Henrietta Leyser considers the problems and attitudes fundamental to every woman of the time: medieval views on sex, marriage and motherhood; the world of work and the experience of widowhood for peasant, townswoman and aristocrat. The intellectual and spiritual worlds of Medieval Women looks at a thousand years of English history, as it affected - and was made by - women.
The intellectual and spiritual worlds of women are also explored. Based on an abundance of research from the last twenty-five years, Medieval Women describes the diversity and vitality of English women's lives in the Middle Ages. Get A Copy. Paperback , 4th impression reissued in , pages. Published January by Phoenix Press first published More Details Original Title. Medieval Women Boxset , Women in England.
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Sort order. Apr 12, Jan-Maat added it Shelves: 20th-century , anglo-saxons , medieval-history , british-isles , non-fiction. You've climbed up through woodland to the summit of a hill. From there your companion points out below the flash of sunlight on a distant stream, a stretch of path emerging then disappearing among the trees, a corner of a glade. That was my experience of reading this book — the closest thing I've ever come across to a historical If on a Winter's Night a traveller. The chapters, bar one or two references, are not interlinked, you could read them as free-standing, well not as free-standing essays because the chapters plainly are not like essays — they pose no one question and come to no one answer.
It makes for a curious reading experience, like wandering through the bare bones of a very much longer book that hasn't yet been written. The reality of the book undermines the subtitle, there can't be a history — a narrative — of all women, covering a thousand years and more, even if one only considers England view spoiler [not that Leyser does that exclusively, St. Bridget of Sweden and her daughters fight their way in even if Joan of Arc doesn't hide spoiler ].
Perhaps that is a point that Leyser wanted to make. The downside of this is that if you asked me to recommend a book to learn about the lives of Anglo-Saxon aristocratic women, Female monasticism, peasant women, I could not recommend this one on it's own, Leyser eludes comprehensiveness. She shares insights, and at the paragraph level I read happily, but the abrupt changes of direction tired me, the prospect of the next chapter was a little wearying, so much so that Seierstad was able to grab me by the hand and drag me off to spend One Hundred and One Days in Baghdad with her in the middle of reading Leyser's book.
There, I became an adulterous reader. Leyser has many interesting things to say — on Anglo-Saxon politics being family politics view spoiler [a point I think we both learnt from Pauline Stafford's book Unification and Conquest hide spoiler ] the role of the English Queen — invariably non-English after they at once played the role of intermediary and intercessor with the king as well as the part of hated foreigner coming over here with a boat load of grasping, greedy, work-shy relatives, the difficulty of approaching female spirituality for instance we understand that women were excluded from the formal structures of the medieval church and churchmen could be at a complete loss as to what to do with a holy woman yet at the same time there were the Anchoresses, described as the anchors holding steady the ship of the church against the powers of evil.
I am, perhaps by nature and nurture both, strongly in agreement with Leyser's cautious reading of evidence. Looking at wills left by Anglo-Saxon women, she points out, we don't and can't know if they really express their wishes or what they had previously agreed with their husbands or families, likewise she stresses caution in making judgements of misogyny in medieval literature particularly when one work would denigrate women and the same author in their other work praise them, nor is it wise to take at face value Christine de Pisan view spoiler [Leyser doesn't restrict herself absolutely to considering England hide spoiler ] leaping in with her own response.
These are literary people engaged in a literary culture, a literary culture which was more about performance than private reading than today's, their writings may or may not reflect personal views they certainly represent an opportunity for them to show off their abilities. Among other interesting titbits since the home and the family were the basic labour unit, women are involved with craftwork of all kinds, and even though they had no guild status court cases show widows were expected to continue the training of apprentices or allow for the training to be continued.
There were virtually no tasks that were not undertaken by women in the countryside and in places joint tenancies for husbands and wives were normal, after the Black Death women only tenancies were not unusual — though Leyser mentions one lord who allowed women to only hold their tenures for a year before getting married — perhaps he thought that the promise of their broad acres and bushy copses would lure in yeomen to boost the numbers of his tenants. In marriage both parties were considered to be in debt to each other — both could agree to be celibate, but for one to withhold or be sexually incapable, were grounds the other could go to court over.
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In cases of alleged male impotence, wise women were appointed to observe the couple's attempt to copulate — this is graphically described in the court records view spoiler [ in a nice touch we are told that the wife warmed her hands at the fire before taking hold of her husband's penis and testicles, no lawyer in this case was to object that the iciness of her grasp rendered the test invalid and substantially unfair to his client hide spoiler ] - which no doubt if the root of the problem was performance anxiety was a great help.
What is clear is that Leyser is drawing on decades of research into court records, but these courts are often enough incomplete, or we lack other evidence to flesh out the picture of the people involved in the cases. The evidence itself works against a grand social history of medieval English women as much as it allows for an understanding of women's centrality in the ale business.
