Michael Gove, An Idiot in History

This is a quick post, which I couldn’t help writing when I read what Michael ‘I’m not a racist but’ Gove has been saying about the teaching of history. Apparently, our Noble Educator claims:

“There’s children, including my own, who can’t remember, well perhaps didn’t even know in the first place, whether the Romans, Egyptians or the Greeks came in which particular order and whether or not the Vikings were their antagonists, protagonists, sons or daughters.”

One might begin by observing that there’s children, not including any I teach, who know that ‘children’ is plural and that the correct form is ‘there are children’. But that would be cheap sniping, and lord forbid we engage in any of that.

To be serious: I have a real difficulty with Gove’s statement. No doubt he would, if he were asked, claim it wasn’t a deeply considered statement, just an off-the-cuff remark, and that’s why it’s so shallow and ahistorical. But can that really excuse Gove’s rhetoric?

The description of ‘Romans, Egyptians and Greeks’ coming in a ‘particular order’ harks back, for me, to the way history was presented in the most old-fashioned books: as a procession with one civilization overtaking another, like a baton relay race where the leaders were always the most advanced and those who’d been overtaken quietly dropped out. In reality, of course, Romans, Egyptians and Greeks all lived during the same time periods. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to be Roman, Greek, or Egyptian today. Perhaps Michael Gove imagines that only the most illustrious (=Western?) moments of any given civilization should be given due prominence, but if so, I would love to know which brief slice of time he intends to immortalize as ‘the British’? The tenth century? The fifteenth? World War I?

No, I suspect Gove means, English (sorry! British! No doubt he meant British!) history is a constant focus. At the far borders of Our Great Nation, in the margins of Great British History, there is space (in neatly chronological order) for Egypt (no time period … doubtless it’s all pretty much the same over the centuries, doncha know, lots of sand and so on), for Greece (Classical, minus the phalluses of course), and for Rome (Imperial).

Gove’s fundamentally racist view is pretty easy to take down, admittedly. But views like his are based in an ignorance that does a lot of damage. If we teach history as a discrete set of civilizations, we teach our children to believe that the view of the dominant military power is the most important. We erase from history the lesser-known cultures, the cultures that are already suffering under the bias of contemporary racism. We ignore the rich interactions between civilizations that resulted in medieval English churches built with Roman stone, in Greek gems made into Northumbrian jewellery, in Iranian spices used in fifteenth-century cooking, in Italian ideas about mathematics dispersed to feed into the lonely thought processes of reclusive seventeenth-century physicists, in polymaths of all nations gathering to work on twentieth and twenty-first century scientific developments in Britain.

I’ll be fairly fed up if Gove’s ignorance replaces that collaboration with a number-line view of the past, but I won’t be surprised: this isn’t history, it’s jingoism peddled by an idiot.


I’ve now found a longer quotation from Gove in the Telegraph, which ends:

“The thing that I want people to have is an understanding of the past and an ability to analyse. And if students at the end of studying history come out as Maxists who hate the oppressive narrative of baronial rule that is the spine of English history, as long as they love history, I will be delighted.”

Baronial rule, the spine of English history? Excuse me while, as a medievalist, I leave to laugh myself silly …

Thirty Falling Gravestones and the Ghost Church on Kinoulton Hill


The picture above shows the abandoned graveyard of a church that was in use for at least 600 years. I wrote a little bit about this church a few weeks ago, when I was talking about the way in which people in certain areas of this country – perhaps in particular the East Midlands – become disconnected from their medieval heritage of culture and literature, and how we need to reclaim that heritage. As an academic, I feel incredibly lucky that I get to read manuscripts that are hundreds of years old, to see the notes quite ordinary people jotted in the margins of their books, at to feel a momentary connection with lives lived in an entirely different time. But, because I’m not an archaeologist, I don’t go to look at the places where people lived as often as I might. So when I went back to see if I could find this graveyard, I found it fascinating and humbling.

Kinoulton’s old church – dedicated to St Wilfrid and probably built in the twelfth century – is now nothing more than a series of mounds and stony hummocks on a hillside, whose shadows mark out the ghost of a building.

To get to Kinoulton, these days a little modern village, you turn off the A46, the old Roman Fosseway, between Leicester and Newark. You find yourself on a steep hill looking down into the Vale of Belvoir. But instead of continuing on down, you park at the top of the hill and you follow the bridleway through the gate.


