Female saints wearing double veils. From the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, late 10th c. BL Ms ADD 49598, f.2

There is a tendency in these debates to treat the veil as something distinctly other, as a symbol of something inherently non-European. Yet for most inhabitants of the medieval West, that view would have been a strange one indeed. No respectable woman past adolescence would have thought of leaving her home with her head bare, and the veil or headdress was the fundamental symbol of the married woman.

Medieval Christian views were shaped by scripture, such as the letter of Paul of Tarsus which stated that women should cover their hair while praying, and linked this mandate to women’s inferior status comparative to that of men. Over time, this admonition was applied more broadly. For a woman to have walked the streets of a medieval town with her hair uncovered would have invited suspicion as to her sexual morality—that was the behaviour of a prostitute. (In fact, if an “honest” woman from the French town of Arles saw a prostitute wearing a veil, she had the legal right to rip it off.)

Detail of "Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, ca. 1460. Getty Museum Ms. 42, f. 2v

Detail of “Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, ca. 1460. Getty Museum Ms. 42, f. 2v

Most women would have used a fairly simple piece of cloth to cover their heads, but the more elaborate and fashionable headdresses form part of the visual language that we use to popularly identify the Middle Ages. The tall headdresses—either conical with a veil attached to the top or shaped into two horns—that were in vogue in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries signal “fairytale princess” to most people nowadays. These headdresses were preceded by other styles such as the head-, chin-, and neck-covering wimple (10th to mid-14th centuries), the barbette and the filet (12th to 14th centuries), and succeeded by others like the low hoods and caps (15th and 16th centuries) familiar from portraits of Tudor women.

Medieval headdresses changed with fashion but also with life stage. A new mother wore a white veil when she was churched (underwent a purificatory ritual after childbirth); a widow wore a severe linen barbe which covered her hair, neck, ears and the upper chest. This meant that a woman’s head covering was a symbol of her morality, but also indicated her role within the community.

Detail of a silk embroidery, "The Presentation in the Temple", 14th c. Getty Museum, 60.148.2

Detail of a silk embroidery, “The Presentation in the Temple”, 14th c. Getty Museum, 60.148.2

The veil was inextricably linked to the virtuous married woman in particular. We can see this by looking at the so-called Wellcome Apocalypse, a fifteenth-century miscellany originating in Germany. It contains a number of different texts in German and Latin on scientific, moral, and theological topics, and also a number of medical diagrams.

One of these diagrams, the “Disease Woman”, shows a kind of living cadaver—a pregnant woman who gazes out at the viewer, her arms and legs spread wide. She isn’t wearing clothing, and her chest and abdomen have been cut open, revealing her internal anatomy—as nude as a person can be. And yet she is still depicted wearing a headdress which covers her hair, neck, and ears. Her visual honour is therefore preserved, and viewers are assured that she is still a respectable woman.

Detail of the "Disease Woman". Wellcome Apocalypse, Germany, 15th c. Wellcome Library MS 49, f. 38r

Detail of the “Disease Woman”. Wellcome Apocalypse, Germany, 15th c. Wellcome Library MS 49, f. 38r

While such head coverings signalled differences in class, age, and social standing, they were not necessarily clear-cut markers of ethnicity or religion. The twelfth-century scholar Shlomo Ibn Parhon described Jewish women in Spain as adopting the practices of their Muslim neighbours, covering “their faces with a cloth. And when they wrap it around their faces they leave a hole opposite one eye at the edge of the cloth, with which to see, for it is forbidden to look at women.”

Shlomo’s near contemporary, the travel writer Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Jubayr, visited Sicily in the 1180s. He wrote that Christian women in the capital city of Palermo followed Islamic fashions even at Christmastime: they went out “clad in gold-colored silk gowns, wrapped in elegant mantles, covered with colored veils, with gilded brodequins on their feet; they flaunt[ed] themselves in church in perfectly Muslim toilettes.” These sources don’t seem to reflect any deep anxiety about the implications, political or otherwise, about such cross-cultural borrowings. For people across medieval Europe—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—a woman’s head covering was simply a homogeneous, universal type of clothing.

