How we explain misogyny in fiction: Malory’s Morte Darthur and Game of Thrones

I spent this past weekend at the Romance in Medieval Britain conference in Bristol, which was one of the nicest conferences I’ve ever attended. We listened to a lot of serious academic papers. But we also did the less serious stuff, including an obligatory moan about the number of mind-numbingly bad articles that seek to validate Game of Thrones with spurious parallels to medieval England*.

George R. R. Martin in happier times. From Robert de Boron's prose Merlin.

George R. R. Martin in happier times. From Robert de Boron’s prose Merlin.

I have been struggling with this issue. I enjoy GoT. I don’t enjoy the standard terminology for explaining away the misogynistic dodgy bits. ‘Sexposition’ casts the nastiest scenes as  mere narrative devices (albeit an unpleasant ones). The term takes agency out of the picture. We’re supposed to place the messy situation where we sympathise with characters whom we know to be propping up Westeros’s thriving brothel culture beyond the reach of analysis. That’s comfortable, but it’s also reductive and silencing.

Yet, an increasing number of people who seem to feel that it’s terribly important to explain away the misogyny in a rigorous, real-world way. The most inane arguments are a straight draw between ‘well, it was all, like, violent and nasty in history too ….’ or ‘but they’re Strong Women so it’s less upsetting seeing them raped/murdered/treated like objects‘.

I’m never quite sure how to respond to this last one, except to gawp a little bit at the levels of (unintentional, I am aware) offensiveness in that argument. What bothers me about these articles isn’t that they’re dubious history or dodgy feminism (though they’re often both), but that they’re trying so hard to insist that we need to be educated in the real, concrete, intellectual arguments in favour of GoT. If you don’t get it, well, you’re just less subtle, less sophisticated.

The parallels between GoT and medieval romance are actually pretty striking, much more so than between the TV show and the Wars of the Roses. We have an icestuous brother and sister … their murderous, throne-stealing offspring … dead warriors who come eerily back to life**… a lot of in-fighting between rival kings … prominent bastard children … lots of men called Sir this and that who carry complicated pictorial banners … oh, and dragons. Yep, full house. And that’s just Malory’s Morte Darthur.

Morally ambiguous and Not Dead Yet: that's pretty much King Arthur.

Morally ambiguous and Not Dead Yet: that’s pretty much King Arthur.

The Morte, if you don’t know it, is a long, rambling, chaotic series of Arthurian stories, mostly translated and partly composed by a prisoner of war at the end of the fifteenth century, and printed by Caxton a little later. The story, like Game of Thrones, starts out looking like traditional fantasy epic: lots of complicated family trees and awkward exposition dialogue, a rape presented as sex, and set-piece battles I skip over feeling vaguely guilty. It veers towards Raymond E. Feist on a bad day.

But, much like GoT, it does get better.  Malory has a thing for delivering revelations with a casual, heartless speed that somehow underlines their poignancy. There’s a scene where Balin, the hero of the early part of the story (spoiler: he dies. Everybody dies) runs through a castle fighting his enemy King Pellam. As he lands a blow on the king, the castle collapses around them and they lie crushed in the rubble for three days:

“And then came Merlin there, and took up Balin, and gave him a good horse, for his own was dead, and told him to ride out of that country. ‘I would have my damosel,’ said Balin. ‘Look,’ said Merlin, ‘where she lieth dead’.” 

'Lo here she lieth dead': Philippa Chaucer's tomb effigy (from Jonathan Hsy's site)

‘Look where she lieth dead.’ The woman in this effigy is actually Philippa Chaucer, and the picture is from Jonathan Hsy’s information-packed site on Chaucer, Gower, and late-medieval literature.

It’s at this point that Balin finds out that his sword blow has not only wounded his enemy and caused the castle to fall, but has also reverberated through the surrounding country, killing the people, and ultimately setting in motion the search for the Holy Grail, which carried the blood of Christ, to heal the striken king again.

Angel bearing the Grail before the king. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Fr. 1453, f. 283.

Angel bearing the Grail before the king. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Fr. 1453, f. 283.

This is all beautifully written – and you really need to read it or buy the audio tape (there is one), because it’s great. But you notice that the woman, Balin’s lover, is just so much collateral damage, killed horribly as a result of something even Balin did not intend to set in motion. It doesn’t stop there: Malory’s Guinevere is morally ambiguous at best, and narrowly escapes being burnt alive only to die almost forgotten in a nunnery. Her opposite number (think Caitlyn Stark to Guinevere’s Cersei Lannister … ish …) is Elaine, who acts out every misogynist twit’s favourite cautionary tale that never, ever happened.

Attitudes towards sexual violence in the Morte are, again, disturbingly close to what we see in Game of Thrones. Malory makes rape an essential element of his fiction, which you can’t avoid any more than the ‘sexposition’ of the TV show. For example, there’s the giant rapist of Mont St Michel, who serves as an example of brute force against whom Arthur can show off his strength, landing a blow that “swappis his genytrottys in sondir” (cleaves his genitals apart) and disembowels him. The word ‘genytrottys’ is picked out in gory red on the page, the colour usually reserved for proper names. But Malory doesn’t leave this as a simple issue: rape is a fact of life in the Morte, responsible for the conceptions of both Arthur and (arguably) Lancelot’s son Galahad. The moral status of rapists is ambiguous, and the grey area around the act itself is about a mile wide. 

Now, some would argue this is just a failure to understand historical context. In medieval England, the meanings of the word ‘rape’ include abduction, and even, it’s been suggested, the abduction of a perfectly willing woman against the will of her male relatives. Both Malory and Chaucer were accused of this crime in real life, which makes their prominent stories of Arthurian rape more than a little bit difficult – triggering, even – for students to talk about in class.

This is something that was never acknowledged when I was studying these texts for the first time. In fact, to my shame, I only really thought about how to make it an explicit issue in my teaching when I was preparing for next term’s workshop on tragedy, and came across Liz Gloyn’s insightful post. She writes about how she deals with teaching rape narratives in Classical Literature to classes which, as she points out, are statistically almost certain to contain rape survivors. This made me realize that, while most books I read on Malory and rape are quick to point out the historical differences that allow us to avoid the uncomfortable thought that this author might have been a rapist in the modern sense, they seldom dwell on the other side of the issue. We are in exactly the same situation as modern media, quick to pre-empt the tide (yes, this is sarcasm) of false rape allegations but slow to acknowledge the commonness of the crime.