There’s a field to the side, full of vaguely curious sheep and, when we went, bordered by a large ditch full of water. Up to this point, you’re definitely on the footpath, but I admit, I did climb the gate after this. If by some extremely long shot the owner of this land is reading: I hope this was ok, and I would love to know whether or not the graveyard is accessible, as I remember it being on the footpath when I was a child.


Jumping over the ditch and crossing the field, you come to a sloping field, with a view across into the Vale and a tangle of brambles, thorns and unmown grass interrupted by a few wildly slanting grave stones.


These stones mostly date from the eighteenth century, and feature the sorts of rhyming verses, couplets and quotations from the Bible that you’d expect:

“Time flies, Our Glory Fades, and Death at Hand”

reads the inscription on one tomb, flamboyantly decorated with an Angel of Death holding a scythe, bestriding a globe featuring lines of latitude and longitude and writhing, apocalyptic serpents. A dancing skeleton completes the image. There’s a wonderful picture of it on flickr – please look, if you click on it the detail is amazing. Another inscription berates ‘Pale Death’ that has killed ‘so good a wife, so kind a mother’. This form of reference reminded me of the epitaph on Mary Sidney, written in 1621:

“Underneath this sable hearse,

Lies the subject of all verse,

Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.

Death, ere thou hast slain another

Fair and learned and good as she,

Time shall throw a dart at thee.”

Strip away the better poetry of the latter and you have the same sentiment, defining a woman in terms of her relations to her male family, and the same slightly macabre reminder of the physical reality of a body lying just feet away under the tombstone. In Kinoulton graveyard, further gruesome images (which I couldn’t help finding quite appealing) come in the form of skulls with crossed bones, worried expressions on their faces:

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A more elaborate memorial is shared by several of the graves: a carved angel, with an oddly impassive face and wings spread wide. These carvings are known as ‘Belvoir Angels’ and you find them throughout the area. Although Kinoulton is now one of the smaller villages in the vale, those found here are some of the best examples that exist.

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As you can see, they’re slowly being reabsorbed into the turf of the hillside, with grass almost covering them. In summer, when the grass is shorter, this stone would be more visible, but in the winter, the grass hides them from view, and some have been badly damaged.

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The stone below, broken and chipped, hidden in the shadows of the weeds, was inscribed with the name of William Wilson, who died aged 43 in 1732.


Some of the most elaborate gravestones are those of the Innocent family, Francis and his wife Ann, who died in 1866, and their son Thomas who died in 1755. The parish register also records a son, Francis, who was christened in the church on the 22nd of November 1747, and died only a day later.

This isn’t an uncommon story: near to the graves of Francis and Ann are those of William and Henrietta Bates, whose daughter Anna was born and died on 13th November 1785. Her mother followed her sometime in the next year, perhaps from complications of a difficult labour. Their in-laws, John Bates and his wife Mary, lost two babies born barely a year apart: eight-month-old Anna died in April of 1800 and newborn John in December. In 1802 they had another baby, Maria, but she lived only just over a year. The baptisms of two more children, Mary and John, are recorded in the Parish Register in 1803 and 1807. No dates of death are written in beside, so presumably these children survived their infancy.

Reading through the Parish Registers and matching the records with these graves made me notice how few children’s graves were still standing. A lot of the graves are broken and slanted, so, of course,  gravestones for these children may well once have existed, but might have fallen to the ground.


A lot of people I talk to today cling to the idea that, in the past, parents could not have cared so acutely for their children as we do now, and perhaps didn’t feel the need for the memorials we would expect. This is an idea that’s long been discredited in academic circles – it was based on poor but highly influential research – and one surviving stone in this graveyard provides a sad counter argument:

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The inscription above reads:

Here lies the Body of Thos. [Thomas], the son of Joseph Page by Elizabeth his wife. He departed this life June 1st, 1720, in the 3rd year of his age. 

This stone is carved as beautifully as any of the adults’ graves, and must have been both expensive and time-consuming to make: the parents who commissioned it wanted future generations to remember their lost child.

It’s amazing to see how well-preserved these stones are, and how much skillful work went into the making of tombstones in what seems such an isolated, windswept, lonely place. Looking at them helps us to image this church bustling with life, with people whose families stretched back to medieval times.

Yet these beautiful, elaborate, solid memorials must, even when they were new, have reminded viewers how precarious memory is. At the time when the latest of these stones were placed, the new church of St Luke in the new village of Kinoulton had already been begun; the old church was already unstable on its windy, wet hillside. It’s likely some of the stone was removed to be reused, but there must have been a period when people who worshipped at the new church still remembered lost children or parents or siblings buried up on the hillside.