Detail from an illustration in the Maciejowski or Crusader Bible, ca. 1250. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Ms M. 638 f.17r.

Detail from an illustration in the Maciejowski or Crusader Bible, ca. 1250. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Ms M. 638 f.17r.

Yet the vast majority of women in Europe no longer wear veils or headdresses. Fashions and tastes changed. As anyone who’s ever seen a film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel or an episode of the show Mad Men knows, bonnets and hats remained a part of daily life for most people in the West until the 1960s, but these head coverings were increasingly less a direct assertion of a person’s morality or social status. Headscarves lingered in some places, particularly in rural areas or in Catholic countries where women wore mantillas or other kinds of veils to attend Mass until the late 1960s; I can certainly remember my maternal grandmother knotting a headscarf under her chin before she headed out to the shops in the Ireland of the late 1980s.

Over time, the veil and other similar headdresses began to be seen in the West as a sign of greater than normal religiosity, rather than as a cultural norm. For example, during the French Revolution, veiled nuns were regarded not as virtuous, but as a symbol of a hated and outdated regime, and were the victims of both verbal and physical attacks. Few Christian denominations in the West, with the exception of small groups such as the Amish and some Mennonites, require that their female members cover their heads regularly.

Detail of the calendar image for June from the Playfair Hours. France, ca. 1480s. V&A Museum, MSL/1918/475.

Detail of the calendar image for June from the Playfair Hours. France, ca. 1480s. V&A Museum, MSL/1918/475.

Our clothing makes a statement about who we are, and about the social influences which inform the choices we make about our clothing. This is especially true when it comes to women’s clothing (as the current US presidential election has made repeatedly clear). Gendered clothing legislation also makes a statement: it turns women’s bodies into proxies for far broader debates about politics, the role of religion in public life, and group identity. Forgetting the European history of the veil makes it far easier for those debates to become divisive, rather than a means for diverse communities to figure out how to peacefully co-exist.

A Beginner’s Reading List: Medieval Nuns

For most people, medieval nuns are shadowy figures, confined against their will in cloisters by overbearing families. But in recent decades, historians have undertaken a lot of archival research which shows that life for Catholic nuns in medieval Europe was a lot more complex, and a lot more involved with the secular world, than we once thought. The books in this list are a beginners guide for those who’d like to know more about the lives of these women (who are sometimes termed “female religious”—when used as a noun, “religious” refers to someone who is bound by monastic vows).

All the titles listed here are in English, and should be accessible to the interested general reader, or academic non-specialist. I’ve also tried to only include works which aren’t too expensive (as far as medieval history books go), or which should be available cheaply secondhand. Dipping into these books shows how diverse and dynamic the lives of religious women could be in the Middle Ages.

Getting Started

sistersinarmsJo Ann McNamara. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia (1998).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This thick volume (more than 700 pages) covers the history of Catholic nuns around the world from the earliest days of the church right through to the twentieth century. For the breadth of its coverage and for accessibility of language, it’s still unmatched for the general reader looking for an introduction to the history of female religious. That said, Sisters in Arms is now showing its age a little in terms of its analysis and conclusions. Don’t treat it as definitive, but use it as a jumping-off point in terms of over-all chronology and an introduction to some of the key figures in the history of female monasticism.

51h9uGy7nEL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_Alastair Minnis and Rosalynn Voaden, eds. Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition c.1100-c.1500 (2010).

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I said I would try to include books that weren’t overly expensive; sadly, this excellent (and hefty) collection of essays is published by Brepols which means that it’s almost certain to be unaffordable if you’re not a university library. However, Medieval Holy Women’s various entries provide an unmatched survey of the roles and interests of holy women (nuns and otherwise) across western Europe in the High and Late Middle Ages. Both the essays and their accompanying bibliographies will orient the reader towards the best in recent work on individual women and regional trends.

