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Gender and written culture in England in the Late Middle Ages

Genre et culture de l’écrit en Angleterre à la fin du Moyen Âge
Aude Mairey

Abstracts

In recent years many English-speaking (but also Dutch and Scandinavian) scholars have fruitfully explored the interactions between gender and written culture in late medieval England. These studies merit consideration and comparison with recent developments in French historiography. Many of these works can be placed within the framework of studies on « literacy/orality/aurality » and pay particular attention to the complexities of the content and forms of women’s knowledge and their transmission at all levels. These studies emphasize the multiplicity of situations and models according to social, political and religious contexts. They enlarge and question the notion of literacy as well as the relations of domination between men and women and the resulting tensions and negotiations. As such, they map a far more complex cultural landscape.

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  • 1 Chaucer, “Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” Canterbury Tales, lines 1-2, cited by Benson 1987: 105.

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynough for me...
1

  • 2 See Jeanne 2008; Bührer-Thierry, Lett & Moulinier-Brogi 2005.
  • 3 Chastang 2008.
  • 4 See criticism by Noiriel 1996.

1For more than a decade now, the concept of gender2 has been slowly making its way in medieval studies in France, whereas in English-speaking countries it has been receiving some criticism for being over-used. Similarly, the history of writing, or more generally, of communication, is attracting increased attention in France, primarily through works aiming to construct a textual archaeology – recently charted by Pierre Chastang.3 It should be noted that the research and ideas of English-speaking scholars (as well as of the Scandinavians and Dutch, who frequently collaborate closely with them) on both these issues – and to an even greater extent, on the interaction between gender and written culture – are extremely rich. These works cannot be reduced to the more extreme aspects of the debates surrounding post-modernism and the linguistic turn,4 but deserve to be acknowledged in all their complexity and confronted with the recent questioning from French medieval historians. This is the more relevant since, beyond the often misleading labels, the concerns and issues of both groups frequently coincide.

  • 5 Mairey 2008.
  • 6 Boxer 2001; Downs 2004b.
  • 7 Thébaud 2007; Downs 2004b. See Lett 2008 for the Middle Ages.
  • 8 Robertson 2007. This is not a new debate: see Thébaud 2007: 140-141.

2My comments on the history and issues of cultural studies have been published elsewhere, and I will not return to them here.5 Neither is it my intention to rewrite the historiography of gender studies – an area prominent since the end of the 1980s6 within American and British academic landscapes and one which in fact constitutes a multi-faceted entity, embracing numerous, sometimes clearly opposed currents of thought. That particular historiography has been the subject of careful syntheses, most notably in impressive works by Françoise Thébaud and Laura Lee Downs, and also in numerous articles.7 It will nonetheless be helpful here to recapitulate the three important areas of debate which have emerged in recent years, given the significant impact they have had on medieval studies. The first deals with the place of feminism in women’s studies, and particularly in gender studies. A number of researchers have indeed been recently troubled by the seeming retreat from a specific vision of feminism at the heart of gender studies. Elizabeth Robertson, for example, has expressed some fear that strictly feminist issues have been displaced by a politically correct vision which sweeps aside the reality of masculine domination and its mechanisms.8 Robertson feels, as do some other researchers, that the notion of gender can only ultimately lead to a watering-down of the specificity of women and their history. Such criticism is equally present in France, and is one of the reasons why the idea of gender has for a long time remained on the peripheries of French research. This criticism is in fact closely linked to the multiple definitions of the term itself.

  • 9 Stoller 1968; Oakley 1972.
  • 10 Thébaud 2007: 121.
  • 11 Scott 1999: 42 [article first published in.

3The original sense of gender, which was developed by American psychiatrists and sociologists in the late 1960s-early1970s,9 “is, as it were, the ‘social aspect of sex’, or the difference between the sexes as socially constructed – a dynamic ensemble of practices and representations, with assigned activities and roles, and with psychological attributes: a belief system”.10 The use of this concept from the start allowed emphasis to be placed on various historical dynamics and on situating them in a comparatist context. But in 1986, Joan Scott proposed a new definition: “Gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes; and gender is a primary way of signifying power relationships”.11 Thus Scott introduced a more political view, one marked by the questionings of post-modernism, which in turn led her to focus on the construction of gender discourse. At the time, Scott’s hypotheses and interpretations provoked objections from numerous women historians, yet it remains the case that in studies from the 1990s and above all, the 2000s, many points of convergence between the different concepts of gender can be identified.