Today, English Heritage lists the site as one of those ‘at risk’. The official record of the gravestones includes, amongst others, the gravestone of one Sarah Dee, 20 years old: it has lain flat on the ground since she died in 1703. I remember seeing it as a child, and when I looked for pictures I saw that in 2012 someone had dug into the ground and unearthed it. But when I looked for it myself, it was hidden under the turf, and I could not even find where to dig.

A friend, looking at the images of Kinoulton’s derelict graveyard, reminded me of Penelope Lively’s story of Astercote, the medieval village abandoned following the plague. The reasons why Kinoulton Church was abandoned are far less dramatic: the building simply and quietly fell into disrepair as the village migrated away from it. But I think that these stones and the stories of ordinary people’s lives and deaths they tell deserve to be remembered and recorded, before they disappear.

Memorializing Loss: A Christmas Carol for Medieval Women

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc 188, f. 35r (detail).

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc 188, f. 35r (detail).

I planned to write a lovely, uplifting, carol-infested Christmas post. This is not it, though if you click the links you will find the carols.

Christmas carols and nativity scenes from medieval manuscripts are some of the most familiar, visible elements of medieval religion for most of us. We hear medieval carols sung in the soaring voices of choirboys and we perhaps don’t think much about their words. But when I started to trace through the lyrics of medieval carols, I found medieval writers were preoccupied, even troubled, as to how to represent the role of women in this central Christian narrative.

The Christmas story is, as generations of feminists have observed, not entirely the most feminist part of that deeply woman-friendly book, the Bible. A lot of medieval Christmas texts  ham up Christ’s immense concession to humanity in spending nine months in the womb (yeuch! Woman parts!) until the Son of God comes across like the sort of child you particularly don’t want to meet. Images like the one above show all the elements of the story: pissed-off looking Joseph (in pink, as usual), friendly animals apparently having a good chat, angels visiting the stable … and Mary, with eyes only for her baby. Of course, her role is central, but she’s basically there as a conduit, a vessel for Christ, just as her role as a saint is to be primary intercessor on behalf of humanity

People often think that medieval women were radically different from us, guilt-tripped into believing the Bible literally and frightened into obeying their priests by a combination of ignorant superstition and guilt-inducing imagery. The idea persists that medieval women’s emotions were somehow less sharp or deep than our own; that they blundered through life without cherishing their children or questioning the religious doctrine they learned by rote. When we picture their religion, we don’t picture the nativity. We visualize the gaping mouth of Hell, stretched wide to take in the bodies of naked sinners frantically clasping at the hand of the bearded figure of Christ (at the far left), trying to pull them out.

The Mouth of Hell. Wall Painting at Pickering Church, Yorkshire

The Mouth of Hell. Wall Painting at Pickering Church, Yorkshire

This image is actually totally relevant to medieval views of Christmas. The narrative it depicts is the ‘Harrowing of Hell,’ when Christ stormed the gates of Hell and rescued the Old Testament dead from their torments. This is the story told in the carol we know as ‘O Come Emmanuel‘. It was written in Latin at some point between the eighth and twelfth centuries, and the ‘captive Israel’ of which it speaks is the Jewish people, freed by the coming of Christ.

Because medieval writers loved the idea of events that echoed each other, the Harrowing of Hell features in medieval carols as the triumphant conclusion of Christ’s own descent into the ‘Hell’ of his mother’s womb. Yes, it’s a delightful example of misogyny. This episode allowed medieval people to imagine Christ as a crusading knight,  no longer meek and mild but armed for war against Satan. This was crucial: naturally, the bleeding, suffering Christ of the crucifixion looked just that little bit too feminine at times (eg., if you squint really hard and have a well-exercised phobia of menstruation). A more macho, swords-a-swinging image of Christ was needed to reassure your average medieval knight that all was right in the world.

Christ, carrying his heraldic arms on his shield. London, British Library, MS Harley 3244, ff. 27-8.

Christ, carrying his heraldic arms on his shield. London, British Library, MS Harley 3244, ff. 27-8.

