6 The Voices of Medieval Women
Dr. Karen Palmer
The few records about women that remain from the first few centuries of the church tell the story of women who were strong in their faith and courageous unto death. They were revered and seen as leaders in their communities, not because of their gender or because they sought positions of leadership, but by virtue of their faith and their gifts, which were recognized by their communities. However, as the church began to transition from a movement with a focus on sharing the good news to an organized religion, women were consistently and deliberately left out of the picture. That any records survive the purging of the church ‘fathers’ who sought to erase all memory of women from the record is significant, but the loss of the majority of these stories is a tragedy.
Early Middle Ages
In the early Middle Ages, women were not seen as individuals, either in marriage or legally. According to Eileen Power (1975), “the fact which governed her position was not her personality but her sex, and by her sex she was inferior to man” (2). In other words, a woman’s gifts were not important; what was important was that she was a woman. Tucker and Liefeld (1987) assert, though, that, despite limitations and the continuation of the viewpoint that women were inferior, women’s “holy living, charismatic phenomena, and emotional ecstasy” created a space for them in the church (130).
In fact, in the early centuries of the Middle Ages, some women enjoyed the ability to lead and serve both alone and alongside of their male counterparts. Of course, the records surviving almost solely relate details about a very small circle of women—those in the wealthy, upper class. While the tales of these women form the basis for modern understanding of what life was like for women in the Middle Ages, it is important to note, as Power (1975) does, that the “laboring folk were used to the sight and to the companionship of working women in fields and at benches” (3). However, although most of the women whose names remain hailed from the aristocratic class, the fact remains that they held great influence on the church.
Service Through Marriage and Chastity
Some women brought faith to new lands by marriage. For example, Clotilde, Bertha, and Ethelburga married pagan kings and, in doing so, succeeded in introducing Christianity to their husbands and their new communities.
Though some women, like these, used marriage as a way to introduce Christianity to others, many others found their voice through the monastic community.
In fact, one of the most common ways women were able to serve was to take a vow of chastity. Unfortunately, the very act that bought some women their freedom and allows modern scholars a modicum of insight into the lives of women during this time frame at the same time silenced the voice of married women. There is no doubt that these unseen women played important roles in sharing the faith with their households and in their communities, but their stories are lost to modern scholars.
For several centuries, stories of women who were sought after for their knowledge and well-known for their humility challenge modern views that women have never been leaders in ministry. In the 500s, one woman, Radegund, who became the abbess at a convent in Poiters, escaped a horrible marriage and found peace in her new life at the convent. In the 600s, Hilda became an abbess at Whitby and was known for her “extraordinary knowledge, but also for her charity, meekness, and humility” (Malone 2000, 193).
In the 7th century (probably between 675 and 680), Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, composed a treatise in praise of virginity, De Virginitate, which was written for Abbess Hildelith and her nuns at Barking Abbey. The prologue of the treatise is an address to the abbess and her community, framed as a reply to the letters which he had received from her. In it he describes how:
Some time ago, while proceeding to an episcopal convention… I received most pleasurably what had been written by your Grace to my humble self and, with my hands extended to the heavens, I took care joyously to extend immense thanks to God on behalf of your welfare. In your writing not only were the ecclesiastical compacts of [your] sworn vows – which you had pledged with a solemn promise – abundantly clear, but also the mellifluous studies of Holy Scriptures were manifest in the extremely subtle sequence of your discourse.
Aldhelm’s prose style might seem a little ridiculous today, laden as it is with adjectives, but the key point is that he is evidently impressed by the nuns’ learning. Later on, he praises the ‘rich verbal eloquence and the innocent expression of sophistication’ which he finds in the letters.
Reading Aldhelm’s words today, however, we may be struck by a sense of poignancy. The letters of these nuns, which he describes as ‘roaming widely through the flowering fields of Scripture’ and ‘scrutinising with careful application the hidden mysteries of the ancient laws’, have – tragically – been lost. As modern readers, we are only seeing one side of a conversation, probably because Aldhelm’s correspondents were women. Unfortunately, in the medieval period (and after) the production and dissemination of texts – literary or otherwise – was largely controlled by men, which is one reason why so few texts by women from this period survive.
Women as Scribes
In the 700s, women like Frideswide, Walburga, Hugeberc, and Leoba continued the legacy of women who left their homes and tradition behind to seek education and service in convents, and all were renowned for their wisdom and care for their communities (Malone 2000, 203-216).
In around 735 – at about the same time that Aldhelm addressed his De Virginitate to Hildelith and her community – St Boniface (672×5?–754) wrote a letter to Eadburga, who was the abbess of Thanet. In the letter he requests:
I beg you further to add to what you have done already by making a copy in gold of the Epistles of my master, St Paul the Apostle, to impress honour and reverence for the Sacred Scriptures visibly upon the carnally minded to whom I preach. I desire to have ever present before me the words of him who is my guide upon my road. I am sending by the priest Eoban the materials for your writing.
