Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Handlist of Online Medieval Sources in Recent English Translation

It’s August, which means it’s time for me to think about what primary sources to include in the introductory medieval history classes I’ll be teaching this autumn. I try to use texts—both literary and documentary—drawn from across a broad swathe of Europe and the Mediterranean world in my teaching, and where possible to use sources that are freely available online in order to bring down book costs for my students. It can be tricky to find online medieval sources which are accessible in English translation—and not a creaky out-of-copyright nineteenth-century translation at that—so here I’ve pulled together a list of  some of the sites I’ve found useful.


Carleton College Medieval and Renaissance Studies Primary Sources

This page provides a selection of primary sources, made available in translation by William North of Carleton College. Particularly useful for Carolingian, German, and Byzantine history; all in .pdf format.

Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Letters

A collection of Latin letters to and from women, written 4th-13th centuries, accompanied by an English translation. Brief biographical sketches of the women and the historical context of the correspondence are often included.

Florentine Catasto of 1427

One of the earliest digital humanities projects, David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber’s work on the Florentine catasto (tax assessment) provides an invaluable window into the urban and family life of early fifteenth-century Florence. Students can do some excellent independent research into socio-economic history using this database. One caveat: the site isn’t particularly intuitive to use, and students will almost certainly need some guidance in how to construct a SQL-based search query.

A plan of central Florence in 1427 based on the evidence of the catasto. Guido Carocci, Il centro di Firenze (Mercato Vecchio) nel 1427, 1900.

Florilegium Urbanum

A collection of sources on town life in medieval England, presented in four thematic groups (community, economy, government, and life cycle). Each source is accompanied by a useful discussion and explanatory notes.

Global Medieval Sourcebook

The Global Medieval Sourcebook offers mostly short texts from a variety of genres that haven’t previously been translated into English. Its strengths currently lie in German and Chinese sources; it’s still a fairly new site so hopefully more texts will be added in the near future. Transcriptions are presented alongside manuscript images.

Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank

This site brings together five large data sets on currency exchange and prices in Europe between about 800 and 1815; helpful for students getting to grips with the practice of economic history.

Quentin Matsys, “The Moneylender and his Wife”, 1514. Louvre, INV 1444.

The Medieval Elbe

This site provides English translations of texts, such as chronicles, saints lives, and letters, relevant to the study of Slavs and Germans along and beyond the Elbe River region during the Middle Ages.

A Medieval Hebrew Treatise on Obstetrics

A fourteenth-century Hebrew treatise called “On difficulties of birth”, translated into English by Ron Barkai (pp. 115-119) with a prefatory essay.

Medieval History Texts in Translation

A selection of primary sources in translation made available by Graham Loud of the University of Leeds, with a focus on southern Italy/Sicily, the Crusades, Germany in the late 11th to late 13th centuries, and Spain. All are in .pdf format.

Medieval Nubia: A Sourcebook

It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing website in the world, and the scholarly apparatus is minimal to non-existent, but this is an incredibly helpful site given the paucity of sources available in English translation from this part of medieval Africa. Includes letters, inscriptions, accounts, and legal texts.

The Online Froissart

Froissart’s Chronicles are an important narrative source for the history of the Hundred Years’ War. The Online Froissart provides complete transcriptions of various manuscript versions of the Chronicles, several high-resolution scans of various illuminated copies, a range of accompanying secondary material, and a new translation into modern English of a selection of chapters.

The Plague (Decameron Web)

A small selection of primary sources concerning the effect of the Black Death in 14th-century Italy, presented together with some secondary scholarship.

Public Record of the Labour of Isabel de la Cavalleria

A single document here, but a fascinating one about childbirth from late 15th-century Spain. Translated by Montserrat Cabré.

Reconstructing the Oeuvre of Trota of Salerno

Monica Green here presents a transcription and translation into English of various medical/cosmetic and gynaecological texts associated with Trota of Salerno (pp. 211-233) with a helpful prefatory essay.

Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707

A searchable database of the proceedings of the Scottish parliament from the earliest surviving act (1235) to the union of 1707. A parallel translation into English is given for the original text (Latin, French, or Scots). Accompanying editorial apparatus and introductory essay helps when using the site in the classroom.

The Old Tolbooth was the usual location of Scottish parliaments 1438-1560. Alexander Nasmyth, “The Old Tolbooth”, ca. 1820.

St Patrick’s Confessio

An excellent, exhaustive site which seeks to provide access to the texts (the Confessio and the Epistola to Coroticus) written by the saint, providing facsimile, transcription and translation of his writings in Latin, English, Irish, Italian, Portuguese and German. Accompanying secondary scholarship make this a useful site for students exploring both the Christianisation of early medieval Ireland and the formation of a legendary symbol of Irishness.

Translated Excerpts from Byzantine Sources

A selection of primary sources made available in translation by Paul Stephenson of the University of Lincoln, with a focus on the period from the 8th to the early 13th centuries.

TEAMS Middle English Text Series

This last site is a slight variation from the rule: rather than modern English translations, it provides editions of texts in Middle English, but fully glossed to make them accessible to students. Each text is also accompanied by an introductory essay.


If you know of other resources in a similar vein (recent and accessible English translation, free to access online), please feel free to comment below.

