Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

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Saint Joseph and Medieval Fatherhood

The broad outline of the Christmas story is probably familiar to most people, regardless of religious background: Joseph and his heavily pregnant wife, Mary, travelled from their home in Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem. There, unable to find a proper place to stay, they sought shelter with the livestock and Mary gave birth to a son whom she named Jesus.

Throughout the Middle Ages, artists, writers, and scholars frequently returned to the Nativity and its subsequent events—the adoration of the shepherds, the arrival of the Magi from the East—for inspiration and contemplation. Yet the ways in which they explored this story, and the subsequent life of this little family, changed over the course of the Middle Ages. This is particularly true in the case of Joseph, who in the early medieval period was almost ignored in the Latin West, if not treated as an object of ridicule, but who by the mid-sixteenth century was one of the region’s most popular and respected saints. The change in how Joseph was depicted—turning from an elderly quasi-cuckold into a younger, dignified head of household—reflects a shift in how medieval people thought about family life.

Relief of the Holy Family. Possibly n. France, ca. 1160–80. [The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Joseph didn’t figure large in the religious imagination of early medieval Christians. When he appeared in artworks, he was mostly a minor figure, and often quite isolated spatially from Mary and the infant Jesus: huddled in a corner of the stable and appearing almost unaware of what was going on. He was a human accessory to the triumvirate of Mary, Jesus, and God the Father; mentioned in the Nativity story, but not really of significance beyond that. After all, he faded out of the Gospels while Jesus is still a boy—perhaps having died—and with no specific place associated with Joseph’s burial, there was nothing to spur pilgrimage and the creation of a saintly cult. Moreover, apocryphal texts like the second-century Gospel of James and the possibly fifth-century Pseudo-Matthew depicted Joseph as an elderly widower who was already a father when he married Mary (thereby “solving” the problem of Jesus’ siblings), and was something of an incompetent.

But as contemporary theology and spiritual practice throughout the High and Late Middle Ages put more emphasis on Christ’s suffering humanity, so too did medieval Christians come to be more interested in Joseph in his role as step-father. In his Commentary on Matthew, the Benedictine monk Rupert of Deutz (ca. 1075-1129) wrote that Joseph, “who, although he was not Christ’s father by flesh, but in faith […] was the greatest of the patriarchs of the Old Covenant and yet in a sense a saint of the New Covenant, because Joseph alone is so close to Jesus, as the husband of Mary and therefore the father of Jesus.” Joseph could function as a bridge between the Old Testament and the New, between the human and the sacred.

Illuminated letter from a late 15th-century Book of Hours, usage of Paris. BM Moulins, MS 79, f.32

This could raise some troubling questions. Several highly influential theologians of the High Middle Ages—like the Italian-born bishop of Paris Peter Lombard (ca. 1096-1160) and the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)—agreed with the early Church Father, Augustine of Hippo that there were three elements intrinsic to a legitimate Christian marriage—fides, sacramentum, and proles. This led to worries that Mary and Joseph’s marriage was invalid—faith (fides) was surely present, as was sacramentum (a marriage invested with grace), but what about the lack of offspring (proles)? If, as many believed, Mary and Joseph remained virgins for the entirety of their marriage, was their union legitimate? And just as worryingly, how could a man with no biological heirs, and implicitly no virility, be a proper pater familias (male head of the household)?

The Dominican friar and bishop Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200-1280) countered this by arguing that Joseph had named Jesus—a father’s prerogative—and had cared for him, allowing him to be be considered a true father, and thus his marriage to Mary a whole one. Joseph’s participation in Jesus’ circumcision and in the Presentation in the Temple also functioned as public acknowledgement of paternity. This put a brand new emphasis on fatherhood as something you practised, not just something you were.

These changing ideas about Joseph, family, and marriage filtered through to the general public in a variety of ways. The Spanish Dominican friar Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) wrote a sermon in which he advanced a hypothetical scenario about Jesus’ childhood, inspired by the adult Christ’s saying in the canonical gospels that he “came not to be served but to serve“. One morning, Mary wanted to go get water from the well, Joseph offered to go instead of her to ease her workload, and each one’s desire to relieve a burden from the other left them in a kind of well-intentioned stand-off (sic pie contenderent Virgo et Joseph). Jesus then takes the task on himself, in order to inspire other children to obey and serve their parents.

St Francis of Assisi and his namesake order famously promoted interest in the Nativity, with Francis purportedly creating the first live Nativity scene in 1223. The Franciscans were also interested in Joseph in his own right, particularly the fact that he had worked as a carpenter. They used Joseph and his profession as a focus for meditation on the humble circumstances of the Holy Family, and thus of Christ’s childhood.

