Sleeping Beauty and the Lesbians


Once more, with feeling: A woman ‘jousts’ against a man armed only with her distaff

This is just a quick follow-up to my earlier post, on ‘Spinsters and the Right to be Offensive‘. In that post, I explored why the word ‘spinster’ developed offensive connotations, and had a little ponder about whether or not it’s ever really possible to ‘reclaim’ a term, or to declare that you don’t find it offensive because you feel able to ignore (or misrepresent, rant, rant …) its history. 

That post got a lot of responses, on twitter and facebook and in person. Obviously, a fair few focussed on the undeniable cuteness of baby Jesus in his walker, and I’m sure someone at Mothercare is scratching their head at some of the search terms coming up now for medieval baby toys. But people also had lots of thoughts about the connotations of these images of women spinning and weaving, and I wanted (with their permission) to share some of these.

First off, of course, is the post over at Glossologics, which is a follow up to her entry on text, which I linked to in the previous post. It’s an intricate untangling of the etymology of the verb ‘to weave,’ and a fun reminder of how ancient the terminology behind ‘the web’ itself is.

Another set of words that relate to spinning come from the term ‘distaff,’ the spindle you use to wind your wool on prior to spinning it. It gives rise to the cliche ‘on the distaff side,’ meaning ‘in the maternal line’. When I went to look up the etymology for that, I came across this mega-patronizing article, which made me think about the overspill of these terms into the arena of politics. You’ll notice that while the article credits Laura Bush with ‘diplomacy on the distaff side’ (aw, bless her, what a truly feminine skill she has, not like that nasty aggressive Mrs Clinton), the word ‘spin’ has been repurposed by predominantly male politicos, effectively replacing the positive connotations of clothing families and propping up the medieval economy with the currency of twisting the truth. Nice.

More allusively, the brilliant Þóra Greylock pointed out that the distaff in the image above evokes the spindle that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s finger, and also, rather more earthily, observed that the word ‘distaff’ itself brings together a punning term for ‘penis’ with the prefix ‘dis-‘, suggesting the distaff as a kind of negative image of the masculine phallus. The role of the witch who visits Sleeping Beauty – a corrupting influence, if you will – is as a spinner of thread but also a weaver of spells, for spells, like texts and clothes, are woven. The fairytale conflates this female-dominated activity of malignant spell-casting with spinning and weaving, bringing all three together in a pattern deeply influenced by misognyistic fears of the power men did not want women to exert.

Sleeping Beauty, by Edward Frederick Brewtnall

Sleeping Beauty, by Edward Frederick Brewtnall

I haven’t checked my copy of Marina Warner, but I’m fairly sure pricking fingers is none-too-subtle analogy for loss of virginity, but the fact she’s spinning at the time made me wonder whether the warning is against sexual activity with men, or against women usurping or erasing men’s roles in sex. After all, the ending of that fairytale – the princess who only needs the kiss of a good man to ‘cure’ her mysterious affliction – has a familiar homophobic undertone to it. It disturbs me (and therefore, dear readers, shall now disturb you) to remember from my undergraduate reading on Freudian symbolism that woods and thickets are supposed to represent female pubic hair in the unconscious, so I shall leave you to make what you will of the thicket of rose-briars that grew up around Sleeping Beauty’s tower, or the role of the prince who hacks his way through it.

Note: I won’t put an image up here because of copyright, but please check out Jan Pienkowski’s amazing illustrations of this story if you get the chance. I love his work and this is precisely how I always imagine it.

PS – I apologise for the font changes in this post. If anyone knows how to control font size on WordPress, please get in touch, because it is driving me out of my tiny little mind. 


Spinsters and the ‘Right to be Offensive’

London, British Library, Royal MS 10. E.IV, f. 139r. The BL captions this 'an amorous encounter'. I think she's pissed off at being groped, frankly.

London, British Library, Royal MS 10. E.IV, f. 139r. The BL captions this ‘an amorous encounter’. I think she’s pissed off at being groped, frankly.

This blog post started out when I came across yet another version of a conversation I’ve heard far too often: the conversation where someone insists upon their right to say whatever they like and declares that anyone who objects is curtailing their ‘Free Speech!’

The argument usually goes something like this:

“You can’t claim such-and-such is offensive! My [fictional] elderly granddaddy has always called people retards/feminazis/darkies and he always addresses women as gels/darling/sweetheart in a professional context! It’s nothing personal. You’re just professionally offended!”

Now, I’ve never been convinced that suggesting certain terms might be best avoided is really akin to handing down a lifetime sentence to the Gulag. But what’s been bothering me more is the way that ‘history’ is brought into this discussion as an authority. This happens in two ways:

Type 1 arguments claim that, all oppression in question is in the past, a quaint historical relic if you will, such that ‘feminazi’ no longer has any meaninful connection to the regime that murdered millions and was notoriously extra-horrific towards women. Type 2 arguments take the opposite line. History allows us to use offensive words, don’t you know, ‘retard’ just used to mean ‘slow,’ and back in the day ‘cretin’ was a medical term for someone with congenital learning disabilities and it was perfectly acceptable to point and laugh …

Obviously, facepalm is a perfectly acceptable response to all of this, but since I am wordy, I didn’t stop there. I’m not about to take on users of the English language en masse, so I want to consider one specific – and hopefully, not too emotive – example of perjorative language and history. The word ‘spinster’ in a modern context has pretty negative connotations. We associate it with an idea we accept is outdated and with images of poor Mrs Bennett, hell-bent on getting her daughters down the aisle with the nearest available member of the landed gentry. The word itself refers to the idea that women who were unmarried stayed home and spun wool – ‘spinster’ is just the feminine form of the word ‘spinner’.

