The Wifework of Empathising with Absentee Fathers’ Struggles

Perhaps it’s inevitable that, the same week the Guardian decide to publish a moving, impressive tribute to two young men publicising the toxic and predictable effects of violent masculinity, they’d also ruin all that good work by printing this piece, to destroy my ever-fragile faith in the male of the species.

(Kidding. I love men, me, and I think it’s totally important to keep saying that.)

Julian Furman, the author of the piece that so irritates me, nobly explains his history. ‘I … pressured my wife to start a family,’ he blithely explains, as if ‘pressuring’ someone to risk their health for nine months is a perfectly normal marital dynamic and not something to feel deeply ashamed of doing. But Furman seems to imagine this admission will endear him to readers, coming (as it does) hot on the heels of an overwritten depiction of how he tried to punch his father who, it seems, committed the crime of being concerned about his son’s emotional health. After a lengthy whinge about how awful it is not to be the centre of attention when you have a newborn, and how terrible it must be to actually have to do some of the childcare instead of living separately from your family and calling it ‘sacrifice’, Furman ends with an impassioned plea: men need to be heard. Silence is deadly. To begin, all that is required is for us to talk.

(Except, you know, if it’s your concerned dad trying to talk. If that’s the case, then punch the compassionate shite for trying to initiate a conversation – the bastard!)

Furman’s piece is oozing with self-pity and contradictions, it’s true. And it’s also true, I have to say, that he’s right when he says that reactionary views of masculinity (only he calls them ‘society’s views) are damaging to men as well as women. But what struck me, in this piece passionately if inconsistently defending the importance of open communication, is what is not said.

Furman describes his descent into resentment in terms that sketch out a very large negative space, a very obvious tacit truth that fills his casual omissions. Fathers, we’re told, suffer from the horror of being cast, not as the main actor, but as ‘the best friend in that movie you forget as soon as the credits roll: the support act to fill in the blanks, clean up the mess, do the dishes off-screen’.

I couldn’t help but suspect that, in Furman’s movie, that main actor role was filled, not only by the baby, but also by the other person who cleans up the mess and does the dishes – his child’s mother. I can tell this, because apparently, these are struggles to be understood in terms of ‘the patriarch’ and not ‘the parents’; struggles to be related to his wife’s exhaustion, and not to the baby’s demands.

But, within this daily grind, tell-tale cracks appear. In prose wistfully sighing after Nick Hornby (an unattractive prospect if there ever were one), we’re told of the bottles of scotch lining up on the fridge, the drunken evenings Furman spent out with his dad, the nights passed sitting in parks and on park benches, ‘spaces shared with the homeless and drug-addicted, waiting for time to pass and the pain to end’.

It’s horrific, I’m sure – right until you remember that, in the midst of all of this, Furman’s wife was presumably sitting at home with a newborn baby wonder where the fuck her lazy-arse husband had wandered off to, and why he was leaving her to look after the baby while he chose to get blind drunk and spend their money on booze.

I used to read articles like this, and be filled with feminist fury. I used to condemn people like Furman for their fecklessness, their casual pride in their entitlement, their lazy refusal to do even a fraction of the childcare, and their whiny, self-centred certainty that the worst problem in the world must be people not listening enough to middle-class white men. But a year ago, my partner got pregnant. Three months ago she had a baby. And I got to see what it’s like to feel as if society is treating you as the bumbling idiot second parent whose every attention should be focussed on the capable birth mother. It does feel odd when you’re tired and sleep deprived and emotional, and everyone is asking you anxiously whether or not your partner is ok. It does feel depressing when you’re both exhausted. And it certainly feels frustrating when (and this is an experience Furman presumably doesn’t share) you encounter people who seem to believe you’re somehow both experiencing a cushy maternity leave, and enjoying unprecedented freedom to get back to work exactly like a man.