It is clear that this manuscript was intended to be an important, high-status document and it is telling that Boniface requests that it be made in Eadburga’s scriptorium (the room where manuscripts were copied). The letter shows that not only did women possess the skills to copy texts, but that sometimes their work was prized. The British Library contains several early manuscripts which were copied by women, and others survive elsewhere.
Despite the increasing severing of women from the church, some women in the ninth century did make a mark on church history. Many of these women hailed from the Abbey of Gandersheim, known as the “center of female learning for the whole of Western Europe” (Malone 2000, 238). Of course, for females, the convent was one of the only places they were allowed to learn. Common opinion was that women should not be allowed to read and write, except in some possible situations (Power 1975, 72).
Among those from Gandersheim is Hroswitha. Despite the fact that the church had officially removed the position of canoness in the early 9th century, Hroswitha was a canoness in Abbey of Gandersheim, “the first ever Christian dramatist, the first Saxon poet, and the first woman historian of Germany” (Malone 2000, 238). In her writing, a common theme of the triumph of the Christian faith over evil prevails. Though her writings survive, little is known about her or her life. However, the fact that she served in a position of leadership that didn’t even officially exist is testament to the fact that women who had the ability and gifts for leadership served in those positions.
Interestingly, other women were also writing in the 9th century–women like Dhuoda. Dhuoda was a military wife–one who was separated from her husband and her son at her husband’s command. In order to continue to instruct her son, she wrote him a manual with instructions for living a good life.
The freedom and influence that women held in the church in the monastic world began to come to a close in the ninth century, when the institutional church began to increase its efforts to separate these exceptional women from the world (Tucker and Liefeld 1987, 137). In fact, by 850, 90% of the monastic communities for women had disappeared (Malone 2000, 218). Women were banned from serving at the altar and even forbidden to “light candles or ring bells, or conduct prayers for the remembrance of the dead” (Malone 2000, 219). As women are removed from roles in the church, they are also removed from the partnership they once shared with the monks.
Demonization of Women
Part of the reason for this was the increasingly governmentalized aspect of religion. As Christianity became the “official” religion, the law became more important than the gospel. For example, Charlemagne based his rule on the 10 Commandments, not on the beatitudes or the love of Christ (Malone 2000, 217). Further, Gregorian reform sought to eliminate the influence of women on the church through the institution of celibacy. In order to effect this change, which took centuries to fully enact, “women were demonized and vilified in order to attempt to make marriage less attractive” (Malone 2001, 45).
Evidence of this demonization lies in the words of Peter Damian, who described women this way: “‘you women of the ancient enemy, you bitches, sows, screech-owls, night-owls, blood-suckers, she-wolves . . . harlots, prostitutes . . . wallowing places for fat pigs, couches for unclean spirits’” (as quoted by Malone 2001, 49). Such rhetoric apparently did its work, and enforcing celibacy further separated women from the machinations of the church as it reinforced the idea that women were evil and not to be associated with, even in marriage. Eventually, the monks, who previously held such wonderful partnerships with their female counterparts, even shunned women. Though those in the convent “had access to the leisure and library resources that made some education possible,” even education was denied women, both in and outside of the Convent (Malone 2001, 99). Women had to teach themselves, and they did.
Interestingly, despite the fact that women were excluded from leadership officially, according to Power (1975), women of these days were expected to step into the shoes of their husbands, both when they were absent from the home and when they died. Whether they were ruling the home or taking over their husband’s business, women were expected to fulfill the duties of their husbands (48). If women were capable of stepping into their husband’s shoes in the realm of the home and business, it is common sense that they would also be able to do so in the church. This is, in fact, what happened.
During this time, the leaders of the church made a practice of examining the topic of “the woman” and trying to explain why women “were utterly incapable of choosing anything for themselves” (Malone 2001, 57). Even the current view of many conservative Christians that it is the woman’s fault if a man lusts after her took shape during this time period in which women were to be locked out of sight. In addition to being kept at home, women were not to speak, as it was determined that nothing good came from them. According to Malone, women were seen as “chatterboxes, expert liars, malicious gossips, constant arguers, persistent whiners” (2001, 61). As such, women were not allowed to speak.
‘Just because I am a woman’: Women striving to be heard
Clearly, women’s work was not usually valued enough to be preserved and widely disseminated. Some seven centuries after Aldhelm, in the late 14th-century, the anchoress and mystic, Julian of Norwich asked:
Just because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I must not tell you about the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time both his goodness and his wish that it should be known?
Julian, who wrote the first work in English that we can be sure was authored by a woman, was expressing an idea that was also articulated by another female writer of the same period. The early 15th-century Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, a poet at the court of Charles VI of France, contains a speech by Lady Reason (one of three personified virtues who appear to the narrator in the poem’s opening passages) in which she says:
Should I also tell you whether a woman’s nature is clever and quick enough to learn speculative sciences as well as to discover them, and likewise the manual arts? I assure you that women are equally well-suited and skilled to carry them out and to put them to sophisticated use once they have learned them.