This led to a tradition of carols where the Annunciation, the story of Mary’s conception, was provided with a dashing lead male role (it can get worryingly woman-centric, that narrative, what with it being about a virgin conceiving without a man). ‘I sing of a maiden’ is a perfect example: supposedly about Mary, three of its five verses are about Christ’s role in his own conception. When I was first studying the lyrics of this carol, I was told to focus on the remarkable way the author of the carol attributes the choice to Mary, as the line ‘to her son she ches’ means ‘she chose him to be her son’. I was not invited to interpret Christ sneaking up on an unnoticing Mary as an exemplary vision of romance, admittedly, but nor did I immediately realize that ‘oh, you’ll barely notice I’m here, I’ll be so quiet’ is not actually the least creepy of chat-up lines.

Another medieval carol written in the great tradition of the backhanded compliment to women is ‘Adam lay y-bounden‘. This carol, if you’re not familiar, spans the whole of Biblical history in sixteen lines:

Adam lay ybounden,
   Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
   Thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple,
   An apple that he took,
As clerkës finden written
   In their book.
Nor had one apple taken been,
   The apple taken been,
Then had never Our Lady
  A-been heaven's queen.
Blessed be the time
   That apple taken was.
Therefore we may singen
   Deo gratias!

This carol is another ‘Harrowing of Hell’ story really, with Adam freed from his chains. But in this text, Christ is totally left out. The carol manages to tell the Christian story without a single mention of him, skipping straight from Adam’s transgression in the Garden of Eden to Mary’s coronation as Queen of Heaven. It is now Mary who is the knight, the heroine, rescuing Adam from his four thousand winters chained in Hell. Sounds nice, right? Empowerfulizing?

The carol is a neat example of a favourite medieval ‘I’m not a misogynist but …’ doctrine, the  felix culpa or fortunate sin, which explained Adam’s transgression as a necessary precursor to Christ’s becoming human. The same doctrine represented Eve’s wicked and implicitly sexual temptation of Adam as something that could only be forgiven by Mary’s impossible act of virginal motherhood. Yet Eve, like Christ, is omitted from this carol, so that its message is unsettlingly unfinished: is her transgression forgiven? Is she freed from her chains? Is Mary’s role in the salvation of mankind only something to celebrate because here she has taken on the Christ-like task of storming Hell, and risen above her feminine, lustful nature?

The roles Mary plays in medieval culture – either a perfectly feminine, completely inimitable virgin mother or a Christ-like, semi-masculine figure – seem designed to set women up to fail. What place is there for ordinary women in this picture?

London, British Library, MS Harley 4382, f. 159r (detail)
London, British Library, MS Harley 4382, f. 159r (detail)

This image, from a manuscript made in Paris at the beginning of the fifteenth century, shows Mary looking distinctly underwhelmed, displaying a complete lack of the startled wonder or absorption in her newborn we might expect. Propping her head up on her elbow, she ignores Joseph, who peers anxiously at the prayer book she has let fall. She even stares past her swaddled baby, to something outside the frame of the image, which we cannot see. Mary’s gaze directs us to look beyond the familiar nativity scene, to imagine what happens at the margins of the narrative, to the women who, like Eve, are quietly erased to preserve the focus on Mary alone.

Following this gaze to the margins of the narrative, we do find medieval carols that offer us an insight into the ways medieval writers imagined the voices and emotions of ordinary women. Written as lullabyes, they give voice not only to Mary’s experience, but also to the shared experience of all mothers. They are poignant, as modern settings tend to remind us, and I’ve usually heard this explained by modern vicars in terms of our awareness of Christ’s eventual fate: we know that the mother bending over her baby will be the woman wailing by the Cross. But for medieval women these carols must have had another dimension. In this period, any ordinary baby’s life was fragile, and quickly lost. The haunting ‘Coventry Carol‘ tells the story of the generation of ‘ordinary’ baby boys almost forgotten in the Bible narrative, the victims of Herod’s decree, and its lullabye refrain reaches out to remind listeners of the baby that is no longer there to be sung to sleep.

This rare memorial of human, rather than divine loss places the emotion of ordinary women at the centre of the narrative, for the brief space of a carol. It’s unsettling to listen to this plangent song amongst Victorian pomp and celebration. Medieval writers and artists struggled hugely with the idea of a woman who was sinless and perfect, with the idea of Christ, the salvation of the world, confined to the dreaded space of a woman’s womb. Yet, even as women other than Mary are excluded from the Christmas narrative, alienated by her seemingly inimitable example, we find voices memorializing women’s experiences, linking us in a chain through history. The carol reminds us to remember the humanity of medieval women – of all women separated from us by time and space – and to remember them even while we celebrate.

