Medieval Women edited by Derek Baker (Basil Blackwell. Oxford, £5.95 paperback).
THIS BOOK, dedicated to Professor Rosalind M. T. Hill, who has devoted a lifetime of study to medieval ecclestiastical history, is important because it deals with a "big" subject, long neglected. It firmly beckons our interest because of the very few authentic glimpses of medieval women so far available to us.
Naturally the history of women in the Middle Ages has always been difficult to write. As Christopher N. L. Brooke says in his introduction: "Few women were literate; their opportunities to record their own thoughts and feelings and attitudes were restricted; the bulk of medieval records were written by men for men". .
When medieval women are mentioned the thoughts of many may fly to dear Mother Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic whose tenderly described visions have found a large "spiritual reading" public today. But she was, literally, on her own. living as a recluse in the not uncommon custom of that time. Many great visionaries have been women: Mother Julian felt called to set down her insights and was able to do so.
In this present book. Derek Baker has gathered much scholarly, deeply researched material about women who include queens. "Jezebels", an Empress, nuns and laywomen who lived in the period roughly described as the Middle Ages i.e. from the break-up of the Roman Empire in about 500 AD to 1500.
The book is set out in self contained chapters and the list of contributors, all scholars and experts in the medieval historical field is assurance enough that the book is no lightweight. These varied and documented "pictures" of the feminine past are presented with the leisurely concentration of the scholar: they demand, and reward, close attention from the reader.
To pick one chapter: Bernard Hamilton, in his account of women in the Crusader states, The Queens of Jerusalem, mentions that these queens are the best documented group of women in the Frankish east. Adventurous stories follow and it (predictably) emerges that women took over when there were simply ho men heirs available, particularly a royal woman with riches to offer a vacant throne.
But, in the stories of queens during that long period. there is evidence of a strong sense of duty. whatever battles, bereavements and misfortunes had led a lady to power. In fact, for all kingdoms, and for many monasteries, money was all important. It was perfectly natural for a rich woman in any part of medieval Christendom to regard a monastery as the proper beneficiary of her wealth, and is she had no husband, a nunnery would be her rightful home.
That assumption does not necessarily preclude a spiritual attitude in herself! By and large the Middle Ages wore a Godward looking era albeit well populated by some Christians who interpreted their godly duties rather strangely.
Particularly fascinating and, to me, illuminating is the chapter, 'Sons and Mothers (Family Politics in the early Middle Ages) contributed by Pauline Stafford. Opening with the statement that Edgar. King of the English since the age of about sixteen "left this wretched and fleeting life" in 975, the story proceeds with an account of family rivalries, supporters taking up the cause of child claimants, and struggles about "rights" which would make a Victorian battle over wills sound like a parlour game. In this chapter we even run into the statement that Charlemagne "managed to combine nine wives with his other known healthy appetities — four wives approved by holy Church, five rather more irregularly".
The text is pricked with humour. At a distance we can smile at family conflagrations, however grim. The thought of a lady being packed off to a Winchester convent to reflect for ten years on lost opportunities, might be a joke in the mind of the writer — and reader now. In fact it also strikes me that to the banished lady. even then it might have been an immense relief to be out of the battle for some position she had been taught to think it her duty to achieve.
There is plenty of material in the book to fuel the wrath of women's "libbers", unless they know it all — also maybe some surprises. In every age there have always been some women with real power.
There is special attraction in the paper contributed by Joan Nicholson — Feminae Gloriosae': women in the age of Bede. This one of the "cosier" essays, with its reference to domestic and religious piety.
1 like the last paragraph: "The Anglo Saxon double monastery, as orphanage, boarding school, old people's home, hotel and, not least avenue of occupation for meddlesome women, must have been the greatest single blessing bestowed by Christianity on God's seventh century Englishmen".
I also found the last chapter, by Claire Cross, on 'Great Reasoners in Scripture: women lollards 1380-1530' fascinating.
The book, which inaugurates the Ecclesiastical History Society's second series of Publications Studies in Church History. contains a splendid set of illustrations, collected from many libraries.