Why the Middle Ages Matter: Women Bishops, Gay Marriage, and Richard III.

After studying medieval literature and history for almost 30 years, I have got used to the question, ‘what is the point of studying the Middle Ages?’ It is a question that has been asked by students, fellow academics, concerned family members, and even by politicians. Finally, in 2013, I have found some answers in the Church of England’s vote against women bishops, the House of Commons’ vote for gay marriage, and the identification of the grave of a missing medieval monarch.

The recent unearthing of Richard III’s remains, buried under a car park in Leicester, has brought medieval history to the attention of the world media and the wider public. While modern technology and science played a major role in this recovery, and DNA testing was crucial to the identification of the body, the project nevertheless still centred on traditional academic scholarship—archival study and archaeological excavation.

Although the discovery of Richard III’s corpse is only tangential (although not entirely irrelevant) to my scholarship, it nevertheless illustrates how medieval studies can capture the public imagination. I was fascinated by the extent to which people engaged with this via social media. One particular highlight was picture of Blackadder which circulated on Facebook with the caption, ‘So Baldrick. Under a car park. That was your cunning plan?’

I have previously blogged about how my research into powerful women in the medieval English Church is relevant to the debates about women bishops in the Church of England. There is fascinating evidence that, in Europe in late Antiquity and in England in the early Anglo-Saxon period, some women did share the authority and responsibilities of bishops.

Another key area of my research is sexuality, and particularly lesbianism, in the Middle Ages. This is a controversial topic—many scholars think it is anachronistic to use the term ‘lesbian’ in a pre-modern context. Yet just as scholarship reveals that there were, effectively, women bishops in the early church, so it reveals that throughout history women have chosen to ‘marry’ other women. Literary history too includes stories of women’s same-sex marriages. One narrative that recurs in medieval rewritings is Ovid’s tale of Iphis and Ianthe—a story in which two women (one of whom, Iphis, has been brought up as a boy and passes as man) decide they would like to marry. This is a story that has been retold far more recently in Ali Smith’s novel, Girl Meets Boy. In the medieval version by John Gower (a close friend, and literary rival, of Geoffrey Chaucer), Ianthe finds out that Iphis is a woman, but decides to go ahead with the marriage regardless. The famous literary critic, Christopher Ricks, said of Gower’s description of the consummation of this female same-sex relationship, ‘It is magnificent. But it is not marriage’. Ricks was right, both at the time when he was writing, and about Gower’s time. But just over six hundred years after Gower’s death, history has finally moved on.

Judith Bennett, in her book History Matters, has written about the importance of ‘deep’ history, that is of taking a long historical perspective over several centuries. Bennett studies, for example, the evidence of the wage gap between women and men in England between the later Middle Ages and the present day, and concludes that, despite contemporary legislation on equal pay, it has not diminished. We cannot assume that modern society inevitably learns from history. Equality and progress are not inevitable. But sometimes things can and do change, and history can help offer a useful perspective on issues of urgent importance today. So next time someone asks me ‘what is the point of studying the Middle Ages?’ I will have my answers ready.

For Gower’s story of Iphis and Ianthe, see Diane Watt, ‘Sins of Omission: Transgressive Genders, Subversive Sexualities, and Confessional Silences in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis’. Maney Publishing Exemplaria: a Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance studies, 13.2 (2001), pp. 529-551. Full text is available at: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/231715/