I’m not sure Aaron Sorkin is the Feminist Messiah: On why criticisms of Surrendered Wives bother me.

I’ve just been reading a Telegraph article about a book written by one Costanza Miriano, which carries the delightful title of Get Married and Be Submissive (Cásate y Sé Sumisa). Rainey, the author of the Telegraph article, is quick to give us a snapshot, not only of the contents of this text, but also of the kind of idiots who enjoyed it:

“Some have hailed it “revolutionary”, flooding book websites with glowing five-star reviews. “It reflects a sincere, optimistic vision of the marital relationship, which today is deemed truly daring,” gushes one reader. “Full of humour and common sense,” trills another.”

You might notice that the terms Rainey uses to describe these reviews – ‘gushes’ and ‘trills’ – are not entirely innocent of gendered connotations. I’ve yet to hear a (straight) man’s voice, let alone the qualities of his written review, described as ‘trilling’.

This is an implication we’re probably meant to pick up: this is a book written by a woman, for women. You’ve probably come across similar titles – Rainey mentions the most best known, American author Laura Doyle’s much-mocked version, The Surrendered Wife. Books like these generate an enormous amount of media controversy. It is obvious to everyone that they perpetuate a particularly unpleasant form of internalized misogyny. But increasingly, I find myself having problems with the way we’re encouraged to join in gleefully with kicking these writers down.

There is a dynamic to the media criticism of this genre of women’s writing about female submission. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have seen and applauded a lot of smart leftie take-downs of these women. The author of Get Married is basing her argument on the Bible, and on what I think most of us would recognize as a peculiarly literal-and-partial interpretation of the Bible. As President Bartlett famously pointed out to Jenna Jacobs, you can’t really have it both ways. If you want to argue that the words of the Bible are literally true and wives are literally meant to submit to their husbands, then you’re going to struggle to live in a modern world where we do not, as a rule, observe the letter of Jewish law. If you want to preach female submissiveness as a Biblical tenet, then you’d better not expose yourself as someone who hasn’t read the Bible perfectly.

The classic quotation I’m pussyfooting around is from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It’s one of those quotations it’s usually assumed we all sort of ‘know,’ to the extent that the Telegraph article doesn’t actually quote it. So here we are:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them. Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”

This is a passage that is almost begging a smug, quasi-feminist comeback. As the priest who married me to my husband would argue, this passage isn’t really sexist. Right after he tackles wives, St Paul gives an equivalent (or is it?) warning to husbands – ‘love your wives and do not be bitter towards them’. The rest of the text descends reassuringly into modern parenting advice. Be nice to your kids. Don’t do that 1950s stiff-upper-lip thing. St Paul is really an attachment parenting type. A lot of responses to the submissive Christian wife genre take this tone. I find it difficult not to do it myself. In fact, when my friend posted this Telegraph article, my first response was to snipe at Miriano’s level of theological acumen.

But there’s something pretty glib about dismissing Miriano’s reading of the Bible and glossing over what the text says. St Paul continues (and this is a much less frequently-quoted bit):

“Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.”

So, um, slaves … please do try to be happy about it. After all, like women, you were probably biologically programmed and divinely destined to be submissive.

I’m not quoting the end of the passage just to prove I can out-quote all comers (though the internet does make that easy). I’m doing it because actually, I am pretty sure Miriano has the spirit of the letter correct here, depressing as it is. What’s wrong with her argument isn’t a bad reading of the Bible, or the fact that her female readers ‘trill’ or ‘gush’ when they should all be reading T. S. Eliot and thinking higher thoughts.

I think that the Telegraph piece is an example of how criticism of this particular genre of submissive-wife writing shoots itself in the foot. It doesn’t especially help that Rainey begins by setting Get Married in opposition to that great piece of feminist polemic, 50 Shades of Grey. Because, of course, modern women had never understood the true meaning of liberation until we placed our inner goddesses at the disposal of a man with bondage gear and about as much natural sex appeal as John Prescott.

The real problem begins when Rainey starts to historicize Miriano’s writing. Apparently,

“It’s more like a history lesson on the dark ages than a guide for modern brides. … Miriano’s vision is one from the Fifties, of pinny-wearing wives waiting hand-and-foot on their hard-working husbands.”