4Feminist criticism of gender has however become sharper in recent years, with the emergence in the 1990s of a new field: the history of masculinity, or rather, masculinities, which fell logically into the field of gender studies. Yet study of the history of masculinities does not automatically involve the elimination of the question of masculine domination: both men and women researchers working on these issues are fully aware of this. The spirited introduction to the collection Medieval Masculinities, edited by Clare A. Lees, provides an endorsement:

  • 12 Lees 1994: xv-xvi.

The focus on men in Medieval Masculinities […] is not a return to traditional subjects that implies a neglect of feminist issues, but a calculated contribution to them, which can be formulated as a dialectic. The search for women in the cultural record, the breaking down of disciplinary barriers to that search, and the resultant new inquiries into cultural, social and representational forms afford medievalists a glimpse of a very different history of men. That study, in turn, will modulate the premises, methods and goals of a feminist inquiry.12

  • 13 Butler 1990: viii and ix respectively.
  • 14 See Drake 2008; Burgwinkle 2006.

5It is thus indeed a matter of complementing analyses which focus on gender relationships, giving full consideration to their many different dimensions. Again in the 1990s, Judith Butler’s writings, most notably her famous Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, in which she conceives gender as a regulating norm emerging out of “a specific formation of power”, and categories of identity as “the effects of institutions, practices and discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin”13 – established a firm theoretical base for, and stimulated interest in queer studies. These are based on the analysis of forms of sexuality that differ from the instituted heterosexual norm, together with the mechanisms of construction of that norm. Certain medievalists have welcomed this thinking, but as far as the present article is concerned, the area of queer studies will be taken to fall primarily into the field of the history of sexuality, appearing only incidentally in that of written culture.14

6There is no doubt that Anglophone medievalists – in particular historians and literary specialists – have been affected by the huge growth of gender studies in the past twenty years15. Works of synthesis and Companions concerned with recent trends in historiography invariably devote a section to gender – whichever way the concept is defined.16 However, in practice, things are a little different; indeed, an analysis of the Bibliography of British and Irish History (ex-Royal Historical Society) provides a much more nuanced perspective. A search of book titles concerning the British Isles, published between 2007 and 2011, covering the chronological period 1000-1500, and which had attached to them one or more of the following keywords: gender, women and masculinity – yielded 372 results.

  • 17 Includes chapters in edited works.

Articles17

Monographs

Women

274

52

Gender

59

24

Masculinity

12

5

7The proportion of articles and monographs to which these keywords are linked is about equal: a good quarter of monographs. As far as the keyword masculinity is concerned, it remains rare (17 cases only). What can we understand about the main subjects associated with these terms?

  • 18 The Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature, available in hard copy only, makes this (...)

8If we consider only the keywords, which clearly only allow a very simplified glimpse of the historiographical landscape, women's history is in practice far more significant than gender history proper. The most favoured areas are primarily concerned with religious and devotional history, as well as histories of the monarchy and elites, urban history, and histories of the family and private life. Two women from the English Middle Ages hold places of honour: Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. “Written culture” does not appear as a keyword category, but one should stress the fact that religious literature represents the most-studied field, and that literature in the narrower sense holds a significant place (including the works of Chaucer). However, study by keyword proves limited; cultural history is more visible when publications are examined in detail.18

  • 19 For the debate between anthropologists see Goody 2000, who sets out his thinking on the impact of w (...)
  • 20 See the pioneering works by Clanchy 1993; Stock 1983; Briggs 2000 for a recent historiography. For (...)
  • 21 Some researchers have adopted a French version of “literacy”: “littératie”.

9In recent years, a number of works on women and gender in the field of cultural history have been located in the context of conceptual thinking about “literacy/orality/aurality” triptych. For medievalists working in women’s/gender studies, this particular trio is at the heart of their concerns, and for some while scholars have been rethinking the relationships between the three terms. Theories developed by some anthropologists and arising out of what English-speakers describe as “The Great Divide” between societies characterized by writing and those based on oral culture, are currently subject to criticism – as much by other anthropologists as by historians.19 Medievalists cannot help but be concerned with the question of relationships between the written and the oral, which were particularly complex in medieval society.20 “Literacy” (the ability to read and write)21 is no longer viewed as a monolithic concept, and this is not just due to the recognition of the importance of pragmatic writing. The definition given recently by Margaret Ferguson seems particularly apt in this respect:

  • 22 Ferguson 2003: 3-4.

Literacy in my usage almost always connotes “literacies” and points to a social relation that has interpersonal, intercultural, international, and interlingual dimensions. Instead of asking “What is literacy?” we might rather ask, “What counts as literacy for whom, and under what particular circumstances?”22

  • 23 Coleman 2007: 69. Her approach is developed in Coleman 1999. See also Cherewatuk 2004.
  • 24 Mostert 1999 (a significant bibliography).
  • 25 Genet 1997: 13. For linguistic matters see Mairey 2011.

