Women’s history in my alma mater

I sometimes seem to have derived an unjustified reputation from the fact that my very first publication was about a woman.1 That was intentional, once I realised that what was mainly coming out of my second virtual archive trawl was mainly the actions of Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll; I figured it would do no harm to be seen as a male historian who realised that women were sometimes important in the Middle Ages. But I didn’t expect it to necessarily become the thing people knew me for, and for some people it is. Thus, the thing I have up on Academia.edu that I got the most requests to upload, before I had done so, is a talk I gave in a Kalamazoo round table long ago, because a friend of mine with an actual track record in gender history thought I might have interesting things to say about women and power.2 Whether I did or not, I’m not sure, but several people wanted to see what they were, which put me in a quandary as literally all I had by way of a ‘talk’ was a sheet and a half of scribbled thoughts with marginal notes from the session crabbed in round the edges. I did, eventually, upload that and got a message back from one of the requesters saying they’d been “hoping for more”, but what was I to do? Admittedly, I have subsequently written more about women, though it’s always the women of Sant Joan de Ripoll, and the story of running my essentially first-wave feminism into the modern discourse which that provoked has already been told; but it’s for reasons like that that I’m always slightly surprised when, occasionally, I get asked to participate in events or projects relating to women’s history.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39, bearing the hands of most of the women I have ever directly studied

This post is about one of those occasions, then, on 17th June 2019, when the visit to London of Professor Rekha Pande of the University of Hyderabad occasioned a kind of scratch conference at Birkbeck, University of London, entitled ‘Medieval Women: Comparative Perspectives’. It was rather strange, having been back inside my old doctoral institution for the first proper time only a month before to hear Chris Wickham speak, now to be back there to speak myself for the first time. This was, however, being organised by my long-term collaborator and ally, Dr Rebecca Darley, then of that parish, which is why I was asked to join in, and it put me on my toes, because as I say, I really only have one well to draw on for this kind of work. That said, I think everyone involved was drawing from wells quite a long way apart from each other, and this actually made for a really interesting discussion. These were the papers:

  1. Rekha Pande, “Writing a History of Gender in Medieval India”
  2. Sergi Sancho Fibla, “Beyond Literati: instruction, cultural practices and literacy in Southern France nunneries (13-14th c.)”
  3. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in 10th-Century Catalonia”
  4. Lauren Wainwright, “Piety, Patronage and Personal Agency: Theodora Douka Palaiologina”
  5. Daniel Reynolds, “The Real House-Lives of the Dead Sea Rift: gender and society in Byzantine Palestina, 400-650”
  6. Rebecca Darley, “Male Mediation of Female Holiness in Byzantine Hagiography”
  7. Discussion

You will immediately see from that that what I drew from my well was in fact a version of the paper I ran into trouble publishing, so I’ve already talked about it here and won’t again. But the others were all really interesting, considering issues in which I am interested from source-bases I didn’t or hardly knew. Professor Pande talked about the difficulties of trying to get women’s history considered when both the source base you have and the scholarship with which you’re dealing are made in two mutually reinforcing patriarchal traditions, the Arabo-Islamic and Indo-Persian ones, and her way through them was to focus on the Bhakti movement, a kind of vernacular mysticism drawing on Buddhist and Jain traditions that is detectable in Indian source material from the 7th century onwards, and in which women were often/occasionally highly regarded.3 As with any movement developing over centuries in an area the size of the Indian subcontinent, there were innumerable variations on Bhakti but some of them involved a refusal to set up buildings or temples, meaning that there were no premises from which women could be excluded. In the extremely scanty record of notable Bhakti practitioners, therefore, there are women as well as men, and their lives show some common patterns, and most especially a refusal to be constrained by the domestic requirements of marriage. There were lots of points of comparison with Western material visible here, from lone ascetic travellers like Indian Margery Kempes (but less tearful and more respected), to the acceptable pattern of life for a hagiography and how that might be shaping the record; but that there even was a trope of the suitably-edifying Indian religious woman is telling us something about a space they created for themselves in these societies.