(Edit: Thank you to Monica Green for some helpful suggestions!)

The Women of the Lymond Chronicles

Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles may be one of the most influential series of novels that most people have never heard of. The books follow nobleman Francis Crawford of Lymond on his high-stakes adventures across mid-sixteenth century Europe from his native Scotland to Russia, from France to Malta to Turkey. Although many later writers, working in many different genres, have acknowledged a sincere debt to Dunnett’s novels, they’re very much a cult favourite. (When I first devoured them, back in my undergrad days, I had to track down each volume in various secondhand bookshops across Dublin. Thankfully they’ve just been reissued by Vintage in paperback, reset with nice crisp type no less.)

Reviewers did notice the books when they first appeared—in six volumes between between 1961 and 1975—though in ways which gave short shrift to some of Dorothy Dunnett’s most memorable characters. In 1964, a New York Times reviewer recommended Queen’s Play as a “first-rate historical”, and described Lymond as a cross between Golden Age detective Lord Peter Wimsey and action star James Bond. The reviewer mentions the book’s female characters only as motivations or obstacles for Lymond: the redoubtable Mary of Guise, Dowager Queen of Scotland, is described as someone who “offer[s] nothing, but expect[s] the impossible.” The Boston Globe’s reviewer described Pawn in Frankincense (1969) as possessing “a full complement of beautiful women, brave men, villains, traitors, sadists and one marvelously drawn plain-Jane English girl of 15.”

No one who’s read the series can deny that Lymond—in all his melodramatic, polymath, tortured glory—leaps off the page of these books. But by focusing so tightly on him, those reviews implicitly dismiss some of the most compelling women characters you’re likely to find in print.

Now that’s what I call a series of unfortunate vintage covers. Is it just me or does the woman on the far left look like Natasha Lyonne?

Though the covers of the early editions of the books make them look like trashy bodice rippers populated by people with some truly terrible hairstyles, the Lymond Chronicles are anything but. They’re densely plotted, allusive political novels—full of derring-do and desperate chases across French rooftops, yes, but Dunnett is always aware of the complexities of the world in which they take place.

These are not sentimental books.

When I first read the series, I was enthralled by the women of the Lymond Chronicles because of how much they got to do. Yet to be honest, my younger self probably thought that Dunnett had taken some historical liberties in giving them so much to do, and perceived them as women “ahead of their time.” It’s only now, after several years spent studying the history of women in pre-modern Europe, that I better understand just how much Dunnett’s female characters have both feet firmly planted in a sixteenth-century world.

Most of these women are members of the elite—from the gentry, nobility, or royalty—accustomed to wielding the power their social status and wealth affords them. A lot of historical literature gives us “strong female characters” to identify and empathise with, women who are achingly aware of the patriarchal oppression they face and are overtly struggling against it. Yet much more plausible to me—and uncomfortable, and interesting—is reading about how a woman wields power within both the gendered limitations of her society and of her own beliefs about what she can and should do.

Portrait of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, ca. 1575. Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. Now Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Pivotal characters like Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox (based on a historical figure) and Oonagh O’Dwyer (entirely fictional) aren’t what you could call “feminist”, either in their personal beliefs or in their respective narrative arcs. However, they are both in the possession of firm political convictions, whether those are in the service of themselves (as with the femme fatale-esque Countess of Lennox) or in the service of nation (as with my countrywoman Oonagh). These are women who are entirely capable of thinking in subtle, tactical ways, and Dunnett explicitly presents them as such.

Nor are they isolated examples. Dunnett provides a marvellous description of the political nous of Mary of Guise, the Scottish Queen Dowager, writing that the “thick oils of statesmanship” ran in her veins, and that she “rarely handed through the door what she could throw in by the cat’s hole.”

Without giving too much away—because these are books you want to go into unspoiled—the choices these women make at the intersection between their particular circumstances and broader systemic patterns of power, between their strengths and others’ weaknesses, are thoroughly fascinating.

(Also sometimes thoroughly upsetting. Do not start reading the fourth book, Pawn in Frankincense, if you don’t have a quiet room to shriek in as you go. Maybe also a couch to lie on.)

Portrait of Mary of Guise, Queen of Scotland. Attributed to Corneille de Lyon, ca. 1537. Now National Portrait Gallery of Scotland.

This isn’t to say that either the characters or Dunnett’s framing of them is flawless. Lymond has a relationship with his mother, Sybilla, which could most charitably be described as “troubled.” As scholar Deirdre Serjeantson has pointed out, the readings which gave Lymond such a command of a wide swathe of literature also inculcated in him “an oppressive sense of what was required in respect of female virtue.” Although Lymond’s perspective on women’s sexuality (and indeed his own) shifts somewhat as the books progress, and as he comes to better understand Sybilla and her history, he’s not really what you could call the sixteenth-century version of “woke”.

Yet neither Lymond nor pretty much any other character in the Chronicles is taken aback at the idea of women being influential or involving themselves in politics—whether dynastic, domestic, or international. That was simply what elite women in early modern Europe did, as a lot of recent scholarship has shown.