London, British Library MS Add. 42130, f. 60. A woman attacks her husband with her distaff. Spinsters: no wonder men hate them.

London, British Library MS Add. 42130, f. 60. A woman attacks her husband with her distaff. Spinsters: no wonder men hate them.

In medieval England spinning was represented as a quintessentially feminine activity. So much so that, during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the rebels’ slogan ran:

“When Adam delved [dug] and Eve span, Who then was the gentleman?”

Even the rebels, keen to reorder the social hierarchy, were entirely unable to conceive of the hierarchy of gender as anything but natural and predetermined, a state of affairs going back to Adam and Eve.


A medieval man and woman joust, the woman armed with her spindle.

Images of women fighting, or beating their husbands with their spindles, used this stereotype to put women in their place. How could a woman with her spindle be anything but absurd when she tried to be less than subserviant? Yet this stereotype of the ‘spinster’ – an unlovable unmarried woman reduced to the dull household tasks that define her – has another side to it in medieval England. 

In medieval England the wool trade was huge, the most important industry by far. The enormous, cathedral-like parish churches of medieval Norfolk and the Cotswolds, are known as ‘wool churches,’ because the wool industry paid for their building. Brasses to the memory of these great merchants show off their dependence on the riches that came from the wool.

Detail from the brass of John Fortey in Northleach Church: his feet rest on a lamb and a wool-sack, his sources of wealth.

Detail from the brass of John Fortey in Northleach Church: his feet rest on a lamb and a wool-sack, his sources of wealth.

There’s even a rhyming couplet wool merchant John Barton had engraved on his house:

‘I thank God and ever shall: it is the sheep hath payed for all.’

Even today, the seat of the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords is a woolsack, reminding us that England’s wealth came from wool. By about the fifteenth century, though, England’s wool trade had changed in nature, turning from a trade in raw wool to a trade in cloth: and that meant wool must be spun and woven before it was sold. The word ‘texere’ (to weave) is the same word from which we get the modern word ‘text’: a book is literally something woven together out of words, just as the medieval economy was woven from women’s spinning. My lovely mate helped me untangle the meanings behind this word, which go right back to the fourteenth century – just the time when these changes were starting to happen.

 These ideas even informed the iconography of the Virgin Mary. I have posted previously about the popular image of the Virgin, reading a book as she hears the angel Gabriel tell her she is to be the mother of Jesus. But before Mary was pictured reading, she was pictured spinning. These two ideas were in fact conflated for medieval people. Spinning defined a woman’s role in life, but so too did the teaching of reading – it was a truism to observe ‘it is a woman who teaches children their letters’. 
Glasgow, Sp. Coll. MS Hunter 36, f. 80v. The Virgin Mary weaves while her son Jesus learns to read.

Glasgow, Sp. Coll. MS Hunter 36, f. 80v.
The Virgin Mary weaves while her son Jesus learns to read.

The idea of the woman as a spinner of words, a weaver of text, had a more than etymological rightness to it.

We could try to reclaim  the term ‘spinster,’ to use it to remember the vital contribution medieval women made to England’s most important economy, a contribution misogyny systematically denies. But we know medieval women did not get widespread recognition for the economic value of their spinning. It’s the sheep, you notice, that get a devout prayerful thank-you, not the women! And the fact the term survives as a derogatory one is evidence that, in this battle of the sexes, the spindle lost. We need to respect the historical connotations of terminology, and to acknowledge that the structures of oppression in which most offensive words are rooted are seldom as ‘historical’ as we might wish: for many people, they’re still a lingering part of life.

To get back to ‘free speech’ and the derogatory connotations of words: I don’t wish to ban or censor people who want to use terms like those above. I don’t even want to censor people who wish to use their personal right to free speech to witter on about, for example, the fictitious Islamo-Judaic conspiracy to kill us all using only cocktail sticks and gefilte fish. But I do want to make the point that the right to free speech does not entitle you to a particularly positive response. If you speak your mind, others are perfectly entitled to claim that what you say is offensive, disgusting, and should never cross any decent person’s lips. That’s their right to free speech. And that is what we have: the right to speak, the right to object loudly, eloquently and passionately when we disagree, and the right to take refuge in silence when we want to ignore someone else exercising their right to free speech.

Citing ‘history’ as your precedent doesn’t get you any more rights in this debate.


