Women's Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon

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Making the Word Mat(t)er: Julian of Norwich Poetics of the Mother Tongue


The martyrdom of St. Cecilia of Rome and St. Valerian. Detail from a late fifteenth-century Book of Hours. The Hague, KB, 76 F 2. fol. 277r . Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum & Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag. Bron: manuscripts.kb.nl 

In the 1380s, a woman has just begun to tell her story, when she remembers another narrative, heard in her teens: “I harde a man telle of halye kyrke of the storye of Sainte Cecille, in the whilke shewinge I understonde that she hadde thre woundes with a swerde in the nekke, with the whilke she pinede to the dede’ (Vis. 1.36-38, ed. Watson and Jenkins). [‘I heard a man of Holy Church tell the story of Saint Cecilia, from which account I understood that she had three wounds in the neck from a sword, through which she suffered death.’] (Trans. Barry Windeatt, Revelations of Divine Love, p. 4).  After describing the wish for three spiritual wounds which this legend inspired, Julian of Norwich begins to capture the visions she claims to have received later, at thirty and a half. Interestingly, in the resulting text, A Vision Showed to A Devout Woman, she refers to her visions and to the legend with the same literary term, “shewing”, which means both  “account” and “revelation”.  The visions and the text, then, share the legend’s narrative character.

When the visionary experience is told once more years later in A Revelation of Love, Saint Cecilia and the preacher are nowhere to be found. Instead, the text brims over with numerous brief exempla by God and the narrator. In addition, the narrator more frequently draws her listener’s or reader’s attention to her own storytelling. When doing so, A Revelation uses terms also found in other texts that reflect upon their own writing and interpreting. However, unlike these other texts, A Revelation employs these terms also to describe Christ’s mothering.

In this post, I will examine Julian’s blend of poetics and theology, reading the texts through the literary lens they themselves offer. The literary concepts of A Revelation, I argue, exploit the maternal and physical associations of the vernacular to bring to life its central motif of Christ’s motherhood. Julian’s poetics thus incarnates her theology. Ultimately, I will illuminate how Revelation thus engages with contemporary discussions and worries about whether the vernacular could represent God’s Word.


Heart-Shaped Winged Altarpiece (Colditz Altarpiece). by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1584. Painting on limewood. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg. Image: Wikimedia.

Building on Holy Ground

To begin with, the literary terms in Revelation invite the reader to see parallels between Julian’s narratorial activity and Christ’s maternal activities. For example, when clustering the different visionary moments into revelations in her later text, Julian characterizes the First Revelation as showing “the strengthe and grounde of alle” (Rev. 6.55), “the strength and foundation” of the Revelations that follow. “Grounde” also denotes a Biblical passage for exposition; Julian has indeed just been expounding the Revelation. The other Revelations, then, build upon and gloss the first one.

In her famous meditation on Christ’s motherhood, which cross-references the First Revelation, the same concept returns in a passage that deftly blends gynaecological imagery and storytelling metaphors:

“Oure kinde mother […] he woulde alle holy become our moder in alle thing, he toke the grounde of his werkes fulle lowe and mildely in the maidens womb. And that he shewde in the furst, wher he brought that meke maiden before the eye of my understanding. (Rev. 60. 5-8).

[Our mother in nature […] because he wanted to become our mother wholly and in all things—undertook the foundation of his work very humbly and very gently in the Virgin’s womb. And that he showed in the first revelation where he brought that meek maiden before my mind’s eye[.]] (129)

This description not only provides “grounde” with gynaecological and material resonances by referring to Mary’s womb and by alluding –by means of Christ’s downward movement- to the earlier Parable of the Lord and Servant, in which Christ “fell …into the slade [hollow] of the maidens wombe” (Rev. 50.189). It also sends the reader back to the “grounde” of the whole text, the First Revelation.

Furthermore, by incarnating himself, Christ begins his “werke,” a term that could also refer to a literary composition. The passage thus parallels Christ’s “werke” and Julian’s “werke”.  Julian comments upon the First Revelation with her reflections and other visions, her whole “werke”; similarly, Christ’s conception forms the text explained by Christ’s motherhood, his whole “werke”. In this way, Julian’s expanding of one narrative segment in the vernacular into several becomes an image of Christ’s giving birth to himself.


Vierge Ouvrante. Sixteenth-century.  L’église Saint-Sébastien de Palau-del-Vidre. Palau-del-Vidre, France. Photograph by the author.

