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. 

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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) 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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Women and Folk Art in the Eyes of Male Artists: Yet more Cultural Femicide

Folk Art by a Woman - Who Knew it Existed?!

(Slightly crappy) folk art by a woman – who knew it existed?!

This post isn’t my idea, but came about when I read a comment by the brilliant Bee Jones earlier today.

She wrote:

“I have just watched The Culture Show on catch-up. All about a Tate exhibition of Folk Art. The introduction explained that it was going to focus on the real lived democracy of art which has always existed outside the art establishment. Great, I thought, this will be celebrating the explosion of women’s creativity we see every day, all over social media etc etc…but NOPE. You’ve guessed it, the programme didn’t feature a single woman artist, or even mention that women have long been underappreciated for their talent, despite being EVERYWHERE making beautiful things. So this post is about celebrating the fantastic women who regularly astonish me with their creative skills. Please feel free to share this and add your own.”

I think this is a great idea.

I’ve just watched the programme she’s referring to – it’s up for another week, so feel free to check it out if you particularly wish to be patronized by a couple of blokes. They start out with some working definitions of folk art, before oh-so-hilariously ‘insulting’ each other by applying the term to their own work. From this, we moved on to the Tate’s Folk Exhibition, which is open through the summer. There’s a nice review of the exhibition here.

Our two presenters, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, stared at the first display, which was absolutely fascinating: a wall of objects once used as shop signs, and ranging from a beautiful, giant gilded key, to a teapot marked with fading lettering, to a pair of humble shoes. Apparently, all of this was very funny. “Anything that’s bigger or smaller than it should be is automatically funny,” commented Deller, begging a reference to Freud. After this, “we’re off to Blackpool, perhaps the spiritual home of British folk art today,” and I began to sense a pattern. The presenters explained they were looking for anything they liked the look of, “anything that makes us laugh,” basically. Here we got our first glimpse of women: as the voiceover wittered on about folk ritual, the camera lingered on a middle-aged woman wiggling her bum cheekily at us. Oh, these Northerners and their down-to-earth folk humour! Stopping by a stall selling fake tattoos, Deller tried his hand at the popular voice, explaining, “these tattoos, they’re basically like Warhols … I think, for me, that’s like what artists do, they take something from popular culture and do something with it”. It was about as convincing as David Cameron trying to tell us he, like, thinks that Inbetweeners show is more or less Shakespeare.

Everything to do with folk art, we were told, was ‘fun’. Oh, such fun. A T-shirt, wittily printed with a sexist joke about wives and terrorists, obviously merited being included in all of the hilarity. Seriously, if you watch this bit, it comes with a health warning, because I think I have strained my eyebrow muscles from listening to these two pontificate about unselfconscious art while looking at a T-shirt reading ‘I beat anorexia’ they’d claimed as a ‘public art work’. Nothing so folksy as sweat-shop-produced misogyny.

I’m not going to go through the whole thing – you get the gist. It was massively patronizing, with one eye on the audience snickering along with the Proper Artists. Towards the end, I held out hope we’d left the snickering behind as both men, looking at sculptured figureheads, so far forgot themselves as to sound genuinely impressed. But not for long: “it’s a classic figurehead, to have the top half person, bottom half boat … and maybe with one or two breasts exposed … preferably two! Hur hur”. One of Deller’s childhood highlights, we’re told, was a visit to the Cutty Sark, memorable for “a whole row of these topless women … I thought that was pretty cool!”

It’s perhaps no surprise, given the way this programme treated misogyny as ever so funny, that there wasn’t any discussion of women and folk art.

Back in the Tate exhibition, the presenters mentioned a woman’s name for the first time: Charlotte Alice Springall, who, with her husband-to-be Herbery Bellamy, pieced together a beautiful quilt in just one year (known, you’ll be shocked to discover, as ‘The Bellamy Quilt’). This was, apparently, very funny too: “they obviously didn’t work” sniggered the presenters, before moving swiftly on to discuss another group of people who made art (apparently), because they had nothing better to do: modern-day prisoners.

No, really. I’d say I found the juxtaposition telling of their impression of the restrictions of women’s lives, but I’m not sure they’d thought that deeply.

This was the point where I really got annoyed – because quilting is a hugely important form of folk art, which has historically been practised by women, and which has a very rich social as well as artistic history. Quilts often don’t survive, because textiles eventually wear out or rot, but the V&A tells me this quilt of the story of Tristram and Iseult was made c. 1360-1400. That’s a full century earlier than the most famous written English version of the story, in Malory’s Morte Darthur.

In the past, women needed to make quilts – not because they ‘didn’t work,’ but because it was a practical way to recycle fabric and a necessary means of keeping warm. But they also turned quilting into an art form, as the York museum of quilting will show you. It’s only fairly recently that quilts have been treated seriously as art works. In the last century, for example, Lucy M. Boston (who also wrote beautiful children’s books)  declined to have her quilts exhibited at Kettle’s Yard Folk Museum in Cambridge, because she felt they were things to be used, not art to be exhibited.

