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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John lists his bequests:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Yes, John. Of course he will.

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


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

Guibert de Nogent, Vampire Slayer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women Priests and Empty Gestures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Albans Psalter

St Albans Psalter

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

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

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

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

Such women:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m a little bit narked with that.