But what I can’t share with Furman is his absolute, unthinking, unquestioning focus on himself – or his male peers – as the tragic heroes in this one-sided drama. Despite claiming that men become supporting actors in their babies’ early childhood, Furman seems unable to grasp what it might actually mean to take second place to another person – and yet, that’s what’s expected of mothers every day. Furman seems unaware that, for every male parent experience he describes, there is a corresponding female parent, too. He describes – in a tone of high moral outrage – the mother who asked her partner to stay out of the bedroom, as ‘the baby can’t sleep when you’re here’. Yes, terrible. An awful expulsion for a grown man, and no doubt a bit of a sting to feel you can’t even soothe your own baby to sleep. But, at the same time, that’s a story of a woman who is doing the entire night on her own with a baby, a woman whose partner gets a full night’s sleep. Why doesn’t the baby settle when the dad is there? It’s simply not explored. The crucial thing is that dad didn’t get to be in the marital bed. Another man, we’re told ‘took to sleeping in the office to avoid going home’. The poor dear. What a selfish wife he must have had, who was doing round-the-clock care for a baby while her husband chose to absent himself. Another again, ‘closed the door on his life and began again’. Those heroic dads, beginning again.

This article isn’t entirely wrong in its diagnosis of a societal problem with masculinity and fatherhood, nor is it wrong to suspect that we communicate better and more frequently with the parent who gives birth. But its author writes as if he believes that the solution to men who leave their wives to do the lion’s share of childcare, who get drunk and violent, who physically absent themselves from their babies’ homes, is … more emotional support for men. It’s hard not to notice that the healing skills Furman demands are skills typically stereotyped as womanly: listening, empathising, talking. Sure, they’re outsourced (in his case) to a therapist (because, it seems it would be practically unmanly to talk to your own father when he offers). But they’re the skills Furman’s wife – exhausted, overcome – can’t seem to muster up. And, like many a middle-class woman seeking out a cleaning lady to stave off endless battles over which full-time-worker parent should hoover, Furman’s wife sought out a therapist for him. She researched the options, she narrowed down the candidates, she even wrote down the number for him. Furman acknowledges his wife’s exhaustion. But, he suggests, this was only a problem so long as she failed to perform the wifework of empathy and listening, and the lasting issue he identifies is not her unaddressed exhaustion, but his mitigated ‘resentment’.

More on John Rykener

After I finished writing my recent post about a Guardian review of Ackroyd’s new book Queer City, I found myself still turning over thoughts about one of the figures Ackroyd signally misinterprets, the person named in fourteenth century court records as John Rykener.

Rykener’s case (the details of which are available in this link) is one I’ve often used as a teaching example, in varied contexts. It works alongside Piers Plowman, a real-life example of the verbose and bizarre legal material Langland interpolates into his fictionalised London. It works alongside much earlier romances such as Silence or Yde and Olive, which interrogate questions of gender, nature, nurture, and sexual attraction. It works, above all, to remind students new to medieval literature and culture that there is no such thing as ‘the medieval mindset,’ that cherished concept that allows us to hive off medieval writers, thinkers and readers as somehow ‘other’ than ourselves, more homogeneous, and less worth seeing as individuals. Students new to academic study will often reach for ‘the medieval mindset’ (or, my colleagues tell me, ‘the Renaissance mindset,’ or whatever) because it sounds like a grand, self-assured phrase. Rykener’s case helps to demonstrate just how hollow the concept is, because in the space of a few dense lines of legalistic prose, it depicts several vivid – and different – points of view. Reading the case with care and attention, it’s near-impossible to maintain any fixed claims about ‘the medieval mindset’ regarding sex, sexuality, gender, propriety, or any combination thereof.

The court records – written in Latin, not Middle English – suggest some of this complexity, for much of their interest lies in the fact that Latin, unlike Middle (or modern) English, is an inflected language, a language in which gender is rooted into the grammar. In the book I’m writing at the moment, I look at some of the medieval writers who theorised about what this gendered grammar signified. Did it reflect some ‘natural’ order in the universe? Could disruptions to the ‘natural’ order of sexual interaction between dominant, aggressive men and passive, receptive women also throw the ordered structure of language itself into disarray? And if so, how might sexual transgressions threaten the very fabric of the universe, created as it was from the ‘word’ of God?

