Women writers

Women’s voices in the medieval period

Drawing on examples from Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich and Christine de Pizan, Mary Wellesley considers the experiences of women as writers and producers of texts in the medieval period, and reflects on the survival of their works.

In the 7th century (probably between 675 and 680), Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, composed a treatise in praise of virginity, De Virginitate, which was written for Abbess Hildelith and her nuns at Barking Abbey. The prologue of the treatise is an address to the abbess and her community, framed as a reply to the letters which he had received from her. In it he describes how:

Some time ago, while proceeding to an episcopal convention… I received most pleasurably what had been written by your Grace to my humble self and, with my hands extended to the heavens, I took care joyously to extend immense thanks to God on behalf of your welfare. In your writing not only were the ecclesiastical compacts of [your] sworn vows – which you had pledged with a solemn promise – abundantly clear, but also the mellifluous studies of Holy Scriptures were manifest in the extremely subtle sequence of your discourse.[1]

Aldhelm’s prose style might seem a little ridiculous today, laden as it is with adjectives, but the key point is that he is evidently impressed by the nuns’ learning. Later on, he praises the ‘rich verbal eloquence and the innocent expression of sophistication’ which he finds in the letters.

Drawing of nuns at a procession to mass, from a collection of moral tracts

Cistercian nuns

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Reading Aldhelm’s words today, however, we may be struck by a sense of poignancy. The letters of these nuns, which he describes as ‘roaming widely through the flowering fields of Scripture’ and ‘scrutinising with careful application the hidden mysteries of the ancient laws’, have – tragically – been lost. As modern readers, we are only seeing one side of a conversation, probably because Aldhelm’s correspondents were women. Unfortunately, in the medieval period (and after) the production and dissemination of texts – literary or otherwise – was largely controlled by men, which is one reason why so few texts by women from this period survive.

Aldhelm's Riddles

Riddles of Aldhelm

As well as De Virginitate, Aldhelm wrote a popular set of Latin riddles.

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Women as scribes

It would be wrong to think, however, that women were not copying texts in the medieval period. In around 735 – at about the same time that Aldhelm addressed his De Virginitate to Hildelith and her community – St Boniface (672x5?–754) wrote a letter to Eadburga, who was the abbess of Thanet. In the letter he requests:

I beg you further to add to what you have done already by making a copy in gold of the Epistles of my master, St Paul the Apostle, to impress honour and reverence for the Sacred Scriptures visibly upon the carnally minded to whom I preach. I desire to have ever present before me the words of him who is my guide upon my road. I am sending by the priest Eoban the materials for your writing.

It is clear that this manuscript was intended to be an important, high-status document and it is telling that Boniface requests that it be made in Eadburga’s scriptorium (the room where manuscripts were copied). The letter shows that not only did women possess the skills to copy texts, but that sometimes their work was prized. The British Library contains several early manuscripts which were copied by women, and others survive elsewhere.

‘Just because I am a woman’: Women striving to be heard

Clearly, however, women’s work was not usually valued enough to be preserved and widely disseminated. Some seven centuries after Aldhelm, in the late 14th-century, the anchoress and mystic, Julian of Norwich asked:

Just because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I must not tell you about the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time both his goodness and his wish that it should be known?[2]

The Short Text of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love

Revelations of Julian of Norwich

Julian’s powerful words can here be seen in the section with red left-hand margin flourishing, above the blue initial.

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Julian, who wrote the first work in English which we can be sure was authored by a woman, was expressing an idea that was also articulated by another female writer of the same period. The early 15th-century Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, a poet at the court of Charles VI of France, contains a speech by Lady Reason (one of three personified virtues who appear to the narrator in the poem’s opening passages) in which she says:

Should I also tell you whether a woman’s nature is clever and quick enough to learn speculative sciences as well as to discover them, and likewise the manual arts? I assure you that women are equally well-suited and skilled to carry them out and to put them to sophisticated use once they have learned them.[3]

The Book of the City of Ladies

Book of the City of Ladies

Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies is an early feminist masterpiece.

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The Book of the City of Ladies

Book of the City of Ladies

This manuscript contains a portrait of Christine de Pizan, writing alone in her study.

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Both writers were, in different ways, addressing the structural inequality which made writing so difficult for women in the medieval period. As Julian articulates, it was often impossible for women to be given a voice, despite the fact that – as Lady Reason notes, and Aldhelm makes clear – they were no less capable than men at communicating their ideas. Despite the obstacles, some women – often brave, tenacious and gifted – did manage to find a voice, but it is often a voice shrouded in mystery.

One such mysterious voice is found in an anonymous Latin poem contained in a 12th-century manuscript (Add MS 24199). The poem seems to have been written by a woman – its penultimate line contains a word with a feminine ending, suggesting that the narrator is female. Of course, we cannot be sure that the author was also female, but the sentiments expressed in the poem read like those of a marginalised female writer. The narrator writes:

No poems now please our leaders.
I am indicted [formally charged with a crime], but in fact for what foregoing misdeed?
If you want to know art is my crime, and genius.
My lofty writing gave birth to my great crime.
Clio – faithful companion, we are driven out, leave![4]

The reference to Clio, the muse of history, is one of several learned classical allusions made by the author. Although we do not know who wrote this poem, it was clearly a well-educated person, perhaps a nun. Constant J Mews has suggested that the author may have been Héloïse, a 12th century French nun who had an ill-fated love affair with a philosopher and theologian named Peter Abelard.