There’s a worrying situation where people who feel uncomfortable with certain texts or certain authors don’t speak up for fear of sounding like philistines. I’d like to think that most people who write about the sexism in GoT, and most people who work on historical fictions of sexual violence, are aware that these fictional texts can be triggering. But it’s not the fiction that needs explaining away, with neat terms like ‘sexposition’ or with the claim that it’s really a history lesson. What we need to tackle are the expectations around the fiction, that stress historical ‘reality’ or ‘authenticity’ but fall silent before acknowledging the reality of readers’ experiences that form a less comfortable context.


* Yes, I do know that’s what George R. R. Martin says. No, I don’t think that makes him right.

** Ok, I admit: I’m thinking of Malory’s Sir Colgrevaunce of Gore, and we’ve never been sure if he’s actually dead, or just a continuity error. But I’m sure there are zombies kicking around somewhere, too.

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In the ‘Medieval Mud’: When you’re a Male Renaissance Genius, it doesn’t matter if your Facts are Wrong.

I’ve just finished watching a BBC programme with the title ‘A Very British Renaissance‘. Now, I admit I was expecting to have some strong reactions to this, since I came to it from the brilliant scholar David Rundle’s blog, where he’s just written a learned and funny take-down of some of the annoying assumptions therein. As he points out, this programme was dead keen to push an image of a ‘distinctively English’ period of history, during which we Brits left our insular isolation behind and began to beat the Continent at its own game. The emerging British (= English) Renaissance was a time of genius and beauty, so narrator Dr James Fox argues, an amazing advance on the benighted, crude and murky culture of the Middle Ages. It was also, I began to realize, yet another Age Without Women.

The focus of my irritation in this post is evenly split between bad history, and dubious revisionist misogyny, so you’ll have to excuse a little back-and-forth between the two. We’ll take the first point first. People do often assume medieval England was completely cut off from the rest of the world. I’m not sure why, seeing as most people are dimly aware that the English crown owned parts of France, but there we are. I always find it interesting that people assume there were, for example, no non-white people in medieval England, and just as soon as I can afford this gorgeous-looking book, I’m going to buy it. On a more domestic level, if you read medieval recipes you’ll soon notice how many contain ingredients – ginger or saffron, pepper, oranges or almonds, for example – that remind you people had access through trade routes to distant places.

Studying medieval manuscripts, you can really get a sense of how much even quite ordinary people moved around. At the moment, I’m looking at some thirteenth-century romances and fabliaux (rude stories, if you’re interested) in a manuscript made in France. By the fifteenth century, it had been brought to Britain, and ended up in the hands of a family of East Midlands gentry – hardly the sort of people you might expect to be reading exciting foreign books. But they did.

Similarly, the British Library has just digitized what they’re telling us is the ‘first English autobiography’ – though this simplifies a phenomenally complicated story which is partly autobiography, partly dramatization – written by a Norfolk woman called Margery Kempe. She wasn’t particularly rich or socially important, but she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem via Venice and Rome, and once she was back home she briefly employed an amenuesis (she couldn’t write) who was married to a German woman.

These are just examples from off the top of my head, to show that, actually, medieval England was full of people coming and going from the Continent – and you’ll notice we’re not just looking at men, or the aristocracy, but at relatively ‘ordinary’ men and women.

So … on to the second point, the argument that medieval England was a land of mud, muck and ignorance in which happiness consisted of not catching the Black Death and the highest ambition of every peasant was to own his own turnip. I’m pretty easy to wind up on this issue, because I really hate the connotations the word ‘medieval’ carries to a lot of modern writers. You read an article about women being oppressed, or creativity stifled, and nine times out of ten the author will refer disparagingly to ‘medieval’ attitudes. So, I had my agenda polished up from the start.

The programme begins with sunlit shots of Italian Renaissance sculpture, before cutting to a scene of Dr James Fox narrating as he trudges through squelchy English mud, which he compared (no, really) to the medieval period. His voiceover was all soaring phrases and triadic alliterations (which, you know, made me think of medieval poems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Pearl … but who’s checking?), as he attributed to the English Renaissance a sparkling constellation of brilliant developments. There were our ‘first’ great paintings, our ‘first’ scientific breakthroughs, and our ‘greatest writer’.

Shakespeare, of course. The Chandos portrait. In which the earring certainly doesn't signify he was gay, ohno. There was no gayness in this programme! It didn't exist before 1967, doncha know?

Shakespeare, of course. The Chandos portrait. In which the earring certainly doesn’t signify he was gay, ohno. There was no gayness in this programme! It didn’t exist before 1967, doncha know?

All of this began, so Dr Fox explains, in 1507, when an Italian artist called Torregiano left Italy under a cloud, after losing his temper and punching Michaelangelo in the nose. I was particularly sad to see no homoerotic undertones were detected, probably because my mind is in the gutter with the ‘medieval mud’. Anyway, after this Clarksonesque bust-up Torregiano emigrated to

“Europe’s most philistine backwater … England. When Torregiano reached England, it must have felt like he’d stepped back into the past. The Renaissance had been raging in Italy for almost 200 years, but here there was absolutely no sign of it whatsoever. … The British hadn’t had time for a Renaissance. They hadn’t even had time for art.”

Dr Fox claims, with a stern frown, that medieval England ‘didn’t even have a word for painting’. I’ve used up my weekly allowance of Patrick Stewart facepalms, but you can imagine my reaction. The Middle English word for painting is, well, uh … painting. To be precise, peinture. Minor irritations like this didn’t stop me noticing that, by this stage in the narrative, we’d heard the phrase ‘craftsmen,’ used to describe medieval artists, about a dozen times. You know, because women never got in on this activity.

Unknown Artist from Giovanni Boccaccio, Des cléres et nobles femmes, Spencer Collection MS. 33, f. 37v, French, c. 1470. From this site, which is worth a look.

Unknown Artist from Giovanni Boccaccio, Des cléres et nobles femmes, Spencer Collection MS. 33, f. 37v, French, c. 1470. From this site, which is worth a look.

Certainly, I couldn’t help noticing that this was a highly masculinized world we were being shown. We moved from the nice macho nose-punch that set the English Renaissance in motion, through a line-up of eminent men: Holbein, Nicholas Kratzer (he of the ‘genuinely Renaissance mind’), John Damien, Thomas Wyatt and Thomas Tallis. Wyatt is credited, here, with introducing love poetry in the Petrarchan tradition to boring old England, which had seen no literature since Chaucer.

(That high-pitched noise  you hear is the steam emitting from my ears.)

