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

Note

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.

About Jeanne de Montbaston

Researcher in Medieval Studies
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