In the sixth book, Checkmate, one of the main characters, Philippa Somerville, reflects that:

She had been led into behaving like a female. And she was being dismissed as a female. But she had charge of his good name, although he might not know it…

Here she’s responding directly to events happening around her, but Philippa’s observation also holds true more broadly. Women in medieval and early modern Europe could, and did, have charge of the “good name” of their husbands, families, dynasties, and nations—and in doing so they were very much “behaving like a female.” No wonder that in the same book, Sybilla scolds Lymond back to a sense of his responsibilities by asking him if he thought she’d brought “any child into the world to live for himself alone?”

Sybilla, Margaret, Philippa, Marie, Oonagh, Mariotta, Catherine, Marthe, and the many other women who fill the pages of the Lymond Chronicles may not have caught the attention of reviewers back in the 1960s. That’s not particularly surprising.

Neither is this: to pay close attention to what’s going on in a high-stakes, high-wire plot and to find women at the heart of it all.

Public Talk: The Lost Women of Prémontré

On Friday, April 19, at 4pm I will be giving a talk at Knox College, IL, entitled “The Lost Women of Prémontré: Finding and Following the Footsteps of Medieval Women.” Come along to learn why the history of nuns matters, and why the traditional story told about the Premonstratensian sisters of medieval France gets so many things wrong.

The talk is free and open to the public, and generously sponsored by the Knox College Department of History.

Castellans of Coucy in the Middle Ages

This list of the castellans of Coucy between the mid-tenth and late fifteenth centuries is translated and abridged from Maxime Sars, Le Laonnois féodal, volume 4 (1931), 269-273. I’m reproducing this here because Sars’ text is difficult to get hold of, I’ve not been able to find another reliable listing of the castellans online, and I figured it might be useful to other people working on the medieval Laonnois.

These castellans were responsible for the staffing and defence of the northern French castle of Coucy: overseeing its domestic staff and garrison, protecting its territory (particularly during periods when the lord of Coucy was absent), and sometimes administering local justice. This was no small job. At its greatest extent, the castle of Coucy was not just one of the most important castles in the region, it was one of the largest structures of its type in Europe.

The castellans’ interests weren’t entirely logistical, however. One of their number, Gui (ca. 1170), is commonly thought to have been a trouvère, or poet-composer, and to be the subject of the late thirteenth-century romance Roman du châtelain de Coucy et de la dame du Fayel. (Not a story to read if you intend on eating in the near future.)

A reconstruction of the castle of Coucy, from V.-A. Malte-Brun, La France illustrée, géographie, histoire, administration, statistique, etc., vol. I, (1897). [Source]

1. Harduin. 951. Vassal of Thibaud le Tricheur, later passed into the service of the archbishop of Reims.

2. Tiezzon (Techon). 1059. Viscount of Soissons, chatelain under Aubri de Coucy. Attested in gifts to Nogent (1059, 1086) and Saint-Vincent de Laon (1078). His wife, Alix, called viscountess of Coucy in 1086, became a nun at Nogent and was still alive in 1104 in a small house neighbouring the monastery; she was buried at the abbey. Children: Gui (living in 1086); Renaud (succeeded his father).

3. Renaud. 1083. Chatelain after his father. In 1096, he and his wife Élinde founded the priory of Saint-Paul-aux-Bois. He is also attested in gifts to Nogent (1095) and Saint-Gervais de Soissons (1098).

4. Gui. Around 1107. Chatelain and viscount. Son of Oidèle and an unknown father. Attested in a gift to Nogent with his mother and stepfather Evrard ca. 1107. Took the habit at Prémontré (1140). His wife’s name is unknown. Children: Gui (succeeded his father); Jean (became a cleric in 1122, temporarily becomes the chatelain during the minority of his nephew).

5. Gui le Vieux. 1143. Chatelain and Viscount of Soissons. Attested in gifts to Saint-Vincent de Laon (1143), Prémontré (1153), Nogent (1165). In an 1156 charter, he is referred to as the chatelain of Noyon. In 1168, he departed on Crusade and probably died on the journey. His wife’s name is unknown. Children: Hugues (canon of Noyon); Jean (chatelain of Noyon, married Adèle of Dreux); Gui (succeeded his father); Yves; Renaud (took the habit at Ourscamp); Pierre le Vermeil (took the habit at Ourscamp); Robert le Boeuf; Mauduite (succeeded her father); Béatrice.

6. Gui. 1170. Appears in many acts dated 1186-1201. Went on Crusade in 1190, having made many gifts to Nogent, Saint-Crépin-en-Chaye and Ourscamp. Returned in 1198, then went on Crusade again. Died in Greece, 1205. His wife’s name was Marguerite.

7. Mauduite. 1203. Chatelaine of Coucy and lady of Magny, inherited on the death of her nephew. Her husband, Renier de Magny, died on crusade. Children: Jean (d. before 1198); Renaud (succeeded his mother); Arnoul (knight); Aude (married Jean de Condren); Comtesse (married Geoffroi de Chelles); Alix (mother of Pierre de Marquéglise); Eustachie (married Geoffroi de Ham before 1211).

8. Renaud. 1207. Chatelain of Coucy and lord of Magny. Canon of Notre-Dame de Noyon (1198), but left the religious life. Cited as chatelain in a charter of 1207, and died 1222. His wife, Aanor, remarried to one Henri who is named as chatelain in two charters of late 1222. Children: Gui (living in 1211); Renaud (succeeded his father).