These questions linger beneath the Latin of Rykener’s account, and take on new significance as we read the medieval scribe struggling to know which pronouns to use for his strange subject. The account is worth thinking about in detail. We begin with the sonorous, formal opening (which I quote in modern English):

On 11 December, 18 Richard 11. were brought in the presence of John Fressh, Mayor. and the Aldermen ofthe City of London John Britby of the county of York and John Rykener., calling [himself] Eleanor, having been detected in women’s clothing, who were found last Sunday night between the hours of 8 and 9 by certain officials of the, city lying by a certain stall in Soper’s Lane” committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice. In a separate examination held before the Mayor and Aldermen about the occurrence, John Britby confessed that he was passing through the high road of Cheap on Sunday between the abovementioned hours and accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her.

This passage avails itself of plenty of legal jargon and nicely euphemistic phrases, but it fairly breathes its fascination with the scandal of ‘that detestable unmentionable and ignominius vice … [that] libidinous act’. There’s a sense of the personality of the scribe him (almost certainly him) self here, as his pen runs away with his adjectives. Meanwhile, poor John Britby, the second participant in Rykener’s sexual activities, is named not once but multiple times, identified by his place of birth as well as his name, his nose rubbed thoroughly through the muck of a public record of wrongdoing. As Jeremy Golberg convincingly argues, such a detailed and sensational court record suggests further certain glee on the part of the scribe as he exposes a seemingly respectable man brought low.

As the account continues, details of Rykener’s dealings emerge, which make clear that this is no simple case of an isolated incident in a lonely back alley. Several scholars, including Ruth Evans and Jeremy Goldberg, have concentrated on the text’s preoccupation with mercantile interactions and with dishonesty, and Rykener’s reported account of his affairs boasts proudly of the confidence tricks he and the women of his acquaintance perpetrated:

a certain Elizabeth Brouderer first dressed him in women’s clothing; she also brought her daughter Alice to diverse men for the sake of lust, placing her with those men in their beds at night without light, making her leave early in the morning and showing them the said John Rykener dressed up in women’s clothing, calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her.

Interpreting this con relies upon knowledge of the legal penalties for sodomy – understood, in medieval law, as a much wider category than we might think, but certainly including amongst its most serious manifestations sex acts between two men. Perhaps Brouderer and Rykener expected the men in question to see through Rykener’s feminine clothing and to pay up for fear of being exposed as having committed a crime more serious than the ‘mere’ fornication they had in fact carried out with young Alice Brouderer. Or, perhaps Alice’s role was to decoy clients to Rykener, exploiting her greater experience or aptitude in that capacity. But the tell-tale mention of the darkness of the rooms in which Alice encountered the men, and into which Rykener was substituted, makes me suspect the former.

Many studies of the Rykener case stop here, or continue only to shed light on the (fascinating and unpleasant) character of Elizabeth Brouderer, whose name appears elsewhere in the court records, associated with trafficking of women for the sex trade. But the women in the Rykener case seem to me as interesting as the men. What are we to make of the role Alice Brouderer played – a role apparently cooked up by her own mother and her mother’s accomplice? What about ‘Anna, a whore,’ who taught Rykener to have sex ‘as a woman’? What about the many women who suddenly press into Rykener’s account in the last lines, as (apparently eager) sexual conquests of Rykener in his masculine dress?

The crucial issue, for me, is the interesting fact that Rykener never claims to have had sex with women while dressing as a woman (though this is a persistent misreading of the case). Were the sexual tastes of the women of late medieval London distinctly different from those of the men, who seemed to accept, be taken in by, or enjoy, Rykener’s appearance ‘as a woman’? Was Rykener himself imposing some kind of distinction between his activities (a distinction underlined by the fact that all the sex with men appears to have had financial motive, whereas the sex with women seems to have been unpaid)? Or – and this is my favourite reading – are these final details of Rykener’s multiple sexual conquests simply included to add insult to injury in the gleeful account of the tricking of multiple men? After all, Rykener’s account boasts, many men were caught out by Rykener and Brouderer – with Britby only the latest – but the women seem all to have been in on the game.