If you’ve read the brilliant YA novels of Cynthia Harnett, you will recognise the above quotation as being the one Nicholas wishes his father would use on their house in Burford. The level of research she put into her novels is just stunning – I can say completely seriously that aspects of them prepared me very nicely for my postgraduate work! I mention this partly because I love Cynthia Harnett and her work should be better known, and partly because a friend of mine is currently working on her second novel and it’s so exciting seeing (and occasionally getting to help with) bits of her research into Tudor England. It’s like preparing a thesis, but you get to let your imagination go to work on all the fun bits.

I also want to share this blog, which I’ve just come across, and which is such a cool idea. It’s experimental archaeology: learning about fifteenth-century spinning techniques by reconstructing what was done.

I’ll end with this, just because it’s so darn cute. It’s the Holy Family at work, with Mary of course busy with her weaving. Check out Jesus’s little wheeled walker!

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 19, f. 131r.

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 19, f. 131r.

Handmaidens and Icons: Interpreting Women’s History

The Annunciation: Misogynistic Imposition or the Beginning of a Feminist Iconography?

The Annunciation: Misogynistic Imposition or the Beginning of a Feminist Iconography?

I planned to write this post about Mary Magdalene, the woman who is both reviled as a prostitute in medieval stories and honoured as a preacher in the early Church by some modern feminist theologians. I wanted to think about how Christian culture constructs icons of strong women that are both inspirational, and undercut with profound misogyny. But as I was thinking about this, I realized that even the most holy female figure in the Christian Church is subjected to this kind of treatment.

The Virgin Mary is one of the most powerful female symbols in the Western world, and was arguably the most powerful image of womanhood in medieval Europe.

For some modern feminists, Mary is a example of how appallingly misogynistic Christianity can be – a young woman, likely well below the modern age of consent, who was married off to an old man, disbelieved by him, and impregnated by the command of a God who knew her son would suffer and die.The term ‘handmaiden’ used in some circles to mean a woman who promotes the patriarchy, is the exact term Mary uses when she meekly agrees to bear Christ: ‘Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord’. One of the most disturbing elements of the Biblical narrative – which I still can’t get over –is that the gospel writer says explicitly that Mary was apprehensive and afraid when the angel Gabriel told her she was to be the mother of Christ.

The story of Mary’s pregnancy also plays into the hands of cynics and misogynists. It’s not uncommon for people nowadays to look at the story of Mary’s pregnancy and claim it must have been an exercise in wool-pulling. Tt’s a variation on the tedious Daily Mail “OMG, woman traps man into pregnancy with her wily exploitation of his failure to, erm, use condoms”. “Oh, you got pregnant by an angel promising you the Son of God, why didn’t you say so?!”

But the medieval cult of the Virgin is not just a misogynistic story. It’s been suggested that medieval images drew on ancient pagan cults, about which we know little. The cult of the ‘Black Madonna’ celebrates a dark-skinned Virgin, and is one of the most enigmatic sources of imagery, suggestive and compelling, inviting us to wonder whether the craftsmen who created these images had real women in mind, or some half-forgotten pagan tradition. Perhaps the best-known image from that tradition is this one, from what is modern-day Poland.

Black Madonna of Czestochowa, from the Jasna Gora monastery.

Black Madonna of Czestochowa, from the Jasna Gora monastery.

I’ve just come across this beautiful post exploring that tradition and its possible roots.

In medieval England, another tradition is common: the cult of St. Anne, mother of the Virgin, whose story medieval authors expanded hugely from its slim Biblical origins. Pictures of the Virgin from the English late Middle Ages  show the human side of the saint, picturing her as a teenage girl with her mother, or a young parent with her baby son. These images are often found in women’s prayerbooks, and they’re incredibly moving when we realize that many medieval women had a deep understanding of the Virgin’s pain at the loss of her child.

St Anne teaching the Virgin to Read. Stained Glass Window at All Saints Church, North Street, York

St Anne teaching the Virgin to Read. Stained Glass Window at All Saints Church, North Street, York

It’s impossible to see these images and not begin to relate to their subject as a woman, as well as a religious icon.  It’s easy to look at an arrestingly powerful Madonna or a tenderly maternal St Anne (or a statue of a goddess-like woman) and to hope that perhaps these icons reflect the hidden power of the feminine, surviving through the harsh realities of medieval women’s lives.

But in reacting in any of these ways, we over-simplify. If we look at the Bible story of the pregnant Virgin solely as a tool of the patriarchy, we are erasing the emotions and the voices of women in the past who drew strength from this story, despite its unsettling aspects. If we see the Virgin purely as an icon of feminine strength, we forget that the medieval narrative valorizes her fear of the pregnancy imposed upon her.

We need to remember that medieval people had as much capacity for subtle, intelligent though as we do; as much ability to see layers of conflicting meaning in the stories they told and the images they looked at. We can tell this from a medieval story that explores the subtext of the Annunciation, with startling implications.