Joseph warms the swaddling clothes by the fire while Mary prays and angels crowd around. Circle of Antoine Le Moiturier. Burgundy, ca. 1450. The Met Museum, 16.32.158.

As popular perceptions of Joseph began to change—to emphasise the fact that the Gospels described him as taking on the social role of father to Jesus, even if Christians believed he was not biologically so—so did the ways in which Joseph was shown in medieval artwork. For example, a piece of sculpture from late medieval Burgundy shows the infant Jesus in his crib tended by angels, Mary on her knees in prayer—and Joseph sitting at the hearth, holding the child’s clothes up before the flames to warm them. Medieval households were busy and labour-intensive place, and depictions of the Holy Family often reflect this—Mary busy with textile work, Joseph with his carpentry.

Other late medieval depictions of Joseph—in artwork or in plays—show him engaged in activities that are positively domestic: cooking baby food, bathing the infant Christ, changing the baby’s nappies, even cutting up his own stockings in order to make swaddling clothes for the newborn. In a sermon, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that this exalted Joseph over many kings or prophets, because he was able “to carry [Christ], to take him by the hand, to hug and kiss him, to feed him and keep him safe.”

There were ways in which Joseph and his circumstances could still be played for laughs with a medieval audience, with his household duties depicted as undignified or unmasculine. In the fifteenth-century northern French play Mystère de la Passion, the circumcising priest asks Joseph if he is indeed the child’s father (Beau preudons, estes vous son pere?), to which Joseph replies “Indeed, I married his mother” (Certes, j’ay epousé sa mere). It’s impossible to imagine this line being delivered with anything other than a knowing wink to the audience.

Still, esteem for the saint increased sharply overall. In the early Middle Ages, Joseph was a highly uncommon name. On a list of 53,000 Tuscan householders collected before 1530, only one “Giuseppe” appears; yet by the 1550s, Joseph had become the patron saint of a number of Italian cities, and across Europe variants of Joseph were used as baptismal names.

Joseph adjusts Mary’s pillow while she breastfeeds (albeit from a slightly anatomically implausible breast). [British Library, Royal 1 D X f. 1v.]

For late medieval Christians, Joseph came to represent a model of fatherhood as guardianship, and a paradigm of lay male virtue. A fifteenth-century German “cradle play” (Kindelwiegenspiele) featured Joseph and Mary singing a duet as Joseph rocked the infant Jesus in his cradle:

Mary: “Joseph, dear husband mine, help me rock the little one.”
Joseph: “Happily, my dear little wife, I’ll help you rock the little child.”
Mary: “Take the cradle in your hands and allow my child to be known and rock him nicely so that he doesn’t cry.”

In his tender care for the baby he would publicly acknowledge as his son, in the ways in which the actions attributed to him linked nurturing with masculinity and authority, Joseph helped to create an ideal of the family that could be at once holy and familiar, divine but resolutely human.

The Medieval Turkey? Or, Why Vikings Didn’t Celebrate Thanksgiving

What do Renaissance Faires and Thanksgiving have in common? Well, both are occasions when you’re likely to see people chowing down on turkey legs. That makes sense in the latter case—turkeys are widespread in North America, they’re delicious when served with gravy and a healthy dollop of starch, and Benjamin Franklin even proposed, tongue-in-cheek, making them the national bird of the U.S. They make a good centrepiece for an American secular harvest festival—but why do they show up in recreations of pre-modern Europe?

Part of that is likely down to convenience: a fried turkey leg is a highly portable meal for someone strolling around a fairground. It mostly comes down to bang-for-the-buck, though. Turkey legs are relatively cheap bits of meat, especially in comparison to more authentic offerings. Medieval nobility indulged in birds like pheasants, peacocks, even swans—pretty difficult to get hold of nowadays, expensive, and a lot less palatable to modern sensibilities.

Gnawing away at a turkey leg is also a fun way of engaging with a particular kind of neo-medieval fantasy, and fulfilling modern ideas of the Middle Ages as one long bout of carnivorism, mead quaffing, and tankard throwing.

Charles Laughton, in character as Henry VIII, chows down on some fowl in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Yet no matter how much American fast-food chains like Arby’s try to get “in on the medieval-themed action” by selling smoked turkey legs, during the Middle Ages nobody in Europe was dining on turkey. In fact, they didn’t even know it existed. The bird is indigenous to the Americas, and was first sold in England in perhaps the 1520s, brought across the Atlantic by a Yorkshire trader. So it’s possible that Henry VIII may have eaten turkey, but it was hardly the most popular meat consumed in Tudor England.