A Vierge Ouvrante of Words

While creating these parallels, A Revelation often gives the literary terms more physical and maternal overtones. It thus cleverly draws upon the associations between the vernacular and the bodily which contemporary derogatory thought about Middle English saw as limiting its capacity to inscribe the sacred.  The previous citation already showed a concept becoming something bodily, a womb, and material, a hollow and ground; Julian’s use of the term “mater”, blurring the distinction between such stuff the body is made on and such stuff texts are made on, is another example of her incarnating poetics.

Other storytellers also frequently speak of their text as having “mater”, “content” or “subject matter”. Chaucer’s Parson for instance promises his fellow pilgrims that his tale offers “moralitee and vertuous mateere” (“The Parson’s Prologue”, l. 38). In the proclamation to the Croxton Play of the Sacrament the narrator calls out to the audience that “We be ful purposed with hart and thowght/off our mater to tell the entent” [“we fully intend with heart and thought/ to tell the import of our subject matter”].

A Revelation, in a passage not found in Vision, weds this sense to the sense “physical substance”:

Whan God shulde make mannes body, he toke the slime of the erth, which is a mater medeled and gadered of all bodely thinges, and thereof he made mannes body […] In this endlesse love, mannis soule is kept hole, as all the mater of the revelation meneth and sheweth (Rev. 53. 35-38, 40-42).

[ [W]hen God was to make man’s body he took the slime of the earth, which is matter mixed and gathered from all bodily things, and from that he made man’s body […] And in this endless love man’s soul is kept whole, as the subject matter of the revelations means and shows]. (119)

The matter of mud, the human body and the text can all be shaped and gathered into a signifying whole. With its emphasis on embodiment, this reflection firmly grounds the literary term in the tangible and the physical: it becomes as bodily as critics of vernacular religious writings considered the vernacular and the lay mind. Yet this very stuff-ness signifies that God holds together the text like He made and holds together human body and soul. The emphasis on materiality also gives both God’s making and Julian’s maternal overtones: after all, the mother was thought to contribute the matter of the foetus.

Furthermore, turning the materiality of the literary terms up to eleven allows Julian to turn the text as an artefact into an instrument that Christ needs to for his daily mothering. For instance, countless cross-references are strewn throughout Revelation, to a far greater extent than in A Vision. These cross-references create the loving wrapping (“wrappeth us and windeth us,” Rev. 5.3,4) in divine goodness which Julian ascribes to mother Christ.

In a passage in the Fifteenth Revelation that anticipates the meditation on Christ’s motherhood, the narrator both describes and creates circular structures:

And oure savioure is oure very moder, in whome we be endlesly borne and never shall come out of him. Plenteously, fully and swetely was this shewde; and it is spoken of in the furst, wher it saide: ‘We be all in him beclosed.’ And he is beclosed in us; and that is spoken of in the sixteenth shewing, where he seyth: ‘He sitteth in oure soule.’ For it is his liking to reigne in oure understanding blissefully. (Rev. 57. 42 -46)

[Abundantly, and fully, and sweetly was this shown; and it is spoken of in the first revelation, where he says ‘we are all enclosed in him and.’ And he is enclosed in us; and it is spoken of in the sixteenth revelation, where it says ‘he sits in our soul’; for it is his pleasure to reign blissfully in our understanding, and to sit restfully in our soul.] (126)

The passage first encourages the reader first to go backward—mentally, or by turning the page—from the Fifteenth Revelation to the “furst […] shewing”. The reader is then invited to move forward to the last and Sixteenth Revelation, and then necessarily needs to return to the Fifteenth Revelation. The reader, then, becomes as textually enclosed in Revelation as he or she is spiritually enclosed in God.

Yet this wrapping can only be achieved because of the material overtones of the vernacular terms and the materiality of the artefact;  it is A Revelation’s wrapping the reader in the tissue of words and the vellum of the work that enables Christ to wrap humanity maternally and eternally in his divine, skin-like matter, like a Vierge Ouvrante. Julian’s storytelling thus not only mirrors Christ’s parenting, but also makes an indispensable contribution to it.


The symbol of the Evangelist St. Matthew: the angel, writing. Detail from a thirteenth-century French Book of Hours.  The Hague, KB, 132 F 21 fol. 484v.  Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum & Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag. Bron: manuscripts.kb.nl 

Ignoring Her Own Advice?

