‘Why, Margaret, they told me you were a scholar': Renaissance Humanism and the Invention of the Irrational Woman

Wendy 1

Wendy Hiller and Paul Schofield as Alice More and her husband Thomas, in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

The quotation in my title, and the image above, both come from the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, a film centred around Thomas More, one-time right-hand man of Henry VIII. More objected to the idea Henry should become head of the Church of England, resigned his post, and was beheaded on charges of treason in 1535. The play represents More as a man who thinks deeply, yet logically, a man gripped by the dilemma of how to choose between conscience and political necessity, who makes an honourable and fatal decision.

When I studied this period, as part of my A Level history course, we learned that More was a Humanist – that is, a proponent of the new style of learning sweeping across Europe during the Renaissance. In Humanism (so we were told) educated men sought to rediscover Latin and Greek texts, to think in newly rational ways, and to put the superstitions of the medieval Catholic Church behind them.

This new Age of Reason – the Renaissance, the English Reformation – is, not coincidentally, the period during which Intelligent Women suddenly break out into popular history. The very word ‘medieval’ is associated with primitive, brutal attitudes, and often – in the case Nick Clegg’s comments, for example – with restrictions of women’s rights. We’re primed to believe that medieval women weren’t educated, that Renaissance women were. Despite the best efforts of Alison Weir et al., few educated medieval women seem to be part of popular consciousness. But ask for names from just a century later and most of us can name (and probably even picture, via Holbein) women like Elizabeth I and Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr.

A Man for All Seasons exemplifies this trend with its portrayal of Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret. I’m going to quote a whole passage, because it’s just so good. The speakers are Margaret and King Henry VIII, as More and his wife welcome the king to their home and as the king meets their daughter for the first time.

HENRY (Looking her over) Why, Margaret, they told me you were a scholar.

(MARGARET is confused)

MORE Answer, Margaret.

MARGARET Among women I pass for one, Your Grace.

(NORFOLK and ALICE exchange approving glances)

HENRY Antiquone modo Latine loqueris, an Oxoniensi? [Do you speak old-fashioned Latin, or Oxford Latin?]

MARGARET Quem me docuit pater, Domine. [I speak my father's Latin - it's he who taught me it, sir]

HENRY Bene. Optimus est. Graecamne linguam quoque to docuit?

[Good - that's great! And has he taught you Greek as well?]

MARGARET Graecam me docuit non pater meus sed mei patris amicus, Johannes Coletus, Sancti Pauli Decanus. In litteris Graecis tamen, note minus quam Latinis, ars magistri minuitur discipuli stultitia.

[My father didn't teach me Greek, sir, my father's friend did: John Colet, Dean of St. Paul's. But it's the same with Greek and Latin: the teacher's skill is wasted by the student's stupidity.]

(Her Latin is better than his; he is not altogether pleased)

HENRY Ho! (He walks away from her, talking; she begins to rise from her curtsy; MORE gently presses her down again before KING HENRY turns) Take care, Thomas: ‘too much learning is a weariness of the flesh, and there is no end to the making of books.’


I love this scene. Margaret tries so damn hard to be polite and self-effacing and to point out how inferior she is to all the men who’ve taught her … and she’s let down because she just can’t believe a man’s Latin can be so much worse than her own. This exchange sets up the tensions that run thrugh the play: we see immediately Henry’s arrogance and his insecurity, and we recognise that More, the optimist who taught his daughter Latin, is also a realist enough to know the dangers of offending the king.

Until Hilary Mantel started writing her Wolf Hall trilogy, this film (together with the play it’s based on) must have been one of the most influential representations of More. While in Mantel’s version More is a pretty unloveable character, here he’s portrayed as a gentle scholar, a man of his convictions, and an exemplary father. More’s daughter, Margaret, was (in real life as in the film) known for her erudition. She was phenomenally educated by any standards. The film works hard to persuade us that, by the standards of sixteenth-century Europe, women were not expected to be educated in the new, modern Humanist manner More educates his daughter.

This scene also represents, in microcosm, the possibilities of Humanism as the play imagines them. Margaret’s innocent expectation of Henry’s learning, and her own fluent Latin, invite us to imagine that, if only men like More had the power to shape the world that Henry VIII has, women and men would be equally free to study and learn.

This is, in my experience, a surprisingly popular view of the difference between Renaissance England and the medieval period.

It’s perhaps telling that the wiki entry on Margaret includes the rather startling (to a medievalist) claim that she was the first non-royal woman to publish a book she had translated into English”. We could quibble charitably about what the wiki editor meant by ‘publish,’ but I don’t really think this is tenable at all (and as a side note, you can buy Dame Eleanor Hull’s fifteenth-century English translation of the Psalms on Amazon at the moment). Wiki isn’t scholarly, obviously, but that’s the point: the idea of Margaret, Renaissance woman and daughter of a Humanist father, as a groundbreaking translator is one we can accept easily. It’s an idea that doesn’t originate with A Man for All Seasons, but one that’s perpetuated by it.

However, there’s another important female character in the film, and one who represents a very different kind of historical femininity. Alice More, Thomas’s wife, represents not only a different generation of women, but an entirely different historical period. She is a medieval woman, a woman whose father was not a kindly, equal-opportunities Humanist educator. Later in the play, More (with misplaced optimism) believes he’ll get to retire from Henry VIII’s court to live out his life in obscurity, and we’re faced with this exchange:

ALICE So there’s an end of you. What will you do now-sit by the fire and make goslings in the ash?

MORE Not at all, Alice, I expect I’ll write a bit. (He woos them with unhappy cheerfulness) I’ll write, I’ll read, I’ll think. I think I’ll learn to fish! I’ll play with my grandchildren-when son Roper’s done his duty. (Eagerly) Alice, shall I teach you to read?

ALICE No, by God!