For the most part, putting turkeys on the menu for a quasi-medieval feast is a fairly harmless kind of anachronism: vaguely irritating to medieval historians, sure, but no more so than most of the menu offered at dinner theatre venue, Medieval Times (which uses tomato soup, buttered sweet corn and coffee to bring eleventh-century Spain “to life before your eyes.” Authenticity isn’t exactly high on the owners’ agenda.)

But there is another way in which turkeys have been associated with the medieval past, and it’s a little more insidious than fast food chains selling dubiously historical food.

Schleswig Cathedral, ca. 1894. [Source]

In the late 1930s, when Nazi Germany was at the height of its powers, father and son art historians Ernst and Dietrich Fey, together with painter Lothar Malskat, arrived in the northern German town of Schleswig. They’d been tasked with restoring the renowned medieval artwork which adorned the walls of the town’s Romanesque cathedral cloister. Dating to around 1300, this fine series of paintings depicted biblical scenes, but they had been badly damaged by damp over the centuries.

An attempt had been made to restore the paintings once before, by artist August Olbers in 1888. His efforts were of a piece with how many ninteenth-century experts approached conservation—if something was very badly damaged, then imagine what might have originally been there and create that in order to give the viewer a sense of what the Middle Ages had been like. By the 1930s, Olbers’ approach was out of fashion, but when the Feys and Malskat attempted to remove his work, they inadvertently also scraped away most of the original, priceless medieval paintings. Aware that he was legally on the hook for this, the elder Fey got Malskat to secretly produce a new set of murals to replace those that were destroyed. Malskat proved to be skilled at imitating the artistic styles of the later Middle Ages, even though he drew on family members and movie stars to provide the faces of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.

When the “restored” wall paintings were unveiled, they immediately attracted the praise of the Nazi elite, who interpreted them as supporting their strain of racialised nationalism. Here were some fine Germanic works of art, which depicted figures conforming to “Aryan” stereotypes. In 1940, SS leader Heinrich Himmler even ordered that a book on the cathedral and its paintings be distributed to every school in Germany.

A detail of the 19th-century turkeys added to the existing medieval artwork on the walls of Schleswig Cathedral. [Source]

Now here’s the thing. While Malskat’s work might have been good enough on a technical level to fool those who weren’t experts in art history, you’d think that pretty much anyone who looked at these now very famous paintings would pick up on the fact that, trooping along the bottom of a depiction of the Massacre of the Innocents were no fewer than eight turkeys. Their presence in a medieval European painting could be most charitably described as “surprising”; “downright suspicious” might be a better term.

But such was the force of Nazi ideology that the turkeys were not seen as proof of artistic malfeasance, but rather that “Aryan” explorers had found the Americas long before Columbus and brought turkeys back to the Fatherland. (Far from the only time that Viking voyages to the Americas were used to justify white supremacist ideologies.) The elderly August Olbers emerged from retirement to explain that he had added the turkeys, not expecting that anyone would think them truly medieval. He’d just wanted to fill a small bit of empty wall space with a fox and turkey motif that would metaphorically echo the tale of the murderous King Herod shown above. Malskat, not exactly a skilled ornithologist, had thought they were truly medieval and expanded on Olbers’ out-of-place turkeys. Olbers’ explanation was greeted with cries of “Fake news!”, Nazis on the whole being less than keen on things like evidence.

It was only after the war—particularly once Dietrich Fey and Lothar Malskat were convicted of forgery following another fraudulent “restoration” job, this time on the Marienkirche at Lübeck—that people came to realise that the turkey paintings were not actually evidence that Vikings had ever sat down to a Ren-Faire-style feast.

They were just proof that, medieval or not, there’s more than one way to be a turkey.

If you say so, Sarasota Medieval Fair. [Source]

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.

George Washington: A Descendant of Odin?

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George Washington: first President of the United States, father of his country, crosser of the Delaware, and descendant of Odin. This, at least, was the claim put forward by the late nineteenth-century genealogist Albert Welles. In the floridly titled, four-hundred-page tome The Pedigree and History of the Washington Family Derived from Odin, the Founder of Scandinavia. B.C. 70, Involving a Period of Eighteen Centuries, and Including Fifty-Five Generations, Down to General George Washington, First President of the United States (1879), Welles created a family tree for Washington of truly mythical proportions, and one which shows just how useful nineteenth-century Americans found the Middle Ages to be when it came to shaping their understandings of their country’s origins.

Welles stopped short of claiming that Washington was of semi-divine ancestry — likely because of his own devout Christianity. He therefore took his cue from the thirteenth-century Icelandic author and fellow Christian, Snorri Sturluson, who had proposed that Odin and the other Norse gods of his ancestors should be understood merely as venerated, mythologized versions of particularly successful war leaders. This meant that Odin was not the god of healing and death and the foremost of the Æsir, or Norse pantheon. He was instead a flesh-and-blood man who had lived almost two thousand years ago, ruling over a Turkic people in central Asia called the Aesir. Over time, Odin’s conquests took him further and further west until he finally settled in Scandinavia and declared himself king of all its peoples in the early first century BCE. Welles sniffed that previous historians had not come to this very obvious conclusion because they — unlike him — were “unable to separate the real from the mythological history”.