However, A Revelation also seems to pick its literary concepts apart. That is, those reading or hearing her text may have been puzzled by how her text sometimes contradicts its own poetics. For example, in both A Vision and A Revelation, Julian ponders about free will and providence, in A Revelation to an even greater extent than in A Vision. Inspired by a vision of God at the centre of all things, she asserts in A Vision (8.13, 14) “Nor nathinge es done be happe ne be aventure, botte be the endeles forluke of the wisdom of God,” adding in A Revelation, “if it be happe or aventure in the sight of man, our blindhede and our unforsight is the cause.” (11.5-7). [“Nothing is done by chance or accident but by the eternal providence of God’s wisdom.” “If it seems to be chance or accident in our eyes, our blindness or lack of foresight is the cause.”] (11, 55) “Aventure” refers to accident or chance, but also to an episodic, unpredictable narrative without causal linkage. From God’s perspective, then, human history is a narrative with a meaningful plot, in which everything is “behovely”.

In spite of this conviction, A Revelation inserts two significant events into its own narrative and into that of world history which seem to come out of nowhere. These events are the visions of the two unknown actions which God will do at the end of time, and these two actions themselves.

The sight of the ‘deed which the blisseful trinite shall do in the last day ’ (32.19), a vision which possibly hints at universal salvation, is generated by a specific moment in the visionary sequence, the juxtaposing of the five locutions. Unlike in other visions, the narrator does not describe how this act of juxtaposing leads to the act of understanding or becomes the sight.

The vision of the second deed is even more tenuously related to the other events in terms of causality. Without any contextual remarks, the narrator opens the chapter by boldly stating:

Oure lorde God shewde that a deed shalle be done, and himselfe shalle do it […] and by me it shall be done […] and I shalle do right nought but sinne. (Rev. 36. 1-4)

[Our Lord God revealed that a deed will be done, and he himself will do it […] and it will be done with regard to myself […] and I shall do nothing but sin.] (85)

Neither the vision nor the event appears to result from earlier events in either the narrative or Julian’s life.

A Revelation at this point, then, seems to have become more of an “aventure” than A Vision, although the narrator claimed earlier that from God’s perspective no such “aventure” exists. Yet by thus seemingly exploding her own poetics, Julian strategically evokes that earlier discussion of providence, and in particular her exploration of how God, the ultimate “doer” behind all things, lovingly leads all events to the end to which he has predestined them in eternity (Rev. 11.30-45).

By giving a few events in her story such apparent lack of narrative coherence, Julian encourages the reader to see God instead of her as the ‘doer’ who leads all events in her narrative. According to A Revelation, then, God will reveal to the reader previously unseen causal linkage and narrative coherence during and after the reading process. Even events not yet showing that mother Christ is in control, ultimately will turn out to show exactly that, Julian promises. She thus makes Christ participate in and authorize her storytelling, just as she participates in his motherhood.


“The Trinity”. The Rothschild Canticles, Beinecke MS 404.  f. 94r. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University Library, Yale.  Image: Beinecke Digital Collections.

Heavenly Co-Authoring

This is not the only aspects of her poetics which may have surprised Julian’s contemporary readers. After wrapping each literary term in layer after layer of significance, both material and abstract, she finally collapses her literary terms into Christ, thus authorizing her poetics and her storytelling. (To use a more Julian term, she encloses it all in Christ).

Literary terms and formal features figuring the sacred do appear in other texts; the writer of the fifteenth-century life of Christ Speculum Devotorum points out to his readers that the prayer requests in the beginning, middle and end symbolize “that the Holy Trynytee ys the begynning, the myddyl, and the ende of alle good werkes .

A Revelation, however, employs it literary terms in a manner similar to its use of the motherhood mother. As Andrew Sprung notes, when Julian compares Christ to a mother, God is not the vehicle but the tenor.  Similarly, she writes “he is the grounde, he is the substance [meaning]” (Rev. 34.14), turns Christ into the “knotte” or gist by describing him as the means which ties together lived experience and essence (sensuality and substance) (Rev. 56. 10, 11), and in the last chapter exuberantly proclaims Christ (Love) to be the “mening” (meaning and intention) of the visions, and who and what the visions showed (Rev. 86). When she does so, she does not as much conflate all these literary concepts with Christ, but rather turns them —rather Neoplatonically—  into only pale shadows of Christ, making Christ encompass them all.