I admit, this irritates me more every time I look at it. We’re required to believe that More – eager supporter of his daughter’s education in Latin and Greek – didn’t bother to teach his wife English until now. We’re required to believe that Alice – wife of a learned scholar – would reject the suggestion out of hand, just to remind everyone that women collude in their educational oppression.

But mostly, it annoys me because – as a medievalist who works a lot on the period in which Alice More would have been educated – it is just so utterly, stupidly wrong. Women like Alice More did not grow up illiterate. No, really. They didn’t. Women like Alice More grew up in a society where it was an aphorism that women taught children to read. Women like Alice More grew up in a society where women owned prayer books, dictated and read letters, and understood the family finances.

But our popular conception of the difference between the medieval period and the Renaissance isn’t set up to help us recognize this. In fact – as you might guess, since neat period boundaries tend to turn out to be over-simplifications – Humanism in England isn’t a sixteenth-century invention that began with Thomas More. You can find fifteenth-century Humanists doing their Latin and Greek and swanning off to Italy and bringing it all back home. You also get women like Christine de Pizan, who is as rigorously logical as anyone could wish.

But, what interests me more is one of the many traditions of reading and thinking that was strongly associated with women (but also practised by men). It’s interesting, because it relies on a kind of intellectual activity that we’re conditioned not to recognize as properly intellectual at all. The big trend in fifteenth-century England was a kind of meditational, imaginative reading. You were supposed to read about Christ’s life and discipline yourself to imagine it, with as much sensory detail as possible, so that you could internalise every emotion you would have felt had you been present during that time. Readers learned to imagine Christ’s experiences so strongly and completely that they became able to grasp the truth of his divine-human nature through emotional identification.

This was a demanding mode of thought, and earlier in the medieval period, it had been largely restricted to those who were educated in monasteries – monks and nuns. But in the fifteenth century, literacy levels were rising, and, increasingly, texts written in Latin were being translated into English so that larger numbers of men and women could understand them. And because many of the most accessible Latin religious texts had been written for nuns, a huge proportion of these new English translations were explicitly addressed to women: this was not a mode of reading in which women were unwelcome.

Medieval ‘emotional’ and ‘imaginative’ reading requires phenomenal discipline – I’m stressing this, because in the modern world, we’re accustomed to see emotion and imagination as inferior to logic and rationality, even incompatible with reasoned argument. We are taught – not coincidentally – that women are ‘irrational‘. We are told that we are ‘unreasonable’. We are encouraged to believe that if, as feminists, we disagree with the status quo, we lack ‘analysis’.

I don’t really know how many Renissance women could read and understand Humanist texts, compared to the numbers of their medieval counterparts who were educated in a very different mode of thinking. I don’t believe (as I hope is obvious) that women are inherently better suited to ‘emotional’ than to ‘logical’ thinking. But I do find it telling that, in our popular perceptions of the transition from medieval to Renaissance England, we are only encouraged to recognize educated women when their education takes the masculine form associated with Humanism: the scholarly, deferential Latin of Margaret More.

Note, and a Disclaimer:

I admit, I have absolutely no idea whether or not historical Alice More could read, or not. But Alice More the character – the representative of Good Old Medieval Wifeliness – she could. 

I wrote this after reading David Rundle’s piece in History Today, titled ‘Before the Humanities, the Humanists’. I won’t dignify my piece by saying it’s a response to that, since I went off entirely on a tangent, but all the same, you should read it.

I haven’t space here to talk more about this medieval mode of reading – it is properly complicated – and I will acknowledge that it comes with a whole lot of baggage about what counts as ‘educated’ and what doesn’t. However, my sense is that there’s really not a whole lot of gendered inequality here: a medieval text urging readers to understand by imagining much more likely to call its readers uneducated because they’re not monks or nuns, than because some of them are women.

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Yes, I’m angry, but that doesn’t make me illogical: On victim-blaming


Illustration to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1745).

Today – when I should have been looking for a house to rent for my new job – I read an article in the Guardian by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on the subject of victim blaming. It was provocatively titled “Have accusations of rape victim blaming gone too far?”. As you can imagine, it didn’t put me in the best mood to read what followed, so what you’re getting here is a heavily re-written piece of blogging.

The kernel of this piece was Cosslett’s feeling that, when women internalise rape myths and victim-blame themselves, it is wrong to respond with anger, because anger at rape myths can read as anger at traumatized women who’ve bought into them. I was angry when I read this piece, and so – like the nice, well-brought-up feminist that I am – I tried to put myself in Cosslett’s shoes.

Why are rape myths so insidious, so attractive, that women like Cosslett cling to them even when (as she says of herself), they know they are myths? Is it more than their simple prevalence in our culture – is there some reason why they continue to appeal?

Immediately, I thought of one of the most ‘appealing’ narratives of victim-blaming ever written, a narrative that was one of the most popular novels of its day. In 1740, Samuel Richardson published the novel Pamela. This novel features a virtuous female servant who is the constant target of her wicked employer’s sexual advances. He imprisons her, tries to rape her, intercepts her mail and gaslights her. Eventually, propelled into true love by sheer sexual frustration, he marries her, and they live happily ever after. Ish.

It’s an unpleasant story, but there’s more to it than that. Richardson’s novel recounts Pamela’s experience of the attempted rape in her own voice, despite the fact that the character claims to be in a swoon. This is a bit of clunky writing on Richardson’s part: it requires the narrator to be both aware of her surroundings, and simultaneously, unconscious. Richardson’s contemporary, Henry Fielding, latched onto this unfortunate narrative style and made it central to his spoof, published a year later and titled Shamela. Fielding re-imagines the scene with Pamela/Shamela cynically pretending to swoon while enjoying the sensation of her employer groping her body. His reworking turns what was a male author’s artistic failure of plausibility into a female heroine’s active and deliberate duplicity. 