9. Renaud. 1222. Knight, Chatelain of Coucy and lord of Magny. Attested in gifts of 1235 and 1256. His wife’s name was Mabille.

10. Simon. 1261. Chatelain of Coucy and lord of Nampcel. Succeeded his uncle Renaud. He and his wife, Hermine de Cramaille, sold land to Prémontré in 1266.

11. Renaud. 1280. Chatelain of Coucy. Attested in a gift to Saint-Nicolas-aux-Bois (1280), consented to by his wife A. Still alive in 1288.

12. Marie. 1310. Grants rights to Prémontré in 1310.

13. Foucault d’Anchain. 1365. Attested in a charter of Prémontré of 1365.

14. Nicole de Lappion. 1375. Chatelaine of Coucy, held land in fief from the bishop of Laon in 1375 and 1386.

15. Regnault d’Antoing. 1386. Chatelain of Coucy, lord of Aast and Villette.

16. Hugues d’Antoing. 1394.

17. Henry de Pottes. 1403. Receives wages for his service in 1403 from the duc d’Orléans in 1403.

18. Jeanne d’Antoing. 1437. Chatelaine of Coucy, made her will on August 8, 1437. Her first husband was Guillaume de Pontmolain, lord of Theuil; her second husband was Geoffroy, lord of Saint Gobert (d. before 1437). Children: Jeanne de Pontmolain (married Jean de Villebéon, knight); Jeanne de Saint-Gobert (married Charles de Châtillon, lord of Bonneuil-sur-Marne).

19. Jean de Chatillon. 14??. Chatelain of Coucy, lord of Bonneuil-sur-Marne, capitaine of Gonnesse. Succeeded his grandmother.

20. Guy Goulart de Moy. 14??. Chatelain of Coucy, lord of Tournoison, Parpes, Verrignes, Treslon, and Thiernu-lès-Marle, hereditary seneschal of Vermandois.

21. Antoine de Moy. 1493. Chatelain of Coucy, seneschal of Vermandois, lord of Treslon, Saint-Mard and Cramant. Given the chatelainnie of Coucy in August 1493 on his marriage. His wife was Marguerite de Saint-Blaise, lady of Saint-Mard and Cramant (d. before 1519). Children: Adrien (who succeeded his father); Charles (lord of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, Holnon and Saint-Mard; married Madeline de Boham and Catherine de Créquy); Jeanne (lady of Tournoison; married Jean de Caulaincourt, Balthazar de Coland, Louis de Sorbey); Marguerite (married Philippe de Miremont, lord of Lhéry); Marie (married Bonaventure de Touges, lord of Touges); Jacqueline (married Enguerrand de Mailly, lord of Auvilliers en Bray and of Mametz).

Publication Round-up VI


‘As It Was in the Beginning‘: Teaching the History of Medieval Religion in an Age of Faith-Based Conflict”, in History Matters!: The Bulletin of the National Council for History Education 31:7 (March 2019).

The European Middle Ages are often framed in contemporary popular culture as the uncomplicated precursors to modern Western societies: monolithically white and Christian, populated by stolid peasants and chivalrous knights whose religious views could be “simplistic” or “primitive,” but which were nonetheless merely “traditional” forms of faiths recognizable to us today. This framing is wrong.

Teaching Abélard and Héloïse,” in Nursing Clio, March 7, 2019.

Taking a closer look at “one of history’s most passionate and romantic true love stories” (emphasis on the air quotes) in the #MeToo era.

My Fair Lady? How We Think About Medieval Women“, in The Public Medievalist, October 25, 2018.

The word “lady” had very different connotations during the Middle Ages, connotations that we have to be aware of when we think about the distant past and how it relates to the present.

Book Reviews

Review of Catherine M. Mooney, Clare of Assisi and the Thirteenth-Century Church: Religious Women, Rules, and Resistance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, in Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, 93:3 (2018). [Link]

Review of Alison More, Fictive Orders and Feminine Religious Identities: 1200-1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), in Women’s History Review, 27:5 (2018). [Link]

Bits and Bobs

I chatted with Matt Gabriele for a piece in Forbes about why we should see the Middle Ages in all their garish colours.

Prof. Yvonne Seale, a historian at SUNY-Geneseo, begs to differ. She told me over email that she draws heavily on material culture in both her teaching and her research. She continuously confronts a preconception about the past as monochrome or, at best, sepia-toned. Luckily, that’s a vision that’s easy enough to dispel.

Medieval History Podcasts

Podcasts are my companion on my walk to work in the morning, and my frequent diversion during some of the household chores of which I’m not so fond. (I know laundry has to be folded… but then again, does it?) Whether you’re a walker, a laundry folder, or just someone looking for something to listen to, here’s a round-up of some great podcasts that delve into the Middle Ages.

Medieval History for Fun and Profit

Drs. Alice Rio and Alice Taylor are the hosts of this podcast, professional medieval historians with the stated goal of answering “everything you’ve always wanted to know about the Middle Ages but were afraid to ask!”

