In my history thread of reading, Femina by Janina Ramirez is up next. The subtitle, A New History of the Middles Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It, is as good a summary as one would like. Through nine chapters it relates the stories of women from the 7th century through to the 15th century. The earliest chapter relies entirely on archaeological evidence with later chapters mainly documentary but with some reference to historical objects.
The introductory chapter highlights that medieval women, such as Joan of Arc and Julian of Norwich influenced the suffragettes, so their existence was not unknown. It is fair to say that medieval women have not been subject of a huge amount of academic interest.
Subsequent chapters typically focus on one woman but include some material on other similar or related women. The chapters progress chronologically.
A recurring theme is the spread of the Catholic Church through the medieval period, and the role of women in that spread. First, bearing jewelry with secret Christian symbols but later as abbesses – in this period it seemed common for a monastery, for monks, and a convent, for nuns, to be paired. The position of abbess was quite senior, and providing an opportunity for study. The Reformation in the first half of the 16th century took away this route to power for women.
As is my custom I will provide a short summary of the chapters:
Movers and Shakers – the “Loftus princess burial” in North East England in the 7th century. It represents a transitional burial incorporating pre-Christian grave goods – in a Christian cemetery where grave goods are typically not found. It also considers the role of women like Queen Bertha of Kent and Hilda of Whitby in the development of the early Christian church in England.
Decision makers – the women of the British kingdoms prior to the “Viking” invasion in the second half of the 9th century. Cynethryth, Queen of the Mercians, features heavily – she ruled with her husband, Offa, until he died, and then in her own right. Cynethryth is unique as a women in England found on coinage of this period.
Warriors and Leaders – the Birka Warrior, a burial in a settlement near Stockholm – occupied for a period of 200 years. They were buried with weapons but were recently identified as a woman rather than a man. Obviously this caused some controversy but other sources suggest that there were at least some military women in this period and other burials on the site suggested that women were also tradespeople.
Artists and patrons – the Bayeux Tapestry, and the team of women believed to have made it – it turns out that it isn’t King Harold getting the arrow in the eye – once again my childhood history knowledge is false!
Polymaths and scientists – this chapter focusses on Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was an abbess and wrote widely on a range of topics including science and medicine as well as composing music. Her correspondence network included several popes.
Spies and Outlaws – the Cathars in southern France – who were subject to the Albigensian Crusade for heresy in the early 13th century. This was in a time when the Inquisition was only part-formed and local arrangements were more important than the central view. Women appear in the records of the Inquisition, and could be preachers in the Cathar religion.
Kings and diplomats – Jadwiga, the only female king of Poland, a member of the Europe-wide royal families. She introduced the Catholic Church to Poland, founded a University in Krakow, the first in Poland. She died following childbirth at the age of 26. In common with the Decision Makers chapter it shows how marriage was used as a tool of diplomacy in medieval Europe but with women playing some role in organising these partnerships – not simply pawns moved around a board by men.
Entrepreneurs and influencers – the chance survival of The Book of Margery Kempe – the first autobiography in English, written around 1440. Margery Kempe was from a relatively important family in Kings Lynn. She seems like quite a character, reporting a wide range of business enterprises, and religious visions as well as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The final chapter touches on diversity, looking at the ethnicity of Londoners around the time of the Black Death – it shows (on the basis of 41 skeletons) that London in 1350 was about as diverse as modern London. There is also a single court account, elided in the official translation, relating to someone who might now be considered transgender.
Unrelated to gender, Femina highlights how cosmopolitan and connected medieval England was to Europe, and even Asia.
One thing that struck me from this book is that history is viewed through a glass darkly. Across the span of the 600 or so years from the latest of the women described in this book to the present day a great deal can happen. The first is that women are simply not written about, although this book shifts the balance a bit, it is clear were not generally considered the equals of men in the Middle Ages but they were more important than we perhaps currently believe.
More insidiously history is continually re-written by (usually) men with their own axe to grind, or simply a story to tell. An example of this is the “invention” of the Vikings in the 19th century, including their horned helmets which were popularised by a staging of The Ring of the Nibelung in 1876. The suppression of women’s stories started not long after the end of this book, in the 16th century or so.
This is without considering the amount of material simply lost over the span of 600 years.
I found Femina really readable, the chapters all start with some scene setting written in a more fictional style, the chapters provide self-contained stories – it is easy to see this being made into a TV series. I think the biggest takeaways for me were how important at least some women were in the Middle Ages, and how distorted our view of the past is by the historians (and wider society) of the intervening period.