There’s a medieval romance that tells a sort of anti-Virgin story. The wife of the Duke of Austria was childless; for ten years she and her husband struggled to conceive an heir. Eventually, desperate, the wife prays for a child by any means. Promptly, the devil turns up as she’s sitting in her orchard, disguised as her husband. They sleep together, then the devil reveals his true identity and the duchess is terrified (this a pretty horrible example of rape as a plot device in romance, and it crops up again and again, the story of a woman raped by a man in disguise as her husband). Knowing herself to be pregnant, the duchess claims to her husband that she was impregnated by an angel.

A devil seduces the mother of Merlin. Paris, Biblotheque National de France, MS Arsenal 3842, p. 1

A devil seduces the mother of Merlin. Paris, Biblotheque National de France, MS Arsenal 3842, p. 1

This story plainly parallels the story of the Virgin Mary’s conception. It offers an imaginative exploration of how the fear and apprenhension of a woman in this situation might well be entirely merited. It shows that, even in a culture we associate with devout religious acceptance of the Bible stories, people were well aware of the more unsettling implications.

I think it’s important to realize that, even in hugely misogynistic past cultures, there will always be some reflections of femininity that are positive and celebratory. These will be tangled up with images of the female that are oppressive and harmful and belittling, and it’s hard to separate the two. But we need to recognise that medieval people (all people in the past) were able to recognise these ambiguities.

We don’t have to decide that icons of the Virgin, of female goddesses or male devils were simply ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ feminist or misogynistic, with no possibility of complexity. These images are part of a cultural conversation about womanhood, which is ongoing. By acknowledging the complexities and the ambiguities of historical images of womanhood, we add our own voices to this cultural conversation, instead of speaking over the voices of the past.


I wrote this post, as I write all of the posts here, in order to sort out my own responses to the questions I’m discussing. I don’t feel I have all the answers, so please, if you think there is something I’ve missed or not quite nailed, let me know!

The Myth of the ‘Empowered Woman’ in History

The 'Venus of Lespugue'

The Venus of Lespugue. A goddess? Or just a woman?

I wanted to write this post to explain where I stand on some issues of women’s history and its relationship to feminism.

I love researching women’s history. I find it so exciting to recover evidence about women’s lives, which generations of people – men and women, but often men because it’s often men who’ve written history – have ignored and silenced.

I love discovering, for example, the women who took over from their husbands and ran businesses to feed their families, even in the fifteenth century. I love to know that there were women who fought tooth and nail to marry the men they loved, or to protect their children. I love the amount of research at the moment that is insisting we have to value traditionally female crafts like quilting or needlework, as valuable parts of our artistic heritage.

But what I struggle with is the mythologising of female history. This is why my previous post explored some of the loving, poignant and tender words medieval men had for the women in their families, to show that the situation we’re in now, where we recognise misogyny but see the good in our own sons, husbands and brothers, is nothing new.

I don’t know when it started, but at some point, people started making up stories about the glorious, empowered women who lived outside recorded history – and they started selling those stories to ordinary women like you and me, and pretending they were history. This makes me furious. It is taking advantage of women who want to learn, and giving them misinformation, which they will accept because, well, who wouldn’t want to believe that once, women were goddesses in a matriarchial society?

I hear myths all the time, from women who are thrilled and excited to have been told that once, women were powerful.

Just today, I read someone explain in the most powerful terms how the number 13 is unlucky because women’s menstrual cycles happen every 28 days, and should have led to a year with 13 months – only men censored this number out of fear of the Goddess.

I have no doubt women have been censored in the past, and I know for a fact that some men are, and have been, deeply uncomfortable with menstruation as an aspect of female fertility, now and in the past. But the calendar of twelve months – and the idea of a month as a lunar cycle – is not actually as old as all that. Earlier systems had ten months, not corresponding even nearly to lunar cycles. And there are big issues with the assumption women’s cycles are 28 days. Cycles can range from 21 to 35 days in adults, as most of us know – but in teenagers (and we’ve got to bear in mind that, if this censorship of months as menstrual cycles happened in the distant past, we’re talking more about teenagers than older women), they can range from 21 to 45 days. Disturbingly, this information, which should be well known, is something I have had to explain in some detail to GPs, who appeared unaware of the possibility of a 35 day cycle. And I’m not the only woman who’s had that experience, by a long shot.

Another myth I commonly hear is that, in medieval Europe, women were entirely disempowered, could not read, and were kept modest and ignorant. I say, have a look at this woman!

And yet another myth is that, prior to Christianity, women were worshipped and adored. This myth is important for us to debunk, because it is essentially the same myth that persists as a tool of misogynists. The idea is that if the image of a woman is highly visible – as a statue of a goddess, the Virgin Mary, Venus, or Ceres – then her human counterparts must be equally well appreciated. Or, to put it as our contemporary friends like Heff would: ‘I love women! Especially naked!’

Excuse me while I vomit.

I felt the grim irony of these stories when I listened to the appalling forensic report on a woman living a thousand years ago, who was buried with her three babies: one she may have given birth to, one she struggled in labour with before she died, and one who died in the womb after her own death. No-one should have to imagine such a fate – and no amount of mythical adoration could make up for it. I spend a lot of my time reading about people in the distant past, and living with the minutiae of their lives. And I will defend their humanity again and again. But I won’t celebrate the aspects of their lives that were horrific. You can watch that story, from History Cold Case, here. It’s just one example, but it’s a reminder of something far more real than any pseudo-’empowering’ myth could be.

