Let’s face it: one can tire of reading about medieval queens and women saints. The former are invariably ascribed the role of femmes fatales, playing high risk games for power in a brutal world of dynastic rivalry. They are “men in petticoats”, to use philosopher Mary Astell’s marvellous phrase (more of her later). The biographies – more properly hagiographies – of women saints tend to be equally conventional: pious, littered with improbable miracles and mysterious foretellings and nearly always written by men (and celibate men, at that). Before the Age of Enlightenment [typically considered from the late 17th to the early 19th century], it seems, history’s women are either stereotypical tropes or they are invisible. Where are the stories of ordinary women’s daily lives; or the authentic voices of women writers and artists of the Middle Ages? Did they ever exist in tangible form; have they been buried by misogynist historians; or are we just not looking for them hard enough in the right places?
Perhaps ‘looking’ is not the right word. As an archaeologist turned historian, I have come to realise that one must turn a fine-tuned ear to the chorus of unquiet women whose agency and experience runs through all our pasts. By ‘unquiet’, I mean the sort of curious, intrepid minds and spirits who have found ways to negotiate access to social, artistic and intellectual fulfilment – often, it is true, against the odds. These sorts of women have always interested me. I come from a very large family of strong aunts and women cousins who, though they might not call themselves feminists, have managed, in otherwise unremarked careers as mothers and householders, to express their restless spirit through creativity and moral authority. What stories, I wonder, will they leave behind for future historians?
Where do we find such women in history? Especially in written history, which until the Reformation was dominated by unmarried men in closed monastic communities whose experience of women was as a species of wild, unfathomable creatures. The archaeologist, at least, starts with an advantage: in death, if not life, women achieve equality – that is, we excavate as many women as men. Over the generations, these women have gone to their graves with as rich a cornucopia of goods, pathologies and ceremonial signatures as men. And in life, if we listen carefully, we can hear their authentic voices. The graves of medieval women tell us that they held the keys to their houses; that they were in charge of domestic livestock; that they valued ornament and style. Sometimes, enigmatic grave assemblages suggest that we are witnesses to the careers of professional healers, cunning women [folk healers] or shamans.
Listen: Max Adams on remarkable women through history
The artefacts that women dropped during their daily lives tell us much more. Take the women weavers who lived in West Stow, an Anglo-Saxon village in Suffolk during the fifth to seventh centuries (now an open air museum). We know that whatever they were up to at the site, they were also spinning yarn; they dropped spindles and whorls everywhere, and took many more to their graves. Each item tells us something unique about the fineness of the yarn being spun and the skill of the spinner. We know that women congregated in workshops to weave and embroider a range of fabrics, from the everyday to the ceremonial, on vertical looms. Finds from other sites tell us that tablet weave – narrow bands with the warps drawn through small pierced cards that enabled intricate symmetrical and geometric patterns to be created for cuffs, hems and collars – was a means for women to express traditional designs passed down through generations, to be worn and displayed by their favoured friends and family. Women could and did advertise their craft skills, their social and family affiliations, and their commercial wares. They had, to use a fashionable phrase, agency.
The will of a wealthy Anglo-Saxon woman named Wynflaed tells us what value society placed on such skills. In the will, Wynflaed testifies what she owned, to whom she intended to leave it and what, of her possessions, was particularly valued. Being a good Christian woman, she promised many of her slaves freedom after her death – but her weaving mistress and seamstress were bequeathed to her granddaughter Eadgifu. We know that she valued her red tent; her bed linen; her horses and her box of sewing and weaving equipment; that she was proud of her patronage of nunneries and of the special gowns that she had been given, or inherited, or made in her own atelier.
Where ancient textiles and textile traditions survive particularly well (the dry lands of the Andes and the Middle East, for example), women’s craft skills and the high value placed on them by society are much more readily appreciated. Dazzling designs and technological mastery take us back to a time when women were literally weaving their own narratives into history, as they still do in South America. Other medieval records tell us of women as professional brewers, bakers (Brewster and Baxter are, like Kempster and Webster, female surnames) and managers of workshops, or of women who travelled for pleasure and for spiritual enlightenment.