Welles was not the first to trace a lineage back to Odin. This image from the 12th-century Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum adventu shows Odin crowned as ancestral king of the Anglo-Saxons. The text describes the royal lineages of the kingdoms of Kent, Mercia, Deira, Bernicia and Wessex respectively, each claiming descent (and so also the right to rule) from the mythical figure turned king. [Source]

Yet Welles was keen to engage in some myth-making of his own, stressing the similarities between the Odin he conjured up and George Washington. Though separated by eighteen centuries — and though no one knows what even a human Odin might have looked like — Welles writes that both men were of “wild, massive, manly” stock. If Odin, the first king of a united Scandinavia, were “the Mars as well as the Mohammed” of the region, then surely the first president of the United States had to hold a similarly elevated position.

From Odin, Welles traced thirty-two generations of descent down to about the year 1000 which encompassed figures both historical and legendary. In doing so, he gave George Washington further links — which even allowing for their fictional status were sometimes highly tenuous or collateral — to people like the Viking king Ragnar Lodbrok, or the brothers Hengist and Horsa who purportedly led the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the fifth century. Welles also claimed that Washington was related to the eleventh-century Icelandic explorers Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, who sailed across the Atlantic to Greenland and Vinland, the coastal region of eastern America which was briefly colonized by the Vikings. There, Thorfinn and Gudrid had a son, Snorri — the first known child of European parentage to be born in the Americas, long before Martín de Argüelles or Virginia Dare in the sixteenth century.

Ragnar, Hengist, Horsa, Thorfinn, Gudrid, Snorri: these are all tangential figures in Welles’ imagined Washington family tree. But by taking the time to include brief biographies of them, and by linking them to George Washington, Welles was in a sense extending Euro-American history back into the far past. Rather than a nation which could trace its origins back only a hundred years or so from the time of Welles’ writing, or a continent whose colonization could be traced back to the voyages of an Italian Catholic, Anglo-American Protestants were cast as heirs to a long northern European tradition of exploration, conquest, and colonization.

Puck cartoon from 1893 satirising the boastful claims made by the upper classes of America (left) and the nobility of Europe (right) as to from whom they were descended. Top right shows a “Viking” amongst the boasts of Europeans [Source]

Even America’s grand democratic experiment had a medieval Scandinavian ancestry, in Welles’ eyes. He conceded that the Washingtons of the fifteenth century may have taken opposite sides during the Wars of the Roses, but wrote that he attached “no credence to reports of the Cavalier sentiments of the Washington family”. In other words, it was impossible that any ancestor of George Washington could have harbored royalist as opposed to republican sympathies during the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, because no member of the extended Washington clan could ever display a love of “power without principle”. The Washingtons were, after all, almost entirely of Germanic descent — untainted by the continental European influences of Norman blood — and throughout the centuries, “Saxon opposition to the Norman rule in England took the form of liberalism”.

Albert Welles wrote in an America whose aesthetic and moral sensibilities were informed to a great extent by medievalism. The Gothic-revival churches which were springing up across America were thought to be representative of an authentic “Teutonic” style, modified by civilizing Protestant influence. Mass-market consumer products married nineteenth-century inventions with often wildly inauthentic “Gothic” flourishes. In 1876, Henry Brooks Adams — a grandson and great-grandson of American presidents — published the first academic history of medieval Europe to be produced in the United States. Architecture, home decor, textbooks, and lecture series: they all promoted the idea of the European Middle Ages as a time of white racial purity and valor.

George Washington himself seems not to have been unduly interested in the intricacies of his own lineage beyond his immediate family, writing in a letter that “this [his family tree] is a subject to which I confess I have paid very little attention”. It does not seem that he spent much time contemplating who his ancestors in the Middle Ages might have been. And yet he made copious use of a very medieval symbol: the Washington family coat of arms, which dates back to at least the fourteenth century. He emblazoned it on his personal seals, silverware, bookplates, the interior of his home at Mount Vernon — in 1790, Washington even had it added to the doors of his personal carriage.

The Washington coat of arms, as featured in Welles’ The Pedigree and History of the Washington Family Derived from Odin (1879) [Source].