Both writers were, in different ways, addressing the structural inequality which made writing so difficult for women in the medieval period. As Julian articulates, it was often impossible for women to be given a voice, despite the fact that – as Lady Reason notes, and Aldhelm makes clear – they were no less capable than men at communicating their ideas. Despite the obstacles, some women – often brave, tenacious and gifted – did manage to find a voice, but it is often a voice shrouded in mystery.
One such mysterious voice is found in an anonymous Latin poem contained in a 12th-century manuscript (Add MS 24199). The poem seems to have been written by a woman – its penultimate line contains a word with a feminine ending, suggesting that the narrator is female. Of course, we cannot be sure that the author was also female, but the sentiments expressed in the poem read like those of a marginalised female writer. The narrator writes:
No poems now please our leaders.
I am indicted [formally charged with a crime], but in fact for what foregoing misdeed?
If you want to know art is my crime, and genius.
My lofty writing gave birth to my great crime.
Clio – faithful companion, we are driven out, leave!
The reference to Clio, the muse of history, is one of several learned classical allusions made by the author. Although we do not know who wrote this poem, it was clearly a well-educated person, perhaps a nun. Constant J Mews has suggested that the author may have been Héloïse, a 12th century French nun who had an ill-fated love affair with a philosopher and theologian named Peter Abelard.
The anonymous poem, possibly by Héloïse, touches up against a major problem which we encounter when we are examining the history of women’s writing in the Middle Ages. As so much of medieval literature is anonymous, perhaps more of it than we realize was authored by women. When we open a book today, we are probably greeted with a title page containing an author’s name, a work’s title, and a publisher. Medieval manuscripts often did not contain such information at the start of a text. (Of the 17 manuscripts and fragments of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, for example, only two of them name him as the author of the work.) Unless authors embedded their names within the text, the nature of manuscript transmission can mean that we have no idea who wrote a particular work. In addition to this, given the challenges faced by women in producing a literary work, it is probable that some female authors simply chose anonymity and their names and stories will never be recovered.
It is clear that women faced structural inequality which prevented their works from being copied and disseminated. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the survival of some of the most important female writers of the medieval period was ensured by the women who came after them. The earliest copies of the ‘Long Text’ of The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (1342–c. 1416) were created by exiled nuns in France and Belgium in the 17th century. The ‘Long Text’ was the culmination of 20 years of Julian’s revision and meditation on the visions which she experienced as she lay on her deathbed in 1373. Without the energies of these later female scribes, this vital text might have been lost. And, in the 20th century, it was a woman named Grace Warrack who produced the first modern edition of Julian’s works.
Image of the earliest manuscript of the ‘Long Text,’ which appears to have been copied by Anne Clementine Cary, a Benedictine nun living in exile from England, who died in 1671. The manuscript you can see here was probably made in around 1675. Image in Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
The story of the 15th-century Book of Margery Kempe reminds us how precious these manuscripts are – and how easily they might have been lost. Margery Kempe (b. c. 1373, d. in or after 1438) was a middle-class woman from Lynn in Norfolk. After the difficult birth of the first of her 14 children, she had a vision of Jesus – the first of many such visions. Later in her life she decided to devote herself to God and became a ‘vowess’, taking vows of chastity. Thereafter she travelled widely and often faced fear and hostility. She was accused of being a heretic on several occasions.
In the 1430s, she decided that she would like to record her experiences, but was unable to do so as she was illiterate. Instead, she wrote through dictation. She made at least four attempts to get what became her Book written down – three different male scribes were engaged at different times to transcribe her verbal account of her life. The work was finally completed in 1438.
Until 1934, the only known version of Margery’s work was a drastically shortened extract printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501. In this print version Margery’s experiences have been heavily edited. Whereas in the manuscript version, Margery is a larger-than-life character, who roars and wails and boisterously communicates her devotion, in de Worde’s edition, she is a listener and not a speaker. The text has a quieter and more contemplative mood, with a focus on Margery’s experiences in the 1420s which thereby removes the descriptions of her pilgrimages or harassment as a supposed heretic.
If it had not been for the chance discovery of the manuscript of Margery Kempe’s Book, our only access to her account would have been one that was drastically altered (most probably by a man). In this way, the work is a metaphor for the way in which women’s experiences have so often been cut down, manipulated and controlled by men throughout history. Today, as a result of the efforts of feminist scholars, the works of these extraordinary women are finally being given the attention they deserve. Perhaps in the future more hitherto unknown texts by anonymous authors will be identified as the work of women, or new manuscripts will be found by people searching for ping-pong balls, as Kempe’s Book was in 1934.
Here’s a video from Michael Zink discussing “The Contemplation of God in Medieval Literature.”
You might also be interested in this list of Medieval Women who made an impact on their societies.