When Wynflaed wrote her will she was, it seems, a widow; and it is striking how many medieval women seem to have been empowered or liberated by widowhood. Contrary to popular belief women could, and did, inherit and own property. In an age when men died young from warfare or physical exhaustion, many women took over their husbands’ businesses and property and used them to become commercially successful patrons and influencers in their own right. An extraordinary set of wills, written by former colonial slaves in Peru in the 17th century, survives to tell how poor unfree women found independence – often by marrying and then becoming widowed. They, in turn, kept slaves, bequeathed possessions, houses, business interests, and – a fascinating insight – over three generations they raised their own and their daughters’ and granddaughters’ social status by taking progressively more genteel names. Most men were better off than most women – but wealthy women were always better off than poor men.
Much medieval law is devoted to protecting widows by ensuring that their dower – property brought to the marriage by the husband’s family – could not easily be sold or given away. Even so, many women found themselves in vulnerable social and financial positions after the death of a husband. The experience of one such widow, the Cathar [a medieval Christian sect] sympathiser and minor noble Béatrice de Planissoles (c1274–c1322), is evidence of this. Châtelaine [keeper] of the Pyrenean mountain village of Montaillou, she was left without protection and with no social status when her husband died. She soon found herself a target for all sorts of predatory men – most conspicuously the local priest Pierre Clergue (with whom she eventually embarked upon a semi-clandestine affair) and his cousin Pathau. She was later tried for her life by the Inquisition, but was insouciant during her defence. When challenged with the contents of a leather sack found among her belongings, for example, she provided a series of implausible but consistent excuses, delivered with sangfroid: “I have the [umbilical] cords of the male children of my daughters,” she said. “I preserve them, because a Jewess, since baptised, told me that if I were to carry them with me and I had a lawsuit with anyone, I would not lose…” Her stoicism tells us much about her admirably unquiet spirit.
The first professional European woman writer whose works substantially survive (and who supported herself financially through her writing) was the Italian-French poet and campaigner for women’s rights, Christine de Pizan (1364–c1430). She was best known for her allegorical fantasy the Book of the City of Ladies (1405), in which she launches a fierce polemic against misogynist ‘romantic’ poetry and literally builds a city where women can be safe, creative and independent. Many of her lavish manuscripts survive – all the more interesting because she employed skilled women painters to illustrate their pages, including one of her wielding a trowel (highly gratifying to an archaeologist).
Many more medieval and Renaissance women writers and thinkers can be found, whose lives are at least in part accessible to modern readers. A noblewoman of southern France named Dhuoda wrote a ‘handbook’ for a son she hardly knew; a 12th-century female medic known as Trota wrote a treatise on medical treatments at Salerno in Italy; Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to gain a doctoral degree (or, indeed, any degree), who achieved that milestone as early as 1678. The 17th century is notable for a large number of very active, intellectually engaged women thinkers and writers – which brings us back to Mary Astell (1666–1731), the Newcastle-born philosopher and campaigner against what she called the “tyranny of marriage”. Her writing is fierce, barbed and witty; her mind and her pen were both exceedingly sharp. As a modern advocate of the unquiet woman, I can do no better than aim one of her darts at myself:
“Since the men being the Historians, they seldom condescend to record the great and good Actions of Women; and when they take notice of them, ’tis with this wise Remark, That such women acted above their sex. By which one must suppose they wou’d have their Readers understand, That they were not Women who did those Great Actions, but that they were Men in Petticoats!”
Mary Astell, The Christian Religion 1705
Max Adams is the author of Unquiet Women: From the Dusk of the Roman Empire to the Dawn of the Enlightenment (published by Head of Zeus 2018).