10In other words, “literacy” cannot be viewed as a static state, but one which constitutes a dynamic process, in interaction with numerous other factors, and in particular with the multiple dimensions of orality. Generally speaking, more and more works are stressing the complementarity of the written and the oral in medieval society. The emergence of the triptych’s third term, aurality, defined by Joyce Coleman as “the reading of books aloud to one or more people,”23 is a strong indication of that. Speaking even more generally, much scholarly thought lies within the framework of communication, although this term is equally problematic and requires rigorous definition with respect to the medieval period: an area investigated notably by Marco Mostert.24 Anglophone scholars do not employ the concept of a communication system, as defined with respect to the medieval period by Jean-Philippe Genet, in particular.25 Yet these different approaches do largely converge.

11Scholarly works on culture – or rather on women’s cultures – greatly enrich such questions, in that women were for a long time virtually excluded from written culture, firstly by the medieval clerks and subsequently by nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars. But in reality, this exclusion only concerns a certain type of written culture: the academic culture, by nature clerical and frequently considered as the very model of written culture. Antje Mulder-Bakker’s introduction to Seeing and Knowing: women and learning in medieval Europe, 1200-1500, proves eloquent on this point:

  • 26 Mulder-Bakker 2004: 11. See also: Mulder-Bakker & McAvoy, 2009.

The time has come to abandon the idea of a few learned women living as exceptions on the margin. We have to search for general patterns in their narratives. But at the same time we have to realize that the large majority of them lived in a different world from that of the textually learned; that they used different ways of acquiring and transmitting culture and knowledge. In brief, we must shift our attention from the school and universities, from scholars and scholarship... to the world in which most medieval people lived, the world of seeing and hearing.26

12Such insistence on the complexity of the content and form of women's learning and its transmission is found at every level, and must lead towards a clarification of the overall complexity of communication systems. Orality, aurality and visual culture can no longer be considered as media or languages inferior to those of written culture. At the same time, their re-evaluation leads to a reshaping of our very conceptions of written culture, whether in the domain of education, pragmatic writing, devotional or literary culture, etc.

  • 27 In the Middle Ages, learning how to read and how to write constituted two distinct processes.
  • 28 Clanchy 1993: 251-252.
  • 29 Sheingorn 193; See also Scase 1993.
  • 30 See in particular Alexandre-Bidon 1989.
  • 31 However, for the High Middle Ages, we are able to refer to the works by Rosamond McKitterick and he (...)

13In the first place, how women were placed for learning to read, and sometimes to write,27 has been the subject of several analyses. In 1979, Michael Clanchy stressed the essential role of the mother in such learning.28 Several studies then appeared on the same subject, such as those which focus for example on iconography representing Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read. Representations of this particular theme multiplied during the closing centuries of the Middle Ages; according to Pamela Sheingorn, notably, the spread of this motif is a significant indication of the growth in women’s literacy, and a medieval culture in which women's reading – not only among women in the highest society – is recognized as a significant fact.29 This represents one of the points of convergence with French works on the subject.30 Beyond their basic learning, women’s competencies in the area of literacy are constantly being revised upwards, both in the context of households or monasteries, although it should be stressed that these reassessments principally concern the final centuries of the Middle Ages.31

  • 32 Bell 1995. On the knowledge of Latin in secular circles, see, for example, Hirsch 2007.

14The systematic study of libraries in monasteries and women’s convents has led above all to a revision of the image of nuns’ bookish culture in several areas. David Bell, in particular, has stressed that a knowledge of Latin was not totally improbable, at least among a minority of nuns.32 He points especially to the vitality of vernacular theological culture among fifteenth-century nuns, and concludes his study thus:

  • 33 Bell 1995: 76-77.

The interest of the nuns in fifteenth-century books and literature stands in marked contrast to the unimpressive record of their male counterparts, and if almost all the books were in English and if, from a Latinate theological point of view, most [nuns] were unlearned, what of it? As a consequence [...] of what most men would have seen as their limitations, the spiritual and devotional life of the English nuns could have been richer, fuller, and, one might say, more up to date than that of their more numerous brethren, who, for the most part, were still mired in the consequences of a conservative and traditional education.33

  • 34 Erler 2004.
  • 35 Wogan-Browne 2003.

15Other studies, such as those by Mary Erler, have taken a similar direction, again concentrating on the process of individualized reading in women’s monasteries.34 In addition, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne notes that nuns’ book-reading culture in the thirteenth century should not be underestimated and was far more significant than has long been thought; again, this primarily concerns a culture in the vernacular language of French.35

  • 36 On English correspondence in general, see Taylor 1980; for women's correspondence, see Cherewatuk a (...)
  • 37 Davis 1976-2004. Some letters by women from the family have been modernized and published separatel (...)