This spoof is extremely clever, because it exploits one of the most irritating features about Richardson’s original heroine: the fact that she has almost no agency of her own, almost no will to take charge of her own narrative. Fielding neatly sidesteps the fact that, if Pamela had screamed and shouted, it’s highly unlikely she could have prevented her employer from doing what he did. And so, he gives her the only agency she can possibly have in this scenario: the agency of welcoming (indeed orchestrating) the sexual assault she supposedly ‘suffers’.

This pattern is the same pattern that animates victim-blaming narratives, and both are kinds of fiction, modes of retelling a story over and over. Not all victim-blaming narratives require women to welcome sexual assault, but they all capitalise on the same possibility of narrative agency. If only you had done something differently, you would have changed your own story. Victim-blaming narratives hold their appeal because they offer the (fake) promise of control over the narrative.

This measured analysis of the appeal of victim-blaming narratives wasn’t my first response, and it’s not my whole response. My first response was pretty furious, and that’s because Cosselett doesn’t just buy into victim blaming stereotypes – she buys into, and exploits, a whole host of other anti-feminist stereotypes while she’s doing it.

Now, I reckon my reasons for objecting to rape myths and victim blaming are pretty coherent. To publish rape myths in a National newspaper (as Cosslett did) is to give them credibility, and to perpetuate the idea that rape is someone other than the rapist’s fault. We can see the very clear, disturbing and worsening implications of victim-blaming in the recent news that, as of now, your chances of getting a rape case to court are the lowest since records began.

In addition, there’s a backlash against women reporting rapes, which is reliant on the myth that men should not take full responsibility for their actions. We’ve seen it from the rapist Ched Evans, serving a jail sentence, is welcome back into his old job at Sheffield United. We’ve seen it from Julian Assange, who’s been hiding out so he doesn’t have to face rape charges (as you do when you’ve a mature and compassionate attitude to legal process, right?) and from Ma’lik Richmond, returned to his old position in the Steubenville football team. Gee, guess Paul Callan of CNN was totally right that Richmond’s life was ‘destroyed’ by being, er, convicted of a crime he committed.

None of this wider context about rape made it into Cosslett’s article, which was instead taken up with arguments against those women who’d originally objected to the perpetuation of rape myths. Cosslett appears to believe that the real issue here is that most feminists are, well, just a bit thick compared to her. Speaking of the Judge who suggested that drunk victims of rape are just too tricky for juries to believe, she asks:

When Rape Crisis Oxford called Judge Mowat’s comments “outrageous”, did they reflect how many of the victims who come to them may have expressed similar views, similar regrets?”

Well, I don’t know, but somehow, I’m guessing they did reflect, you know. It’s part of their job. So far as I know (and I’ve lived in Oxford since 2008 and do notice these things), they do quite a good one. 

She goes on to suggest that what’s really an issue is that some feminists use words:

Terminology is helpful (“rape culture” is much snappier, is it not?), but it can preclude nuance.” 

Rather vaguely, she claims that ‘some people’ are ‘irked’ by the term rape culture, and so it seems that ‘terminology’ is something that nice, polite ladies do not use – perhaps the equivalent of the wrong fork at dinner. What nuance Cosslett imagines is being missed was, sadly, not revealed.

Next, she objects that feminists failed respond to her own affirmation of rape myths either “sensitively” or “logically,” or with “insight and analysis”. By this point, I pretty much had my anti-feminist bingo card full, because this terminology buys into one of the oldest and most damaging stereotypes about women: that we’re all just irrational and illogical. Cosslett (like, I’m afraid, many an anti-feminist I’ve read) didn’t explain what was illogical about calling out rape myths, nor did she explain why she didn’t recognise the analysis behind the arguments of those who disagreed with her. She simply slapped on the customary label that’s used to silence women you disagree with.

While I was wondering how to respond to this article, I spoke to a friend who (like me), had recently read about how Mary Beard chooses to respond to internet trolls, using her considerable privilege (as a professor at Cambridge) to explain herself and elicit startlingly positive, apologetic responses from, for example, the man who photoshopped genitalia onto an image of her face. One of the revealing points Beard makes (and it’s discussed in more detail in the New Yorker) is that, while her approach works for her, she objects to people painting this response as uniquely feminine in its empathetic, caring (and time-consuming) qualities. She notes that people have interpreted her responses as ‘maternal’ and therefore praiseworthy, while sheer anger might have won her a very different set of responses even from those who agree she has cause to be angry.

This is an important point: very often, feminists are criticised for responding with anger, which buys into the old stereotype that women should be more caring, more patient, more keen to spend their time on educating those who disagree with them.

This made me think quite hard about how I wanted to respond to Cosslett, but also about why I was so angry about her piece. I object to being told (from the privileged position of someone writing for a national newspaper) that if I disagree, it’s because I’m unnuanced, illogical, insensitive and, well, a bit thick. And yet it’s easy for me put aside my anger, to refute those claims, to pull out the recently-published statistics on rape, and to dress the whole thing up with a nice literary-historical anecdote. It’s easy, and it implies that Cosslett is right to equate angry responses with a lack of logic, nuance and sensitivity. 

But what about those women who read Cosslett’s piece and responded from a position of feeling hurt, traumatized and upset? What about (god forbid) those of us who are not articulate writers in the Guardian or smart-arse junior academics who read too much eighteenth-century fiction? What about you and me on the days when we don’t feel calm and composed and inclined to spend a couple of hours pontificating about narrative structure (rather than, say, stating categorically that rape myths are misogynistic bullshit)? What about the days when we read about the rape of thirteen-year-old Ebony Williams? Shouldn’t we be able to respond without being told we’re ‘illogical’ and unnuanced? 

It is not inherently illogical, unnuanced or insensitive to state that rape myths are categorically harmful, incorrect and antifeminist. It is not evidence of superior intellect, or sharper debating skills, to demand that everyone should agree with you, simply because you genuinely feel upset. There is a worrying trend, I think, to equate perfectly rational anger with lack of nuance – and it’s not just Cosslett who does this.

