‘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


Lady Truth and the Author: Female Networking in Medieval Manuscripts

I’ve spent a lot of time so far looking at medieval images and texts – and records – that show how medieval misogyny shaped women’s lives, and how modern attitudes towards women’s bodies and women’s testimonies are embedded in this long history. There are more positive stories. I’ve suggested that Jeanne de Montbaston, the artist who produced the subversive and witty pictorial responses to the misogyny of the Romance of the Rose as she illustrated it, is one example. So, to find more, I went to look at more medieval artists and their work.

In medieval literature, virtues such as truth, wisdom and reason are often personified, and when they are, they are almost invariably pictured as women: Lady Truth, Lady Reason, gracious figures who act as teachers and guides.


In this image, for example, the author Boethius is pictured kneeling humbly before the crowned figure of Lady Philosophy, who offers him wings.

This isn’t so strikingly woman-friendly as it first appears. Images like this give women the appearance of status, but only the appearance. In effect, despite the humble postures of the male authors, the message is that these men have personified virtues – Truth, Wisdom, Philosophy – dancing attendance on them as they busy themselves with the important work of creating literature. Typically, the conversation follows the conventions of a romance – the male author treating his lady as a lover and trying to please her.

Here’s an image of Jean de Meun, author of the Romance of the Rose, looking suitably engrossed in his writing as his lady stands by with books for inspiration.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Fr. 1728

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Fr. 1728. I like to imagine Jean is thinking ‘darn, why can’t real women be more like the ones in my head?!’

When a male writer or artist gives us a female ‘Lady Truth’, she’s as much a product of his mind as Eve was the product of Adam’s rib. In both cases, we’re seeing an idealized female, and hearing her speak voiced by the male author of the text. This convention is a means for authors and artists to translate a man’s internal monologue into a dialogue charged with erotic connotations – and Dante’s beloved Beatrice is the supreme example.
 One woman writer set out to challenge this picture, and these stereotypes of male creativity and male-voiced female inspiration. Christine de Pizan’s energetic criticisms of sexist male writers – and of Jean de Meun (pictured above) in particular – are accompanied by cleverly polemical illustrations. In Christine’s manuscripts, these implicitly heteronormative dialogues are transformed into something else. The old image of the male author being guided by ‘Lady Truth’ is reversed. In the illustration below, Christine sits lecturing men – she’s actually represented as an academic, sitting in the typical high-backed chair that symbolised male lecturer’s authority over their students. The open book before her reminds us that she is a writer, too. She is both ‘Lady Truth’, the person dispensing advice, and she is the author.


However, although this image pictures Christine herself as dispenser of wisdom, the book also features an actual personification of Wisdom, like those in the books of her male peers.


This image shows Christine, sitting at her desk in the same blue dress, while Minerva (goddess of Wisdom) stands beside her, carrying her sword and shield of truth. In this, the image resembles those of male authors. But because Christine is female, her artists were able to draw on a whole new set of connotations that are not evoked by male author portraits. So here, Christine sitting at her desk with her books resembles none other than the Virgin Mary, who was always pictured sitting with her prayer books at the moment when the Angel Gabriel came to tell her she was to bear God’s son.


Christine’s book, then, takes the established iconography of the male author and enriches it with feminine imagery. In presenting two female figures – Minerva and Christine – the artist also moves away from the implicitly heteronormative, erotic imagery of creative genius. It is worth noting that both Minerva (born parthenogenetically from Zeus’s forehead) and the Virgin Mary are examples of non-sexual reproduction.

The imagery of female collaboration in Christine’s book is the product of real-life collaboration between women, and of Christine’s passionate advocacy of the credibility of women as more than the objects of male desire. Unlike Jean de Meun, whose female artist Jeanne de Montbaston is almost forgotten by history, Christine makes sure that her readers know who it was that created some of the most famous images of her. Christine stresses the skill and importance of women artists as serious professionals. Her preferred illustrator was a woman, whom she praises warmly.

“I know a woman today, named Anastasia, who is so learned and skilled in painting manuscript borders and miniature backgrounds that one cannot find an artisan in all the city of Paris – where the best in the world are found – who can surpass her, nor who can paint flowers and details as delicately as she does, nor whose work is more highly esteemed, no matter how rich or precious the book is. People cannot stop talking about her. And I know this from experience, for she has executed several things for me, which stand out among the ornamental borders of the great masters.”

(from The Book of The City of Ladies)

Christine’s praise is part of her case against contemporary misogyny, but it’s also concrete evidence of networks of female support and cooperation, even in the male-dominated context of bookmaking. The portraits of Christine gives her authority by picturing her as a compound of personified ‘Lady Wisdom’ and of the Virgin. Christine’s words returned the favour. In modern terms, Christine and Anastasia’s partnership – each promoting the other as a credible professional – is not dissimilar to our own networks of women supporting each other.