16On the secular side, English correspondence of the fifteenth-century has been particularly explored with reference to culture within households.36 Numerous studies have been devoted to the famous correspondence of the Paston family, a family from the English gentry for whom letters extending over several decades exist, a number of them penned by women.37 Rebecca Krug’s study of Margaret Paston’s letters is particularly enlightening, largely because Krug places the social practices of literacy in a context where writing was employed by a person unlettered in the scholarly or academic sense of the term. This situation implies that her literacy was mediated orally:

  • 38 Krug 2002: 29. See also Harding 2004.

Margaret Paston’s introduction to literate culture through her husband’s legal/literate practice demonstrates how the demands of daily life led women...to work with written texts even when they possessed few literate skills themselves.38

  • 39 Douglas 2009. See also Speeding 2008.
  • 40 Richardson 2005: 57.

17Yet this does not mean that Margaret was not responsible for the content of her letters: she was – in the same way as a man who dictates to a secretary is nonetheless able to manipulate the conventions of written culture,39 and in the same way as she was energetically involved in the management of family matters and the protection of family interests. Margaret does not represent an isolated case. According to Malcolm Richardson, for example, Elizabeth Stonor’s letters (the fifteenth-century Stonors were another family of the English gentry) even prove that a woman of a certain standing could demonstrate both style and vigour: “Her letters show a woman fully capable of dealing with the five rhetorical challenges […] as a result of her personal circumstances, using and even bypassing the epistolary conventions of her time”.40

  • 41 See Bell 1988; McCash 1996; and more recently, McCash 2008.
  • 42 See Michelove 2004.
  • 43 Honeycutt 1996; Parsons 1996; Short 1992.
  • 44 Bell 1998.
  • 45 Riddy 1993.

18Even if the letters of Margaret Paston and her contemporaries reveal a conscious use of written culture in a primarily practical context, that does not mean that they were unconcerned with other types of reading. Generally speaking, questions to do with the reading practice and patronage of noblewomen, of women from the gentry and, to a lesser degree, from the urban elite, have now been well explored.41 Such studies have frequently placed an emphasis on women’s roles as intermediaries in two areas of life: devotion and vernacular literature, while some scholars have equally stressed that the use of books was the manifestation of a form of power.42 Some work has focussed on queens in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, whose role in the promotion of at least a vernacular literature in the Angevin and Plantagenet courts has now been well delineated.43 For the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, recent research certainly continues to explore aristocratic patronage: the case of Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, for example, has been studied several times.44 But in the last few years, interest has also been directed towards the possible existence of sub-cultures, inscribed in textual communities which might unite both secular women and those in holy orders. This idea was advanced by Felicity Riddy, in part influenced by Brian Stock's work on the heretical textual communities of the eleventh to twelfth centuries;45 since then, it has been the subject of various studies. Mary Erler’s work, Women, Reading and Piety in Late Medieval England, is exemplary here; an expert in her area, Erler nicely presents the issues at stake in this type of analysis in the prologue to her study:

  • 46 Erler 2002: 6.

This study’s two subjects […] are books and communication networks. Examining the circumstances under which reading took place – not merely what was read – brings these two subjects together. Likewise, the movements of books inevitably illuminate the outlines of a particular community of readers, and such a view of reading coteries can provide a rich sense of what perusing a particular text meant culturally.46

  • 47 See in particular McSheffey 1995; Aston 2003.
  • 48 Aston 2003: 173-178.

19Erler concentrates particularly on orthodox communities, but also considers those of the Lollards.47 The study of the latter reminds us of the extent to which the idea of the male or female reader must be viewed in a broad, even metaphorical, sense: the fact that Lollard women were no better-read than their orthodox sisters did not prevent them from memorizing readings from the Bible and the unorthodox teachings heard during meetings. It is quite possible they also passed on such learning.48

  • 49 See for example Scott-Stokes 2006; Smith 2003.

20Either way, these communities or more informally, networks, were formed initially around devotional practice – a fact which leads us directly to the question of their content. This indeed proves to be of an overwhelmingly devotional nature: while the Books of Hours and psalters have certainly prompted numerous studies (as in France)49 fresh approaches have focused particularly on literary genres traditionally associated with women, such as hagiography, “mystical” literature, didactic literature, or novels.

  • 50 Salih 2006. On the wider movement of reflection on the Cult of Saints see Ashley & Sheingorn 1990; (...)
  • 51 See in particular Mooney 1999; Sanok 2007; Winstead 1997.
  • 52 Winstead 2007: 90.
  • 53 Rosenthal 2002.