Shouldn’t we let ourselves be angry? 

I know I am. 


Thanks to Hannah Bailey who discussed the article about Mary Beard with me, and pointed out some of the implications for this post.


This is a great, courteous but absolutely correct, follow-up to the media response to Beard’s interactions with her trolls. Worth a read.

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The Museum of Mansplaining Art

The Gherkin. Admittedly, feminists don't all agree with me how phallic it is, but in my mind it is always associated with Lord SurAlan and his Neanderthalism, so it's a happy image.

The Gherkin. Admittedly, feminists don’t all agree with me how phallic it is, but in my mind it is always associated with Lord SurAlan and his Neanderthalism, so it’s a happy image.

I’m a simple type, and simple things make me happy. Like the beauty of the sunset, the dew on the roses and the smiles of happy undergraduates. However, it has come to my attention that I may have neglected a source of art, sadly undervalued in these feminist times.

Allow me, therefore, to introduce to you The Museum of Mansplaining Art. In my mind, it shall be located in the Gherkin in London, and presided over by the (fictional) mansplainer Mervyn, from Barbara Trapido’s wonderful book Noah’s Arka man “to whom the very Post Office Tower sung triumphant hymns of phallic domination”.

I had one submission from earlier this year, the delightful and perfectly-formed comment of one Bob Evans, who produced a perfect surrealist ‘critique’ of the (now happily approved) project to get mothers’ names on marriage certificates. His vivid image of a giant government conspiracy, busily denying that its own documents were and had always been fair and equal, will surely go down in history.

Today is a happy day. We have another submission. This time, from a renowned feminist commentator, whose fame has escaped me only because of my own failures. In response to feminist commentators (and, y’know, women) Sarah Ditum and Caroline Criado Perez, this giant of the intellect noted his awe-inspiring credentials: Actually I took about 30 hours of women’s studies courses as it was one of my disciplines.”

That’s them told.

I know we all have stories of mansplaining that are egregious in many ways. But some (honestly, this time) strike me as so beautiful, so perfectly and richly illustrative of the underlying thought-process, that they truly do amuse me. I hope they do you. I plan to collect my favourites on this page, as a little Museum, bravely standing out against the tide of female-dominated art and rhetoric that sweeps across our shores.

New Exhibit No. 1

On the train back from Edinburgh to London King’s Cross, I overheard the following:

Man: I’m just going to put the armrest up. I’m typing and it keeps getting in my way. I’ve got something I need to finish before 5 and [self-important waffle I tuned out]. So can I move this so I stop hitting into you?

Woman: Well, you can move the armrest, but what you’re hitting is my arm, and it’s already on my side of the seat anyway.

Man: I do have a deadline!


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Waiting for the Axe to Fall: Some Thoughts on ‘Failing’


This post came about as a result of several conversations, most recently, a discussion on twitter this afternoon with Liz Gloyn and Rachel Moss, lecturers in Classics and Medieval History respectively. We were talking about what it means to succeed – and with A Level results day looming, what it means when you don’t nail the result you expected. Academics are, in my view, Not Good with failure. We catastrophise about it. This is partly because there’s such a powerful expectation that academic success (at any level, not just university) is the same thing as consistent performance. We’re inclined to act as if a less than perfect performance is a permanent blot on your record.

The title for this blog post comes from the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I’m currently reading. After months of dangers and temptations of various kinds, Gawain finds himself inexorably drawn to his fate: to ride to the mysterious Green Chapel, where a knight will be waiting to deliver the blow to his neck that will surely kill him. As he rides nearer, Gawain hears the grinding sound of the axe being sharpened. He dismounts and stands, neck bared, willing himself not to flinch away from blade as it swings behind him. But, at the last, he “scranke a lytel with þe schulderes for þe scharp yrne” (he shrank back a little with his shoulders, because of the sharp iron). The poem evokes Gawain’s terror with hissing alliterative ‘s’ sounds, which echo the whistling blow of the axe – and we tremble with Gawain, not knowing if he is to die or be spared.

In this poem, Gawain’s failure to stand fast is revealed to be part of a test, to see how faithfully he can face (amongst other things) death. The poet perfectly captures the naked, vulnerable feeling of being tested and found wanting.

Now, most of us (fortunately) can’t relate to axes swinging in our general direction. But that feeling of sick anticipation of the results of a test is probably all too familiar, especially for anyone who’s thinking about next A Level results, which come out next thursday. Or think about how you felt on GCSE results day. Or when you got your degree results. Or, if you’ve done a PhD, the particularly nasty few minutes in the middle of your oral examination when they send you out of the room to discuss whether they’re going to pass or fail you on the strength of what you’ve said in the previous two hours (no, really, that’s how it works. It’s horrible).

I started thinking about popular stereotypes of academic success as a result of Rachel’s new tumblr project, titled, ‘This is How Academics Dress’. As she explains, there’s a particular image most of us have of what ‘a proper academic’ looks like – and most of us don’t measure up. This got me thinking that, in addition to this visual stereotype, there’s a biographical stereotype of the ‘proper academic’. Let’s call the ‘proper academic’ Tarquin. And, since I’m an English Lit academic, let’s have him do English Lit.

Tarquin learns to read aged about two. At four, he goes to school and is precocious, reading widely and writing a great deal. Tarquin devours books, and his nice middle-class parents take him to see the odd bit of Shakespeare. At secondary school, Tarquin continues to read widely, taking an interest in history and drama. He’s a bit of a poet. At GCSE he gains twelve A* grades, and at A Level he takes 5A*s, while acting in the school play. He applies to St John’s college, Cambridge and is accepted on a strong interview. Tarquin goes on to get a starred first, immediately applies for his MPhil and then his PhD, and graduates from the latter aged 24. He immediately picks up a Junior Research Fellowship and sets out to write his first book, which garners solid reviews and does well. His first permanent lectureship comes along just before his 30th birthday, and he dedicates the second book to his wife, Linda, who was a tower of strength editing the footnotes while the twins cooed in the Moses basket.