How much of the Rykener accounts are fact, and how much fiction, we will never know. Students of mine often want to inject certainty into the matter, to claim Rykener as a ‘gay man’ or ‘trans woman’ (interestingly, I’ve far less often seen Rykener claimed as bisexual). It’s tempting – but, I think, misguided – to read the incident as a story of sex workers’ habits accepted and only minimally censured by the authorities (misguided, because we’ve no idea what happened to Rykener, and other court records indicate that pessimism would be a sensible position to take). We’d like to think we can impose modern categories onto the past, that we can start talking not about what Rykener did, said, or wore, but about how Rykener ‘identified’. But this is to flatten out historical specificity, to return to an approach to history as one-dimensional as the presumption that we can identify a ‘medieval mindset’. All I think we can do, is to trace out the currents of differing response to Rykener (or perhaps to the fiction of Rykener). We can look at the ways in which the different men – honourable Yorkshiremen; lascivious friars, suspicious ‘foreign men’ – are depicted as sexual partners. We can look at the various depictions of women, from the seasoned deceiver Elizabeth Brouderer to her seemingly pliable daughter Alice, to the ‘Joan, daughter of John Matthew’ who had sex with Rykener while he was dressed as a man. What emerges from the trial records is not an early snapshot of ‘queer’ London, offering an image of modern-looking people in old-fashioned clothes. It’s something much less stable and static: a sense of the diversity of desires and demands, pressures and expectations, criss-crossing medieval London’s written representation of its own scandalous side.

Ackroyd’s Queer City and the ‘Natural’ Performance of Femininity

A review of Peter Ackroyd’s new book, a history of London’s gay history ranging over an expansive 2000 years and titled Queer City, popped up in the Guardian today, and I read it. Andrew Dickson, the reviewer, makes the determinedly impersonal Ackroyd as much the subject of the review as the book itself, making one suspect that the biography of the man would be rather more interesting that of the city – and perhaps rather less prone to winsome ahistorical speculations.

But what interests me in the review (and the review, not the book itself) is the claim, mid-flow, that ‘unlike many chroniclers of gay culture, Ackroyd doesn’t neglect lesbianism’ (“the theory or the practice, sir?”). The details advanced in supporting evidence were delightfully familiar and expected, and especially so to me, as I read this review fresh from thinking about medieval men’s writings about female same-sex desire. We are told of Georgian dildo-selling shops, the account salaciously hedged about with the trappings of oral culture (‘it is said …’), and we’re reminded of ‘cigarillo smoke-filled Edwardian clubs’. These two anecdotes alone seem to be considered sufficient lip service (have I punned enough?) to the idea of a ‘queer’ city whose population extends beyond men. But they’re almost parodically predictable: the first a practice glossed as recognisably ‘lesbian’ because it uses a prosthetic implement resembling a male body part; the other a community tacitly depicted as such because it overtly resembles the stereotypical smoke-filled masculine equivalent. And these same exact characteristics – lesbianism as a practice dependent on a masculine prosthetic; lesbianism as imitation of masculinity – are also what male medieval writers devoted their energies to speculating about.

It could be that there’s simply nothing new under the sun: Ackroyd’s reviewer, Andrew Dickson, is unwittingly participating in a centuries-long trend of viewing lesbianism as masculinity manqué. But Ackroyd himself is credited with a telling quotation relating to one of the most-hyped medieval characters of the ‘queer city,’ the cross-dressing prostitute Rykener:

‘Rykener called himself Eleanor, and dressed in women’s clothing. He would sometimes be a male for males, sometimes a female for males, sometimes a female for females … He enacted all these roles quite naturally, and was never thought of as being particularly adventurous.’

The details of Rykener’s case have been chewed over plenty of times by scholars from Ruth Karras and David Boyd to Carolyn Dinshaw to Jeremy Goldberg. They’re found in court records (not, as has been pointed out, quite the unbiased source of information we might imagine), which report Rykener’s own account of his career. Ackroyd rather reads into the account, which quite insistently specifies when Rykener acted ‘as a woman’ (invariably, when conning men or prostituting himself to them) and when he acted ‘as a man’ (when sleeping with women – not, so it would seem, for financial gain). There is no implication that Rykener took on his female dress and persona during sexual interactions with women, but rather that various women already participating in the sex trade were well aware of his habits, and helped in pull off his lucrative deceptions.