The problem with this has two levels: one, women are being lied to, and believing – and therefore perpetuating – a lie. That, amongst other things, makes it harder for us to be taken seriously. Secondly, this fake history erases the reality of women in the past. We don’t know those women, and we may never know anything at all about their lives. But they were real, and they deserve our respect, just as every human being does.

‘Knowing Not the Hour of My Death’: Medieval Wills and Family Relationships


Will of William Moreton of York, 1477. At the Borthwick Institute.

I’ve been writing a lot about misogyny in relationships, and about the records medieval people leave that show male cruelty towards and hatred of women. Class analysis bothers a lot of people, and it seems to be one of the major barriers to identifying as a feminist for women who rightly point out that all men are not oppressive.

Class analysis never states that every member of the oppressor class behaves in a uniformly and consistantly oppressive way: it describes the social structure that makes one class of people more powerful than others. If we look at medieval England, most people will accept that it was a misogynistic society. And focussing on this can get into the trap of excusing what goes on today. We are tempted – and I think, encouraged by the patriarchy – to see a clear distinction between women’s lives today (where we know of good and decent and feminist-friendly men) and women’s lives in the past (where we recognise misogyny when we see it). We’re tempted to think we live in a time that’s uniquely hard on nice men, who’re human and pleasant and don’t like misogyny any more than we do.

But the condition of living in an oppressive society with husbands, brothers, fathers, or sons we love is nothing new.

To illustrate this, I wanted to share something poignant reading I’ve been doing, which is  medieval wills. These texts were written in the knowledge that death was a constant possibility, unpredictable and often swift.

Image of the Funeral Rites, in a Book of Hours of c. 1460. London, British Library, MS Harley 2287, f. 80r

Image of the Funeral Rites, in a Book of Hours of c. 1460. London, British Library, MS Harley 2287, f. 80r

I’m not going to comment much on these texts, because I think they speak for themselves, in the voices of late-medieval family men. When we read these texts, we can see how these men felt about their wives, mothers, and children, and we can relate to them.

The first is a will written by one John Chesman, a barber living in York.  I’ve transcribed it, but I’m at a loss for the meaning of a couple of technical terms for clothing, so if you can enlighten me, please do. Chesman wrote his will on the 6th of January 1509, and it was proved on the 27th February that year, for he died just a few weeks later. His will is quite short, for his money and the land he lived on went to the church to pay for prayers for his soul.

John lists his bequests:

“To Agnes Murton – who should have been my wife, had God willed it – one gown of cloth, that should have been my wedding clothes. To Thomas Murton, a jacket of ‘blew-meld, hamsyd,’ a battle-axe, two chain-male goussets [the parts that go over joints]. To Agnes Murton his wife, a multi-coloured gown lined in black, a little shirt with red silk set through it. To William Murton, my scarlet hat with a true-love knot in silver-gilt on it, a fine steel helmet, a dublet of satin of Cypress (?).To Robert Parkin, my apprentice, a razor bag with six razors, a pair of scissors, a head comb, a basin, a washing-dish, two shaving-cloths, and some of my towels, to work well with all. To Richard Carleton, my apprentice, four razors, a little basin, a shaving cloth….”

I haven’t been able to find out who John’s wife-to-be, Agnes, eventually married, or whether she married at all, nor do I know what happened to John’s would-be in-laws, or the apprentices he set up in their work. The will simply records a moment in what must have been a relatively young man’s life, as he faced serious illness.

Just a few years later, in 1519, a wealthier man made his will. Thomas Hopton requested to be buried at Ackwith Church, in the Lady Choir, a sign of his religious devotion to the Mother of God. He left:

“… to my mother, my lady Dame Anna Hopton, the third part of the Morehill estate. The second part goes to my sister, Anne Hopton; to John and Robert, my sons; and to Anne my daughter. The last part is to be used to bring me forth [ie., bury] honestly. To John my son, I leave the better of my roses of gold. To Elizabeth my daughter, 20 sheep. To my brother William, the lesser of my roses of gold. Once my debts are paid and made final, I make my mother my executrix, to divide all amongst my children, as I trust in her the most, after our Lord Almighty.”

Finally, there’s John Williamson, whose will sounds as if it may have been written during his wife’s pregnancy. He explains:

“Knowing not the hour of my death … I will that she shall have her own goods. … Also, all other words spoken before notwithstanding, I will that if God sends my wife another son or daughter, if it be a son, he should have twenty pounds. And if it be a daughter, forty pounds …”

As this will demonstrates – and there’s the tinest hint in those ‘words spoken before’ that husband and wife had discussed this – medieval men recognised that their daughters might be less able to support themselves than their sons, and that their widows might need explicit legal statements to give them rights to property.


