Halfaway through Femina, her new history of women in the Middle Ages, Janina Ramirez describes an exquisite alms purse that once belonged to Jadwiga, the fourteenth-century female “king” of Poland who left the man she loved to lead her country. The purse, now on display at Wawel Cathedral, is made of silk and decorated with brightly colored spheres and tassels. It may have held holy relics as well as coins for the poor, which makes it even more intriguing that the scenes embroidered on it feature the adulterous lovers Tristan and Isolde.
This gorgeous item is a point of contact with a powerful medieval woman who died in childbirth, but otherwise far exceeded her society’s expectations. Jadwiga was a Polish national icon and was finally canonized in the Catholic Church in 1997. But, as Ramirez suggests, the purse seems to reveal something else about who she was as a person. It reflects her deep faith, her learning and sophistication, even her tumultuous romantic life. Still, it is not clear which scenes from the Tristan and Isolde story are depicted on it, nor whether they are meant to celebrate tragic passion or its abandonment in favor of duty. Like much of the evidence for women’s lives that Ramirez introduces, the alms purse remains enigmatic, open to new interpretations.
Femina‘s aim is to multiply the stories we tell about the medieval past, placing women in the starring roles. Ramirez is a gifted storyteller, taking readers across Europe and to the Middle East in her quest for female agency. She does not dwell on the obvious candidates – Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Empress Matilda – with whom readers are probably already familiar. Instead her cast includes a Swedish woman buried in full armor with two horses, a Cathar spy for the Inquisition, a transgender sex worker in fourteenth-century London and the anonymous women, possibly nuns, who stitched the Battle of Hastings and ninety-three penises. onto the Bayeux Tapestry.
Ramirez approaches each of these women through the eyes of more recent historical advocates. The most memorable of these is Emily Wilding Davison, a suffragette who threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Davison was also a scholar of the Middle Ages, which she idealized as a source of revolutionary community and tolerance. Her protest may have been inspired by a scene in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, in which Theban women petition Theseus for aid by stopping his horse. Her school nickname was “the Faire Emelye”, after another character in that story. Anecdotes such as this underpin a key argument in Femina: that our understanding of the Middle Ages is shaped by the ideals and biases of those who have come since. For example, while the political achievements of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, in pushing back the Danes were recognized by chroniclers close to her own time, they were later “eclipsed” by the cult that developed around her father, Alfred the Great. “She was a victim not of medieval prejudice,” writes Ramirez, “but of modern attitudes towards female leadership.”
Recent years have witnessed a boom in books recovering the lives and voices of women who lived long ago. The list ranges from works of history such as Mary Beard’s Women & Power (2018) and Kara Cooney’s When women rule the world (2018) to novels like Lauren Groff’s Matrix (2021) and Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch (2021). The challenge in such projects is to highlight the agency women have practiced in the past while acknowledging its physical and social conditions. How an author does this reveals a great deal – not just about her view of historical women, but about her understanding of “agency” itself.
Femina‘s cover features a brilliant reproduction of Hildegard of Bingen’s “cosmic egg”, a mystical vision of an organic universe contained in a womb-like structure, but, strikingly, none of its nine chapters is explicitly devoted to roles that women typically occupied – to mystics, abbesses, mothers, wives or widows. They feature in the chapters themselves, to be sure, but rebranded, with titles that are masculine or genderless, as outlaws, warriors, movers and shakers. Of course it’s worth showing that women contributed to the world as men did. But many medieval women, especially noble ones, exercised power precisely through roles that can now seem feminine. Mothers forged alliances by organizing their children’s marriages, wives managed estates in their husbands’ absences and abbesses, established cults for local saints and cultivated networks of political influence. Here is a missed opportunity to push back against common stereotypes about the past: that the Church was solely oppressive to women or that being married and having children always meant a life of subjugation.
Femina is otherwise refreshingly nuanced. Ramirez is honest about the fact that her approach is “no less biased” than that of her predecessors. Hers is not a “Great Woman” version of history, however; rather, it shows the variety of relationships women could have with men. Hilda of Whitby counseled kings and educated men who would go on to be bishops. Hildegard of Bingen struggled to gain independence for her community from Abbot Kuno, but her visions were endorsed by luminaries such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugene III. The Polish nobility agreed to crown Jadwiga as king, but also insisted she leave her fiancé, William of Habsburg, and marry the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Margery Kempe was grilled by male churchmen and harassed by fellow pilgrims, but other men helped her on her travels. The picture that emerges is of women and men navigating institutions, building alliances, competing for power and working within their given social roles as best they could.
Likewise, Ramirez resists the urge to make general pronouncements based on individual cases. She discusses, for example, a highly publicized discovery, in 2017, that a body buried in Birka, Sweden, with the full accoutrements of a fighter had the DNA of a woman. Instead of proving “that all Viking women were the shield-maidens of legend”, the find forced archaeologists to rethink the assumption that grave goods are a straightforward indicator of the deceased person’s gender. In isolated and beleaguered communities, Ramirez points out, women would have had to do the same work as men – including taking up arms to defend their home.
Perhaps it is inevitable that a book of such broad scope will at times frustrate specialists. The closer Ramirez came to my own area of study, the more I found to quibble with. The gripping story of Emily Davison and her medieval role models that begins the book closely follows the beats of an article by the medievalist Carolyn Collette, which is cited only once early on. In the chapter on Margery Kempe we learn that “despite demanding a sex ban from her husband, Margery had an impressive 14 children”. This gets things the wrong way round: Margery finally asked her husband for a chaste marriage when she was around forty years old. Ramirez calls a later episode in which Margery cares for her senile, incontinent husband “touching” and “poignant”, which glosses over the fact that she hated doing it, considered it a punishment for her lusts and had to imagine herself caring for Christ in order to cope. Elsewhere, Theodore of Tarsus, the seventh-century churchman who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, is designated “Greek/Turkish”, which is straightforwardly anachronistic. Theodore was a Byzantine Greek who experienced the Persian occupation of his town as a child, but he lived four centuries before the Seljuk Turks conquered Anatolia.
These are arguably small errors, but they suggest an overall hastiness. They also make one wonder about the accuracy of other material. Historians writing for a general audience necessarily iron out some scholarly subtleties, but they should, if anything, be more careful with the evidence than their academic colleagues. Lay readers do not have access to their sources, and what appears in print tends to acquire the solidity of fact. It is best, then, to read Femina as Janina Ramirez herself proposes: as an invitation to look at the past afresh and to stay open to the possibility that it may have been more varied than we once thought.
Irina Dumitrescuteaches medieval literature at the University of Bonn
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