In an online discussion group recently, I was told that women did not play “significant” roles in the past. That’s a pretty sweeping statement. It’s also a fairly reductive one. Part of the problem is that the women of previous centuries are often invisible beside their menfolk; the further you go back, the less their voices can be heard. Beside the tiny percentage who repeatedly feature in BBC documentaries or whose status ensured their names survived, many women went unrecorded in the official male-authored documentation of their day. However, this does not mean they were not there or that they were unimportant. Men have not existed in a vacuum for centuries and as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, as well as in the independent positions tolerated by religion and business, female experiences can present us with an alternative narrative that is relevant and fascinating. In fact, the majority of women spent their days facilitating those whom history has deemed to be important. That in itself is a significant achievement.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking a “Feminist” approach. I was also informed in this group that Feminist History, bracketed along with Marxism, was considered passé in academia. I quite accept this may be the case. But then, I don’t feel that such emotive labels are always helpful and have found the semantics of nomenclature to frequently obscure the real questions. So I stay away from it. I’d rather spend my time discussing medieval women, because that is what interests me. And that’s the bottom line; I find the lives of women in the past fascinating, perhaps because I am a historian who also happens to be a woman. Quite a few other women I’ve spoken to also enjoy it as well as a number of men. At the moment, there even seems to be quite a buoyant market for biographies and female studies, like Sarah Gristwood’s “Blood Sisters” and Helen Castor’s “She Wolves,” recently the subject of a BBC documentary. Yet it was only really in the twentieth century that historical narratives embraced women, children, ethnic groups and others who had hitherto languished in the margins. It’s a comparatively new discipline, with centuries of balance to redress. Rather than being obsolete, women’s history is still in its infancy.
In spite of this plethora of books to suggest the contrary, women’s history is not a topic that interests everyone. But insignificant? That would be to write off half of our history. And how exactly would the human race have continued without women? Equally, it is just as reductive to pretend they had an influence beyond that determined by their sphere; we can’t rewrite history to pander to modern sensibilities but it would be wrong to underestimate the intelligence, ambition and abilities of the wives, mothers and daughters of the past. Personally, I love the minutae of women’s daily lives, the details of their routines, the decisions and dangers they faced, the balance of spiritual and bodily experiences, at all ages and stages of life. Because they did have lives and that in itself makes them significant. I bet those lives were significant to them, too.
This question goes hand-in-hand with attitudes towards women’s work. If they were not sitting in Parliament, training as lawyers or doctors, hunting the hart, jousting or fighting in battle or writing great works of literature, what were medieval females doing? It’s the age-old prejudice about the validity of childrearing and domesticity again; someone had to wash the medieval dishes (or rub them with sand.) Someone had to cook and clean, milk the cow and make the clothes. One sermon of 1470 advised wives that without their help, men their husbands would sleep “in a pit,” with the “sheets never changed until they are torn.” They should also pick up the melon rinds, bones and salad peelings which he dropped on the floor and wash his feet.
I’m not suggesting that men didn’t do these things, only that historically, labour was largely divided along these lines. Illuminated manuscripts do also depict rare images of women acting as stonemasons, artists, doctors, teachers, hunters and engaged in trade. Who is to judge that their contributions were of any greater significance than that of a mother, or that the application of the mind helped shape the past more decisively than the creation of a new life? Traditionally, the maternal and domestic roles have been dismissed by many scholars as not of interest or worthy of study. Yet we only need to look at the lives of Henry VIII’s wives to see how important female fertility and pregnancy were to the nation and its King.
No woman was more significant that the medieval queen. Even the extent of their power is disputable though, as they were more often a symbolic, ceremonial head of state rather that an active player in politics. Medieval literature has much to say about queenship as the accessible, charitable and pacific counter to their warlike king. Christine de Pisan’s works are full of the desirable qualities to which women in power should aspire, such as piety and discretion. If Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Wydeville had not deviated from this “ideal” regal role, they would not have attracted so much contemporary censure. Whilst Isabella and Eleanor openly rebelled against their husbands and Margaret raised armies in the name of Henry VI, Elizabeth’s role was more subtle. Her hold over Edward IV led to accusations of the country being run through “pillow-talk” and sexual favours. No doubt she did exert an influence on her husband behind the scenes, as did many women, but this was because there was not a valid arena for them to do so publicly. When they did try to exert themselves to protect their dynasty or the inheritance of their children, they were accused of being manly, warlike and unnatural.
So what exactly did a medieval woman have to do to be “significant”? It seems she has to feature somewhere on a scale of male achievement or be recorded in literature dominated by men. And for a twenty-first century historian, isn’t that a rather anachronistic way of looking at their lives? I’m not claiming they had super powers or ascribing to them any abilities or influence they did not have. But that in itself is interesting to me, the study of how women existed and managed their lives within such restrictive perimeters. Wonderful examples crop up in legal records of vociferous females speaking their minds, such as the woman in 1503 who called a statue of the Virgin Mary a “burned-tailed imp” or the Canterbury girl who claimed she could produce “piss” that was better than the Cathedral’s holy water. These flashes indicate a significant spirit and bravery. Set beside those Protestant women who were publicly martyred during the reign of Mary I, there are the thousands who were recorded for recusancy, for failing to attend church under Elizabeth I. Perhaps this was out of laziness, or exhaustion; perhaps they were ill or nursing children. Or just perhaps it was a silent protest against religious reforms.
I like my history to be inclusive. But there is a lot of it and my time is finite, so I chose to specialise. I am interested in women in particular but also in men’s lives, actions, motivation and experiences in the past; in fact, I don’t think we can divorce the two. The symbiotic relationship of the sexes means that women’s roles can never have been insignificant. They have been essential in the lives of men whose actions have been taken to form the backbone of a narrative stretching back for centuries. Yet there are other narratives to be told, alternative stories that prioritise the voiceless. “Feminism” as a term is still evolving; recent books by Natasha Walter and Ariel Levy, Naomi Woolf and Laurie Penny document its latest phase. It does not mean now what it did in the 1920s, the 60s, the 80s or perhaps even as late as the millennium. As a historical tool, it may well be a jaded, unhelpful diversion, conjuring up the images of extremism which have placed vocal modern journalists on the receiving end of trolling activities. Yet the study of women’s history is as significant as the study of women’s lives today. Women’s history will only become passé when women do.