The Legend of Good Women

The Legend of Good Women

In the Legend of Good Women Chaucer seeks to present women in a favourable light, after being accused of treating them unfairly in his previous works.

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Usage terms The printed text is Public Domain. The handwritten manuscript text is Public Domain in most countries other than the UK

The anonymous poem, possibly by Héloïse, touches up against a major problem which we encounter when we are examining the history of women’s writing in the Middle Ages. As so much of medieval literature is anonymous, perhaps more of it than we realise was authored by women. When we open a book today, we are probably greeted with a title page containing an author’s name, a work’s title and a publisher. Medieval manuscripts often did not contain such information at the start of a text. (Of the 17 manuscripts and fragments of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, for example, only two of them name him as the author of the work.) Unless authors embedded their names within the text, the nature of manuscript transmission can mean that we have no idea who wrote a particular work. In addition to this, given the challenges faced by women in producing a literary work, it is probable that some female authors simply chose anonymity and their names and stories will never be recovered.

The Lays and Fables of Marie de France

The Lays and Fables of Marie de France

The 12th-century Anglo-Norman poet, Marie de France, did embed her name in some of the texts of her work, but gave few clues as to her identity.

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Survival

It is clear that women faced structural inequality which prevented their works from being copied and disseminated. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the survival of some of the most important female writers of the medieval period was ensured by the women who came after them. The earliest copies of the ‘Long Text’ of The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (1342–c. 1416) were created by exiled nuns in France and Belgium in the 17th century. The ‘Long Text’ was the culmination of 20 years of Julian’s revision and meditation on the visions which she experienced as she lay on her deathbed in 1373. Without the energies of these later female scribes, this vital text might have been lost. And, in the 20th century, it was a woman named Grace Warrack who produced the first modern edition of Julian’s works.

The Long Text of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love

Julian of Norwich Long Text

The earliest manuscript of the 'Long Text' appears to have been copied by Anne Clementine Cary, a Benedictine nun living in exile from England, who died in 1671. The manuscript you can see here was probably made in around 1675.

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The story of the 15th-century Book of Margery Kempe reminds us how precious these manuscripts are – and how easily they might have been lost. Margery Kempe (b. c. 1373, d. in or after 1438) was a middle-class woman from Lynn in Norfolk. After the difficult birth of the first of her 14 children, she had a vision of Jesus – the first of many such visions. Later in her life she decided to devote herself to God and became a ‘vowess’, taking vows of chastity. Thereafter she travelled widely and often faced fear and hostility. She was accused of being a heretic on several occasions.

In the 1430s, she decided that she would like to record her experiences, but was unable to do so as she was illiterate. Instead, she wrote through dictation. She made at least four attempts to get what became her Book written down – three different male scribes were engaged at different times to transcribe her verbal account of her life. The work was finally completed in 1438.

The Book of Margery Kempe

The Book of Margery Kempe

The Book of Margery Kempe was discovered by chance in 1934 by people looking for ping-pong balls.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Until 1934, the only known version of Margery’s work was a drastically shortened extract printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501. In this print version Margery’s experiences have been heavily edited. Whereas in the manuscript version, Margery is a larger-than-life character, who roars and wails and boisterously communicates her devotion, in de Worde’s edition, she is a listener and not a speaker. The text has a quieter and more contemplative mood, with a focus on Margery’s experiences in the 1420s which thereby removes the descriptions of her pilgrimages or harassment as a supposed heretic.

Early printed extracts of Margery Kempe's Book

Early printed extracts of Margery Kempe's 'Book'

Henry Pepwell’s edition of Margery Kempe’s Book reframes Margery’s experiences.

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If it had not been for the chance discovery of the manuscript of Margery Kempe’s Book, our only access to her account would have been one that was drastically altered (most probably by a man). In this way, the work is a metaphor for the way in which women’s experiences have so often been cut down, manipulated and controlled by men throughout history. Today, as a result of the efforts of feminist scholars, the works of these extraordinary women are finally being given the attention they deserve. Perhaps in the future more hitherto unknown texts by anonymous authors will be identified as the work of women, or new manuscripts will be found by people searching for ping-pong balls, as Kempe’s Book was in 1934.


Footnotes

[1] Aldhelm, The Prose Works, ed. and trans. by Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren (Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 1979, repr. 2009), p. 59.

[2] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (London: Penguin, 1998), p. xviii. This section is from the end of Chapter 6 in the ‘Short Text’.

[3] Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. by E J Richards (New York: Persea Press, 1982), pp. 83–84.

[4] Constant J Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Héloïse and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France (New York: Palgrave, 1999, repr. 2008), p. 165.

[5] Alexandra Gillespie, Print Culture and the Medieval Author: Chaucer, Lydgate, and Their Books 1473–1557 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 35.

  • Mary Wellesley
  • Dr Mary Wellesley did her undergraduate degree in English Literature at Lincoln College, Oxford before moving to University College London to pursue post-graduate research. Her doctoral thesis examined the manuscripts of the Life of Our Lady by the Benedictine monk and poet, John Lydgate (c. 1370–1450).

    She has published book chapters and articles on aspects of medieval literature and manuscript study, and co-edited Stasis in the Medieval West: Questioning Change and Continuity for Palgrave in 2017. Alongside her academic work, Mary also writes and reviews for non-academic publications. Her work has appeared in Apollo, The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Literary Review, The London Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement, amongst others.

    In 2017 Mary worked as the writer and researcher for Discovering Literature: Medieval.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.