Wyatt went off to Italy, learned to write sonnets, and came back to Henry VIII’s court to immortalise anonymous women. Keen to stress the intimate, soulful nature of Wyatt’s writing (privacy is, I notice, also a hallmark of the ‘Renaissance’ superiority, in a neat line to the Romantics’ male-dominated ‘lonely genius’ idea), Fox intones:

“Wyatt’s poems were written by hand …”

You know, I really thought he’d rise to a laptop. Or if you are less of a realist philistine than I am, perhaps you can imagine the great man sitting down to a printing press and composing away.

Printing Workshop

A Printing Press: probably not the sort of thing you choose to bash out the odd sonnet on.

Now, I love Wyatt’s poetry, especially ‘Whoso list to hunt‘. But – leaving aside the fact that the trope of young men going out into the forest to discover true love is straight out of the medieval romance Fox dismisses – these poems are predicated on a particular view of the relationships between men and women which – how can I put this? – does come across as just slightly objectifying. Just a tad. Cos, you know, representing a woman as a deer to be shot is one of those romantic gestures of which you can imagine Edward Cullen approving.

In Fox’s version of events, then, the English literary Renaissance began with writing in which women were objects, and this was a vast improvement on such ‘muddy’ medieval texts as Kempe’s bizarrely brilliant ‘autobiography,’ the lyrical mysticism of Julian of Norwich, the fantastic cross-dressing romances like the Roman de Silence, or the elegantly playful Assembly of Ladies, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

We were well into the territory of the ‘Great Literary Tradition’ by this point, though, and that tradition doesn’t have room for most of the literature that gives screen time – or even a voice – to women. Still commenting on Wyatt, Fox’s colleague claimed that Wyatt’s coy description of a romantic encounter was an amazing first in the history of writing about sex:

“nobody in medieval poetry went to bed with anybody, only in dreams, that’s why this is such a radical poem.”

I’m not quite sure what was happening in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale if no-one in medieval poetry went to bed with each other*, for the tale describes the adulterous couple’s tryst in  pretty blunt terms:

“Doun of the laddre stalketh Nicholay

And Alisoun ful softe adoun she spedde.

Withouten wordes mo they goon to bedde.”

(‘Down the ladder sneaks Nicholas/ And Alison, very quietly, hurried down. Without a word more they go to bed.’ Chaucer, Miller’s Tale, ll. 540-42.)

I’d also like to share with you a poem which you won’t be surprised to learn is one of my favourite examples of unsubtle punning, which begins with the auspicious line ‘I have a gentil cok’. The poem goes on to ennumerate the virtues of this wonderful bird, concluding ‘And every night he perches him/ In my lady’s chamber’.

Perhaps Dr Fox and co. were plagued by innocence?

If you read my blog regularly, these poems will not come as a huge surprise, given what we know of medieval illumination. So I’ll take the opportunity to share this image, illustrating the Roman de la Rose, by Jeanne de Montbaston –  just as a reminder that women were sometimes at the creative helm:



Both images from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fr 25526.

And there’s always the wonderful Talbot Shrewsbury book, comissioned to celebrate the marriage of Margaret of Anjou to Henry VI, with this image of the conception of Alexander the Great, which I like to caption ‘In bed with my dragon’:

BL, Royal 15 E VI, fol. 6r.

BL, Royal 15 E VI, fol. 6r.

There’s a reason the programme didn’t acknowledge the existence of the bawdy story I quoted, or the images I’ve shown. What we’re looking at is canonization, the process whereby certain cultural products are deemed to be self-evidently superior to others, worthy of study and attention. In this programme, the canon of medieval literature was rewritten, to include Chaucer (though a reading of Chaucer which excluded the low-status Miller’s Tale), and to exclude fifteenth-century romances, the Humanist writings that testify to the culture of intellectual exchange between England and the Continent, and the multitude of texts I write about, in which women are authors and protagonists, businesswomen as well as aristocratic ladies, thinkers and doers, and not simply mute sexual objects.

By excluding a lot of medieval culture, this programme is able to draw a straight line from Chaucer to Wyatt to Shakespeare to the Romantic Poets, whose notion of solitary (male) genius was never far from the subtext. It’s not a big leap from this, to the idea that Great Literature, or Artistic Genius, or whatever amazing idea you want to mention, is really something that all intelligent men have been able to recognize throughout history. It’s something the truly brilliant just understand, and the fact that there are no women in this picture is really not anyone’s fault: it’s just how History is.

I’ll stick to my medieval mud, thanks.


Please excuse typos – it’s the end of a very long week!

* Update

Being – as I am – ever keen to back up my arguments on this blog with the most rigorous scholarly research (actually, there is a lot of rigorous scholarly research going on in the background, I promise), I return with this comment on medieval beds and their usage. Hollie Morgan, specialist in medieval beds, opines:

“hahahahahahahaha. It’s all about sex. And beds.”

But is too tired trying to finish her PhD to comment more about it. But when it’s done, Dr. Fox is welcome to read 100,000 words on muddy medievals in bed.

In all seriousness, her PhD project constantly challenges me to think more precisely about our assumptions concerning the medieval period, and she’s helped me to express something I found unsettling about this programme: throughout it, High Art was described as if it were entirely separate from daily life. I don’t think we’ll ever get a satisfying picture of fifteenth- or sixteenth-century England like that.

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University is No Place For Women, or, ‘What About the MEN?’

Punch Cartoon from 1887. Miss Ramsay is shown into a railway carriage marked 'First Class - Ladies Only'

Punch Cartoon from 1887. Miss Ramsay is shown into a railway carriage marked ‘First Class – Ladies Only’

In 1887, a woman called Agneta Frances Ramsay – who was not allowed to matriculate – achieved the highest result in the yearly final examinations at the University of Cambridge. The university did not grant her a degree, because she was a woman, and we all know that women do not belong in institutions of Higher Education.

Yesterday, I read that St Hilda’s college at Oxford, the last all-women’s college to go mixed (in 2008), has appointed a male Principal for the first time. This morning, I read a Guardian article censoriously asking ‘Why do we worry that few girls take up physics, but not that boys make up just 29% of English Literature students?’

I’ll go with the second question first. Why indeed, O Guardian? After all, there are such a lot of successful female physicists in the public eye these days, and everyone knows that no man can get his foot in the door of any career relating to English Literature. There are no male Booker prize winners, no male journalists, and at the highest levels of academia, the lofty status of professor of English Literature is reserved exclusively for the fairer sex.

If I were techie I’d insert a facepalm gif into this post, but as it is, you’ll just have to follow the link.