Just for light relief, I’ve also transcribed the section from the last will where John Williamson describes his hopeful plans for his son, which come straight out of the Guardian-reading ‘is my child Gifted and Talented?’ mindset. John junior must, at the time of the will writing, have been a young child. His father writes:

“… I will that John, my son, be put to study, until such time as he is 15. Then, he should be sent on to a good school, and given five pounds a year to keep himself. After that, he will go to Oxford or Cambridge, until he is 20, with five pounds every year. And after he is 2o, he will go into the Inns of Court …”

Yes, John. Of course he will.

(Wills from Testamenta Eboracensia, or Wills proved at York)


The will in the picture above is by William Morton, who died in York in 1477. It’s not so much poignant as racist, really, but you can see a transcription and translation here.

Guibert de Nogent, Vampire Slayer


Guillaume de Degulleville. The dream of the pilgrimage of human life; Torture in Hell, Detail, Flanders, circa 1380-1390
Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, Manuscript Cabinet, Brussels, ms. 10176-8, folio 150v

One of my more serious scholarly achievements this weekend was finding the source for Joss Whedon’s Angel plot.

Whedon is getting it in the neck at the moment – justifiably so, really – and so the more dodgy elements of his work are at the forefront of my mind right now. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Buffy and it had a lot of positive aspects. But it’s also hard to look back on some elements without being a little bit creeped out, one of those elements being the Angel plotline, neatly taken down in this blog post. As I was idly browsing through an eleventh-century theologian’s autobiography, as you do, I came across a storyline that made me sit and up snigger. Because I’m pretty sure I’ve just discovered where cursed-to-hell-for-the-sex Angel comes from.

In his autobiography, written sometime around 1115, the medieval monk Guibert de Nogent describes his parents’ relationship. One day, his mother had a nightmare that she had looked into the mouth of hell and seen her late husband, Guibert’s father, lying there tormented by the sound of a screaming baby. Ok, this just sounds like any downtrodden medieval mother’s revenge fantasy, but bear with me. It turns out that Guibert’s father was, in his youth, cursed by an evil spirit who prevented him from achieving that moment of true happiness with his beloved, Guibert’s mother. So, obviously, he decides to test the limits of the curse, and discovers he’s perfectly free to sleep around with other women. As a result, he gets someone else pregnant, and her baby dies before it is baptized. In medieval theology, this means that the baby’s soul is consigned to limbo, unable to find peace.

Unfortunately, because we’re talking about the eleventh century, Guibert’s mother doesn’t run her husband’s cheating-ass corpse through with a sword and send him packing. She tries to atone for his sin by adopting another child in place of the one who died.

Guibert doesn’t tell us whether or not this is a valid strategy for getting your dead husband let off time in the devil’s Big House, but the implication is that it was an exemplary act of wifely devotion on his mother’s part. There is something disturbing about the way that Guibert doesn’t quite realize that, when he approvingly praises his mother for her charitable attempts to redeem his father’s soul and to take in an orphaned child to atone for the lost soul of her husband’s illigitimate baby, he’s really praising her for being badly treated.

Guibert reckons his mother is pretty much perfect, in rather the same way, I imagine, Joss thinks Buffy is, you know, totally awesome. Both of them are creating a fiction of the Good Woman Suffering For Her Evil Man. And in both cases, these men may have written about praiseworthy strong women, but they’ve both also done plenty of dining out on their reputation as supporters of strong women, too.

I think this was my basic issue with Buffy – much as I love it. For one, it’d be awfully nice to find stories about strong women that don’t come with an approving male author self-aggrandizing himself in the background.

Women Priests and Empty Gestures

Icon of Christ Pantocrator at St Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai

Icon of Christ Pantocrator at St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

I’ve just read this little piece in the Guardian, speculating on the (‘unconfirmed’ – you don’t say?) rumour that Pope Francis might be considering appointing a female Cardinal. And it got me thinking about women in the medieval Church.

It might seem that wondering why the medieval Catholic Church didn’t have women priests is a bit like wondering why Fathers For Justice don’t have a reputation as delightfully balanced beings. But I wanted to explore one aspect of the theological arguments against women priests, because it’s still one of the objections made in some Christian Churches today.

When I first met my husband, who’s Russian Orthodox, I spent some time bringing myself up to speed on a form of Christianity I hadn’t really encountered before. And one of the opinions I came across again and again from kind people who took the time to explain their beliefs to me was this: a woman could never become a priest, because a priest is the image of Christ, and a woman cannot be the image of a man.

You can imagine that this was a pretty popular argument with medieval clerics, who tended to see women’s bodies as repulsive and defective. If we just look at one medieval authority – I’ll use Bonaventure, because I’m reading him at the moment – we find lots of arguments against women priests. Women must cover their heads, and so cannot wear the tonsure. Women are forbidden in the Bible to teach men. Popes have forbidden women to touch sacred objects. Most strikingly, for me:

“man by reason of his sex is “imago Dei”, the image of God.”

Despite all of this, the very fact that Bonaventure and other theologians spent time explaining why women should not be priests ought to demonstrate to us that this was a live debate. There’s an image in a twelfth-century Psalter showing Mary Magdalene telling the disciples of Christ’s return from death, and clearly showing her in a position of authority to communicate this important truth. This image – and the position of Mary within the early Church – forms one of the arguments for women priests that’s still often made.