Yet despite this evidence of pre-existing popular interest in such mythologizing, American-style medievalism, The Pedigree and History was overwhelmingly dismissed by Welles’ contemporaries, often in very forthright terms. In a letter to the editor published in a July 1889 issue of The Nation magazine, the genealogist W.H. Whitmore declared that “it is only fair to suppose that Mr. Welles was not in a sound state of mind” when he put pen to paper. The book was a “rank and stupid forgery”, “a mere rambling collection of useless notes.”

In fact, it took until the early twentieth century for Welles’ work to gain any traction at all — and then it was because it suited quite a different set of political needs. The short-lived Northern Review: A Cultural Magazine for the Northwest was published in Minneapolis during the First World War. Unsurprisingly, given the ethnic heritage of a large proportion of Minnesota’s population, the magazine took a distinctly pro-German stance about the conflict. In promotional material about the magazine, Germans and Scandinavians were called “Teutonic twin brothers” whose settlement in the Midwest had “made the desert to blossom”. A 1918 issue of the magazine reprinted a summary of The Pedigree and History under the title “Washington: A Scandinavian”. How could he be anything else, the anonymous epilogue to the summary concluded: George Washington’s ancestry was additional proof that his character was clearly that “of the ancient Vikings of the North”. He too believed in the values of independence, liberty, and patriotism and was possessed of a “powerful frame”. The thrust of the article was clear: the peoples of the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia shared a common ancestry and a set of values which should prevent them from going to war with one another.

Phrenology diagram indicating the strength inherent in the shape of George Washington’s head, featured in Fowler’s The Practical Phrenologist (1846). Note the accidental crown suggested by the labelling lines [Source].

A similar kind of article cropped up in an April 1925 issue of the Nordmanns-forbundet (Norsemen’s federation) magazine. The goal of this Oslo-published magazine was to encourage cultural and linguistic unity among the Norwegian diaspora, something which was felt to be increasingly necessary amid the heightened nativist environment of the United States in the post-war years. The article’s Norwegian-born American author, Simon Johnson, took Washington’s purported Scandinavian ancestry as fact. In doing so, Johnson was attempting to promote the idea of Scandinavians — and so Norwegian immigrants — as “true” Americans, something which wasn’t always accepted by other white Americans of nativist inclinations.

As for the originator of all of these claims, Albert Welles himself is a rather shadowy figure. He was born in Palmyra, New York in about 1818 to George Wells and Mary Babcock, both natives of Connecticut (the second E in his surname seems to have been a later affectation). In 1844, he married Catherine Beckwith; they swiftly had a daughter, Katharine (b. 1845) and moved to New York City. In his writings, Welles was keen to present himself as a man of letters and leisure, but census information shows that he had a far more prosaic occupation: insurance agent.

He was a man of some ambition: in 1860, he founded the American College of Heraldry and Genealogical Registry, housed in the New York Society Library. Speaking to the group’s members in 1879, Welles stated that “[t]his institution promises to become one of the most important and popular in the country. It is destined to become the great depository of Family Registers and Family History.” The ACH briefly published a genealogical magazine with the aim of nationwide circulation, The Chronotype: An American Memorial of Persons and Events (W.H. Whitmore’s verdict on this endeavor was “the mere ravings of a would-be genealogist, full of errors and contradictions.”) Life membership could be obtained for the sum of $50, and members’ family trees were to be entered into the “Domesday Book of New York”. Welles’ hopes for the institution were proved false — the ACH didn’t outlast his death in the early 1880s — but during its brief existence it boasted honorary members including such well-known figures as Senator Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State William Seward, and the romantic poet William Cullen Bryant.

Title page to an 1873 issue of The Chronotype. The motto reads “Esto perpetua” (Let it be perpetual) [Source]

As one might imagine, Albert Welles was also interested in his own family’s history. He published a History of the Welles Family in England and Normandy (1876), which was riddled with about as many errors as was The Pedigree and History, though he made no claim to quasi-divine heritage. Instead, Welles constructed a family tree — almost entirely inaccurately — that gave him connections to a grab-bag of medieval nobility, including Sir Lionel de Welles, a combatant in the War of the Roses and step-father of Lady Margaret Beaufort; the princely house of Orange; several bishops; and assorted signatories of Magna Carta. Welles could therefore take comfort in the fact that like his hero George Washington, like all proper Americans, he was descended from a medieval lineage full of manly valor and civic virtue.

Shortly after Albert Welles’ death in 1883, his books, papers, and correspondence were auctioned off, including “thousands of manuscript genealogies of American families, and quite a large number in book form, expensively gotten up, with portraits, coats of arms and crests” — perhaps even including the notes from which Welles had concocted George Washington’s family tree. (The Daily Picayune, 9 June 1883, 2.) A newspaper account of the auction noted that the true value of all of these goods could be estimated from a single example — a genealogy drawn up on behalf of one William Augustus Martin of New York, showing that he and all the other American Martins were descended from the seventh-century Pope Martin I. “Who would not be a Martin?” the reporter wrote wryly — just as surely, in the mind of Albert Welles, who could envision an America founded by anyone other than a descendant of Odin?