But what’s telling is Ackroyd’s careful gloss of the behaviour – which, in the Latin, is described with lingering voyeuristic detail – as something Rykener ‘enacted … quite naturally’. To invoke ‘nature’ is a well-worn polemical gesture, of course, and a gesture that often goes unquestioned in modern LGBT activism. To argue that a fourteenth-century prostitute slipped between gender roles and sexual orientations ‘naturally’ is to mingle justifications of history with the justifications of biology. But it doesn’t wash. Rykener’s accusers don’t characterise his actions as natural or unnatural, but more to the point, Rykener’s own account contradicts Ackroyd’s reading. Rykener, we are told:

‘swore …  that a certain Anna, the whore of a former servant of Sir Thomas Blount, first taught him to practice this detestable vice in the manner of a woman. [He] further said that a certain Elizabeth Brouderer first dressed him in women’s clothing …’

The practices of dressing and acting like a woman, and of performing whatever euphemised sex act is intended by the phrase ‘this detestable vice’ (and much ink has been spilled on the question), come not from nature but from careful study and teaching. Specific women helped in the process, each experts in her trade: Anna, a ‘whore,’ and Elizabeth, whose surname ‘Brouderer’ denotes her profession of embroiderer or seamstress. Rykener’s citation of these women’s names may partly be an attempt to spread blame (Elizabeth Brouderer crops up elsewhere in the London court records, and her name might easily have elicited knowing nods from an audience). But it’s also a subtle way of reminding that audience of the artificiality of the performance of femininity. Rykener needed to learn to dress and act like a woman; he may have fooled men, but the women who worked with him were under no illusions whatsoever.

It’s perfectly fair (in my view) for Ackroyd to take a cheerfully magpie-like approach to the ‘queer’ history of London, and fair, too, to put his own spin on the historical records (as plenty of others have before and will again). That’s popular history, and you read it at your own risk. But, in attempting to naturalise ‘queer’ London, Ackroyd instead erases all traces of artificiality from the performance of femininity, naturalising a very different type of gender politics, in which women’s awareness of things men do not notice is simply overlooked.

A Quick Note on Moderation

Just a note to explain the way I (haphazardly) moderate this blog. Dead boring, but it seems it’d be useful to have this written somewhere.

All sorts of people comment on my blog. I try to respond to everyone (though I sometimes miss comments, because once you click ‘approve’ on one comment, WordPress automatically sends all subsequent comments through the filter, which is nice because it means regular readers can post in real time without waiting for me to send their comments through).

If I get comments that are obviously spam, or strings of obscenities/death threats/etc., I delete them. Unless they tickle my slightly dark sense of humour, or are useful in demonstrating the kind of idiots who write this stuff. It’s a bit hit and miss.

I also leave in comments I don’t personally agree with, including those I think are pretty offensive. I tend to think ignoring die-hard bigots is the best way. But I don’t automatically delete, as I do with plain-out spewing of swear words. Partly this is because I don’t feel comfortable setting myself up as Grand Arbiter of Bigotry, partly it’s because I spend a fair bit of my day job agonising over when to pull someone up on what they say or claim, and partly because it could take a very long time to get into a proper, considered argument. And I don’t always have that time.

So, there you go. It’s not a perfect policy and I might very well change how I do things in the future, but for now, that is what you can expect if you are reading my stuff.

Note on Copyright, Sharing, Etc.

I’m just writing this so I can link back to it.

I hope you’re enjoying reading what I’m writing. I mostly write to test out ideas (or, you know, to rant). If you’d like to share links, I will love you. Go for it!

If you would like to reblog my posts, please get in touch. I’ll probably say yes, and don’t worry if you disagree with me on some things – I’ll assume that giving you permission to reblog doesn’t indicate anything about whether or not we agree.

The flip side of this is: this isn’t a blog written with academic reading lists. I try to credit people who’ve had a big impact on my thinking, but it’d take hours to list everything you might want to read on medieval literature/history. If you want to know more, ask me, and I’ll try to reply.

“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.