If I had a quid for every time someone mentioned ‘the Dark Ages’ or ‘the Fifties’ as a shorthand for ‘The Age of Female Oppression (long past)’, I would never have to feel down the sofa for bus fare again. These periods for history were undoubtedly bad for women, as they were for the poor, the sick, the disabled, and pretty much every currently disadvantaged group you can think of. (Apart from Northerners. Northeners were doing pretty much ok in the Dark Ages.) But these periods of history aren’t somehow special in that respect. Nor is the misogyny they’re associated with entirely something of the past. And by implying that attitudes like Miriano’s are stuck in the past, we risk failing to recognize that actually, they’re attitudes shared by millions of men and women in 2013, by whole governments and religious movements and institutions of immensely greater power than one bestselling author.

As I’m writing this, I feel bad about criticizing a journalist who draws attention to the increasing popularity of internalized misogyny. I feel bad about criticizing a female journalist. But that’s the point. Women writers, and women who internalize misogyny, aren’t above criticism, but nor should they be the primary targets. That the most enthusiastically sarcastic criticisms of women’s internalized bias come from sources like the Telegraph, and like Sorkin’s not-really-that-feminist fictional president, I’m not sure I want to join in the kicking.

“When I am living in the Midlands, that are sodden and unkind …”: On Marginalizing Communities

The old graveyard in Kinoulton.

The old graveyard in Kinoulton.

I’ve just spent a slightly frantic few weeks exploring the fifeenth-century readers of a particular medieval text. Nothing unusual in that; it’s what I do. I know which names and places are likely to come up: it’s a safe bet that fifeenth-century London, York and Norwich will be full of eager lay people reading the newest books and I’m likely to read about Syon, Sheen, and Mount Grace if I’m looking at religious houses. There will be a few women mentioned, but mainly men.

I seldom, if ever, read about locations near the place where I grew up.

This isn’t surprising. I grew up in a little village near the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border, which you’ve never heard of. Most people who live in Nottingham or Leicester don’t know which county it’s in, and they’d have no reason to want to know. The local accent – which I don’t have, because my parents aren’t local – tends to get pretty snobby reactions, and the quotation in my title is Hillaire Belloc, celebrating the infinitely greater appeal of the South.

I had to look up the statistics on education (and I know they’re only a crude indication of the full picture), but I wasn’t surprised to find that only three of the nine areas into which England is divided had lower rates of Higher Education. Nor was it a huge surprise to find that no area of the country had a higher proportion of children who’d been permanently excluded from school (and the West Midlands had the same rate).

Growing up, we did a primary school class about local history: the village church was having it’s 200th birthday. We had a look at its exceptionally dull brick architecture and noticed where the tower was damaged because the cheapskate architect hadn’t made it strong enough to withstand the vibrations of normal-size church bells. No, really. I could give Nigel Slater a run for his money with the ‘my slightly shit, but not actually very shit childhood lifestyle’ if I really wanted to.

Kinoulton Church. Ok, it's not that ugly, but medieval it ain't.  Photo from the Keltek Trust.

Kinoulton Church. Ok, it’s not that ugly, but medieval it ain’t.
Photo from the Keltek Trust.

We listened to a tinny recording of bells ringing and  went to trudge up the hill to gurn at the last few remaining tombstones where the old church had been. I remember the nicely macabre name of ‘Elizabeth Blood’. Nothing dated from earlier than the eighteenth century.

I always assumed this was a place with no real medieval history – just as it had no modern-day interest to me, as a child who couldn’t believe anything had ever happened. When the bones of Richard III were found in Greyfriars’ Car park, I kept hearing of people who were outraged at the idea of reburying Richard here in Leicester instead of in a proper, respectable, English Heritage sort of location such as York Minster. If I tell you Leicester is the absolute pinnacle of historical interest round where I lived, you can get the idea.

What I didn’t know until recently is that the East Midlands – ‘sodden and unkind’, in the wishy-washy middle-ground with no dramatic history of its own – is actually a place where you can find dozens of examples of medieval readers.The village where I grew up would in medieval times have been know as ‘Kynalton,’ a village in the ‘wapentake’ or distrinct of Bingham. I absolutely love the fact that a word like ‘wapentake’ exists.

Throughout this period, Kinoulton was listed along with Owthorpe and Cotgrave – a place whose recent history is mostly associated with the closing of the pits in 1993 – as one of the villages whose land largely belonged to the Binghams or their retainers. Although most of the references I could find described the ins and outs of rural life – who owned which fields; where each person was entitled to catch rabbits or fish – there were also clues about the education and the books some people were able to obtain.