SetWidth440-Hall-Women-ChurchDianne Hall, Women and the church in medieval Ireland, c.1140–1540 (2003).

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This book is a rare bird indeed: a comprehensive regional study of medieval women’s monasticism that’s affordable, reliable, and accessible to the general reader. Dianne Hall pulled together the scant documentary sources about female religious in medieval Ireland and complemented them with archaeological and art historical evidence to produce the first full-length study of the topic. Hall is particularly strong in demonstrating the links that existed between nuns and their surrounding lay communities, and if you’d like to start with a study that’s more focused than wide-ranging, I’d recommend this one.

Digging Deeper

strocchia_coverSharon Strocchia. Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence (2009).

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This is the first proper monograph to explore the lives of women in Florentine convents during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Strocchia makes impressive use of the city’s abundant archives to show that in the period between the Black Death and the late fifteenth century, communities of religious women went from being relatively unimportant to being deeply embedded in the social, political, and economic life of the city. Through their involvement with the luxury textile industry in particular, the women made their mark on Florence’s economy and helped shape the city’s civic development.

80140100699560LAnne E. Lester, Creating Cistercian Nuns: The Women’s Religious Movement and Its Reform in Thirteenth-Century Champagne (2011).

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Lester takes as her case study female religious in the Champagne region during the thirteenth century. Her focus on what historians call “documents of practice” (in other words, texts that tell us about what actually happened, as opposed to say a law code which tells us what should happen) allows her to challenge the standard narrative of the history of Cistercian nuns. If you want to explore the fluidity of women’s affiliation with religious orders in the Middle Ages, and how church legislation could shape their way of life, this is a book well worth checking out.

13488Nancy Bradley Warren, Spiritual Economies: Female Monasticism in Later Medieval England (2005).

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Think that medieval nuns could entirely dismiss economic concerns? Nancy Bradley Warren encourages you to think again in this study of the house of Dominican women in Dartford. She draws on court records, financial accounts, and devotional treatises, among other sources, to bring to life a vibrant and wealthy community which was as much a part of the material economy as it was the spiritual one.

In Their Voices

riccoboni_coverBartolomea Riccoboni. Life and Death in a Venetian Convent: The Chronicle and Necrology of Corpus Domini, 1395-1436 (2000).

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This account of convent life was written by a Venetian nun who lived around the turn of the fifteenth century. Sister Bartolomea Riccoboni’s chronicle of the community’s foundation, coupled with short biographies about some of the other nuns, provide a wonderful insight into both daily life in a convent and how a group of female religious could become involved with ecclesiastical and secular politics. Daniel Bornstein’s translation is particularly clear.

51QsqWjs9HL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Hildegard of Bingen, Selected Writings: Hildegard of Bingen (2009).

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Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most engaging characters of the Middle Ages: a Benedictine nun, she was a prolific and original writer with a broad array of interests and a personality that comes through loud and clear in her writing. Although she’s never officially been canonised, in 2012 she was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. This edition provides selections from her writings—letters, theological works, and medical treatises—accompanied by useful explanatory material about her life and times.

9780859915892_14_1_2 Birgitta of Sweden, Saint Bride and her Book: Birgitta of Sweden’s Revelations (2000).

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Birgitta (or Bridget) of Sweden was a fourteenth-century mother, mystic, and founder of the Bridgettine Order of nuns and monks. This book gives a translation of Birgitta’s medieval vita, or biography, together with excerpts from her great theological work, the Revelations. An accompanying essay shows how Birgitta was politically active, involved in attempts to end the Hundred Years’ War and the Schism, and how she influenced female mystics in the later Middle Ages.

That’s nine great books to start with, but there are lots more out there. If there are other books about the history of medieval nuns that you’d particularly recommend to a beginning reader, feel free to leave a comment below!

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.

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