This means that they discuss both the life and writings of Dhuoda, a ninth-century Frankish noblewoman and author who wrote a guide to life for her young son that was heavy on intellectual and theological references, but also more everyday fare like what medieval people found funny, and whether they had pets.

You can find episodes here at their website, or download from iTunes.


In Our Time

The venerable In Our Time is now in its twentieth year, and although it’s not solely focused on the Middle Ages (or indeed on history at all), host Melvyn Bragg has gruffly presided over many episodes with a medieval theme. Each episode brings together a panel of experts, which means you get lots of different angles on the same topic and occasionally some excellent disagreement.

Personal favourites include the episodes on the twelfth-century Renaissance (the best century); on Hildegard of Bingen, a German abbess and polymath now recognised as a Doctor of the Church; and on the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen first of France and then of England, who helped to shape the history of both nations.

You can find the medieval-specific episodes of In Our Time on this page, or download the podcast from Stitcher or iTunes.


Saga Thing

Ask most people what they associate with the word “medieval”, and the chances are good that they’ll mention the Vikings. Yet for all their ubiquity in pop culture—like the many references to Norse myth in the Marvel superhero movies—the literature produced by the Vikings and their medieval descendants is perhaps less well known, at least outside of Scandinavia.

In Saga Thing, medieval literature specialists Drs. Andrew Pfrenger and John Sexton read and review the Icelandic sagas one at a time, breaking them down according to literary themes and historical context, but also in terms of other vital categories like body count, best nicknames, and best death or maiming. What more could you want from a saga-centric podcast?

Download the episodes at their site or from Stitcher or iTunes.


The Human Circus

The subtitle for this podcast series is “Journeys in the Medieval World”, and host Devon Field brings listeners along on trips with some of the best-travelled people of the Middle Ages, providing a welcome reminder that medieval Europe wasn’t hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. The Human Circus covers well-known figures—like the thirteenth-century Venetian Marco Polo who travelled to China and the court of Kublai Khan—but also more obscure ones—like the Bavarian Johann Schiltberger, who left home on Crusade in 1394 and didn’t return for some thirty years.

Episodes are available for download at the podcast website (where they’re helpfully accompanied by a further reading list), or from Stitcher or iTunes.


Past Perfect!

Central European University has an entire radio station devoted to the Middle Ages, playing medieval and Renaissance music, and a weekly talk show about medieval and early modern European history and culture. CEU Medieval Radio is also home to a podcast, Past Perfect!, in which historian Christopher Mielke discusses a variety of topics with his guests, from the Crusades to archaeozoology to medieval urine sampling. (Now there’s a topic designed to pique the interest.)

You can find the podcast’s archives here, or download episodes from Stitcher.


Know of other good podcasts with a medieval theme? Feel free to leave a recommendation in the comments below!

Teaching Abélard and Héloïse

One of 2018’s wearying inevitabilities is that even the most cursory glance at the news is likely to bring you a fresh tale of sexual assault—and that much of the resulting commentary is bound to be almost as jarring as the news article itself. So many people are so very invested in making the unconscionable seem tolerable, even natural. Reading one such story recently brought me back to the first time I visited the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, when I didn’t have to pore over a map in order to find the tomb of Peter Abélard and his wife, Héloïse of Argenteuil.

Despite the dreary autumn weather, it drew a steady stream of visitors, probably second in number only to those drawn to the grave of The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison. Many of those who gathered around the couple’s supposed burial site (whether or not the remains Abélard and Héloïse truly lie inside the tomb, an early nineteenth-century confection made out of actual medieval masonry, is a matter of dispute) were young women. Several of them wore large crowns of artificial flowers—the tail-end of that summer’s fad—although the flowers they lay at the railings surrounding the tomb were real.

The tomb of Abélard and Héloïse in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. [Source]

Why were so many young people drawn to this monument to two people who’ve been dead for 800 years? A cursory search online suffices to answer that question, and also shows some of the persistent themes in how Abélard and Héloïse are framed, particularly for a popular audience. They are “one of history’s most passionate and romantic true love stories … [with] much to teach us about our own understanding of religious tolerance, sexual equality and intellectual freedom”; their relationship was one of the “top 10 most torrid love affairs” ever; the distressing way in which their relationship ended “ultimately served as a catalyst for their greatest intellectual achievements.” One writer in the New York Times even assures us that “there’s a grandeur to high-stakes romance, to self-sacrifice, that’s missing from our latex-love culture — and it’s a grandeur we perhaps crave to recover.”

(Yes, you read that last quotation correctly. Someone in a national newspaper argued that condom use is a sign that people in the twenty-first century no longer know how to engage in sweeping romance, which is a hot take of a kind that I think even Emily Brontë at her most wuthering would have balked at.)

This framing of Abélard and Héloïse’s relationship isn’t unique to pop history, of course. The first time I heard of them, during an undergraduate survey course on medieval history, they were referred to as one of the great love stories of the Middle Ages. Even at the time, reading their letters to one another, I felt uneasy with that framing, but it was not until much later that I would acquire the vocabulary to help me articulate that unease: coercion, gaslighting, manipulation.