In the early fourteenth century, a young man called Thomas Bingham got a dispensation from the Pope to become a priest despite the fact his parents had not been married when he was born. He went on to be master of the newly-founded Pembroke College, Cambridge, whose founding patron was a powerful woman and book owner, Marie de Ste Pol.

Marie, pictured in her Book of Hour. Cambridge, University Library, MS Dd.5.5

Marie, pictured in her Breviary. Cambridge, University Library, MS Dd.5.5

Later on, another young man, William Bingham, followed in his footsteps, founding Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1437. This William made it his mission to reform education for children, and he sent a petition to the king asking to be allowed to found new schools.

Meanwhile, in the area where William had grown up, his family were educating themselves in the way that medieval gentry families always had: swapping books, buying old copies of texts owned by richer people, and commissioning or making their own commonplace books, where everything from favourite stories to recipies to notes about collecting rent or washing clothes were jumbled together. Gifts of books were precious in this context, and they tell us a lot about how people related to each other. One woman, a widow, gave a precious century-old manuscript of religious writing, not to her male relatives, but to her recently widowed sister-in-law, who was the niece by marriage of William Bingham. She includes an affectionate message, sending ‘Christ’s blessing and mine’.

Nearby, in the tiny village of Nether Broughton, a rector called John Reed dedicated himself to copying a manuscript for a family in Derbyshire. It included the ‘Liber de Diversis Medicinis’ (Book of Various Medicines), a sort of handbook of family medicine including prescriptions for infertility and childbirth, which Reed thoughtfully edited to make it more easy for the family he had in mind to search through the text.

Just a few miles away, in Willoughby-on-the-wolds, the Willoughby family beginning to make their collection of books, some of which you can see online in the collection of Nottingham University Library. These included a French story of the Holy Grail, one of the King Arthur romances, as well as a religious text originally written for a local woman, Aline la Zouche, in the thirteenth century. This local family, from Ashby-de-la-Zouche, were constant patrons of religious reading throughout the period.

London, British Library, Cotton Nero D. VII, f. 106r. Picture of Lady Elizabeth Zouche.

London, British Library, Cotton Nero D. VII, f. 106r. Picture of Lady Elizabeth Zouche.

So far, when I’ve told people I’ve come across an amazing thing, an important, vital group of readers in a location we think of as being boring and middle of the road and uncultured and rural, they’re quite positive. They start telling me how we need to revise our assumptions, how we need to take pride in this submerged regional history. This is work that’s already being done for other areas of the country – there’s a huge project looking at the Black Country and the way the modern dialect is actually reflected in a beautiful and very culturally prestigious medieval manuscript. A friend of mine has recently written about how important it is to her to think about medieval manuscripts in this geographic context, in the place where they were made and where she grew up.

Yet when I read some of the academic work – and there isn’t much of it – I found cautious statements about how it might well be that these rural families didn’t really look for manuscripts, they just sort of inherited them, with the family silver and Aunt Mildred’s ugly vase, if you like.

It really struck me how similar this attitude is to a lot of people’s attitudes to women’s education and book use. You’ll notice, too, how many women feature in this picture of East Midlands readers – that’s not an accident.

But often, when I say I can find dozens of examples of medieval women who were authors and scribes, illuminators and stationers, readers and educators, I’m met with scepticism: surely I am distorting the picture? Surely I must have ‘gone looking’ for these women, who might very likely have simply fallen into family jobs or taken over shops from their husbands? Would I really insist on teaching students about niche areas like women’s reading, or provincial cultures like the East Midlands, when I could be teaching them about Chaucer’s London, Gower’s London, maybe with a side note on the nice urban communities of readers in York?

There’s a strong tendency to insist on qualifying information about marginal cultures. To an extent, obviously, this is just good scholarship. But I do think it can also be another way of slapping people down. The excitement I get when I find out about a woman living in 1454 just down the road from where I grew up, who was handling the same manuscript whose pages I’ve just been turning is absolutely amazing. It makes me feel connected to history in a way that women often aren’t, and people from my tiny, rather boring local area often aren’t. That’s something we need to value.