'Caritas' by Lucas Cranach the Younger. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

“Look, would you just put down the sodding apple so I can get dressed?” Linda wasn’t thrilled Tarquin was in the library again …

Admittedly, I am being slightly snarky here. I’m sure Tarquin’s a perfectly nice bloke, and there are male academics out there who manage to write acknowledgements to their wives and children without sounding as if they’ve never heard of wifework. And I must admit that elements of my biography mesh with the fictional one above, because I’m a privileged, middle-class white woman who isn’t trying to write her postdoc while bringing up children.

But do you need to be a Tarquin – to get your straight A* grades? Or are there times when failure isn’t really such a bad thing? I think this is something academics need to talk about more, to counter the stereotype of what success should look like.

I can tell this isn’t just something I worry about. I’ve got a 2:1, and my (woefully infrequently updated) academia.edu page tells me that one of the commonest sets of search terms that leads people to find it isn’t my name: it’s “postgraduate degree with a 2:1″ or “PhD with a 2:1″. Clearly, there are a lot of people out there who would like to know whether or not you can do a postgrad degree with less than a first. It’s the same story with GCSE and A Level grades. A statement I’ve heard depressingly often (and it’s rarely framed as a question) is “you can’t go to Oxbridge without straight A* GCSEs” or “Oxbridge only let you in with straight A* grades at A Level”. Similarly, “well, they won’t cope with English Lit at university if they didn’t get the A*”. None of these statements is absolutely true, and some of them are very wrong indeed.

The positive side of ‘failure’ is that it helps you learn to pick yourself up and work out what went wrong. That’s a useful skill. And it also forces you to question what you thought was true. One of the chapters of my PhD thesis was approximately twenty years in the writing, because it comes out of the first time I can remember really struggling and failing to manage something. I didn’t learn to read until I was seven, which is quite late. It was frustrating, but it’s also fascinating looking back, because (unlike most academically bright people who learned to read early), I can remember very well what it was like to be an illiterate person in a world that expected literacy. So, when I started looking at medieval narratives of literacy and illiteracy, I felt motivated, much more than I might have been if I’d succeeded easily at reading myself. At some point, I’ll probably write the post that’s in the back of my mind, about being a dyslexic medievalist, and this is just one example of how it helps to fail first.

In the poem I described above, Gawain doesn’t, in the end, die. The axe blow he feared would kill him makes only a ‘nick’ in his neck, a tiny cut that stings his conscience more than anything else. He returns home thinking he’s been marked forever, that everyone will see the symbol of his failure and his shame. But his fellow knights don’t see it that way: all they see is that Gawain, who was almost certain to die, has come back alive. One little mis-step is nothing, they say.

I would not advise this as a definitive reading of the medieval poem (!), and if you know the poem you’ll probably acknowledge it’s more than glib. But there is practicality in this attitude towards failure. However dramatically horrible it feels – however much you imagine it in terms of dire consequences, monsters and impending doom – it probably looks more like a minor scratch on the surface to people around you.

If you’re reading this, and know someone with A Level results coming out – or if you’re waiting for them now – good luck, and stay calm!


The picture is ‘Caritas’ by Lucas Cranach the Younger, from Wiki Commons. I prefer to think of it as ‘Oh my god, why did I think I could take on three toddlers and the baby?’

Lest you worry I’m compromising some poor sod’s privacy with the image of AS Results, be reassured they are mine. Not too dazzling, eh?

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On Wifework, Piers Plowman, and the Dangers of Judging Books by their Covers


A while ago, I lent someone my copy of Susan Maushart’s book Wifework, which discusses the range of activities, typically labelled ‘economically unactive’ but necessary to running a household, that tend to be carried out more by women than by men. Maushart’s book isn’t perfect, but its strength is her persuasive argument that there’s an awful lot of work that we don’t define as work – we don’t even recognise it as taking up time and energy – and yet, overwhelmingly, it’s women who do it. Essentially, she’s talking about the cognitive dissonance that leads the men and women in her studies to be fairly sure they divide tasks ‘more or less 50/50′ while demonstrating, in their daily lives, that they didn’t. And one of the biggest ‘hidden tasks’ she mentions is that of planning and thinking. She means those seemingly inconsequential activities, like writing a shopping list so someone else can go shopping (the ‘real work’), or remembering that the children need PE kit on Wednesday, or meal planning for the week.

It’s a great book, but what I hadn’t really realized until I got a library copy with a different cover was how easily misinterpreted that title was. Suddenly, when I read this book in public, with its image of a neat 1950s wife busy ironing, people around me started assuming it must be a tract from the ‘submissive wife’ school of thought, a book all about how to please your husband with traditional wifely duties.

This irony got me thinking about bad cover art. At the moment, I’m working on the long Middle English poem called Piers Plowman. I first read this when I was an undergraduate, and I started to look at it again last year for my new project. And I started thinking back to the first (now very battered) copy of the poem I owned. The most basic copy of the poem you can buy is the modernised paraphrase version available in Penguin Classics. The front cover shows a classic medieval Christmas-card type picture: some beautiful lettering, an illuminated spray of leaves, and a medieval ploughman standing behind his plough:

The cover of William Langland's Piers Plowman, edited by J. F. Goodridge for Penguin Classics.

The cover of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, edited by J. F. Goodridge for Penguin Classics.

This cover image tends to make medievalists wince, because the plowman in the picture has very little to do with the actual poem. His image belongs in a Latin prayer book, made in about 1330 for the Lincolnshire landowner Geoffrey Luttrell. You can see the full page here. To add insult to injury, while Piers Plowman’s author, Langland, was fascinated by religious and social justice, Luttrell was, by all accounts, a bit of an entitled thug, who got himself into trouble for raiding the local monastery.