Did Christine and Anastasia know Jeanne de Montbaston, the often-overlooked fourth participant in this sprawling debate over male and female creativity? It’s possible. Although Jean de Meun died in 1305, his artist Jeanne and her husband were living and working in Paris at the end of the fourteenth century. Paris was a large city at the time, but guilds of artists were tightly controlled, and two female illuminators both living and working in the same place at around the same time may well have known each other, and each other’s work. Were Christine and Anastasia supportive of Jeanne? Amused by her part in shaping responses to the Romance of the Rose? Did she know of Christine’s work? We may never know.

I started writing this blog because a network of supportive women encouraged me. It was a baptism of fire, because I knew that if I didn’t push myself, I wouldn’t keep at it. So, for this past week, I’ve done seven posts in seven days. I couldn’t have done it without supportive networks, and I am very grateful to everyone who’s cheered me on or shown me how to make the blog better.

Thank you.

Update: I should stress that this post is partly speculative. We don’t know much about Anastasia, other than what Christine says, although we do know that Christine worked closely with her illuminators to produce her manuscripts.

I can’t help feeling there must be a novel about Anastasia, Jeanne, and late-medieval Paris for someone, though!

Jeanne de Montbaston – Penis Trees Against the Misogynists?

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526, f. 160r (Roman de la Rose, France 14th century)

The above image – a sheepish-looking monk handing an unfeasibly large penis to a disconcerted nun – may look familiar to anyone who’s read my first post in this blog.

It’s one of a sequence of illuminations made in the margins of a manuscript by the medieval artist Jeanne de Montbaston. Jeanne worked with her husband, Richard, in Rue Neuve in fourteenth-century Paris. She did the illustrations for a fairly large number of manuscripts, including dozens of copies of the popular Romance of the Rose. This poem is an allegorical reflection on love, but it is also justifiably famous as one of the most misogynistic books around, the subject of medieval author Christine de Pizan’s brilliant attack on male writers who treat women only as sex objects.

A short passage can illustrate what Christine meant. In the poem, the allegorical figure of ‘Genius’ (who is male) argues that all men should take advantage of women as sexual objects, and he compares the (male) act of writing with the act of penetration, while picturing women as passive, blank like an unwritten page. In a vicious rant, he declares:

“those who do not write with their ‘tools’ … on those beautiful, precious tablets Nature has made for them … should suffer the loss of their penis and testicles.”

The word Genius uses for ‘tool’ literally means both ‘pen’ and ‘penis’ – the pun is in the original French. This rant is primarily homophobic – or more precisely, it’s an argument against sodomy, since medieval people didn’t have the same sense of sexual orientation, rather than sexual activities, that we do now. It’s also, obviously, the speech of someone who really doesn’t think a great deal of women, and who thinks the activity of writing and the fact of having a penis are intrinsically related (if you think this sounds familiar, you’ll be pleased to know that V. S. Naipaul and dear David Gilmour, of Dickhead Detox fame, feel the same way).

Now, the question is, why would a woman artist – and one who was obviously pretty good – spend her time working on a book that puts forward such an unpleasant view of women?

I’ve heard it suggested that Jeanne was probably illiterate and that – because of this – she didn’t really know what she was illuminating and so popped in a silly story about nuns and penis trees instead of choosing a more suitable image based on the story itself.

I have a bit of a problem with this, not least because shedloads of medieval illuminators go off-piste in their choices of subject-matter and no-one suggests they’re all illiterate (though some of them surely were). But, more to the point, I think Jeanne’s illumination has quite an amusing relationship to the text and its messages.

On one level, of course, it seems to confirm what Jean de Meun says about women in general: we’re all about the cock, even the nuns. And the little pictorial narrative from which the image above comes concludes – predictably – with the monk and nun sleeping together. Though, honestly, they don’t look much happier about it than they did in the first picture!

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526, f. 111v (Roman de la Rose, France 14th century).

However, I think there’s a bit more to Jeanne’s illuminations than that. In modern culture, as in medieval society, women are all too often viewed as a set of body parts, dissected by the male gaze and by popular media into legs, and breasts, nipped-in waists and airbrushed smiles. In modern culture it’s rare to see male anatomy treated that way. In fact, naked penises cause far more consternation than naked breasts.

This wasn’t the case in medieval England, where dozens of illuminators enjoyed drawing pictures of cocks merrily surging along the margins of pages. But Jeanne’s image of a nun who calmly gathers a crop of penises into her basket is more pointed that most. Standing in the margins of a romance full of mansplaining about female desire and the superior creative powers of men, it’s as if Jeanne’s nun is saying: ‘well, if you have to have a penis to tell a good story … look how many have!’

BnF MS Fr. 25526

BnF MS Fr. 25526