I admit, I don’t totally disagree with Laura McInerney, who wrote the Guardian article. She has a point that, by constantly focussing on girls, we risk ‘pathologizing’ them. If we only look at the stats for A Level, it’s possible to believe we should look at boys not doing English in exactly the same way as we look at girls not doing Physics. But we have to look further on.

Take an example. At the faculty of English Literature at the University of Cambridge (just to continue a fine tradition of acting as if the UK really only has two universities worth mentioning), I count some 13 male professors and two women, one of whom – the brilliant and inspiring Professor Helen Cooper – is about to retire. I wonder who will replace her? In the admin staff, I count 13 women and five men. I’ll leave you to guess what the pay disparities might be there.

If you’re interested, at the Department of English at the university of Leicester (picked randomly for comparison), I count 7 male professors and four women! Whoopie-do.

Obviously, I know that being a professor of English isn’t everyone’s dream job and I’m pretty sure the vast majority of sixteen-year-olds picking A Level subjects don’t spend their time thinking about it. As a former sixteen-year-old who wanted to study English Lit and Physics (the English Lit won out, can you tell?), I certainly didn’t. But all of those professors of English started out somewhere. And somewhere between choosing A Levels at 29%, and passing through university (my current second-year workshop has 19 women and five men, or just over 20%), getting a PhD, doing a postdoc, publishing and lecturing and possibly getting a professorship … somewhere along that line, something very strange happens to the numbers.

Sure, I know that maybe this is unfair. I can believe (though I’d love to see stats if you have them) that at the various times when Professors Richard, Stefan, Steve, Peter, Stephen, Simon, John, Christopher, Adrian, James, David, Geoff and Barry were choosing A Levels, there may have been less of a disparity between boys and girls doing English Lit. But were 87% of A Level English students over this period men? Really? I don’t think so.

Having moved neatly from A Levels to people with the top jobs at University, I’ll go back to the story about St Hilda’s electing a male principal, which I mentioned earlier. The college rather clumsily justify their choice on the basis that Sir Gordon Duff (for twas he) has a wife who was at the college. As Val McDermid brilliantly responded, they might as well have come out and said:

“His wife knows our little ways, so it’ll all be ok. Yeah, right. Mary Bennett must be birling in her grave.”

Now, I know there’s an honourable history to Oxbridge gaffes about gender politics. The topic has been a good subject for pisstakes since Chaucer wrote about Cambridge students in the Canterbury Tales, since Shakespeare wrote about Dr. Caius in Merry Wives. A woman who’d been a graduate student in the late 70s told me about her experience of turning up to the initial meet-and-greet. She was accosted by the wife of one of the hosts, who asked brightly ‘and which of the young men is your husband?’. On being told that, in fact, this young woman was herself one of the new doctoral candidates, the hostess beat a hasty retreat, explaining ‘well, I’m here to speak to the young men’s wives!’

We could go on about it for hours, digressing into the fantastic pseudo-medical hangups of Victorian doctors who believed women’s teeny little bodies couldn’t support a brain and a womb at the same time. I could get behind the idea (or 13-year-old me, freezing on the astroturf, could get behind the idea) that women shouldn’t be taught team sports like they do at boys’ schools, because playing hockey damages your capacity to breastfeed. I could snipe at the perception that still hangs around, that men don’t study English Lit because women are innately better at communication, while women don’t study Engineering because we’re innately crap at fine motor skills. Cos, of course, nothing in childhood development could condition those disparities in, ohno.

Once again I direct your attention to the fine work of Mr Stewart.

Something tells me you won’t be gobsmacked to learn that, actually, I don’t find myself convinced by all of this. A list of the Oxford heads of colleges tells you pretty quickly that heading an Oxford college is still a male-dominated field, with nearly three times as many men as women. I’m sure there are hundreds of complicated reasons for this, but there’s also one very, very simple reason.

Sir Gordon Duff, new Principal at St Hilda’s, was born in 1947. When he applied to Oxford in the mid-sixties, the only mixed college was restricted to graduates, and the remaining thirty-odd colleges reserved for the men. When Naida Clarke, better known as Lady Duff, went up to St Hilda’s, she was competing for a place at only five colleges. Could this have anything to do with the fact there are more male college principals – as well as more male English Lit profs, more male MPs, etc. etc.?  

Much is made of the fact that Oxford used to have women-only colleges in an age when such positive discrimination is seen by some as anachronistic, unfair, or symptomatic of the epidemic of ‘extreme feminism’ washing over our shores. Few people know that, in 2014, Oxford still has one single-sex house, the all-male permanent private hall of St Benet’s, which has announced its intention to take on women undergrads just as soon as it can find the space. I can almost taste the enthusiasm.

There tends to be a feeling that – in this modern, enlightened age – it’s only right to celebrate appointments such as St Hilda’s new principal as a victory for the feminism, in rather the same way that the cringey cliché ‘well, I don’t see race’ is sometimes presented as a victory of equal rights activism. It’s the same attitude that sees handwringing articles written about the lack of boys doing A Level English. And this is the point where I acknowledge patiently that yes, I’m sure Sir Gordon Duff is eminently qualified and I am aware it is a real issue when boys don’t access education, and I believe there are concerns to be registered.

But please, can we stop pretending we’re looking at a playing field that’s already level?


Check out the book Bluestockings, which is a speedy and approachable history of late Victorian and twentieth-century women’s education, albeit with a deeply annoying subtitle referring to these women as ‘the first women to fight for an education’.

See also Patricia Vertinsky, The Eternally Wounded Woman: Women, Exercise and Doctors in the Late Nineteenth Century.

Update: This article has just been published, discussing the gender inequalities in Higher Education with reference to the REF, the system through which research is assessed and – basically – through which your academic career is assessed. This is not a historical problem – it’s right here with us.

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“A Boy without a winkle? God be praised, it’s a miracle!”: Recovering Narratives of Girlhood

Medieval children: tehy were almost all boys, you know. Pleasantly, the image illustrates text from the massacre of the innocents. French breviary, c. 1320–25. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 2, fol. 142.

Medieval children: they were almost all boys, you know. Pleasantly, the image illustrates text from the massacre of the innocents.
French breviary, c. 1320–25. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 2, fol. 142.

Despite the title, and doubtless to the relief of my mate’s brilliant daughter who gently suggested it might be time to knock the penis posts on the head for a bit, you will be pleased to know this isn’t another post about medieval genitalia. The quotation is from the famous scene from Blackadder II, which was running through my head as I watched a documentary about medieval childhood yesterday.