Rajasthani portrait of Meerabai

This is a Rajasthani portrait, date unknown to me, on display at Delhi Haat of Meerabai, a fifteenth-to-sixteenth-century Bhakti practitioner who, starting from a princely family position, has left us more record than most including a temple which she had built. Image by Onef9dayown work, licensed under CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons, whence you can find out more.4

The other papers, being closer to my areas of expertise, I can probably talk about quicker. Dr Sancho was interested in the education and learning of Carthusian nuns over the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and had a range of examples of women patrons of artwork or even inscriptions for churches or nunneries which required a considerable depth of theological education to get, liturgical manuscripts owned and annotated by such women, and so on, which allowed him to conclude that while they might not have access to formal schooling or the universities, at least some such women were getting that level of religious and knowledge and literacy anyway. He has his slides online still, so you can find out more there, but the discussion focused on what modes of transmission of that knowledge we aren’t being shown by the texts which we have. Lauren was studying the wife of Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, and therefore the empress who returned Greek imperial empressdom to Constantinople; she had got interested in her because the Barber Institute of Fine Arts has a superb example of one of her seals, but it transpired that she was quite politically active—definitely not always the case with Byzantine empresses—including issuing judgements on religious matters and getting Persian geographical works translated into Greek. However, Lauren also had examples of other rulers in the Byzantine sphere putting their queens or empresses to work like this, including Serbia and the Despotate of Epirus, and so raised the possibility that this was actually Nicæa keeping up with its neighbours, rather than Theodora being a single exception.

Lead seal of Empress Theodora Doukaina Palaiologina, struck 1259-1303, Barber Institute of Fine Arts SL0165

Lead seal of Empress Theodora Doukaina Palaiologina, struck 1259-1303, Barber Institute of Fine Arts SL0165

Dan, meanwhile, was up against my sort of problem: a landscape, both social and geographical, about which we can talk mainly through archæology and land transactions, both of which will show you that women were there but rarely very much about what they did. He had some examples of patronesses for buildings and female land ownership (as well as male ownership of female slaves…), and mainly wondered if there was any way through these difficulties. One factor against him that I didn’t have is that Palestine in his kind of period still largely had professional scribes and notaries, so we don’t even have access to women’s signatures as I do. Then Rebecca talked about the one class of women Byzantine writers were usually happy to write about, that is, saints, and the problem, which Professor Pande was also facing, that this inevitably gives us a male view of female holiness and one written for a male audience, not least because only male monasteries have survived in the Orthodox world from the Byzantine period so any female writings have likely been lost. (It’s probably not safe to say anything Byzantine and monastic is lost for sure until we get to the bottom of the archives at Saint Catherine’s Sinai, but the odds aren’t good.) In that writing, then, the two trends we see is that female saints were firstly usually subject to male violence, which was seen as part of the trials they had to endure to attain sanctity, and secondly that they had to get free of both parents and children to live the holy life; only by breaking their social bonds could they be God’s agents.

Mary of Egypt being given a cloak by the monk Zosimos in the desert, as pictured in British Library Yates Thompson MS 3 fo. 287

Mary of Egypt being given a cloak by the monk Zosimos in the desert, as pictured in British Library Yates Thompson MS 3 fo. 287, image from http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=5837, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Not that Mary of Egypt was really a typical Byzantine woman saint, but she was one of the ones famous enough even to be culted in the West, as this shows.

But as I say, it was the discussion that was probably the most fun. Rebecca noted a big difference between women in the West and women in India at the stage of widowhood; in the West that could be women’s most independent stage of life whereas in India it ended their access to resource and prevented them from carrying on with the spiritual life unless they could find other support. There were also sharp differences over virginity and sex, with which the West was obsessed and India not so much, and celebrating the latter rather than the former if it did anything. We also had a profitable discussion over the rôle of individuality: Professor Pande was keen to stress that her Bhakti women were not proto-feminists, in so far as they did not agitate for the emancipation of women but only for themselves and their religious practice, and this led us all to reflect on the historian’s desire to create movements out of the very few individuals, usually very individual, whom we can see. Then we had a long exchange over the social value of literacy in our various spheres, and thus the price of and restrictions on access to it; this turned out to be one of the most variable things of all, depending on what other structures of writing and education existed. One can say that women were rarely taught to write throughout the Middle Ages, for example, but that had different value in a world where basically no-one was so taught outside a small Church group from one where there was a university in almost every major city, from which women were excluded, but which generated an overflow of literate tutors that might still result in broader general, and therefore also female, literacy overall. We could obviously have talked for much longer about this than we had, and though some sketchy plans to create a teaching book out of all of this were probably best let drop, given how many of us didn’t usually do this stuff, I still wonder what it might have looked like. A good day, anyway, to which I’m glad my dubious gender history credentials were able to get me entry!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229–258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x.