21Hagiographic literature, above all in the vernacular, has seen a significant renewal of interest in the past few years, linked as much to recent analyses of the cult of saints as to areas of interest developed by literary historians.50 As is seen to be the case with other literary genres, some of these historians increasingly emphasise the historicization and reception of texts. In addition, hagiographic literature also provides a rich exploratory terrain for gender relations, both in the context of a work’s production and in its content, especially given the survival of a rich body of work on the lives of women saints – works either composed or translated in England during the later Middle Ages, particularly in the fifteenth century. Among privileged themes, of note is the dialectic at work between an author's imagined public and the actual reception of the text. This dialectic is marked by the tensions inherent in the fact that hagiographic literature is of a prescriptive nature. At the same time, several recent works have shown that a number of the texts managed to construct some possibilities for negotiation.51 Indeed, the very perception of saintliness can be seen to have evolved. Fifteenth-century authors in particular, adapted their hagiographic stories to reflect their audience and foregrounded the qualities demanded of women from the gentry and nobility of their age, rather than those of virgins from early Christian times. John Capgrave, author of a life of Katherine of Alexandria – the subject of a study by Karen Winstead – provides a highly significant example in this respect: “In his saints' lives and Solace of Pilgrims, he offers models of piety emulable by professional virgins and devout laywomen alike.”52 But beyond these orthodox models embedded in the dominant hierarchy of gender relations, Capgrave (no doubt influenced by the sophisticated circles of East Anglia in which he moved)53 also develops a highly sophisticated vernacular theology, the more remarkable in a context still marked by clerical concerns over the Lollard heresy, then in its final days.

  • 54 Bibliographies can be found in McAvoy 2008; Arnold & Lewis 2004. The Book of Margery Kempe has been (...)
  • 55 See Mulder-Bakker 2001. I should point out that at one period in the historiography, Margery Kempe (...)
  • 56 The pioneering article is Beckwith 1992. See also Benedict 2004; Coakley 2006; Renevey & Whitehead (...)
  • 57 Coakley 2006.

22Women's access to complex theological problems, within this constrained context linked to the Lollard heresy, emerges even more prominently in connection with the visionary literature of the late fourteenth and the fifteenth century, which has been the object of continued and growing interest. The bibliography on two English women writers, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, is extraordinarily extensive,54 because in their different ways they crystallize a number of problems encountered by both gender history and written culture. Two key areas are those of women authors' authority when it was mediated by a clerk, and women's relationships to written and institutional authorities. Both Julian of Norwich, on an intellectual level, and Margery Kempe, on a more emotional level, developed diverse strategies in order to make themselves heard, as had their continental homologues (Birgitta of Sweden and St Catherine of Sienna, for example), whose texts were translated into English during the same period. Yet in both cases, their strategies worked through their insistence on a mode of communication different from that of the clerks – a method based on vision and their natural position of inferiority, which made possible a more direct contact with the divine. Yet if such strategies for a long time served to bolster the firm opposition between the two ways of learning – intellectual and affective – to the detriment of the latter, recent studies stress that in reality the two paths are not so much opposed, as complementary.55 In the first place, neither Julian nor Margery was isolated, but operated within social networks and communities (whether or not textual). Next – and it is here that thinking about gender relations is relevant – putting thought into writing necessitated collaboration with male clerks who did not oppose the communication of the women’s visions, but on the contrary supported it, thus subscribing to other forms of learning.56 This did not mean that genuine tensions never arose, as testified by the problems encountered by Margery Kempe, who had to appeal to three different people in order to have her visions penned.57 Conversely, both women carefully entwined the two methods of learning, and were almost certainly conscious of doing so. Thus rather than a calling into question of clerical domination, this was an example above all of compromise and negotiation.

23Nevertheless, in the majority of books on manners, which principally date from the fifteenth century and which may mainly concern urban milieus, an opposition between the two paths of learning clearly emerges, as Anna Dronzek has noted:

  • 58 Dronzek 2001: 151.

[In these manuals] it was obligatory to present information in two different ways – for boys, visually, and for girls, aurally – and had different capacities for absorbing this information. Boys could handle abstract rational concepts, while girls learned more effectively from information presented in a tangible, physical way, through the use of examples or the experiental model of a parent […]58

  • 59 Their title comes from Brutus, grandson of Aeneas and eponymous founding hero of Britain.