On Female Beauty and Male Violence

This amazingly ornate boxwood comb is from the fifteenth century. Check it out at http://www.olympia-art-antiques.com/node/1491

This amazingly ornate boxwood comb is from the fifteenth century. Check it out at http://www.olympia-art-antiques.com/node/1491

I was reading today about a case in the States, of a girl who has been battling with her school over how she wears her hair. Not because she’s dyed it skybluepink, but because her hair is a natural Afro. When I read the comments in the Guardian article this morning I spent a few minutes rolling my eyes, because they’re full of whiny bollocks about how there’s nothing racist in encouraging young black women to participate in expensive, time-consuming attempts to look more white. I’m well aware this is an issue of which, because I am white, I only experience the privileged side. I can’t imagine how this girl feels. But I know what stereotype of beauty she’s up against.

For centuries, in the West, there’s been a remarkably consistent idea of what kind of hair is beautiful on a woman. From Goldilocks and Rapunzel in folktales to Marilyn to Buffy on our screens, long, blonde, flowing locks are represented as the ideal.

Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (detail). 1486

Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (detail). 1486

When I started to trace the origins of this stereotype, I saw how conflicted its connotations were, how closely and threateningly it linked beauty with sexual immorality. In ordinary medieval life, a woman’s uncovered hair symbolised virginity. So, shaving the head was one of the punishments for prostitution, and also one of the ways in which nuns mortified their bodies. A thirteenth-century record condemned disreputable nuns who wore their hair long, curled into ringlets or covered with veils scented with saffron – the spice that was also used as a hair dye for its strong yellow colour.

In medieval romance, golden hair is on the tick-list of qualities a beautiful woman has to have, along with white skin – ‘white as whale’s bone,’ which is pretty revolting until you think we still use ‘ivory’ as a term for off-white –  a slender figure, pretty breasts and eyes as ‘grey as glass’.

The classic female sinner-turned-saint, Mary Magdalene, was in medieval times thought to be a reformed prostitute and, of course, blonde. She was understood to be the same Mary who washed Christ’s feet and dried them with her hair. It’s amazing what takes on erotic connotations if you’re a celibate medieval priest, and the fifteenth-century preacher Bernardino da Siena worked himself up to a lather with this (entirely non-Biblical) story:

“her third sin was through her hair … she did everything she could, to make herself more blonde”

This little fabrication suited preachers’ taste for symmetry, for if Mary Magdalene’s hair was originally the symbol of her sexual sin, after her metamorphosis into saintly follower of Christ it became the means by which she preserved her bodily modesty. Legend told that, after Christ’s death, Mary wandered in the desert where her clothes fell to rags, and only her long blonde locks – like those of Lady Godiva in the folktale – covered her nakedness.

A fourteenth-century Magdalene with her hair covering her nakedness. It's not a classically attractive image, shall we say?!

A fourteenth-century Magdalene with her hair covering her nakedness. It’s not a classically attractive image, shall we say?!

In becoming saintly, Mary becomes a parody of femininity, ‘hirsute’ in an almost masculine sense. Other stories of women saints make this suggestion even more explicit: the virgin Saint Uncumber, threatened with rape, prayed to become ugly and grew a prolific beard that repelled her suitor.

These stories sound – and are – funny to modern readers. But they reflect less funny truth. Essentially, these narratives suggest that the only way a beautiful woman can redeem herself is to become a parody of her own beauty before she becomes a victim of male violence.

St Catherine, virgin martyr. The Taymouth Hours, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century. British Library, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 16v.

St Catherine, virgin martyr. The Taymouth Hours, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century. British Library, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 16v.

Modern evolutionary psychology, which is not something I have much time for, argues that blonde hair in women is attractive because we associate it with youth, on the rather creepy and dubious grounds that children are quite often fair-haired when young and  darken up later. Medieval romances show how the much-admired blonde hair is the target for extreme gendered violence, much in the same way that footbinding or corsetry eroticize the areas of the female body they mutilate. The medieval example comes from a romance called Florence of Rome, in which the virtuous heroine frustrates her would-be rapist by reciting prayers that make him temporarily impotent and he punishes her by hanging her from her long blonde hair.

These conflicted and disturbing cultural narratives are still audible today. We still grow up with stories that tell us that blonde hair is beautiful, that blonde women are the heroines, the protagonists, the ones we should all want to be like. And to judge by the comments on the Guardian article, some people even grow up unable to recognize the most basic racism when it is directed at women’s hair. Yet this female attribute we are taught to idealize has historically been interpreted as an incitement to violence, a sign that the patriarchy punishes women for failing to conform to narrow standards of beauty and then punishes them again if they do conform.