The literalism of this cover does make me roll my eyes (‘oh yes, a poem called Piers Plowman. It must be about farming. Pop it over there alongside that book by George Orwell’). The image of the plowman is your classic image of medieval peasantry. When we did Medieval Times at school, it was this image that illustrated the ‘peasants’ section of that classic diagram showing the division of medieval society into three estates. There were those who fought (knights), those who prayed (priests and monks), and those who worked (peasants, like the ploughman). It’s hardly a surprise, given this diagram has no place for the knight’s wife or the nun, that the image of the peasant should perpetuate the idea work – real work – can always be gendered masculine.

On first reading of Piers Plowman itself, you might think this is a typically medieval view. The poem is profoundly misogynistic, featuring a female anti-hero who is a perfect example of every  feminine fault, from lying and flirting to extreme vanity and pride. The poet, Langland, is full of diatribes against benefit claimants and beggars that would fit perfectly neatly into the pages of the Daily Mail, and of anti-semitic invective even the Mail would reject. So, a little barbaric, ‘medieval’ stereotyping of women’s work as worthless (I’m sorry, it’s an alliterative poem, I’m picking it up) would seem entirely in keeping.

But it’s not quite so simple.

So, the first time I read this poem, back in about 2002, certain descriptions of women and work glided over me. At one point, Langland describes the ‘deserving poor’. His poem is filled with stock figures and allegorical characters, each representing not individual, but a whole category of people. And the characters who represents poverty are described as:

“… charged with children and with their landlords’ rents,

Whatever they make by spinning, they spend it on household costs,

On milk and meal, to make gruel for children,

To satisfy their babies, who cry for food.

And they themselves suffer hunger too,

And distress during the cold winter. And they wake throught the nights,

To rise regularly, to rock the child’s cradle.”

(from Piers Plowman C. 9. 73-9. My translation).

How amazing is this, for a fourteenth century poet? If I’d translated that into prose and blogged it as the experience of a woman in 2014, it’s really only the spinning and the cradle (rather than, I guess, the breastfeeding which he doesn’t mention) that would mark it out as anachronistic.

When you start reading this description, there’s nothing to suggest that the human face of ‘poverty’ will be female. It’s only after this emotive passage that the poet actually says explicitly that he’s referring to women. This is radically different from what we might expect given the image of the ploughman on the cover of the Penguin edition. To Langland, at this moment, the person who works hardest and is least supported in that work, is not a man but a woman. Her experience of worrying about rent increases, and heating bills, and getting up in the night for the baby, rings disturbingly true today. And it’s also true that, today, as the UN points out, the great majority of people living in poverty are female.

Emily Steiner’s brilliant commentary on the poem makes the point that the poet chooses to use a woman’s experience to represent poverty and hard work for good reasons. The context of this passage is Langland’s argument that the people who need most support in life are those whose struggles are hidden – like the struggles of poor women who appear outwardly to be coping but who are internally hungry and worried, sleepless and cold. It sounds remarkably like Maushart’s description of unacknowledged ‘wifework’.

Langland’s use of a female figure to exemplify poverty has further significance for his readers: it requires that both women and men try to place themselves in the position of a woman, to imagine the detailed realities of her life. There’s a precedent for requiring medieval men to imagine the suffering of women, but that precedent is that of a saint: the Virgin Mary. In that case, the logic is that, while we can’t comprehend what it would be like to suffer as Christ, we can begin to imagine the pain of his mother, who lost her child. Mary becomes the example of sorrow and compassion. And the default image that says ‘loss’ to us in this tradition is the image of the Virgin weeping over her son’s body.

London, BL, MS King's 9, f. 153v. This is the prayerbook in which Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII wrote notes to each other.

London, BL, MS King’s 9, f. 153v. This is the prayerbook in which Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII wrote notes to each other.

Langland’s image of a sad mother, ground down by the ordinary human tasks of running a household and bringing up children in poverty, is even more radical in its implications, because this unnamed, unknown mother is not saintly, but entirely human.

Obviously, I’m not planning to restructure my entire interpretation of Piers Plowman based on one passage that sounds startlingly modern and feministy, because on the whole, Langland isn’t those things and there’s no reason he should be. But I do think this passage should help us to reassess some assumptions about the history of devaluing women’s work. We’re inclined to believe ignorance is a defence, that it’s only so very recently that men started to recognise how hard what Maushart calls ‘wifework’ can be. Clearly, if a fourteenth-century poet not famed for his startlingly pro-female views can come up with a poignant and detailed description of that exact same experience, it’s not pure ignorance that is the problem, but something much, much less easily counteracted.


The edition of the C text of Piers Plowman is by Derek Pearsall, published at Berkeley and LA by the University of California press in 1982.

There’s a good commentary on Piers by Emily Steiner (which is the business, and which I’ve just noticed was edited by the lovely Marie Turner) is called Reading Piers Plowman (Cambridge: CUP, 2013). She makes the point that “By acknowledging women’s work in the household, says the poet, a person comes to recognize [the needs of] all of his neighbours, male and female”.

There’s a great article by Michael Camille, discussing the ways images from medieval manuscripts are taken out of context. It’s titled ‘Labouring for the Lord: The Ploughman and the Social Order in the Luttrell Psalter,’ Art History 10 (1987): 423-454.

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Patriarchy and the Establishment of ‘Objective Facts': The Narrative is Already Gendered

'The Fall of Icarus,' c. 1560-70.

‘The Fall of Icarus,’ c. 1560-70.