Jean Vignaud, “Abelard and Heloise Surprised by the Abbot Fulbert”, 1819. [Joslyn Art Museum]

Here is the story of Peter Abélard and Héloïse of Argenteuil as I lay it out to my students now. In the early twelfth-century, a young man from Brittany called Peter Abélard arrived in Paris, and quickly made a name for himself as a highly promising student at the university there. Also resident in the city was one Fulbert, a canon of the cathedral of Notre-Dame, and his niece Héloïse. Abélard heard of Héloīse’s beauty and intelligence, and having decided—before he had ever met her—that “she was the one to bring to [his] bed“, Abélard “sought an opportunity of getting to know her through private daily meetings and so more easily winning her over.” Fulbert agreed to hire Abélard as Héloïse’s teacher, to provide her with the kind of university-level education that would not ordinarily have been available to a woman. At this point, Abélard was in his mid-thirties, Héloïse perhaps in her late teens.

Abélard and Héloïse entered into a sexual relationship. To make sure that no one would suspect them of this, Abélard sometimes beat her, though he wrote that his “blows were the marks not of anger but of the tender affection that is sweeter than any perfume.” There was little subterfuge could do to hide the consequences of their sexual activities, though, once Héloïse became pregnant. Abélard sent her to Brittany to give birth to their son, then secretly married her, then bundled her off to the convent of Argenteuil. Héloïse’s relatives assumed, based on this, that Abélard had abandoned her, and so revenged themselves on him by beating him up and castrating him. Abélard—now barred by his marital status from pursuing an ecclesiastical career and by his impotence from fulfilling a key component of the medieval understanding of a husband’s role—became a monk. Héloïse became a nun, and later abbess of the famous monastery of the Paraclete.

A romanticised, 19th-century imagining of Héloïse, from a wall painting in a Parisian church. [Source]

In later years, Abélard wrote a kind of memoir, the Historia Calamitatum (“History of my Misfortunes”), and the couple exchanged a series of lengthy letters—intelligent, erudite, full of references to scripture and classical literature—from their respective monastic communities. Héloïse seems to have borne little animosity towards Abélard, beyond chastising him for not writing to her often enough. She may not have understood her relationship with Abélard as one in any way marked by abuse or assault, and as Irina Dumitrescu rightly reminds us, we “diminish Héloïse if we see her as an eternal teenager, a mere victim of Abelard’s narcissistic love.”

And yet, when I sit with Héloïse’s letters, I can’t help but hear a woman whose life, whose very self, was shaped by a teacher whose pedagogy emphasised submission and a culture which eroticised violence against women. In her letters, Héloïse refers to Abélard as master (dominus), father, husband; she calls herself his slave (ancilla), daughter, and wife. She would rather be his whore (meretrix) than an empress (imperatrix), she writes, which when taken alone has a thrilling ring of the empowered modern woman to it, but is rather less so when you see how repeatedly Héloïse defines herself in relationship to Abélard and his wants.

One of the great love stories of the Middle Ages? I suppose that depends on how you define the term “great.”

Or the term “love.”

Angelica Maria Kauffmann, “The Parting of Abelard and Heloise”, ca. 1780. [Hermitage Museum]

A few weeks ago, I introduced the students in the upper-level undergraduate course I’m teaching on medieval women’s history to Abélard and Héloïse. The students had read Carissa Harris’ article on the medieval English literary genre known as the pastourelle—which Harris argues both normalised rape narratives and provided space to challenge rape myths—as part of a broader discussion of the history of ideas around sexual consent, assault, and bodily autonomy. Thinking about the modern framing of Abélard and Héloïse as the quintessential passionate romance helped us to complicate ideas about the barbaric Middle Ages and the enlightened present. As young adults who’ve come of age during the #MeToo movement, they were far quicker to grasp the disturbing implications of Peter and Héloïse’s relationship than I was as an undergraduate.

I’m proud of the ways in which my students navigated multiple conversations about sexual assault that week—deploying analytical skills and fierce empathy in equal measure—but I still don’t know if I did them justice in the classroom. It’s one thing to talk about how Peter Abélard’s historical reputation has largely survived the condemnation of his own words. It’s another to have that conversation in an academic setting, within a system and a space where diversity statements say one thing and actions another.

Is it possible to sit in an American college classroom in 2018, to be in a position of authority and to talk honestly about the lessons to be learned from Abélard and Héloïse and yet avoid being a hypocrite?

The words change. More voices speak out. But who tells the story, and how it ends: well, that always seems to stay the same.

Boys Will Be Boys

It’s probably fair to say that the Senate judiciary committee hearings which took place earlier this month as part of the process of appointing Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the U.S. Supreme court contained more references to beer consumption than do most such hearings. Kavanaugh’s heavy drinking habits, both as a teenager and as an adult, were scrutinised by senators and defended—often belligerently—by the man himself. The reasons for that level of scrutiny were clear, and I won’t rehash them here. Instead I want to focus on one of the things that stood out to me—the way in which Kavanaugh chose to defend himself—and how that fits into a centuries-old understanding of what it is to be a man.