A Beginner’s Reading List: Medieval Europe

It’s difficult for an academic historian to critique popular history books on the Middle Ages without sounding snotty, or dry, or some unappetising combination of both. Popular history books are where the majority of general readers encounter the medieval past. The issue is that many of the popular history works about the Middle Ages best represented in local libraries and second-hand bookshops are not particularly good.

Judging from my casual conversations with people, they’re most likely to have read works such as William Manchester’s egregious A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance (1992), which was a New York Times bestseller and an unabashedly shoddy hatchet job on the medieval world, or Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), which spins a yarn good enough to win a U.S. National Book Award and does a better job with the sources than does Manchester, but whose arguments were dated even when it was first published. (Let’s not even get started on the person who once told me, in all seriousness, that they’d learned a great deal about medieval Italy from reading The Da Vinci Code. I still get the night sweats thinking about it.)

It’s much easier, however, to push good books on people than to sneer at what they have already read in good faith. 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.

Getting Started

Miri Rubin. The Middle Ages: A Very Short Introduction (2014).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This little paperback does exactly what it promises on the cover: provides a very short introduction to the Middle Ages. In just 120 pages, Miri Rubin covers the ways in which medieval Europeans thought society should work and what salvation would look like, how they treated minorities and what points of connection we can see between the Middle Ages and the modern world. This is a straightforward refutation of the idea that the Middle Ages were a benighted and backwards time.


Chris Wickham. Medieval Europe (2016).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

If you’re looking for a slightly more extensive introduction than Rubin’s Very Short Introduction, Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe is probably the most up-to-date broad introduction available. Wickham covers the broad sweep of the thousand years between the end of the Roman Empire in the West to the Reformation, taking in some of the key social, economic, and political factors that shaped medieval Europe. Byzantium, the Islamic world, and Eastern Europe all feature—essential areas to consider, yet ones which are often omitted in standard surveys.


Marcus Bull. Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages (2005).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

If you want to step back and consider why we think about the Middle Ages in the ways that we do, pick up Marcus Bull’s Thinking Medieval. It’s compact but wide-ranging, looking at the stereotypes and representations of the Middle Ages in film, television, and the press—from Ivanhoe to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Pulp Fiction—and exploring why they are so persistent. Though written with the college classroom in mind, I think it’s also accessible to the general reader with an interest in understanding why the remote past matters.



Digging Deeper

Paul Freedman. Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2008).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

There’s a popular misconception that before Columbus’ sailed west across the Atlantic, medieval Europe was cut off from the rest of the world. Yet in Out of the East, Paul Freedman explores how trade—in particular the spice trade—had long linked Europe with parts of the world far distant from it. Traders were drawn east in search of pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and other culinary and medicinal luxuries—and medieval Europeans enjoyed heavily spiced food that often resembled what we’d think of as quintessentially Asian or Middle Eastern food today.


Fredric L. Cheyette, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours.

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

In the late twelfth century, a woman named Ermengard, viscountess of Narbonne ruled across a large swathe of what is now southern France. Fredric Cheyette sets out to rescue her from the historical shadows. This is a hefty book, but one which provides some fascinating insight into the political and social contexts of this period—what it meant for a woman to be the lord of an important port city in a region home to one of the Middle Ages’ most famous heresies.


Barbara Hanawalt. The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (1986).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

How did peasants in medieval England—the vast majority of the population—care for their children and their elderly? What games did they play? What did their homes look like? In The Ties that Bound, Barbara Hanawalt made pioneering use of late medieval coroners’ rolls to uncover details of the daily lives of peasants in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England—and to show people who were as distinct and complex as anyone nowadays.



The Medieval and the Modern

Celia Chazelle et al. Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice (2011).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This thought-provoking collection of essays sets out to prove the assertion in its title. The various essays—on topics as diverse as healthcare, crime and punishment, and clerical sexual scandals—argue that while the Middle Ages may not provide neat solutions to modern social problems, then they do at least offer us new ways of approaching them. After all, “medieval” is not, and should not be used as, a simple synonym for “barbaric”, any more than “modern” is a synonym for “progress.”


María Rosa Menocal. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2002).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

The “clash of civilisations” narrative—of an irreparable, binary conflict between the Christian West and the Muslim World—is used by many to explain contemporary political conflicts. Yet religious polarisation is hardly inevitable, and in The Ornament of the World, María Rosa Menocal explores the diverse and vibrant culture created by Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Iberia. This multi-cultural society was one of the most advanced in medieval Europe. Menocal’s recreation of the glories of al-Andalus is perhaps at times an overly rosy one, but this is still a useful introduction to a period that’s still too-little known.