Every now and again, because I don’t know any better, I end up engaging with my favourite brand of Idiot on the Internet, the intellectual mansplainer. You know the sort of thing: you mention you’re studying late-medieval women’s reading, and they start to explain to you how Derrida helped them understand why it’d be better to read Chaucer. Or Shakespeare. Or, you mention gendered violence and they explain – more in sorrow than in anger – that men have always fought wars while women stayed home raised the babies, and history really teaches us how bad men have always had it. If you’re lucky – and I’m sometimes very lucky, because writing like a dyslexic does have a delightful tendency to make people underestimate you – they’ll eventually offer to dazzle you with the beauty of their logic. Ingrained in this discourse will be terms like ‘playing devil’s advocate’ or ‘the inherent bias of women’s studies’ or ‘the importance of looking at things objectively,’ or ‘letting the facts speak for themselves’.

It’ll all sound terribly, terribly educated and impartial.

Except, you’ll have the sneaking sense it isn’t.

We’re encouraged to believe that education teaches us how to argue impartially, how to set aside personal bias, and find objective truths (or at the very least, falsify obviously biased and incomplete perceptions of truth). But I think we ignore a fundamental inequality before we even begin to debate.

The image at the top of this page is a painting, once attributed to Breugel, and the subject of a poem by Auden. Both painting and poem make the point that, while the Greek myth traditionally centres on Icarus, the rash boy who escaped prison in Crete on wings made of wax and then fell to his death because he flew too close to the sun, the tragedy is only personal. If you take the perspective of the ploughman in the foreground of the picture, or the ‘expensive delicate ship’ in the ocean, the object falling out of the sky and the pair of limbs just visible in the bottom right corner of the painting are unimportant.

This is – I would argue – a really blokey way of looking at myth, or narrative at all. For the painter, for Auden – for William Carlos Williams, who thought Auden’s poem was just so damn awesome he’d have a crack at it too – this perspective is novel and exciting. There is a strong sense of these men giving themselves a pat on the back for imagining the scene in such a new and unusual way, with the supposed ‘main character’ reduced to a speck in the corner.

Both history and fiction de-centre women’s views a lot of the time. Researching medieval women, you spend a lot of time looking at the negative space between men’s communications to get a sense of the position of women. Establishing a valid narrative often requires a lot of caveats, a lot of uncertainty, because the perspective that is so strikingly novel in the Icarus painting is just plain normal here. This de-centred position isn’t a rhetorical or logical posture, a debate-team tactic you can congratulate yourself for knowing – it’s the default place from which you have to begin.

But there’s something even more problematic about the way the narratives we’re used to hearing when we hear about women in the past shape the way we interpret those women. I’m reading a medieval romance at the moment, which is supposedly an exploration of how men and women uphold truth and justice. In theory, it’s a lovely story of how truth wins out over treachery. In reality, I think it’s a story of how female truth is constantly de-centred, never accepted as objective fact.

This romance is full to bursting with untrustworthy male characters. The best of them – the hero of the piece – has no qualms about impersonating a monk in order to extract a confession on false pretenses. This character, the Earl of Tolous, falls precipitously ‘in love’ with his enemy’s wife on the strength of a description of her physical charms. He even accepts a sworn oath of manly loyalty from one of his enemy’s prisoners because this man is willing to promise him a glimpse of the beloved (aka, stalking 101).

from the Belles Heures of the Duc du Berry. Image from this site.

from the Belles Heures of the Duc du Berry. Image from this site.

The meeting is set up for the woman’s chapel. She turns up, dressed in her most expensive clothes, while he comes disguised as a hermit so that her husband’s men won’t discover him. Keeping perfectly in-character, he begs her for alms, and she gives him a handful of coins and a gold ring. And then she leaves again.

This woman demonstrates over and over that she’s utterly true to her word: in fact, she has a totally objective view of the truth, insisting upon telling her villainous husband when he’s legally and morally wrong, and refusing to break a vow of secrecy even when it could save her life. This aspect of her character is repeatedly set to one side by the other characters – except two chillingly manipulative would-be rapists who set out to blackmail her into committing adultery and, when she refuses, frame her for adultery anyway. This is the point at which Our Noble Hero really shows his mettle … by completely failing to take her innocence on trust. Instead, he leans on the Old Boys’ network, and fixes things with the woman’s confessor so that he can diguise himself as a monk, sneak into the confessional, and interrogate the woman about her guilt or innocence in the guise of her confessor. It’s charming, isn’t it? And needless to say, the entire establishment who refused to believe the woman are perfectly convinced by the word of a man who’s just impersonated a monk.

Despite this cornucopia of male distrustworthiness, the narrative manipulates us to think much harder – and much more suspiciously – about the motives of the woman at the centre of the story. It’s a classic ‘yes, but what did she do to encourage him’ story. As you can imagine, the suspicion focuses on that scene in the chapel when she gives the man who loves her – her husband’s enemy – not only coins, but also a ring. In medieval England, the connotations of this donation are sufficiently ambiguous to make things interesting. In a society where people still do an awful lot of payment-in-kind, it’s not exactly unusual for rich ladies to give pieces of jewellery as alms. And rings do not necessarily symbolise love: they range in purpose, from romantic tokens engraved with mottos, to reliqueries designed to hold bits of dead saint, to the even more passion-killing administrative function of signet rings used to seal boring documents.

For example, check out how many rings this girl's mother is wearing! Portrait of A Lady With Her Daughter, Barthel Bruyn the Elder (c. 1540). Image from wikipedia commons.

For example, check out how many rings this girl’s mother is wearing! Portrait of A Lady With Her Daughter, Barthel Bruyn the Elder (c. 1540). Image from wikipedia commons.

The narrative manipulates us to focus much more energy on the ambiguities of this scene than we do on the straightforward – but, narratively less pivotal – evidence of the male characters’ failure to remain true to their words. After all, it’s the first meeting between the hero and heroine, the first opportunity for us to see whether the heroine will be tempted to betray her husband, or whether she’ll betray the man who loves her to her husband. So, it encourages us to second-guess her motives, to put the evidence of her truthfulness to the side for a moment and dig into the narrative ambiguity. In short, the romance reinforces the idea that women’s truth is to be de-centred and women are to be second-guessed.