24Furthermore, these manuals point more clearly to other forms of relationships of domination, connected to women’s internalization of values that maintained the patriarchal system. This particular aspect is also found in many other types of text. The English Brut chronicles, one of the most popular in the period,59 offer a good example. Lister Matheson has meticulously studied every mention of women in the work and has demonstrated that:

  • 60 Matheson 2008: 237. For a slightly different interpretation of the place of women in the Brut, see (...)

The female characters who appear throughout the narrative [...] suggest that the Brut could function similarly as a “Mirror for princesses” that would have been pertinent to women from the baronial, gentry, and mercantile families of mediaeval England [...]; in general [its stories] serve to buttress and, perhaps, inculcate, the genealogical principles of primogeniture, male inheritance and orderly succession.60

25This said, negotiating space still sometimes emerges, and analyses of different behaviour manuals have sought to cast light on the subtleties and nuances of this mechanism.

26Moreover, it is possible to widen the field of investigation into didactic education by including those who educated women – in particular, priests. The obvious differentiation between men and women in manuals devoted to priestly learning refers to well-known concepts whereby woman bore the mark of natural inferiority; at the same time, however, many male authors were aware of the need to nuance that inferiority. In her discussion of instruction manuals for the clergy, with particular reference to Instructions for Parish Priests by John Mirk (l. 1414), Alison Barr notes:

  • 61 Barr 2008: 19. See also Barr 2006.

Priests reading John Mirk’s pastoral literature would have learned that women were important parishioners who needed to be addressed specifically in their sermons and not overlooked when they administrated sacraments. They also would have learned that married women had pastoral needs different from single women; that pregnant women had pastoral needs different from widows; and that, at least in some instances, female parishioners needed to be dealt with differently than their counterparts.61

  • 62 See Phillips 2008.

27All the same, the author does not gloss over the tension between these acknowledgements and traditional conceptions of womanhood, but this kind of analysis accompanies the growing tendency to differentiate women according to their social category, and to define different models of femininity – in the same way as different models of masculinity exist.62

  • 63 See Warren 1999.
  • 64 Erler & Kowaleski 2008; Collette 2006.
  • 65 Coss 1998.
  • 66 Note the number of entries in the bibliography of The Royal Historical Society. With reference to F (...)

28In these studies engaging with various aspects of women’s relationships to written culture, certain themes frequently recur – sometimes implicitly; they are also found in literature, in the narrow sense of the term. We should first note the theme of the confrontation between the traditional notions of women’s inferiority and women’s real-life situations – varying greatly according to social standing and geographical origins. This confrontation is frequently connected to the question of relationships to authority. Tensions with respect to authorities (which were essentially masculine) occurred regularly, but often take the form of negotiation on both sides, rather than open resistance. We have observed this in the context of visionary women, who could in addition be made to serve political ends;63 this is similarly seen in fifteenth-century novels and poems, where political thought frequently features. Analyses of such thinking usually turn around the idea of female agency64 and a possible cooperation between the sexes (without going so far as to question the hierarchy) in a line of thought critical of the strict separation of private and public spheres.65 This approach does not only concern the most eminent women, such as queens or princesses, even if these last are often praised and viewed as models.66 Comments also focus on women from the gentry – and Margaret Paston is probably not an exceptional case – or on women from the urban elite who read (or listened to) the same works and might belong to the same textual communities (such as Margery Kempe, daughter of a rich member of the middle-classes from Lynn).

  • 67 Ferster 1996.
  • 68 Which itself is an adaptation of Liber consolationis et consilii, by Albertanus of Brescia (1246).
  • 69 Walling 2005.

29Turning to the currents of thought seen in literature, the question of counsel-giving appears to be particularly significant.67 Writing in the late fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, broached the subject in one of his Canterbury Tales – The Tale of Melibee, an adaptation in prose of Renaud de Louens’ Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence (1336).68 The character Prudence sets out – citing plentiful authorities as she goes – to convince her husband that forgiveness is better than vengeance. Amanda Welling has demonstrated the extent to which both Prudence’s interpretations and her husband’s reactions were shaped by gender relations.69 Yet it is there, in a sense, that one remains – inside the sphere of husband-wife relations, where soothing and feminine counsel is often viewed as a requirement of the wifely role. Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower, goes further in his Confessio amantis – a mirror for the ideal prince, which draws greatly on exampla. Several of them focus on the question of counsel, and certain scholars have observed that Gower pays particular attention to gender matters in his writing, to the extent of proposing a feminized mode of counsel within the public sphere. As Misty Schieberle notes with reference to The Tale of Three Questions (I, 3067-3402):

  • 70 Schieberle 2007: 104.