Patrick Geary. The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (2003).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Nationalism is undergoing a resurgence in Western politics—Brexit and the election of Donald Trump being the two most prominent examples. Much of these ideologies are predicated on certain views of medieval history, but here Patrick Geary argues that ethno-nationalism has more to do with myth than with history—that its rallying cries date back to the nineteenth century, not to the Middle Ages. Geary packs a lot of argument into a relatively brief space, and even if you don’t agree with all of his conclusions, The Myth of Nations is sure to spark much further reflection.


That’s nine great books to start with, but there are lots more out there. If there are other books about medieval history that you’d particularly recommend to a beginning reader (or really wish that people would avoid), feel free to leave a comment below!

Thinking Critically About Digital Pedagogy

This week I’ve been attending the 2017 Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute (DPLI) at the University of Mary Washington. This is a week-long gathering of people interested in exploring the roles and applications of digital technology in teaching. I’m participating in one of the DPLI’s “tracks” on Critical Digital Pedagogy, which focuses on teaching philosophies, learning modalities, and how to effectively design enriching online, hybrid, or otherwise digitally engaged courses. (The Lego figure in the header image for this post is the physical avatar that was built for me by a fellow attendee during the week’s introductory session: I’m a gender-bending medieval princess, complete with hennin and moustache, which is awesome.)

The DPLI is a purposeful time and space for reflection about this kind of teaching, something which college-level instructors often don’t get. (In fact, depending on your field, we may encounter very few spaces dedicated to helping us be more mindful or discerning in our teaching in general, outside of a few hurried, mandatory annual days of “training” as graduate teaching assistants.)

But why does a medievalist need to think about these issues? After all, my research and teaching interests plant me squarely in the middle of the thousand years between 500 and 1500, a period of history when wifi access could most charitably be described as “limited”. Why should digital technology have any relevance for the Middle Ages?

It can sometimes be a struggle for me to articulate what role the digital can or should play in the learning experiences I’m helping my students create—particularly when budgets are tight, assessment requirements are rigid, and some technologies that were in use in the Middle Ages, like the humble codex, still haven’t quite been bettered. In the past, I have often defaulted to talking about the bells and whistles of digital pedagogy—talking about how using panoramic images or audio or databases or gifs can create immediacy across geography and time. Having students in western New York play around with 3D models of, say, medieval churches, can give them a sense of space and scale that looking at a picture in a textbook or even reading a list of dimensions cannot.

Brooke Novak, “TEACH” [Source]

I’m not saying these aren’t important factors—all of these things can and do help to widen and deepen the scope of students’ understandings of the past. But increasingly I’m starting to think that the most powerful utility of critical digital pedagogy comes into play long before the student steps into the classroom. It comes through developing a sense of intention about the kinds of tools we’re employing to help our students. It comes through thinking purposefully about the ways we can better frame our courses for students: to show, not tell, our approaches and our expectations. It comes through being mindful of the fact that even if my students step into the classroom never having taken a formal class on the Middle Ages before, they’ve got some preconceptions of it that have been shaped by television, movies, and the internet. (And as recent online controversies have shown, around issues like the colour of Classical statues or the presence of non-white peoples in Roman Britain, people’s preconceptions about the deep past can be integral parts of their present identities.)

Moreover, the borders of the digitally-engaged classroom stretch far beyond the four walls of the traditional, physical classroom space, and so encourage us to be more mindful about our students as whole people. For instance, one of the excellent keynote speakers at DPLI this week, Sara Goldrick-Rab, urged us all to pay attention to whether students’ basic needs for food and shelter are being met. Students who are hungry or exhausted, who are overwhelmed by the current political environment or who feel out-of-place in their institution, are unlikely to succeed in the classroom.

One of the things that I’ve been tasked with in our DPLI track is to write a new teaching philosophy statement. I started writing this post thinking that was what I would produce in this space. It’s not: there’s a lot more reflection that I need to do first. I’ve got lots of inchoate thoughts floating around in my mind that I think can only be given real form by making something. So I’m going to turn to the practical. I thought I’d almost finished the syllabus for the interdisciplinary composition course I’ll be teaching this coming semester. Now I realise that my feelings of awkwardness and discomfort with it were signs that I was pushing against my instincts with it. Time to set it to one side, and take a breath, and begin again.