In fact, barely five minutes had gone by, after Bee posted her response to this show, before women were swapping images of work they’d made. I’ve got permission to share this beautiful quilt, made by the author Cassandra Parkin.



And here’s the one she’s working on now:

quilt 2

Aren’t they beautiful?

I love Bee’s idea, and if you would like to add images or comments about women’s art – whether you’ve made it, your friend made it, or you just happen to love it, I’d enjoy that. And please consider sharing Bee’s post with people you know: we could discover some brand new women folk artists!

There is now a hashtag, Artbywomen, where you can share images, links or anything else you like about women’s art, especially women’s folk art. Enjoy!

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Male Fantasies, Historical Fiction, and Game of Thrones Geekery


This is how I imagine John Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.  The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From

This is how I imagine Jon Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.
The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From this site.

This is an unashamedly geeky post, which I writing because it’s hot, and I’ve been doing a lot of proofreading, and because I enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones, misogyny and medieval romance last time. I’ve had a question from Rachel Moss (tweeting over on @WetheHumanities today) going round and round in my head today. She was talking about the popularity of the medieval era for fiction writers, and asked ‘What is it about the Middle Ages than encourages people to use it for fantasy?’

As I was thinking about this question, I came across this piece, titled ‘Why “Game of Thrones” Isn’t Medieval, and Why That Matters’. Now, normally, that title would make my heart sing, because I am fed up with the lazy justifications of G. R. R. M.’s misogyny as ‘just the way it was back in the Dark Ages’. There were some nice points in the article about how Martin picks different technologies from different eras. And I liked the point that, aesthetically, Game of Thrones is closer to Victorian romanticism of the medieval, than to the medieval itself. But, unfortunately, so is this article.

The author, Breen, puts forward the argument, basically, that Martin’s world isn’t medieval because it’s too technologically and scientifically advanced. The majority of Martin’s world, he argues “belong[s] to what historians call the ‘early modern’ period”.

I admit, in my fantasy world, there will be some kind of cosmic retribution system for anyone who uses the phrase ‘what historians call the [insert name] period’. I’ve never seen two historians agree unreservedly on the limits of pretty much any historical period, and when they do, you can be damn sure they won’t be talking about the medieval/early Modern division. But here’s what the author describes as being definitively post-medieval in Martin’s world:

“Seven large kingdoms, each with multiple cities and towns, share a populous continent. Urban traders ply the Narrow Sea in galleys, carrying cargoes of wine, grains, and other commodities to the merchants of the Free Cities in the east. Slavers raid the southern continent and force slaves to work as miners, farmers, or household servants. There is a powerful bank based in the Venice-like independent republic of Braavos. A guild in Qarth dominates the international spice trade. Black-gowned, Jesuit-like “Maesters” create medicines, study the secrets of the human body, and use “far-eyes” (telescopes) to observe the stars. In King’s Landing, lords peruse sizable libraries and alchemists experiment with chemical reactions and napalm-like fires. New religions from across the sea threaten old beliefs; meanwhile, many in the ruling elite are closet atheists. And politically, in the aftermath of the Mad King and Joffrey, the downsides of hereditary monarchy are growing more obvious with every passing day.”

These early fourteenth-century Lincolnshire folks better not be drinking wine before they've learned to import it! London, BL, MS Add. 42130, f. 208

These early fourteenth-century Lincolnshire folks better not be drinking wine before they’ve learned to import it!
London, BL, MS Add. 42130, f. 208

So: what makes a world post-medieval is good trade networks, navigation, urbanisation, scientific inquiry, religious diversity, and growing disinclination for hereditary monarchy (no one told Henry VIII about that last one, did they?). To me, a lot of this sounded rather like the Roman Empire, but I’m no Classicist (and I couldn’t think of a parallel to the Iron Bank). I couldn’t really see how any of it was distinctively post-medieval, as opposed to fifteenth-century English, and I’m inclined to think the Braavosi are Lombard bankers, or maybe the Florentines who’d financed Edward III’s wars back in the fourteenth century.

However, Breen goes on, rather disingenuously I thought, to discount the fifteenth century that Martin claims to be drawing upon, and to look at the High Middle Ages:

“A world that actually reflected daily life in the High Middle Ages (12th-century Europe) would be one without large cities or global networks. A diversity of religions would be inconceivable. Many aristocrats wouldn’t be able to read, let alone maintain large libraries. And no one would even know about the continents across the ocean.”

What Daenerys has in store for the wildlings. London, BL, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r. Note: I'm showing you elephants for a reason ...