Not only does the Tale engage problems of advice and pride prevalent in Book I, but it also argues for a feminine persona as the solution to the difficulties of challenging a rash, wilful monarch [...]. A feminized mode of counsel relies upon “feminine” subordinate performance, as distinct from masculine aggressive techniques.70

30Of course, Gower carefully avoids questioning the axiom of feminine obedience and women advisers are always situated in a submissive position. Yet it is that subordinate position itself (comparable to the position of advisers in general or of visionary women with respect to the clerical institution) that enables them to reveal disturbing truths to the prince without suffering an angry riposte.

31Over and above the question of counsel and linked to matters of intercession – the prerogative of queens – some texts raise the still thornier issue of female power. Anne Bartlett, for example, has studied the significance of the commission given by Margaret of Beaufort (mother of Henry VII and powerful woman par excellence) to William Caxton, to translate the novel Blanchardyn and Eglantine. The work recounts the education of a young chevalier prince, who is taken aback at his rejection by Queen Eglantine, with whom he is in love. According to Bartlett:

  • 71 Bartlett 2005: 57-58

Blanchardyn and Eglantine constitutes a thinly veiled, highly idealized, and deeply didactic account of its patron's own exercise of governance, and highly personal propaganda for the rapidly expanding audience of English readers.71

32In formulating this theory, Anne Bartlett means to question more universally the traditional interpretations of gender relations in novels, according to which women are largely excluded from the public sphere. Reflections on women’s power, a more problematic area, also appear in the Life of Katherine of Alexandria, by John Capgrave. The Queen, still at this stage a heathen, is effectively ordered to marry, since in the view of her kingdom’s lords, she cannot reign on her own. However, in the lengthy ensuing debate, Katherine manages to refute the arguments of her masculine opponents. The debate, of great complexity and including some ambivalence, carried strong contemporary resonance – it was written while the English monarchy was facing a grave crisis linked to the incompetence of the reigning king, Henry VI of Lancaster. Yet the ripples travelled even wider with respect to the question of female power. As Karen Winstead has stressed:

  • 72 Winstead 1994: 375. See also Winstead 1990.

Capgrave portrays his heroine as an almost tragic figure, whose desire for sovereignty though understandable is impractical, and whose fate conveys a stern warning to those who would challenge the conventional wisdom about women’s proper place in society [...]. Yet, in spite of this conservative message the Life of Saint Katherine lends itself to – indeed, practically invites – more radical interpretations.72

33If Capgrave finishes by condemning Katherine’s ambitions, the complex nature of his work suggests that the debate was, in his eyes, worthy of being aired; this is the more significant since the text was composed in English, thus aimed at a wide and mixed audience.

34Katherine of Alexandria nonetheless represents the embodiment of a saint endowed with strong intellectual powers and fulfils the academic model of written culture. Her popularity suggests that certain contemporaries did not reject the possibility of women’s access to that type of learning; and a number of works, written by men in the late fourteenth and fifteenth century, and known to have been read by women, can certainly be seen as sophisticated intellectual models – written in the vernacular tongue. At the same time, the majority of recent publications in various fields discuss the relationships between gender and written culture, and stress the complexity of the issues involved. A certain number of analyses in the past twenty years – of which we have mentioned only a few examples – insist ever more strongly on the diversity of situations and models, depending on the social, political and religious context. These works widen and problematize the notion of women’s literacy, but also of literacy itself, in addition to relationships of power between men and women and their consequent tensions and negotiations. Thus research is shaping a densely woven cultural landscape, in which women’s voices – difficult though they may be to capture – acquire their full place.

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Notes

1 Chaucer, “Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” Canterbury Tales, lines 1-2, cited by Benson 1987: 105.

2 See Jeanne 2008; Bührer-Thierry, Lett & Moulinier-Brogi 2005.

3 Chastang 2008.

4 See criticism by Noiriel 1996.

5 Mairey 2008.

6 Boxer 2001; Downs 2004b.

7 Thébaud 2007; Downs 2004b. See Lett 2008 for the Middle Ages.

8 Robertson 2007. This is not a new debate: see Thébaud 2007: 140-141.

9 Stoller 1968; Oakley 1972.

10 Thébaud 2007: 121.

11 Scott 1999: 42 [article first published in.

12 Lees 1994: xv-xvi.

13 Butler 1990: viii and ix respectively.

14 See Drake 2008; Burgwinkle 2006.

15 See website Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index (http://www.haverford.edu/library/reference/mschaus/mfi/mfi.html). Please note this site has not been updated since April 2010.

16 See in particular Little & Rosenwen 1998; Partner 2005; Mairey 2008: 154.

17 Includes chapters in edited works.

18 The Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature, available in hard copy only, makes this type of survey much more difficult. See the 2008 edition, vol. 82.