According to Julian, the genuine form of the text and each of its thematic and formal features consists of Christ. Any formal feature the reader can discover only figures the ultimate form and concept, Christ. Simply put, Julian’s words are the Word. By extension, Christ is made the mother giving birth to the text, by means of Julian. Her statement about Christ’s birthing and parenthood emanating through earthly parents therefore applies to her understanding of storytelling as well: “it is he that doth it in the creatures by whom it is done” (Rev. 60. 44). [“[Y]et it is he who does it by the created beings by whom it is done.”’] (130). Thus, as a result of its poetics of the mother tongue, A Revelation can speak with maternal, divine authority, presenting Christ as Julian’s co-author.

Stubborn Word-Knots

To conclude, by means of its literary thought, A Revelation adds its unique contribution to contemporary debates about whether the vernacular could represent God’s word. Different Oxford theologians, authorities, and vernacular theologians disagreed vehemently about the (in)sufficiency of English to capture the intricacies and mysteries of the Biblical language; these debates led to Thomas Arundel, the archbishop of Canterbury, promulgating  his Constitutions in 1409, which forbade the possession of unapproved vernacular religious texts and vernacular Bible translations. The resulting anxiety concerning vernacular religious texts may have prevented Julian from circulating A Revelation.

It should be stressed, however, that not only Lollards, but many other religious thinkers were in favour of vernacular Bible translations. Those who opposed translations, such as the Oxford theologians William Butler and Thomas Palmer warned against the carnality of the vernacular and of its speakers. By using Middle English literary terms, A Revelation engages in a dialogue with these discussions. Just like the prologue to the Wycliffite Bible, for instance, A Revelation not only recounts Christ’s words but also thinks aloud about how to best do so. By making its literary concepts more physical and maternal and using those to describe divine actions, Julian capitalizes upon the carnality of the vernacular. She reveals its supposed limitations to be its greatest resources.

According to Julian, then, mother Christ naturally speaks the mother tongue. Furthermore, by turning familiar literary terms into polyvalent, sometimes contradictory “word-knots” (to use Gillespie and Ross’ term),  which she claims originate and figure Christ, she gives the lie to claims that Middle English cannot translate the different exegetical senses of the Bible and its obscurities. Finally, by making Christ the text behind hers, and the ultimate storyteller, she undermines the common opposition between doctrine (associated with the clergy) and narrative (associated with the laity): rather, Christ can only be known through stories.

Middle English was often called the “kinde language”: A Revelation, in sum, contributes a poetic Middle English, and a Middle English poetics that are “kinde” in its many senses: instinctive, natural, native, but also filled with the love between mother and child.

As a result, though she was enclosed and perhaps unable to share her text with her “evencristen”, Julian both speaks and transforms the language of the world outside her anchorhold.

Dr Godelinde Gertrude Perk


(W)ri(gh)ting the Canon


‘Great Beasts Isolated on Mountains’ (see citations in the text). Image: Crocodile from the Rochester Bestiary. Wikimedia Commons

What did it mean to read and write as a medieval woman? This is of course one of the big questions that the Women’s Literary Culture network is investigating: scholarly work on the writings of Margery Kempe and the Paston women, discussed in other blogs on this site, has highlighted issues of agency and style to help answer this. Yet I think it is a question with an urgent contemporary aspect too: what does it mean to read and write about medieval women as a female medievalist in the 21st century? What follows is a short, personal, and to my surprise a statistically-focused reflection on this question from my perspective as just such a medievalist. It makes no claim to being definitive, but might give some food for thought.

Recently I’ve been researching a chapter on the antique texts of Alexander the Great. As a medievalist with a shaky grasp of classical literature, it was a fascinating learning curve, but what struck me the most was the maleness of the scholars. Only 15% (13 out of 86) of the secondary works I read were by women. This shouldn’t be surprising, perhaps, given the historical position of the classics in the UK school system as the mark of a prestigious (and mostly male) education, but what struck me more forcibly than the gender of the critics was the genre of their criticism. Mostly dating from the 1960s onwards, the majority of the research was focused on identifying sources and judging historical accuracy. In other words, it was mainly empirical and ‘scientific’, interested in facts and figures. This approach is a historically contingent trend found more widely, but what is more surprising is that it seems to have continued to dominate in Alexander studies after newer approaches had become the norm in other areas of classics. A memorable review of contemporary Alexander research highlighting this was published by James Davidson in the LRB in 2001:  https://www.lrb.co.uk/v23/n21/james-davidson/bonkers-about-boys

‘In Alexanderland scholarship remains largely untouched by the influences which have transformed history and classics since 1945. Some great beasts, having wandered in, can still be found here decades later, well beyond reach of the forces of evolution. Secluded behind the high, impassable peaks of prosopography, military history and, above all, Quellenforschung, Alexander historians do what Alexander historians have done for more than a hundred years.’