What Daenerys has in store for the wildlings. London, BL, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r. Note: I’m showing you elephants for a reason …

Because I’m nice, I’ll accept that what the author means by ‘large cities’ and ‘large libraries’ isn’t defined, so he may have a point. That said, wiki (yes, I’m citing wiki. You’ll live) reckons the population of Paris in 1200 was about 110,000. In 1530 (‘early Modern’ according to the author), the population of London was about 50,000. The point about many aristocrats being unable to read is one that makes me want to curl up and whimper in a darkened room, and I accept that’s one of the inevitable side effects of writing 90,000 words on medieval reading and calling it work. But it’s the claims about religion and geographic knowledge that get me the most.

For starters, let’s look at what medieval Europe knew about continents across the sea and ‘global networks’. Twelfth-century England knew that Africa existed – there’s a brilliant series of books called The Image of the Black in Western Art, which demonstrate that true-to-life images of black Africans made their way into Western Art at a pretty early stage. They knew of the more distant reaches of the Islamic world, to a surprisingly detailed degree. I came across this lovely article about Arabic influences on medieval England, which claims the earliest Arabic-English loan word to be the Old English word ‘ealfara’. In the Anglo-Norman romance Boeve de Hamtoun, written sometime around the last decade of the twelfth century, hero explains:

“I was in Nubia, and Carthage, and the land of the Slavs, and at the Dry Tree, and in Barbary [North Africa], and Macedonia ….”

(quoted from Dorothee Metzlitzki, The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (London: Yale University Press, 130).

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,

Saracens and Crusaders.

As this quotation might remind you, England was a nation familiar with the Crusades, which necessitated contact with Islamic religion and culture, but that’s not the only way in which the idea that twelfth-century England was a religious monoculture is inaccurate. At the beginning of the twelfth century, in England, there were basically two religions you’d expect most people to belong to: Christian (majority) or Jewish (minority). It also seems likely, looking at the prohibitions against witchcraft and superstition you find, that there were also people whose beliefs and practises were, at the very least, not exactly theologically orthodox Christianity. I don’t really study the twelfth century, but when I do, I’m always struck by the extent to which scholars were working with concepts not only from Christianity, but also from Judaism and Islam. In fact, this period is sometimes called the ‘twelfth century Renaissance’ because the rapid changes to intellectual life and culture marked a kind of ‘rebirth’ of learning. This book is just slightly later, but check it out – it’s Euclid’s mathematical textbook, written originally in Greek, translated into Arabic, and, in this thirteenth-century version, into Latin. How’s that for networking?!

As you might expect – and appropriately in the context of Game of Thrones – there are some rather horrible downsides to this era. For starters, anti-semitism seems to have been predictably present, leading up to the official explusion of the Jewish people from England at the end of the thirteenth century, and including the notorious massacre of York’s Jewish population in 1190. Slavery – both of serfs who were born into a system of extremely limited rights, and of foreign captives or trafficked men and women – isn’t a uniquely early Modern phenomenon either. The Vikings, when they weren’t busy journeying to Constantinople and being part of the Varangian Guard, were enthusiastic slave traders. In short, twelfth-century England (and Europe) had both the good and the bad bits of what the author of this article believes to be uniquely post-medieval about George R. R. Martin’s pseudo-medieval fantasy.

And I think it’s this – the genuine nuance of medieval England, the complicated, mixed-up world where people were both barbarically anti-semitic and intellectually fascinated by Arabic and Hebrew learning, where merchants traded with Africa yet also looked at maps that placed black men alongside monsters on the edges of the world – that the author of this article can’t get to grips with.

Concluding the article, he observes:

“as Martin’s books progress, we find that his is a world where women and people of color struggle to gain leadership roles, where religious diversity (if not toleration) proliferates, where characters debate the ethics of abetting slave labor, and where banks play shady roles in global politics.

Sound familiar?”

Breen’s argument singles these aspects of Martin’s narrative as historical anomalies, things unheard of prior to the early Modern world. He relies for contrast on a fantasy version of medieval Europe, a fantasy of the primitive world that lies beyond the world we know, just as monsters and dragons lie at the edges of medieval mappaemundi, beyond the borders of the known world.

The Hereford Mappamundi. England, c. 1285.

The Hereford Mappamundi. England, c. 1285.

Yet, these maps were made not as cartography, but as religious idealism: they do not represent the world as medieval people knew it, but the world as the medieval Church wanted to imagine it. This fantasy glosses over the complexity of the Middle Ages under the guise of interest in ‘strong women’ or ‘women and people of colour as leaders’.

I get that this is a nice trendy argument. We love historical fantasy because it offers up to us an unflinchingly grim perspective on our own struggles. It might be unfair to speculate that it’s particularly common for right-on leftie white men to appreciate such unflinching, grim perspective, perhaps because it’s less of a novelty to the rest of us? The problem is, I suspect you can make the same observations about pretty much any period of history. Can you imagine a time when women and people of colour decided, en masse and without exception, ‘ah, heck, let’s just accept our destinies and keep our heads down’? No, me either. Though I can think of plenty of periods in which rather more scholarship has been devoted to noble white men who worked to free slaves and emancipate women, than to the slaves, ex-slaves and women who worked alongside them.

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