2. There were two things in that presentation I’d still quite like to write up, even though it was short, because I’ve kept on thinking with them since having thought of them. One was that we need a word, when we speak of powerful women in the Middle Ages, for something that was unusual and always non-default, but still happened quite a lot, and which society could accept as a reasonable thing to happen that still normally wouldn’t. As it is we’re always forced to discuss each powerful woman as an outlier, and that’s not wrong but it’s also missing the fact that her position was a fairly normal abnormality. The other is that those who minimise women’s political influence in the period tend to point to the men they had to operate with and delegate to, as if to suggest that without men they had no power. Well, fine, but I wouldn’t mind people recognising that this also applied to men in power. Granted, it was much rarer for women to settle anything by armed violence – though there are cases and even times and places where it was more normal – but even kings who were tournament champions and so on had armies and champions of their own, you know? There is something different about the kinds of power men and women could wield, for sure, but the necessity of delegation ain’t it.

3. If this all sounds interesting, and you can find it, the obvious thing to read would seem to be Rekha Pande, Religious Movements in Medieval India: Bhakti Creation of Alternative Spaces (New Delhi 2005).

4. See also S. M. Pandey and Norman Zide, “Mīrābāī and Her Contributions to the Bhakti Movement” in History of Religions Vol. 5 (Chicago IL 1965), pp. 54–73, I assume with suitable period caution.

4 responses to “Women’s history in my alma mater

  1. Allan McKinley

    That footnoted point about the necessity to delegate for both male and female leaders seems important. I would ask though is it something that can be evidenced? It seems to be a truism that is however only demonstrable by comparative analysis, and since female leadership was exceptional if acceptable, there’s not a great corpus of evidence to work with.

    Also, there are real differences in the way females and makes expressed power on occasion. The one I would throw in here is that late-Anglo-Saxon society had several powerful female landowners (although I don’t think they had much political power) who tended to make property transactions in the vernacular, whilst their male counterparts used Latin charters. The implications of this are not fully explored that I know (not is the odd absence of such texts from the most extensive Anglo-Saxon archive, that at Worcester) but it looks like a real difference. I could see an argument that female power over land was actually increasingly common in tenth-century England to the point that a set of norms developed to govern it (this may relate to the lack of demonstrable female political power), so perhaps there’s a corollary to your hypothesis that where female power became common mechanisms developed to differentiate it? Looks like an interesting field of enquiry anyway.

    • As long as we have women issuing charters and sitting in judgement (the former common, the latter less so but can be found) we can see men carrying out their orders, I think, so I’m not sure the first objection presents us with too much trouble. I’m also put in mind of Janet L. Nelson, “The Wary Widow” in Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre (edd.), Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 1995), pp. 82–113, as the classic example of a study embedding a woman in her male social networks. You and I both know how this is also true of men going to law, however, and indeed Jinty explicitly contrasts her findings with those of Patrick Wormald, revisiting the Fonthill Letter in the same volume and doing that very thing: Patrick Wormald, “Lordship and Justice in the Early English Kingdom: Oswaldslow revisited”, ibid., pp. 114–136. If you want bigger fish than that, I’d use either Matilda of Canossa or Ermessenda of Barcelona vs. the former’s father and the latter’s son…

      On the second paragraph I’ve got much less to say, as I just don’t know that evidence as well as you do; but they do indeed sound like really interesting possibilities! Next time I get an MA student determined to do early English gender history, I’ll try them out…

  2. On your footnote 2, there have now been a couple of Beyond Exceptionalism conferences on medieval (noble) women (one this summer, which unfortunately I couldn’t get to: https://events.manchester.ac.uk/event/event:l1pr-l3ka1lf0-vg2690/beyond-exceptionalism-ii-conference), who argue against female power in the Middle Ages being “exceptional”. But I’m not sure whether they’ve come up with a better term. The nearest I’ve come so far is “atypical” – it’s not the norm or usual, but it’s not abnormal. (I’m partly influenced here by the fact that my university, like many others, has a number of “atypical” staff, who don’t fit into normal employment patterns, but who are regularly needed and used.

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