“My Well-Beloved Valentine”: Marriage, Medieval and Modern

Heart-shaped Book of Hours, BnF, latin 10536, 15th c. Image via this site.

Heart-shaped Book of Hours, BnF, latin 10536, 15th c. Image via this site.

Two of my oldest friends got married this weekend, at a beautiful woodland campsite complete with superhero-themed decorations, crazy dancing, and a campfire with s’mores. And it was particularly fun because they’d thrown out – or subverted – all the traditions that feministy types (or, you know, adults who’ve been responsible for their own lives for years) get irritated by, and this made everything more personal, and very touching. The bride was not ‘given away’ and they tossed a coin to decide who would speak first. The vows echoed the formal language we’re familiar with, but were written entirely by the couple. They’d done the legal bit the day before, so the ceremony just involved their promises to each other.

I loved this, and partly because it made me think about traditions and what it means to reshape a tradition into something new. In fact, this ceremony was, in a way, looking back to even older traditions. In medieval England, it was perfectly legal, and normal, to contract a marriage simply by making the promise to each other, ideally in the presence of witnesses who could be called upon to give public testimony that the event had occurred. It was only much later that weddings become religious ceremonies or required an official celebrant with legal power, and later still that it became customary for a male family member to ‘give away’ his daughter.

You can see how people were adapting traditions in the period I study, in fifteenth century England. What I love about this period is the amazing sense you get that, suddenly, you’ve got access to the thoughts and words of ordinary people making their own decisions about love and marriage. So, I thought I’d share the story of a fifteenth-century woman and her marriage.


Letter from Margery Brews to John Paston, c. 1477. From London, BL MS 43490, f. 23.

The image above is a letter, dictated in 1477 by a woman named Margery Brews, who was writing to the man she hoped to marry, John Paston. Margery and John were engaged to be married, but her father was refusing to provide John with sufficient money to keep his wife, while Margery’s mother was pleading with him to relent.

Despite this very real worry, Margery writes to John in deeply emotional terms, addressing him as her “well-beloved Valentine”the first recorded use of the term ‘Valentine’ to mean ‘lover’ that we have in English. In medieval England, letter writing could – like marriage vows – be an occasion for formal language, for phrases whose significance was much deeper than the mere words on the page. Yet here, we can see Margery reaching beyond the formal language she must have been taught as young girl, to find a more personal register. In effect, she coined a tradition.

True Love: 'Le Duc des vrais amants' with his lady, in London, BL MS Harley 4431, f. 143r. By Christine de Pizan, made for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, c. 1410-14.

True Love: ‘Le Duc des vrais amants’ with his lady, in London, BL MS Harley 4431, f. 143r. By Christine de Pizan, made for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, c. 1410-14.

Margery continued to write to John as “well-beloved Valentine,” and later signs herself “your Valentine,” in a letter promising that if John and her father can come to an agreement in their planned meeting, she will be “the merriest maiden on the earth”. Reading Margery’s letters is rather like reading only one half of a conversation, but we can guess at John’s character, not only because he insisted upon marrying Margery despite her lack of money, but also because of what we know of his strong-willed younger sister. Almost a decade before Margery Brews wrote her letters, Margery Paston, John’s nineteen-year-old sister, married her parents’ steward Richard Calle. At the time, John – aged about twenty-five – was both worried and contemptuous at his sister’s unconventional choice, but she stood firm, refusing to renounce the marriage even at the urging of the bishop of Norwich. It seems possible that, when John found himself, like his sister, weighing up the possibility of a marriage for love rather than money, he found himself rather more inspired by his sister’s example.

Both stories have happy endings. Margery Paston and Richard Calle’s marriage endured, producing three sons. Margery Brews proved herself to be a quick-witted person, whose letters to her husband carry a tone of partnership in business when she writes to him “in haste” to inform her husband of his responsibilities to his tenants and her concerns about his business, and ends with news of the good health of “all your babes”.

Margery Brews’ letters began as an intimate record of a one ordinary woman setting out to write something more personal than the formal language traditionally used by engaged couples. Now, though, they’re famous as the ‘first Valentines’. It was lovely to be at a wedding that involved the same re-writing of tradition to make it more personal and more meaningful. I hope people reading this post enjoyed it, and I hope you’ll take a (soppy, yes!) moment to send my friends some good wishes!

Walters Museum MS W.166, f.16r. via Wikipedia Commons.

Walters Museum MS W.166, f.16r. via Wikipedia Commons.


Anyone who has read Cynthia Harnett’s The Wool Pack, with its story of Nicholas and Cecily’s betrothal, might recognise the quotations from Cecily’s letters as being lifted from those of Margery Brews.

If you want to know more about the Paston women, Diane Watt has published a selection of their letters as The Paston Women: Selected Letters, which has lots of helpful notes and is in modernised spelling. You could also try Colin Richmond’s book The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century, or the first section of Rebecca Krug’s beautifully written book Reading Families (the whole book is well worth reading).


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

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

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

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

She wrote:

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

I think this is a great idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

quilt 2

Aren’t they beautiful?

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

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

Male Fantasies, Historical Fiction, and Game of Thrones Geekery


This is how I imagine John Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.  The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From http://manuscripts.kb.nl/show/images/KA+20/page/2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,

Saracens and Crusaders.

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

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

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

Concluding the article, he observes:

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

Sound familiar?”

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

The Hereford Mappamundi. England, c. 1285.

The Hereford Mappamundi. England, c. 1285.

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

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