‘Positively Medieval’: My Talk on Imagining Unseen Women for BBC Radio 4


At Peterborough Cathedral

This Wednesday, at 8.45pm, I’m speaking on the BBC Radio 4 series Four Thought. In addition to that broadcast, the programme will also be available as a podcast little later, in a longer version including questions from the audience.

I’ve been getting nervous all this week, because I was so excited to do this talk. I got to mention some of my favourite medieval women, amongst them Margery Paston, who stood up to her entire family plus the bishop of Norwich, and the brilliant, bizarre artist Jeanne de Montbaston, for whom this blog is named. But I was also a bit terrified – I wanted to do these women justice.

Radio is an unseen medium, and that feels oddly appropriate, because the women I study are – by and large – unseen women, as well as unheard and unheard of. We simply don’t know what Jeanne de Montbaston looked like, nor Margery Paston. When I think about medieval women’s lived experiences, I’m usually working backwards from laws drafted by men, texts copied by men, manuscripts compiled by men.

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But traces of women do survive, in the bodies of work they left behind. And I wanted to spend the rest of this post thinking about how I like to imagine these often unheard, unseen women.

Although no known picture of Jeanne de Montbaston survives, her name instantly calls to mind a host of evocative images: who could forget the strange penis tree, with its industrious company of nuns harvesting the fruit?


Jeanne’s nun leads a (surprisingly enthusiastic) monk on a chain from his penis.

The penis tree image comes – like the other images on this page – from a series of illustrations Jeanne made for a copy of the bestselling Roman de la Rose, a poem firmly part of the male-dominated and misogynistic tradition, which she skilfully and boldly subverted. Jeanne’s artistic perspective remains resolutely original, refusing to conform to the expectations of a male-dominated literary culture. Her little nun is instantly familiar, with her expressive hands and lively face constantly suggesting personality, whether she’s picking penises, spreading her fingers wide to measure their unexpected size, bossily pointing the way forward for her captive monk, or pointing authoritatively at the text beside her.
But my favourite of the series of illuminations is this final one, where the nun stands in a high tower, while her monk companion doggedly attempts to scale the walls with a rather precarious-looking ladder. The image evokes the classic trope of fairytale romance: the captive lady; the dashing man to the rescue. Jeanne must have known such stories: she provided images for the classic tale of Tristram, who rescued his lover Isolde. But this was not the story for Jeanne: her nun’s mouth is open mid-diatribe, her hands spread in almost preacherly eloquence, as if she’s turned the feminine tower into a decidedly masculine pulpit, and one fist is outstretched to rap on the top of the walls for emphasis … and she appears not even to have noticed the climbing monk whom she’s almost hit over the head. Does she need rescuing? Does she heck.

Jeanne’s name is known to us only through a quirk of fate: she might easily have been one of the thousands of medieval women whose personalities I can only reconstruct by imagining, by thinking how they might have thought, felt, reacted, spoken, responded, to the male dominated culture all around them. But in her images, she puts forward a vivid sense of self, a sense of personality, that demands our attention. Jeanne is an unseen medieval woman, a woman we can’t picture. But, today, the illuminations she made have been shared all over the internet and reproduced in books and papers and exhibitions. She is far more ‘visible’ for her work than her male peers, far better known than any male illuminator of the same period. By attending to medieval women – by sharing their work, reconstructing their lives, thinking about who they were and how they lived – we can bring them to life again, and let their voices be heard.


All images are from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526.

Jeanne also provided images for texts about the Crusades and the voyages of Marco Polo, such as this one in the British Library, which tapped into contemporary interest in tall tales of exotic countries and exciting travel narratives. She worked on a manuscript of the French Voeux du Paon (‘the Vows of the Peacock), now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 165, a strange and ambiguous moral narrative. A copy of the popular Tristram romance with its salacious and sexy adulterous theme, also contains some images by Jeanne, and is now in the Getty Museum in New York (MS Ludwig XV 5). For more on Jeanne and her books, see:

Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200-1500, 2 vols (Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 2000)

D. J. A. Ross, ‘Methods of Book-Production in a XIVth Century French Miscellany (London, B. L., ms Royal 19. D. I.)’, Scriptorium: Revue internationale des études relatives aux manuscrits, 6 (1952), 63-75

Keith Busby, ‘Text and Image in the Getty Tristan, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV, 5′, in Medieval Manuscripts, Their Makers and Users: A Special Issue of Viator in Honor of Richard and Mary Rouse (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), pp. 1-25

16 thoughts on “‘Positively Medieval’: My Talk on Imagining Unseen Women for BBC Radio 4

    • Well, living in the UK does have its downsides at the moment (she says, staring out at the extremely wet garden …). But thank you. 🙂

  1. I’m looking forward to your podcast! I feel so silly as I didn’t know who the real Jeanne de Montbaston was until this and that you are named Lucy. I can’t believe in two years I didn’t look at your home page of all people. You’re among my favorite blogs and on line teachers and I didn’t investigate that part???? My sincere apologies for that. Best wishes to you in the new year for your teaching and work(s).

    • 😀 Well, why would you?!

      I initially thought I’d blog anonymously, but it’s not really in my nature. But a surprising number of people think I’m a real-life person called Jeanne de Montbaston. I wish: it’d sound very glam.

      And thanks for the good wishes and support.

      • Hey tho…Lucy is a wonderful name. You still got it with the glam having a nom de plume…

        I feel I should have been paying more attention. But ’nuff said. 🙂

  2. You and Jeanne and This post and your podcast (we can’t hear until later because we are yanks) are total awesomeness! Yeay you!!! 🙂

  3. And now I’ve heard your very fine talk, and am so pleased. I want to mention that you did a very nice job of rememberomg you were on the radio, and used language that enabled me to visualize the illustrations you referenced. Thank you. Is there a book forthcoming?

    • Oh, yay! Thank you for listening – and thanks so much for comments.

      There will eventually be a book – but it’s still in quite early stages, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed about it.

  4. That was special to actually hear you speak. It turned out to be more intense than I expected after reading the above and viewing the penis tree pictures. So I found it both startling and yet relevant and you are a reassuring teacher taking it on. Good and important work.

    • Thank you!

      Yes, it was quite intense … I always think I have remembered to provide enough warning of just how gritty some of the subject matter I work with is, but it is always quite shocking. I’ve really valued the chance to think through some of these ideas here, though, which has made it easier to learn to speak to an audience (I hope!).

      • I don’t prefer trigger warnings and I love your intensity. You make what is difficult or “gritty” something that can be discussed. You have always helped me navigate more difficult subjects like rape and helped me understand why the refinement of vocabulary around survivors mattered. It’s all valuable and helpful work you are doing.

      • Thanks. I really do hope so.

        I always aim to make it possible to discuss these things – just aware it is tricky (and for listeners/readers). So good to have your support, as always.

  5. I had to wait until I had time to listen but we gathered some of your fan-girls and had a little pow wow around your pod cast and we all love the light you have discovered in the dark ages. And I see why you chose Jeanne as your “muse” for the blog. 🙂

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