Walking the Medieval Mile Museum

Very few medieval buildings have survived the centuries without major changes, and the former church of St Mary’s in Kilkenny is not one of them. Over the years, it has lost and regained a steeple, a chancel, and sheer square footage; its roof dates mostly from the early modern period; its medieval frescoes are almost entirely gone and chunks of its plaster ceiling are missing. Though still hemmed in by the close formed by the houses of Kilkenny’s prosperous medieval merchants, St Mary’s now feels a little removed from the contemporary bustle of the city’s High Street. The building’s long and complicated architectural history makes it the ideal home for what is, I think, the country’s newest museum: the Medieval Mile Museum (MMM).

The entrance of the Medieval Mile Museum through the west end, beneath the building’s 19th-century steeple.

I had a quick look around the MMM yesterday, and while the space is still settling a little into its new identity as a museum, it’s already a wonderful addition to Ireland’s cultural landscape. The architects and conservationists who collaborated on St Mary’s transformation into the MMM clearly thought long and hard about how to balance the abstraction of a museum with the physicality of a medieval structure with a varied history.

From the exterior, the building’s original ecclesiastical function is clear. St Mary’s was founded as Kilkenny’s parish church at some point in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century—certainly by 1205—by William Marshal, lord of Leinster. Marshal is a figure well-known to medieval historians, a powerful Anglo-Norman soldier and statesman who also built the first stone castle in Kilkenny. (It lies just a short walk from the MMM). The church’s size and grandeur, and the impressive tombs which still surround it, are testament to the civic pride and mercantile success of Kilkenny’s medieval burgesses.

Interior, Medieval Mile Museum, Kilkenny. Looking west towards main door.

But step inside and you’re in a place whose purpose is civic pride of a different kind: to gather and showcase the highlights of the medieval and early modern material heritage of Kilkenny City and its surrounding county. Right now, tomb slabs, effigies, and some replica high crosses predominate, though more artefacts are apparently due to join them this coming autumn. The interior’s bright white walls set off the items on display as effectively as any purpose-designed gallery. Glass inserts in the floor provide glimpses of crypts and the original medieval floor level; a great section has been cut out of the ceiling plaster over the crossing, letting you look up into the roof’s timber beams.

A lot of thought clearly went into considering light and making sure that sight-lines are uncluttered. I visited on that rare feature of an Irish summer, a sunny day, but it’s hard to imagine the MMM feeling gloomy even in the depths of winter. Pretty much every direction you look creates interesting juxtapositions between artefacts, and thoughtfully placed benches encourage you to sit and take advantage of that. This is one of the aspects of the museum which will surely make it attractive to visiting school groups.

The MMM extension. It looks like it rests on the medieval chancel walls, but is actually suspended above them.

The building’s original footprint has also been restored thanks to a new extension made of wood and lead. The extension’s simple lines and muted colours complement the existing structure while recreating the volume and visual density of the lost medieval chancel (which was mostly dismantled during the eighteenth century). From the exterior, the two parts of the building look seamless; yet from the interior, it’s clear that the extension floats over the remains of the chancel walls and the tombs below. There’s something quite arresting about seeing something so massive be made to seem so weightless.

This new chancel houses some of the city’s medieval and early modern manuscript treasures, including pieces of civil legislation (concerning, for example, how to punish “bawdy hoores and cnaves”), various royal charters and the priceless Liber primus Kilkenniensis. Another large window here lets you look out over the rooftops of Kilkenny and try to imagine how much of the skyline would be at all familiar to the people who wrote the texts which surround you.

I would have liked if the room provided a little more contextualisation of the individual documents and of the circumstances and settings under which they were produced, but that’s perhaps the inevitable lament of the medieval history nerd about something which is aimed at the general public. (Give me more about the institutional relationship between the bishopric and the town!) Still, there are some little gems to discover, like the thirteenth-century charter issued by a bishop of Ossory which let friars in Kilkenny tap into his water supply—but the pipe they used couldn’t exceed a certain diameter. Helpfully, as you can see below, he attached a metal ring to the charter specifying the exact size.

A charter of Geoffrey de Tourville, bishop of Ossory, allowing the Dominicans of Kilkenny to use his water supply. Late 1240s.

Working with the history of St Mary’s, its original structure and later interventions, was a very sensible idea on the part of those involved in the MMM’s creation. It gestures generously to the past, but is confident in its developing identity as a modern institution.  The new museum is sure to become a fixture for those who research and teach the Middle Ages.

Pratt’s map of Kilkenny (1708), now at the National Library of Ireland. St Mary’s Church is marked D.

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.”


New Religious Histories: Rethinking the Study of Medieval Religion – A Round Table Discussion

This post was originally hosted on Storify, before that service shut down.

This panel took place at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, July 4 2017. The panellists were John Arnold, Sabrina Corbellini, Kirsty Day, Emilia Jamroziak, and Amanda Power.


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.

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