This gendered pattern – this narrative structure we find again and again in paintings and fiction and historical narrative – forms the cultural context we all bring with us when we sit down to argue about ‘objective facts’ or to hammer out the ‘truth of the situation’ with the mansplainers. At best, we’re conditioned to expect we’ll have to reconstruct women’s experiences from the margins, from the negative spaces. At worst, we inherit narratives about women that are already prompting us to second-guess those women’s experiences, to categorise them as dubious, uncertain, and problematic.

When I argue with mansplainers about history, or feminism, I’m happy to argue objectively, to play by the rules. But I think we also need to realize that it’s rather easier to make a rhetorical posture of giving up your central position to explore the evidence if that’s something novel and strange to you. It would be too much to say that traditional narratives – in history and in fiction – gaslight us into disbelieving women, but we need to recognise that there is a hierarchy there. When we start to argue about how to establish of ‘objective facts,’ we need to recognise that the ground we’re arguing over is already uneven.

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“My Well-Beloved Valentine”: Marriage, Medieval and Modern

Heart-shaped Book of Hours, BnF, latin 10536, 15th c. Image via this site.

Heart-shaped Book of Hours, BnF, latin 10536, 15th c. Image via this site.

Two of my oldest friends got married this weekend, at a beautiful woodland campsite complete with superhero-themed decorations, crazy dancing, and a campfire with s’mores. And it was particularly fun because they’d thrown out – or subverted – all the traditions that feministy types (or, you know, adults who’ve been responsible for their own lives for years) get irritated by, and this made everything more personal, and very touching. The bride was not ‘given away’ and they tossed a coin to decide who would speak first. The vows echoed the formal language we’re familiar with, but were written entirely by the couple. They’d done the legal bit the day before, so the ceremony just involved their promises to each other.

I loved this, and partly because it made me think about traditions and what it means to reshape a tradition into something new. In fact, this ceremony was, in a way, looking back to even older traditions. In medieval England, it was perfectly legal, and normal, to contract a marriage simply by making the promise to each other, ideally in the presence of witnesses who could be called upon to give public testimony that the event had occurred. It was only much later that weddings become religious ceremonies or required an official celebrant with legal power, and later still that it became customary for a male family member to ‘give away’ his daughter.

You can see how people were adapting traditions in the period I study, in fifteenth century England. What I love about this period is the amazing sense you get that, suddenly, you’ve got access to the thoughts and words of ordinary people making their own decisions about love and marriage. So, I thought I’d share the story of a fifteenth-century woman and her marriage.


Letter from Margery Brews to John Paston, c. 1477. From London, BL MS 43490, f. 23.

The image above is a letter, dictated in 1477 by a woman named Margery Brews, who was writing to the man she hoped to marry, John Paston. Margery and John were engaged to be married, but her father was refusing to provide John with sufficient money to keep his wife, while Margery’s mother was pleading with him to relent.

Despite this very real worry, Margery writes to John in deeply emotional terms, addressing him as her “well-beloved Valentine”the first recorded use of the term ‘Valentine’ to mean ‘lover’ that we have in English. In medieval England, letter writing could – like marriage vows – be an occasion for formal language, for phrases whose significance was much deeper than the mere words on the page. Yet here, we can see Margery reaching beyond the formal language she must have been taught as young girl, to find a more personal register. In effect, she coined a tradition.

True Love: 'Le Duc des vrais amants' with his lady, in London, BL MS Harley 4431, f. 143r. By Christine de Pizan, made for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, c. 1410-14.

True Love: ‘Le Duc des vrais amants’ with his lady, in London, BL MS Harley 4431, f. 143r. By Christine de Pizan, made for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, c. 1410-14.

Margery continued to write to John as “well-beloved Valentine,” and later signs herself “your Valentine,” in a letter promising that if John and her father can come to an agreement in their planned meeting, she will be “the merriest maiden on the earth”. Reading Margery’s letters is rather like reading only one half of a conversation, but we can guess at John’s character, not only because he insisted upon marrying Margery despite her lack of money, but also because of what we know of his strong-willed younger sister. Almost a decade before Margery Brews wrote her letters, Margery Paston, John’s nineteen-year-old sister, married her parents’ steward Richard Calle. At the time, John – aged about twenty-five – was both worried and contemptuous at his sister’s unconventional choice, but she stood firm, refusing to renounce the marriage even at the urging of the bishop of Norwich. It seems possible that, when John found himself, like his sister, weighing up the possibility of a marriage for love rather than money, he found himself rather more inspired by his sister’s example.

Both stories have happy endings. Margery Paston and Richard Calle’s marriage endured, producing three sons. Margery Brews proved herself to be a quick-witted person, whose letters to her husband carry a tone of partnership in business when she writes to him “in haste” to inform her husband of his responsibilities to his tenants and her concerns about his business, and ends with news of the good health of “all your babes”.

Margery Brews’ letters began as an intimate record of a one ordinary woman setting out to write something more personal than the formal language traditionally used by engaged couples. Now, though, they’re famous as the ‘first Valentines’. It was lovely to be at a wedding that involved the same re-writing of tradition to make it more personal and more meaningful. I hope people reading this post enjoyed it, and I hope you’ll take a (soppy, yes!) moment to send my friends some good wishes!

Walters Museum MS W.166, f.16r. via Wikipedia Commons.

Walters Museum MS W.166, f.16r. via Wikipedia Commons.


Anyone who has read Cynthia Harnett’s The Wool Pack, with its story of Nicholas and Cecily’s betrothal, might recognise the quotations from Cecily’s letters as being lifted from those of Margery Brews.

If you want to know more about the Paston women, Diane Watt has published a selection of their letters as The Paston Women: Selected Letters, which has lots of helpful notes and is in modernised spelling. You could also try Colin Richmond’s book The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century, or the first section of Rebecca Krug’s beautifully written book Reading Families (the whole book is well worth reading).


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