Centuries of Women

Although social bias, unconscious institutional sexism, and unabashed misogyny are far from dead, in the current era of history women are in a much more equitable position than they have been in earlier eras; as a culture, we aren’t there yet, but we can look back in time and see how far society has come. At the same time, it’s tempting to assume that this progress has been a straight line, a gradual increase in justice over time building up to an exponential spike from the 20th Century onward.

This is misleading. In her preface to Femina, her latest book, Janina Ramirez argues that whilst medieval Europe was hardly a bastion of feminism, the position of women in society actually regressed in the intervening time. Hardline moralists among the Protestants in the early Renaissance were intent on pushing women even further into the sidelines than they already were; subsequent centuries found high society relegating nice, classy ladies to effectively ornamental roles; 19th Century historians were much enamoured of the Great Man theory of the field, an approach which overlooked the vast majority of women (and, indeed, everyone else whose impact on the course of history was less than that of a Napoleon or an Augustus).

As Ramirez explains it, this means that the women of the medieval period have had to endure several waves of marginalisation. Firstly, there was the extent to which they were or were not marginalised in their own lifetimes; then, however, there were the subsequent eras reinterpreting the past through their own ideological lenses, lenses which would tend to exacerbate the effect. Ramirez named this book Femina after an annotation used in Reformation-era library catalogues compiled by censorious individuals assessing which books were worth keeping and which should be dispensed with as relics of an era of Catholic decadence; “Femina” designated a text as being by a woman, and would tend to be a point in favour of its removal.

Ramirez is not out to romanticise the medieval period here – but she also argues that there is a course correction needed in how we imagine them. We’re often quick to go to the most grimdark interpretation of them, without considering that this is in effect reiterating stale post-Reformation propagnada, framing the period as an age of barbarism to political ends. Yes, we should remember the inequalities of the time – but if we focus on them exclusively and don’t look at the women who thrived by either outright defying them or deftly navigating them, we limit ourselves to imagining a Middle Ages where only men mattered.

Femina, then, takes us on a journey through medieval Europe focused on women. Each chapter takes a snapshot of a different time period and locale through a consideration of one or more women hailing from there, and each of these women made their way in a different way of life from the others. There are political rulers, there are military leaders, there are revered mystics, there are obscure eccentrics, there are serfs and slaves and sex workers (one of whom may have been trans, at least in modern terms, since she appears to have lived as a woman and presented herself as such even in contexts where there was no particular profit in doing so), there are pilgrims, there are scientists, there are heretics, there are abbesses, there are merchants, and so on and so forth. Many of these women are several of these at once.

On another level, though, Femina is not just about reclaiming the role of women in medieval history and presenting a more rounded view of the medieval world than mud-daubed Hollywood movies offer these days. It’s also about presenting up-to-date views on how historical research actually works these days. Before kicking into the potted biographies offered here, Ramirez takes us closer to the modern day and tells the stories of how some of the crucial research underpinning the book was accomplished. For those who want to go deeper, the book is extensively provided with references in the endnotes.

From archaeological digs to the discovery or rescue of precious contemporary documents, these sections remind us that proper history isn’t simply a matter of reading other people’s accounts and synthesising them into something which serves your point – there’s solid physical evidence underpinning much of it, no matter how much some may dislike it. In discussing the Birka Warrior – the remains of a Viking who appears to have been given the burial goods associated with a martial profession, but whose skeleton and XX chromosome indicates that they’d have been AFAB (and so would have likely – though not 100% necessarily – identified as a woman) – Ramirez notes how the research team who uncovered the evidence faced both snotty academic pushback and a tidal wave of online hate.

Indeed, this is probably part of why Ramirez included these sections about some of the evidence attesting to these biographies, as well as being meticulous about providing references. Sure, the latter is just good practice anyway (though in popular history writing outside of an academic context you can afford a little more slack on it), but there are those who simply don’t want to hear an account of history which doesn’t conform to their prejudices, and the Internet is startlingly good at mobilising them.

In making sure she includes outcasts and persecuted folk alongside successful women in the book, Ramirez ensures she doesn’t slide into a Great Woman theory to parallel the Great Man approach to history; she is keen to emphasise that we learn as much or more about the past through the perspective of ordinary people as we do from extraordinary folk. One of the women profiled here is Hildegard of Bingen – who managed to be nun, mystic, politician, scientist, and all-round polymath whilst at the same time spending a good chunk of her life tripping balls and having bizarre visions – but much of what we know about her is either filtered through the hands of male historians or, in the case of her own texts, carefully and adroitly compiled for public consumption.

Then there’s Margery Kempe – merchant of King’s Lynn, mother to 14 children, serial pilgrim, and a horny, weepy, cantankerous sort who believed that Jesus was her sexy best friend. The Book of Margery Kempe, her autobiography, may have been taken down by another scribe, but it’s about as far from a sanitised depiction of her as you can get, and whereas Hildegard became a powerful abbess and a correspondent of Popes and Emperors, it seems that Margery never attained the celebrity as a mystic that Hildegard, Julian of Norwich, and Bridget of Sweden enjoyed. (Jesus apparently tells Margery that she’s seen aspects of him that Bridget never got to witness.) In effect, Kempe is a failed celebrity, who only attained widespread notice centuries after her death when a manuscript of her book was rediscovered (having had a small amount of infamy in her time and a few passing references in some 16th century sources), but her book is interesting precisely because of the unvarnished look at her world it gives us.

Femina can only hope to scratch the surface of its subject matter, but for many readers it will at least be a surface which hasn’t been over-exposed through other routes, and through the scratches we can glimpse a range of women’s lives that stretch beyond the narrow image many of us carry in our heads of how women in the era lived.

2 thoughts on “Centuries of Women

  1. Gwydden

    Poor Margery. Everyone disliked her when she was alive, and the same seems to be the case with everyone who reads her book now. Personally, my favorite bit is when she is in Jerusalem and swoons into a dashing stranger’s arms like the protagonist of a romance novel. Girl just needed some (divine) love.


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