“I like beer,” Kavanaugh said at one point. “Do you like beer, Senator, or not? What do you like to drink? […] Senator, what do you like to drink?” Over and over, he told those in attendance that his drinking habits were normal, with the implicit message that those who consume alcohol more moderately, or opt for fruity cocktails, or even abstain entirely, are not. Red-blooded, all-American men drink beer, you see, and lots of it. Brett Kavanaugh’s attitude isn’t surprising. Given the highly competitive, alcohol-fuelled atmospheres of many American private high schools like the one he attended, it would be more surprising to find that he’d never professed a similar understanding of masculinity.

After all, getting black-out drunk has been a common feature of the male adolescent experience in the West for centuries, part of a toxic tangle of behaviours that’s frequently handwaved as “boys will be boys.” (“Locker room talk.”)

Few people, I think, would object to a light-hearted quaffing session, the likes of which you’d see in a Thor movie. A little alcohol acts as a social lubricant, removing inhibitions and loosening people’s tongues. We know that war bands in early medieval Europe drank together to reinforce the bonds on which they would rely in the heat of battle, while boozy dinners at later medieval universities helped to make classmates out of nervous young men from far-flung regions who could often only communicate with one another in a language that wasn’t their mother tongue.

But these kinds of group-bonding drinking sessions had—and have—a darker side.

The medieval university was largely a single-sex institution, and most students began their studies at a much younger age than do their twenty-first century equivalents. Anxiety, adolescent hormones, immaturity warring with the fierce desire to prove one’s self mature—all of these combined to produce bizarre initiation rituals, drinking games, and instances of sexual assault which seem weirdly familiar to anyone who’s read a news account of bad behaviour in a modern American fraternity. (Studies have shown that fraternity members are three times as likely to commit rape as men who are not in fraternities.)

Account after account from medieval university towns show that when students came into contact with women, it was very often in the context of sexualised violence. Legislation was passed in an often-fruitless attempt to curb youthful excess. In thirteenth-century Paris, students at the Sorbonne who “wound, kill, abduct women, rape virgins, break into houses and commit theft and other enormities” were threatened with excommunication, while in the fourteenth century the university at Orléans had to state that it would not defend students accused of rape or brawling. In 1321, many of the students and faculty of the University of Bologna packed up and moved to Siena to express their anger over the execution of one of their number. He, aided by a number of other young men, had tried to abduct the daughter of a local notary with the intention of raping her. (It doesn’t seem that any of these men expressed concern for the young woman who’d been terrorised.)

Often while in groups, and very often while intoxicated, young men in the Middle Ages egged one another on to commit violent acts which attempted to prove their masculinity through their ability to forcibly dominate others. This may be why sexual assault committed by medieval students stands out as being “particularly sadistic” and focused on the public humiliation of the victim. Men came of age with their peers in part through the joint commission of acts not so dissimilar, at heart, to those of which Brett Kavanaugh still stands accused.

A personification of Drunkenness plays dice at a tavern. [Bodleian, MS Douce 308, fol. 259r.]

The Middle Ages gave us the concept of chivalry, which even in the present day is often characterised as a laudable social code, one which promotes knightly prowess, battlefield honour, the defence of women’s virtue, and personal moderation. Even in the Middle Ages, though, chivalry was largely an aristocratic fiction, and even within medieval literature the protection it extended to women was fickle and contingent.

Medieval fiction shows us a painful truth: that male comradeship and alliances could, and did, endure in complete disregard of a woman’s suffering. The friendships formed over flagons of ale mattered more than did a woman who could, by definition, never be a drinking buddy. In one Arthurian legend known as The Avowing of Arthur, two Knights of the Round Table, Kay and Gawain, fought to rescue a damsel in distress from the wicked Sir Menealfe, who had kidnapped her and threatened her with rape. The unnamed female character is little more than a plot device. As soon as Menealfe is defeated in battle, she vanishes from the story—and although Menealfe is an attempted rapist, he goes on to sit at the Round Table, welcomed as a full and equal member of that band of brothers.

Earlier this month, after hearing hours of gut-wrenching testimony about credible accusations of sexual assault, the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as the newest member of the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States.

Boys will be boys.

Twisted Sisters

Sex sells, particularly when it comes with a side order of subversion. It’s no surprise, then, to find that recently released The Nun (2018) has attracted a little more press attention than is the norm for a schlocky horror film. The movie bids fair to tick off a lot of boxes in the “nunsploitation” sub-genre of horror: beautiful young nuns, a remote and gloomily Gothic convent, blood spitting, demonic possession. You know, the usual.

Syfy took a look at the history of evil nuns on film from the silent movie period onwards, and touched on the involvement of female religious with some real life atrocities like those committed over the course of many decades at the home for unmarried mothers run by the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam, Ireland. The New York Times broke down the techniques the director used to scare the audience in one particular scene. Even NPR got in on the fun, exploring how the evil nun is “one of the scariest and blood-chilling [sic] of horror tropes that has tormented moviegoers, television viewers and even readers of literary fiction for centuries.”

But what most of these takes omitted (or even in the case of NPR, bungled just a bit) is the long history of how the trope of the evil or immoral nun has been used as a cudgel with which to beat religious women. People feared, lampooned, and slandered nuns long before the thirteenth century—and long after—in part because of a engrained misogyny which continues to shape how we view the past. Other historians noted the same thing.