St Albans Psalter

St Albans Psalter

But it’s really later on that the ideas about women, the priesthood, and the icon of God start to be groundbreaking.

I’ve said before that the Lollard heresy that grew up in late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England involved people who challenged many ideas about the priesthood, and some of whom did believe women had as much right as men to be priests.  Lollardy wasn’t a wildly enthusiastic proto-feminist movement, by the way. As usual for medieval misogynists, Lollard dislike of women centred on the female body and its reproductive – or in this case – reproductive and then unnaturally destructive – activities.

One of the central statements made by a group of Lollards included this lovely description of women who vow chastity but become pregnant, and who are:

“… fickle and imperfect in kind … [engaging in] the most horrible sin possible to mankind. … slaying of children ere they be christened, abortion, and destroying by medicine”

Such women:

“passeth [ie., surpass; are more than worthy] in worthiness to be punished in pains of hell.”


However, Lollardy did open up a way for women to express their views, and these sometimes included justifications of female priesthood. In her trial for heresy, Lollard woman Hawisa Mone declared:

“every man and every woman who lives a good life out of sin is as good a priest, and has as much power of God in all things, as any ordained priest, be he pope or bishop.”

It was quite common for the Lollards to disapprove of virtually all religious imagery:

“images are but idols and made by working of man‘s hand, but worship and reverence should be done to the image of God, which only is man.”

This argument paves the way for a brilliantly imaginative riposte to the theological objection to women priests, as not being icons of God. During her trial for heresy in 1430, Norfolk woman Margery Baxter spread her arms wide and declared:

“this is the true cross of Christ, and you ought and can see and adore that cross every day here in your own house”

I find it really depressing that, even in current studies of women Lollards, Margery is a bit of joke, and this gesture is often seen as a bit, well, hysterical. Her wiki page calls her ‘outspoken and unorthodox’ (oh, those mouthy women!). It’s true Margery wasn’t as well informed as some of her contemporaries about the theology behind the beliefs she expressed. But her action is powerful. We could perfectly well interpret it as a response to the entirely orthodox strand of medieval doctrine that explained exactly how priests should gesture and move during the Mass, or how people should position their bodies in prayer, for medieval Catholicism was deeply physical.

By making her body into the shape of the cross, Margery became an icon, a physical embodiment of the symbol of Christianity. By transforming her female body into the Cross, she was making a radical statement – a statement still too radical for the Catholic Church in 2013.

I am getting properly fed up with the ‘zany woman’ trope in academia. It occurs to me that when academics describe some woman in history (Margaret Cavendish, say, or Margery Kempe) as a bit mad, a bit ‘unorthodox’, a bit ‘outspoken’, what they’re really saying is: well, for god’s sake, don’t take her seriously … I don’t bother to.

And I’m a little bit narked with that.

Deviant Women and Discredited Husbands

I was going to give you a picture from Twilight, but this is more fun. The manuscript of the 'Squire of Low Degree' romance. London, British Library, MS Add. 27879.

I was going to give you a picture from Twilight, but this is more fun. The manuscript of the ‘Squire of Low Degree’ romance. London, British Library, MS Add. 27879.

I started thinking about this post when I overheard two women discussing Twilight. Again. Now, I love dissing Twilight, even though I am a giant hypocrite with no intention of giving the oeuvre my full and detailed attention for longer than, oh, about 30 seconds. But what caught my attention was something I’ve heard a few times now: Twilight (or 50 Shades, or whatever) ‘gives girls unrealistic expectations’.

It does. Obviously. But I’m slightly uncomfortable with the gendered emphasis here. That claim in itself – women believe these romantic stories and get led down the garden path – has a very long history and it’s tied into some really nastily misogynistic ideas about women and popular fiction. I looked at some of these in my previous post about Booker winner Eleanor Catton, and her medieval counterpart, Dante’s Francesca da Rimini.

This time, I’d like to show what I mean by retelling a Middle English romance that’s all about how women read fiction and how it distorts their real lives.

The story begins with the princess of Hungary – a beautiful young woman – who comes to the attention of a squire in a father’s palace. The squire is too poor and too low-born to court her in a conventional way, so instead, he loiters around the palace gardens underneath her bedroom window, muttering about how he’d love to be just like the famous heroes of romance and sweep her off her feet.

Remember how women like to read romances? Predictably, the princess overhears and is thrilled. Gee, you like Sir Gawain? Me too!

There’s a bit of an awkward moment here, because the squire isn’t actually all that clued on on romance. And though he says he wants to be like Sir Gawain, he also says he wants to be like the giant Colbrand – a rapist who overpowers women by force, and who is very definitely the baddie. The fact that the squire thinks this is heroic behaviour, and the fact that the princess is too star-struck to see the red flag, is a (literal) giant warning sign.

But the princess is convinced she can make this would-be lover into the perfect man if only she follows what all her reading has taught her. She decides to set the young man a series of romance-inspired tasks to win her hand. Now, he isn’t actually all that keen on being a romance hero in reality, so once he’s got about five minutes down the road, he decides to go back and have another try for some more immediate gratification.