NursieOut you popped and everyone’s shouting: “It’s a boy, it’s a boy!” And somebody said: “But it hasn’t got a winkle!” And I said: “God be praised, it’s a miracle. A boy without a winkle!” And then Sir Thomas More pointed out that a boy without a winkle is a girl. Everyone was really disappointed.

MelchettYes, he was a very perceptive man, Sir Thomas More.

Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Engaging in reductive biological essentialism since 1478.

Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Engaging in reductive biological essentialism since 1478.

I’ve got to admit, it’s not the first time I’ve felt as if noticing the existence of girls as well as boys is an act of quite exceptional perceptiveness. At a seminar last week run by the brilliant Rachel Moss, we discussed how often anonymous medieval poems are attributed to men rather than women; how often the masculine experience is imagined to be the default. This is especially the case when the experience in question is something we value as a society: fighting wars, writing books, earning money. By simple omission, we fail to attribute to women the historical identities that male figures are given, as active participants in their society. And as I watched this documentary, I felt the same.

It was a pity, because it was absolutely fascinating in many ways, and I would recommend it. But I did have one quibble, as you might have guessed. It was (almost) all about boys.

To be fair, a couple of girls did show up briefly, notably Margaret Beaufort, whose function in this documentary was to imply that, if you were not of the be-penised tribe, your fate was a traumatic pregnancy aged 12 and, whoopie-do, the conception of The Tudor Heir. The precise phrasing was, in fact, ‘Margaret was just one of millions of medieval children who made a vital contribution to England’s transformation’. This documentary implied (and I’m sure it wasn’t deliberate) that the only experiences girls participated in were playing, dying, and being married off at a young age. I can’t help noticing those are all economically passive activities.

I found this very uncomfortable viewing, a jarring note in what could have been a brilliant exploration of medieval boyhood.  I couldn’t really understand why some of these childhood experiences were being discussed purely in terms of boys. Most of the childhood experiences described – going to a monastery to be trained up for the religious life, going to the manor to learn to be a servant, working as an apprentice or helping out on your parents’ farm – were common to boys and girls.

Yes, you can feed the chickens with a spindle tucked under your arm, but you do risk creating monster giant sparrow-style mother hens. Detail of f. 166v in London, BL MS Add. 42130, f. 166v. c. 1320-40.

Yes, you can feed the chickens with a distaff tucked under your arm, but you do risk creating monster giant sparrow-style mother hens.
Detail of f. 166v in London, BL MS Add. 42130, f. 166v. c. 1320-40.

So, to counter some of the assumptions we’re often led to make about medieval girlhood, I wanted to look at one specific situation: that of growing up as a female apprentice learning a trade.

In London as in other big cities in the fifteenth century, girls aged 14 or even younger could seek apprenticeships – some acting apparently on their own behalf, others aided by parents or relatives. These girls were often placed with families whom they’d known from early childhood, and apprenticeship could last as much as seven, or even ten years. Effectively, then, apprenticeships bridged the gap between childhood and full maturity in the same way adolescence does now, though some girls evidently left to get married midway through.

Women spinning and weaving together in Boccaccio, Le Livre des cléres et nobles femmes. From Paris, Bibliotèque Nationale de France, MS Fr. 12420, fol. 71. c. 1403.

Women spinning and weaving together in Boccaccio, Le Livre des cléres et nobles femmes. From Paris, Bibliotèque Nationale de France, MS Fr. 12420, fol. 71. c. 1403.

Many of the trades in which girls were apprenticed had to do with what we would still imagine as ‘traditionally feminine’ crafts: silkwork or embroidery, clothmaking or spinning. Perhaps more unexpectedly, though, some girls were obviously competent enough at reading and writing to go into literate trades, like the orphaned daughters of John Shaw, Alice and Matilda, who were apprenticed to one Peter Churche, a notary public. Indeed, it’s possible traditionally ‘feminine’ sewing and traditionally ‘masculine’ writing weren’t such different spheres of activity after all:

This evidence of professional literacy amongst female apprentices made me think back to that anonymous poem I’d been reading in the seminar. The poem is called The Assembly of Ladies, and what’s interesting about it is that it may not be a story about adults, but about adolescents. Rachel Moss explains that the poem’s opening description of women finding their way through the garden maze evokes the highly conventional masculine ‘coming of age’ scene of a young boy finding his way through the winding paths of a forest, which was well known in medieval romance. In addition to this, the women of the poem are dressed all in blue – the colour of faithful love, but also of virginity, perhaps symbolising their youthful state. The central part of the poem is taken up with a description of the mysterious court of ‘Lady Loyalty,’ who listens to each woman’s views on love (an appropriate topic if we believe marriage to be a crucial rite of passage through which medieval girls founded their identities as adult women).

Virgo, from the Belles Heures of the Duc du Berry. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954, 54.1.1).

Virgo dressed in blue. From the Belles Heures of the Duc du Berry. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954, 54.1.1).

I was struck by the fact that, in the introduction to this poem, the editor Derek Pearsall comments that the many descriptions of clothing might be supposed, stereotypically, to appeal to women. I read this initially as a comment on women as consumers, women as wearers of clothes. But when I thought about young women apprentices, perhaps sitting listening to this poem read aloud in a house is medieval London, I could imagine them listening with a professional ear, imagining the making of such clothes. You see, in the poem, each woman literally wears her ‘heart on her sleeve’: each has an embroidered motto on the sleeve of her gown.

Such devices existed in real life, and it’s quite possible that female apprentices learning embroidery would have made such embroidered sleeves themselves. I couldn’t find an example contemporary with the poem, but this tapestry made a few decades earlier includes a motto, made up of rather stylised letters scattered over the hanging blue sleeve of the middle lady, which read ‘monte le desire’ (‘desire grows’).

'Boar and Bear Hunt' (detail), woven wool tapestry, probably made in Arras, France, or Tournai, Belgium, 1425-30. V&A Museum no. T.204-1957.

‘Boar and Bear Hunt’ (detail), woven wool tapestry, probably made in Arras, France, or Tournai, Belgium, 1425-30. V&A Museum no. T.204-1957.

Imaging the social reality behind the making of such embroidered clothes – a reality involving girls and women learning this professional skill – allows us to find in the poem another kind of female ‘authorship’ and an activity other than marriage through which adolescent girls could develop their adult identities.