Nuns, of course, are people, and people are flawed and capable of doing terrible things. Some nuns undoubtedly inflicted real life horrors on others, like the seventeenth-century abbess Benedetta Carlini, who emotionally and sexually abused women who were in her charge in a monastery in the Italian city of Pescia while claiming that she was possessed by a male demon called Splenditello.  But the cases of many other “evil nuns” are far less clear-cut—or rather, the fact that they dovetail so neatly with many misogynistic medieval tropes should make us suspicious.

Misogyny was a remarkably uniform aspect of various medieval societies: in many times and places, women’s supposed insatiable lust, venality, fickleness, and passivity were held up as justification for women’s inferior social and legal positions relative to men. While the respect accorded to nuns because of their virginity, their vows, and their self-dedication to a life of prayer helped to shield them from some of this venom, it couldn’t entirely insulate them.


The scene on the left shows a nun gathering a harvest from a phallus tree; on the right, a nun embraces a bearded monk. From a 15th-century manuscript of the Roman de la Rose. Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fr. 25526, fol. 106v.


Charges of sexual immorality were perhaps the most common ones laid against “wicked” nuns in the Middle Ages, and the ones which have most often captured modern attention. (Let’s just say that many “nun-sploitation” movies don’t receive an adult film classification simply because they contain scenes of violence.) During the annual visitation—or formal inspection—of monasteries, church officials were often keen to root out instances of sexual misconduct. Many earlier historians, like Eileen Power in the 1920s, took the records of these visitations at face value and used them to build narratives of medieval nunneries as hotbeds of decadence and vice. In community after community, nuns embezzled, mismanaged property, pawned chalics, and got into plait-pulling brawls in the middle of church. One Margaret Wavere, prioress of Catesby in the mid-fifteenth century, was even caught in flagrante delicto with the local parish priest by another nun.

These examples can easily be multiplied. In the late thirteenth century, the bishop of Zamora interrogated the sisters of the Spanish convent of Las Dueñas and charged them with fornicating with friars at the convent gates, giving their prioress the evil eye, threatening to beat the bishop himself with sticks, and other kinds of general mayhem. At around the same time, Pope Gregory X deposed Henri, bishop of Liège, for taking not just one but many nuns as his “public concubine[s].” In Renaissance Venice, one nun called Laura Querini fell in love with a man twenty years her junior and worked with another nun for more than a month to break a hole in the outer wall of a storeroom in her convent so that their lovers could get in. At her trial, Laura attested that “the two men came in a boat, and put a plank across. We unblocked the hole, and they entered through it, and they stayed with us for two or three hours, while they had intercourse with us”.


A friar plays while a nun gets down. BL Stowe MS 17, fol. 38r.


But there’s an obvious problem with building a picture of medieval nuns using visitation records or other legal accounts. Even if none of the officials involved was anything other than an objective and impartial investigator, each was bound to spend his time looking into cases of suspected sin instead of reporting on those living blameless lives. Just as skewed perceptions of crime rates lead people to believe that the world outside their door is much more dangerous than it actually is, the “wicked” nuns continue to mislead people into thinking that the majority of medieval women religious were engaged in lives of immoral hypocrisy. Yet recent research has helped scholars to develop a more nuanced view of the lives of medieval nuns, and new analysis of visitation records from France and England has shown that perhaps 3-4% of all monastic women were ever accused of sexual misconduct and that the overwhelming majority kept their vows.

This may be one of those times when the truth is actually less strange than the fiction—or at least, is the source of fewer good jump scares.

Call for Papers: Finding The Women in the Et Cetera

Call for Papers: International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, 2019 

“Finding The Women in the Et Cetera: Doing Women’s History with Medieval Documents and Modern Archives”

Over the last forty years, historians have established unambiguously that women were active participants in medieval society, that they were capable of wielding political power and social influence, and that they forged religious and economic ways of life that were innovative, creative, and adaptable. This work has been built to a large degree on a careful (re)reading of the medieval sources, and a greater—if still imperfect—use of sources from outside of northwestern Europe. Scholars have drawn on charters and cartularies in order to reevaluate our understanding of women’s power and agency in the Middle Ages. However, such work is inevitably shaped by source survival, by the institutions which preserve those sources, and by the ways in which archival material is categorised, classified, and made available to researchers—or not.

This panel will create a space for historians to reflect on what it means to do women’s history with tools and in spaces that were designed to privilege men and their voices, and to make visible the accreted layers of assumptions surrounding archival materials and the ways medieval women are present within them. We would like to further contribute to the ongoing scholarly conversation about archival theory by considering how the construction and use of archives is a gendered affair, and how that specifically affects the practice of medieval women’s history.

Topics of consideration include but are not limited to:

  • How women’s historians navigate archives
  • The influence which finding aids and inventories exert on the practice of medieval women’s histories
  • Challenges/opportunities of using such inventories/archives to do the history of Jewish women, Muslim women, “lesbian-like” women and others
  • Technological innovations and new horizons

The panel aims to explore how doing the history of medieval women is to a great extent the engagement with the history of the profession as a whole, and to demonstrate that the presence of medieval women in the archives is not a static thing, either in physical reality or in conceptualization.

Please submit abstracts of approximately 300 words by August 31, 2018, to the session organiser, Yvonne Seale (seale@geneseo.edu).

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