But then incompleteness of evidence was part of the medieval experience itself, as much as it is in how we experience our own lives. The penultimate chapter on religious experience shows us a church on the back foot when it comes to dealing with the enthusiasm of women for a more religious life. A priest, noticing Margery Kemp's famously excessive weeping and wailing during a church service, tells her to still her tears as Jesus died long ago, only for Margery to prompt upbraid him — all Christians should feel the passion of their saviour as if they were present at the cross themselves.
Here we are at the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy — Margery in the course of her wanderings was to be accused four times of being a Lollard. This is also typical of the reading experience — we are at the point at which Leyser could push her argument and discuss the role of women at leading religious change and make a wider point, but she doesn't, moving on to something else — something else interesting no doubt, but she consistently shies from conclusions.
So perhaps I will too. View all 19 comments. Jul 19, Amy rated it really liked it. The title's misleading: this is a collection of essays on various topics concerning medieval women. They are very interesting essays but hardly constitute a cohesive "history" of medieval women in the traditional sense. I recommend this book for scholars or serious amateurs but not for those who want an introductory popular-history type of source.
May 15, Lily rated it liked it Shelves: owned , class-and-society , non-fiction , history , academic-books. It was okay, and full of information, but honestly not that gripping. Nov 05, Karen Brooks rated it really liked it. This book is a much-needed addition to the growing body of non-fiction that seeks to fill the enormous gap in our understanding of women in history.
Where social history was once ignored in favour of power struggles, geographical conquest, religious upheaval, exploration and wars, the stories of mostly men, Leyser is an historian who turns to the role of women to understand social history and the people who lived it, in order to provide layers and depth to the broader landscape with which we This book is a much-needed addition to the growing body of non-fiction that seeks to fill the enormous gap in our understanding of women in history. Where social history was once ignored in favour of power struggles, geographical conquest, religious upheaval, exploration and wars, the stories of mostly men, Leyser is an historian who turns to the role of women to understand social history and the people who lived it, in order to provide layers and depth to the broader landscape with which we are already familiar.
Leyser does this by offering historical insights into the lives of medieval women from different walks of life - peasant, towns-woman, aristocrat, religious orders - and both confirms and challenges other historical understandings as well as contemporary preconceptions about the role of women in medieval, patriarchal society. For example, Leyser analyses other historians' work as well as source material from the era to demonstrate that women, in marriage, widowhood, spinsterhood and as daughters, sisters and mothers, played a more significant role and often undertook greater responsibilities than popular history may suggest.
Able and entrusted to manage businesses and lands in their husbands' absence mostly during wars and after their death, many women not only thrived in the Middle Ages, but earned respect and an independence that women today might envy.
Medieval women : a social history of women in England : - Ghent University Library
If they survived childbirth and outlived their husbands, some women opted or were maybe directed through a husband's will to remain unmarried, thus granting them control over their destiny. Others were able to go on to choose their future husbands, this time from a position of power as opposed to need or to advance their own or families' social standing. Obviously, the idea that persists, that medieval women were largely oppressed and at the mercy of men, still holds true for some eg. Those forced into religious orders, marriage etc.
The evidence is there and Leyser cautions readers in relying on generalizations to glean an understanding of women in this epoch, countering and yet supporting this notion with some fascinating case studies. Delving into contemporary records and extrapolating information, Leyser draws an interesting and relevant picture of women in the middle ages, acknowledging their diversity, abilities, restrictions religious, legal, sexual, gendered , freedoms and the way many women worked within these to lead fulfilling lives.
She doesn't shy away from exploring the limitations and misery some of these may also have caused, and touches on fears and anxieties of women of all classes as well , but is always cautious to remind readers that positing a notion and extracting a fact are very different things. While some readers have found the writing dry, I did not. I found the book easy to read; I also felt it achieved what it set out to do which was not to paint a complete portrait of women over this period Leyser admits this is impossible , but to offer insights and observations about women of different classes, education and from different households and represent aspects of specific lives and interests against a backdrop of political, social and religious upheaval.
Recommend for anyone with an interest in more than general history, and for those wanting to learn about the diversity of female roles and their impact on social history. A big sweep of history to tackle, and a very wide brief, so it is not surprising that the treatment is often general rather than particular.
One surprising factor to emerge is how medieval preachers used to lecture women regularly on how to handle and even feed their babies - they were particularly hostile to mothers taking a child into bed with them, apparently fearing that it would suffocate. Female labour was less rare than we might think, and women were not necessarily paid less than men, though often they were.
Female monasticism is investigated in some detail, showing that women who wanted to be anchoresses that is to say, live the rest of their lives in cells or hermitages had to undergo an arduous selection process. All in all, the Middle Ages are not easy to come to terms with from our modernist distance.
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