19 For the debate between anthropologists see Goody 2000, who sets out his thinking on the impact of writing technology.

20 See the pioneering works by Clanchy 1993; Stock 1983; Briggs 2000 for a recent historiography. For the German historiography, see Keller & Kuchenbuch 2002.

21 Some researchers have adopted a French version of “literacy”: “littératie”.

22 Ferguson 2003: 3-4.

23 Coleman 2007: 69. Her approach is developed in Coleman 1999. See also Cherewatuk 2004.

24 Mostert 1999 (a significant bibliography).

25 Genet 1997: 13. For linguistic matters see Mairey 2011.

26 Mulder-Bakker 2004: 11. See also: Mulder-Bakker & McAvoy, 2009.

27 In the Middle Ages, learning how to read and how to write constituted two distinct processes.

28 Clanchy 1993: 251-252.

29 Sheingorn 193; See also Scase 1993.

30 See in particular Alexandre-Bidon 1989.

31 However, for the High Middle Ages, we are able to refer to the works by Rosamond McKitterick and her disciples both for the Carolingian Period and for works on Anglo-Saxon literacy: McKitterick 1990.

32 Bell 1995. On the knowledge of Latin in secular circles, see, for example, Hirsch 2007.

33 Bell 1995: 76-77.

34 Erler 2004.

35 Wogan-Browne 2003.

36 On English correspondence in general, see Taylor 1980; for women's correspondence, see Cherewatuk and Wiethaus 1993; Daybell 2001.

37 Davis 1976-2004. Some letters by women from the family have been modernized and published separately by Diane Watt (2004). On the Pastons, see Richmond 1990-2000; Barber 1993.

38 Krug 2002: 29. See also Harding 2004.

39 Douglas 2009. See also Speeding 2008.

40 Richardson 2005: 57.

41 See Bell 1988; McCash 1996; and more recently, McCash 2008.

42 See Michelove 2004.

43 Honeycutt 1996; Parsons 1996; Short 1992.

44 Bell 1998.

45 Riddy 1993.

46 Erler 2002: 6.

47 See in particular McSheffey 1995; Aston 2003.

48 Aston 2003: 173-178.

49 See for example Scott-Stokes 2006; Smith 2003.

50 Salih 2006. On the wider movement of reflection on the Cult of Saints see Ashley & Sheingorn 1990; and more recently, Jenkins & Lewis 2003; Coletti 2004.

51 See in particular Mooney 1999; Sanok 2007; Winstead 1997.

52 Winstead 2007: 90.

53 Rosenthal 2002.

54 Bibliographies can be found in McAvoy 2008; Arnold & Lewis 2004. The Book of Margery Kempe has been translated into French: Magdinier 1989.

55 See Mulder-Bakker 2001. I should point out that at one period in the historiography, Margery Kempe was perceived more as resisting the system. See for example Staley 1994.

56 The pioneering article is Beckwith 1992. See also Benedict 2004; Coakley 2006; Renevey & Whitehead 2000. On the particular point, see also Erler 2007

57 Coakley 2006.

58 Dronzek 2001: 151.

59 Their title comes from Brutus, grandson of Aeneas and eponymous founding hero of Britain.

60 Matheson 2008: 237. For a slightly different interpretation of the place of women in the Brut, see Baswell 2007. The author studies the subversive aspects of “Albyne”, the “pre-founder” of Britain.

61 Barr 2008: 19. See also Barr 2006.

62 See Phillips 2008.

63 See Warren 1999.

64 Erler & Kowaleski 2008; Collette 2006.

65 Coss 1998.

66 Note the number of entries in the bibliography of The Royal Historical Society. With reference to France, see Lett & Mattéroni 2005.

67 Ferster 1996.

68 Which itself is an adaptation of Liber consolationis et consilii, by Albertanus of Brescia (1246).

69 Walling 2005.

70 Schieberle 2007: 104.

71 Bartlett 2005: 57-58

72 Winstead 1994: 375. See also Winstead 1990.

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References

Electronic reference

Aude Mairey, « Gender and written culture in England in the Late Middle Ages », Clio [Online], 38 | 2013, Online since 15 September 2014, connection on 20 September 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cliowgh/329 ; DOI : 10.4000/cliowgh.329

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About the author

Aude Mairey

Aude Mairey is an agrégée with a doctorate in history, and has a research post with the CNRS (Paris laboratory for western medieval studies). She specializes in the cultural and political history of late medieval England, especially the links between lanuages and society. Her recent publications include a co-edited Dialogues et résistances: anthologie de textes anglais de la fin du Moyen age (2010) and a biography of Richard III (2011).
Aude-Mairey@orange.fr

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