It’s often hard to know who read medieval manuscripts, and that’s certainly the case with the manuscripts in which this poem is found. What we do know is that whole families (including apprentices!) would have gathered around to listen to poems and stories read aloud, preferring this to solitary reading. And we have many manuscripts whose contents cater to the needs of a whole family, children learning their letters to adults. One of the manuscripts of The Assembly of Ladies was made by a scribe working in London in the second half of the fifteenth century. We don’t know his name, or who exactly he made this manuscript for, but we do know that he had professional links to one of the most prominent London families involved in the textile trade: Thomas Cooke, draper (and a mayor of London in his day) and his wife, the daughter of another draper.

I’ve no hard evidence to suggest that The Assembly of Ladies was actually written, or read, as a coming-of-age narrative for girls growing up as apprentices in the London cloth trade. But, simply acknowledging the existence of young girls learning professional skills like this can shape our reading of the poem, and of girls’ place in medieval culture as a whole. Instead of picturing female children as economically passive, interested in clothes as consumers, we can recognise that some of them would have been learning to make professional judgements, to see the world with perspectives gained through the acquisition of professional skill. Without solving the question of whether The Assembly of Ladies was itself written by a woman, we can acknowledge women as authors of their own identities within the poem, as writers of the mottos sewn into their sleeves. And we can acknowledge real medieval girls as active participants in their culture, making an economic contribution.


For this post I drew on Barbara Hanawalt’s work on medieval childhood, and on female apprentices – especially her book The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law and Economy in Late Medieval London (Oxford: OUP, 2007), but also Growing up in Medieval London (Oxford: OUP, 1993).

For the poem, see The Assembly of Ladies in The Floure and the Leafe, The Assemblie of Ladies, and The Isle of Ladies, edited by Derek Pearsall (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1990).

For the scribe who wrote the London manuscript of the poem (he’s known as the ‘Hammond scribe’), see Linne R. Mooney, ‘Vernacular Literary Manuscripts and their Scribes,’ in The Production of Books in England, 1350-1500, edited by Alexandra Gillespie and Daniel Wakelin (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), pp. 192-211.


As my friend has just pointed out (with a polite lack of ‘duh, you twit’), what the woman with the giant sparrow-hen is carrying is a distaff, not a spindle. Yes, I would make a terrible medieval woman.

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“I woke up this morning with a bad hangover/ And my penis was missing again”: On Power and Pseudo-History

I don’t habitually go to buzzfeed for profound and scholarly historical discussion (I keep wikipedia for that), so when someone sent me a link, I wasn’t expecting much, and I wasn’t disappointed. This link is a load of guff about how powerful prostitutes were back in History, back before the nasty feminists spoiled everything (note, their definition of ‘prostitute’ is probably loose enough to come close to some people’s definition of ‘libel’). It’s easy to take issue with the ‘woman is powerful because she got to sleep with powerful men’ theory, of course. But, despite its manifest limitations, the link got me thinking about the nature of power and how it affects how we write history.

Power is one of those things that is defined relatively, and therefore, any change in an individual’s circumstances sets off a recalibration of the whole system, however minute and imperceptible it may be. If I become relatively more powerful, someone else becomes relatively less so. And that’s how the balance can tip until whole sectors of society are wildly less powerful than others. Problem is, when we come to discuss history, it’s always tempting to take individuals out of context, to make every ambiguity point the same way until we’ve reconstructed actual power from the range of possibilities.

The best way I can think to illustrate this is with the figure of the medieval witch, a figure whose power I’ve seen described with awe and respect over and over, put forward earnestly by people who truly want to believe in a past where women had power.

Detail from the thirteenth-century Mural at Massa Marittima.

Detail from the thirteenth-century Mural at Massa Marittima.

A few months ago, when I’d just started tweeting with an avatar showing Jeanne and Richard de Montbaston’s image of a nun picking penises, Victoria Brownworth commented how much this image reminded her of an episode in the famous Malleus Maleficarum. The Malleus (‘Hammer of the Witches’) was written in 1486, and became quite popular, with several reprintings over the next couple of centuries. The story she was thinking of is one of my favourites, so I’m going to quote a bit of it.

“And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report?”

You have to love the casual attribution of this story to ‘common report’. The author of the Malleus, with admirable confidence in his audience’s sangfroid in the face of this narrative, goes on to describe one poor emasculated man’s experience:

“For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belongs to a parish priest.”

You might find it hard to believe, given the jokey tone of these passages, but the Malleus was pretty highly misogynistic and sincere in its conviction that witches were prompted by evil, female sexual desire. For a lot of readers ever since, the witches of the Malleus have become symbolic of resistance to this persecutory misogyny, growing in stature from strangely arboreal penis-farmers to wise, dignified, strong women drawing on mysterious feminine power. I’ve sometimes got into arguments about this with women who say, well, maybe they had power. It’s possible, isn’t it?

It’s possible. But it’s not very likely.

You can see that the Malleus story has obviously similarities to the much older story fourteenth-century author Robert Mannyng relates in his book Handlyng Synne, which I retold in a previous blog post. In that story, it is a bishop and not a priest who is bested by a clever witch. She enchants a disturbingly phallic, bulging sack to steal milk for her, and when the he demands and repeats the words of the spell, he’s caught in (metaphorical … ish …) impotence, unable to emulate her power. The Malleus story has also been linked to the image at the top of this blog post, which is a detail from a thirteenth-century mural depicting women plucking penises from a penis tree.

The thirteenth-century Mural at Massa Marittima

The thirteenth-century Mural at Massa Marittima

It’s pretty easy to be reductive about these stories, especially as a feminist. Setting aside the Freudian, we can argue these women are represented as clever and powerful, getting the better of the representatives of organised religion and controlling fertility. Add in dramatic references to ‘witchhunts’ in Puritan American or Inquisition-era Europe and these stories take on a darker flavour, as preludes to a male-dominated violence focussed on expressions of powerful female activity. It’s easy to refashion the witch protagonists of these stories as sister women, proto-feminists rejecting male authority (in a delightfully heterocentric way). Maybe they just liked the penises because they were empowered, comfortable with their sexuality? Do stop me, I think I’ve heard this one before.

These witches are beginning to sound like modern women as imagined by the most patronizing of ‘pro-sex’ ‘feminist ally’ types. It’s tempting, of course, to believe that medieval witches were powerful, before an early Modern repression of their power. But I’m not convinced this power is more than an illusion. In order to take these stories as reflections of a strong female power centred in witchcraft, we’d have to believe that the women in them represented something out of the ordinary, some challenge to the status quo, to the dignity of the male-dominated Church or to normal heterosexual power relations.  