Really not such a hero. Knight fighting a snail in London, British Library, MS Royal 10. E. IV, f. 107r

Really not such a hero.
Knight fighting a snail in London, British Library, MS Royal 10. E. IV, f. 107r

While he and the princess are discussing the merits of deferring sex with a nice quest, her jealous steward turns up and starts a brawl. The squire kills the steward but is captured by his men, who decide, as you do, to dress the dead steward in the squire’s clothes, slash his face so he’s unrecognisable, and dump him outside the princess’s door while they take the captive squire along to the king.

Now, the princess has been trying all along to mould her life into a romance narrative, and trying to create the perfect romance hero out of this rather unprepossessing would-be lover. She’s read her romances – not very well, maybe – and she wants to do a Francesca da Rimini, falling in love with a man who acts as if he’s stepped out of the pages of a romance. So, what she does next has its own bonkers logic.

The princess finds the body and believes it’s her would-be lover. She rolls up her sleeves and embalms the corpse, pops it a box by her bed, and spends the following seven years kissing it and rubbing it and, increasingly, lamenting that over-use (!!) has begun to wear the embalmed body into dust.

In case you think this is just too disturbing to be a real medieval story, I’ll say now, there’s another one. In Malory’s Morte Darthur, the sinister sorceress Hallewes explains her necrophiliac tendencies to the object of her desire with perfect – and disturbing – self-awareness:

“I had kepte no more joy in this worlde but to have thy body dede. Than wolde I have bawmed hit and sered hit … and dayly I sholde have clypped the and kyssed the.”

(‘I took no more pleasure in this world, except to have your body dead. Then, I would have embalmed it and dried it … and daily I would have embraced you and kissed you.)

(Malory, Morte Darthur, ll. 281.17-20)

These stories crash through our expectations of plausibility, and of aesthetic decorum.  They also introduce a concept that doesn’t very often make its way into modern stories about knights and ladies: female sexual desire. These women are trying to shape their lovers, to mould them into the perfect object of their desire. The princess is so caught up in the process of trying to find her romance hero, and so sexually frustrated when she does find him, that she endures a would-be rapist, an macabre sex toy, and marriage to a pretty unpleasant bloke.

The princess is a figure of fun, even though her grief is genuine. The man she eventually marries (yes, she’s reunited with the not-dead-after-all squire) is a charlatan, who doesn’t know heroism from rape myths. My fantastic PhD supervisor, who introduced me to this romance, suggests it’s possible he and the princess’s dad are also having a bit of thing on the side. So no prize, really.

The misogynistic message here is clear: stupid women who read too many romances, too casually, end up looking ridiculous.

But medieval culture also shows us how women learned to exploit the cultural narratives that told them how to behave. There’s a brilliant study of medieval marriages in fifteenth-century London, which describes such a situation. In 1476, Alice Hobbys sued her husband, a prestigous doctor, for divorce. The case was shocking. Colleagues of William Hobbys testified that he had been discovered visiting prostitutes and had been committing adultery with several women and in at least two countries, for fifteen years.

Divorce was extremely rare in medieval England. Shannon McSheffrey, who writes about this case, explains that the reason Alice could bring this suit was to do with the cultural narrative of masculine behaviour. A man who could not control his sexual instincts in a way appropriate to his social position was a man who had degraded himself. A husband should be the ruler of the wife – but a man who could not control himself could hardly control his wife.

Alice got her divorce.

This story, though it’s not a romance but real life, shows us how women could use cultural narratives about romantic interaction between men and women to their own advantage. Alice Hobbys’ court case relies on precisely the same ideas about men and women that bound women in a misogynistic society. Her lawyers accepted, as perfectly right, the idea that a woman should submit to her husband – but the flip side of that was that if that husband could not control his sexual desire (behaving like a woman!), a wife could not longer respect him like a real man.

These stories are deeply problematic in a lot of ways. It’s really disturbing to see how women were forced to twist narratives used to expose their own innate flaws – weakness, susceptability, uncontrolled sexual desire – in order to exercise a right we take for granted today, to divorce a cheating spouse. But the court case also shows medieval women as astute readers of cultural narratives.

And I think this is hopeful. Yes, we probably do need to carrying on taking the piss out of Twilight. And it’s fun. But we also need to equip children (boys and girls) with the tools to see through the ways narratives portray gender roles. We don’t need to jump through thirty hoops in order to get a divorce any more … but there are plenty of women who struggle to construct a narrative in which it’s ok for them to break up with a partner, or to turn down a ‘perfectly nice guy’. We need to think about our cultural narratives of romantic interaction, not just to get angry with the most egregiously shitty examples, but to talk about what we mean when was say this story or that story ‘gives girls unrealistic expectations’.


If you’re interested (and if you’re not, you’re reading the wrong blog), medieval dildos do exist. They do not ususally consist of embalmed husband-material. This image – it’s actually a strap-on, but why spoil a good story – is from the beautifully-titled blog ‘Hwæt the Swythe‘ at my very own University of York. Aw, guys.

medieval strap on