Instead, when I looked for other medieval stories like these, I found the most similar plots were not to be found in the angry rants of threatened priests or bishops, or in official propaganda on finding and killing witches. Instead, these stories were dead ringers for the contents of the medieval smutty verses known as fabliau, which feature ordinary men and women and which are obsessed with heterosex.

My current favourite amongst these is called Li Prestre Ki Perdi Les Colles (it sounds so elegant in French, right?): “The Priest Who Lost His Balls”. As you can kinda imagine from the title, it’s another very similar story. Here, the priest is having a little casual fornication, as you do, with a carpenter’s wife. When the carpenter suddenly arrives home, the priest dashes stark naked into the carpenter’s workshop and tries to hide. Seeing nowhere else, he hastily climbs onto a large wooden crucifix and arranges himself in the posture of Jesus, in the hope that the carpenter is stupid enough to imagine he’s already carved the central figure.

Yes, I imagine it pretty much like this. From the excellent Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Yes, I imagine it pretty much like this. From the excellent Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Naturally enough, the carpenter isn’t fooled. Being a smart man, he sees a clever revenge, and, pretending to be horrified at his own oversight in carving highly visible genitals on the body of Christ, he whips out his chisel, and -

Well, yes.

This story is obviously drawing on pretty similar tropes to the witch stories. And I might as well just say that there are dozens of medieval fabliaux describing priests caught in undignified penis-related contexts. The women of the fabliaux are the direct ancestors of these witches: not emblems of female power, but accessories in endless ‘look, I’m talking about a penis’ stories.

Reading these late-medieval witch stories in this context, what I really noticed was that the women described in the Malleus story, or in Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne (or even pictured on the mural) were just very … ordinary. They are not universally terrifying figures, channelling unique power from the Mother Goddess.

When we buy into the idea that witches were universally recognised, in all medieval or early Modern societies, as powerful and awe-inspiring, we buy into a myth. For one thing, few societies are that homogeneous in their views, and for another, to do this is to ignore the fact that the writers, and probably the artists, who created these stories were not feminist documentary-makers, but men with agendas. Buying into MRA myths by attributing spurious power to women in the past is tempting, because we want to imagine how women might have been powerful, and why women were perspecuted. But that’s to miss the point: misogyny doesn’t need reasons. The whole power structure of the societies in which these stories were written were justification enough, without us needing to imagine the threat of specially powerful women.

You may think this doesn’t matter too much – it’s only history. It’s in the past. But the same process of ‘positive’, ‘empowering’ rewriting of circumstances is happening all over the world today. Imagine a historian looking back at misogynistic rants against 21st century feminists. That historian would see claims that women are ‘more powerful than men anyway’ or ‘really derive power from sex work’. They’d see claims that men were threatened by powerful women and that women had a real power, a power strangely invisible to the naked eye but nevertheless much-cited. Would they believe those rants? I hope not. But in the same way, we have a duty to try to be sceptical too. We cannot give someone oppressed more power by pointing out that, in the most positive parallel universe imaginable, a person in that situation might have power. We have to acknowledge the real context of that oppression.


The titular quotation is, of course, from the King Missile song Detachable Penis. One suspects that, in these transhistorical narratives of phallic loss, there might be a feminist anti-Freudian theory waiting to be written, but I leave that to your imagination.

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Scant Menses, Cold and Dry Testicles, and Why You Should Drink Herbal Wine in the Bath

I’m currently struggling to write a post for this blog in response to Louise Pennington’s question over on her blog, where she asks how we might interpret female infertility in theories about patriarchy. Since I’m getting absolutely nowhere with the wider question, I thought I’d share some medieval perspectives on the topic with you. Medieval medical writers talk quite a bit, as you might imagine, about infertility. Many of the medical cures for female infertility were attributed to a legendary woman doctor, Trotula of Salerno. The image below is from London, Welcome Library MS 544, p. 65.

'Trotula': London, Wellcome Library, MS 544, p. 65.
The collection of medical texts attributed to this shadowy female figure (she quite possibly never existed) was known, after her own name, as ‘The Trotula’. It includes a multitude of instructions:      
“If women have scant menses and emit them with pain, take some betony or some of its powder, some pennyroyal, sea wormwood, mugwort, of each one handful. Let them be cooked in water or wine until two parts have been consumed. Then strain through a cloth and let her drink it with the juice of fumitory. …In another fashion, take Florentine iris, lovage, catmint, colocynth, fennel, and rue. Let them be cooked in wine and let this be given to drink. … Or, let savin, wild celery root, fennel, parsley, lovage, and catmint be cooked in wine, and let this be drunk. … If she has no fever, let her eat leeks, onions, pepper, garlic, cumin, and fishes with scales. Let her drink strong wine if she has no pain in the head …” 

London, BL, MS Egerton 747. Medieval Herbal made in Salerno, c. 1280-1310. This image shows the herb 'birthwort'.
London, BL, MS Egerton 747. Medieval Herbal made in Salerno, c. 1280-1310. This image shows the herb ‘birthwort’.

Other recipes specified precisely how and where the medicine should be taken:

“take one handful each of mint, pennyroyal, and rue; three drams of rock salt, one plant of red cabbage, and three heads of leek. Let all these be cooked together in a plain pot, and let her drink it in the bath. … Likewise, take tansy, clover, mugwort, fry with butter, and place upon the navel.”

London, BL, MS Egerton 747, f. 76r Medieval Herbal made in Salerno, c. 1280-1310. Purslane and Pennyroyal.
London, BL, MS Egerton 747, f. 76r Medieval Herbal made in Salerno, c. 1280-1310. Purslane and Pennyroyal.

Admittedly, I totally love the way that the vast majority of these remedies include a good slug of booze, because let’s face it, if you’re going to be medieval and suffering from ‘scant menses,’ there’s no harm being tiddly while you do it. But, reading through the text, you can’t help noticing that women are given little indication that the fault might be anything other than their own bodies. The comments about male infertility are extremely brief, and much more absolute than the comments about women:

“Some men, indeed, have extremely cold and dry testicles. These men rarely or never generate because their seed is useless for generation.”   

Avicenna, Canon medicinae. Paris 13th century. Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 457, fol. 254v

Avicenna, Canon medicinae. Paris 13th century.
Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 457, fol. 254v

Poor menz.

In this medical literature as a whole, women’s bodies are imagined as delicately balanced, constantly in need of careful regulation in order to preserve fertility. Like the Daily Mail publishing another warning to career women about the state of their shrivelled thirty-year-old ovaries, these texts probably are rooted in genuine concern for women, but that’s overlaid by another motive: to publicize the role of those who attempt to cure recalcitrant female bodies. These texts function as records of the immense effort society expends on behalf of needy women.

The multitude of remedies for women isn’t dissimilar to the pleasant twenty-first century suggestion that all women should consider themselves ‘pre-pregnant’ – only here, the idea is that all women should consider themselves ‘pre-infertile,’ constantly alert to the possibility of reproductive disfunction. A cheerful thought.


All quotations from Monica H. Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001)

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Naming the Problem: Women’s Identities and the Historical Record

wedding photo edit

The inspiration behind this post comes from a petition, started by a brilliant feminist. I urge you to read and sign it, if you’ve not already. The petiton states:

In England & Wales mothers’ names are not on marriage certificates.

This is not fair.

This is 2014.

Marriage should not be seen as a business transaction between the father of the bride and the father of the groom.

This seemingly small inequality is part of a much wider pattern of inequality.

Women are routinely silenced and written out of history.

As you can imagine, when I read this I was nodding along, especially when I got to the last line. Women are routinely written out of history. What’s even more disturbing is that, when women’s names are omitted from modern legal records, we come to expect that what we’re seeing is the result of ‘tradition’. We come to believe in this legal record, where the paterfamilias, the male head of the household, is the name and role that matters.

It’s no accident that these ‘traditions’ accumulate around the institution of marriage, because if anything attracts pseudo-traditional trappings, it’s marriage. If you believe the myths, white dresses are slut-shaming badges of virginity (not, y’know, conspicuous consumption), being ‘given away’ is an ancient and symbolic tradition going back to medieval times (it’s not), and it has long been the custom for the man to go with his betrothed even unto Tiffany’s, there to exchange one-third of his yearly stipend for the bling of tastelessness.

For a medievalist, knocking some of this tradition is pretty easy. Aristocratic medieval women didn’t exactly ‘change their names’. Women might display their identities in coats of arms that showed their maternal, as well as paternal heritage. In Books of Hours made to celebrate weddings, the brides might display both maternal and paternal heritage in their coats of arms.

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, for example, shows Catherine’s arms in the big shield in the bottom margin, with the shields of her maternal and paternal grandparents ranged around the border. You can see how these designs are incorporated into the larger shield, forming part of Catherine’s composite identity.

What might seem more surprising is that women’s identities aren’t just visible in this sort of context, where displaying your good lineage is part of the patriarchial system in which women breed the next generation of aristocrats. Women could, and did, also display their occuptions, their professional identities.

The example I like best is one I came across a few months ago, reading a couple of articles about the first female printers in England – the women who came after William Caxton. Finding women who work in the book trade always fascinates me, because their professional lives were dedicated to producing the written material that constitutes so much of what we know about medieval history – yet often, these women’s own names and even the fact of their existance, is lost.

The reason we know about a few women printers is because printing, like most medieval businesses, was a family affair. As in many businesses, men married the daughters and sisters of their colleagues: it was a good way to cement business relationships, but we’re also beginning to recognize that some of these women also brought professional skills with them. So, it’s no surprise to find medieval women printers who kept their maiden names – as a way of advertising the professional background they brought to their husbands’ workshops.

Printing Workshop

One early woman printer goes even further: this is Elizabeth, wife of the printer Robert Redman, who lived in Fleet Street in London in the sixteenth century. When her husband died, she did not formally inherit the business and there’s no indication in Redman’s will that he expected her to carry on printing. But a series of books were produced by Elizabeth as a widow, and naturally they record who printed them: ‘Elysabeth Pykeryng, late wife to Robert Redman’. Pykeryng uses what is presumably her maiden name, and certainly isn’t her husband’s name: it’s her professional identity.

An article on Pykeryng by Martha Driver, who’s an amazing scholar of medieval culture, raises the possibility that it was Pykeryng who’d been managing the press all along: her initials appear on some books printed before her husband’s death, and when she remarried, she continued to be involved in dealings with the printing press, even though formally a married woman should have been acting only through her husband.

This sounds like a success story for the medieval proto-feminists. Or, if you’re less inclined to hyperbole, a Good Example of Hardworking Female Industry (I think I’m channelling the bloke who gave the speech at my sixth form prize day, who jingled change in his pocket while telling those who’d done Home Ec what good wives they’d make).

But there’s something missing from Pykeryng’s story, even though her name and occupation survive in the historical record. She actually married at least four times, and had several daughters. But, while we can look up the relationships between children and their fathers in the official record, mothers’ names are not mentioned. So we don’t know exactly which children this inspirational sixteenth-century woman printer raised. In a reversal of our expectations of ‘woman’s history,’ we have her professional reputation, but not her personal history. We’re dealing with a record which, even at its most revealing, is full of silences when it comes to women.

This is a wider problem that has begun to affect not just the facts we know or don’t know, but also, the facts we remember, the facts we seek out from the historical record and publish, or talk about. When women’s names and occupations rarely appear in documents such as marriage certificates, we stop looking for them in the historical record. We stop expecting to find historical data about working women, and we begin to believe the myths that married women didn’t have jobs, that women in the past traditionally took their husbands’ names, or that mothers did not pass on their professional identities to their children. When women are consistently written out of the historical record, we come to expect not to find them.

When I looked at the Merriam-Webster for a definition of the word materfamilias – a woman equivalent of the patriarch, the head of the family – I found the dictionary gave the first known use as 1756. I happen to know this isn’t true: a medieval will of 1416 – over three hundred years earlier – includes a bequest of money given by a canon of York Minster to one ‘Alicie matrifamilias’ (‘Alice, materfamilias‘). But even our records of language come to reflect what we expect of the historical record, not what is actually there. We expect women’s history to be shorter, humbler, and more basic than men’s. The current state of marriage certificates perpetuates both the omission of women’s names and details, and the culture of expectations that goes with this omission. It is a double form of silencing, a double erasure of women from history.

marriage certificate


I base my comments on Elysabeth Pykeryng on two articles, both very well worth reading.

Martha W. Driver, ‘”By Me Elysabeth Pykeryng”: Women and Book Production in the Early Tudor Period’, in Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe 1350-155o. Packaging, Presentation and Consumption, eds. Emma Cayley and Susan Powell (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), 115-119.

Barbara Kreps, ‘Elizabeth Pickering: The First Woman to Print Law Books in England and  Relations within the Community of Tudor London’s Printers and Lawyers,’ Renaissance Quarterly 56 (2003): 1053-1088.

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