Davidson describes eloquently what he sees as a problem for Alexander scholarship. What I find fascinating, and disturbing, is the language and imagery he uses here: surely deliberately, he talks of ‘great beasts’ (dinosaurs?) isolated on mountains, simultaneously invoking aggressiveness and isolation. He is describing predominantly male critics in terms that construct a sense of traditional maleness: physicality, self-sufficiency, a position at the top of the food chain and of the geographical world. Although I don’t think Davidson meant to link gender to the critical tendencies this imagery suggests, this is the effect: ‘this is the kind of research men do’. One could argue, a bit crudely, that gender, approach and critical genre correlate: being a man results in researching like a man, and ‘researching like a man’ means a focus on source study and empirical evidence. Alexanderland is for men and masculinity.

This is a bit of an exaggeration. But it has important implications, I think, for medievalists. Are there areas of medieval studies that experience the same apparent correlation of gender and critical approach? What would this mean for the discipline as a whole? My own experience to date has felt gendered in two fields in particular, namely medieval Latin studies and romance. I started to investigate whether my instinct was an accurate reflection of the fields by spending an evening trawling databases.


Detail of a miniature of a hermit at work on a manuscript, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315 – 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 6v. British Library

For medieval Latin, the results were apparently stark. Given the vast number of potential hits, I searched for articles on the twelfth-century Latin epic Alexandreis, a major school text that survives in over 200 MSS, to delimit the search area and also to test my ideas about Davidson’s imagery on similar ground. I found 54 articles listed on a well-used medieval database (not all completely focused on the poem, in fairness), of which only 14, or 26%, were written by individuals with names generally applied to women (with no allowance made for multiple entries by the same scholars, which would probably bring the percentage down even further). So there appears to be a marked gender imbalance, at least in studies of this Alexander text.

The next question I asked was whether this imbalance might be related to the kind of critical work undertaken on the poem. Looking at the 54 articles, I found only 11 that seemed to adopt more ‘literary’ and thematic approaches. This statistic seems to support Davidson’s hypothesis about classical Alexander literature in this medieval context: it is empirical and factual evidence, like manuscript studies, editing, and source study, which has caught scholars’ attention. What is especially interesting is that of these 11 more ‘literary’ approaches, 46% (5), are by women: although this is a small sample from which to extrapolate, there appears to be a strong correlation between gender and approach. In medieval Latin Alexander studies, then, women apparently research differently from men, focusing less on manuscript studies, editing, and source study and more strongly on thematic and ‘literary’ approaches. Going back to Davidson’s dinosaurs, we could crudely assume that female scholars are less interested in questions of sources and empirical historicity than in more thematic study: women ‘research like women’. This is a big claim to make from a very small sample, and I’m no statistician: in addition, individual women have made vital contributions to medieval Latin manuscript studies and editing (Jill Mann’s Ysengrimus edition, for example). However, I think what is clear is that Medieval Latin (as represented here) is, firstly, a discipline unequal in terms of gender balance, and, secondly, one that does not display the variety of scholarly approaches that can be found in other areas of medieval studies. It’s evidently not just Alexander studies that can be found, roaring, holed up in mountain fastnesses.

Perhaps this ‘maleness’ in medieval Latin can be explained in part by school-level education. From anecdotal evidence, it seems that men are more likely to learn Latin before university, and therefore to have greater access to degrees focusing upon the language, than women: my younger sister, for example, was the only woman reading classics in her year at her Oxford college (although she thought the overall balance across all the colleges was a reasonable 60/40 male/female), and she initially felt disadvantaged by her male peers’ greater language skills gained at their schools. Yet I don’t think there is any similar explanation for the apparently equally gendered nature of the other field in which I work, medieval romance.


Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan in her study at the beginning of the ‘Cent balades’, Harley MS 4431, f. 4r. British Library

In complete contrast to medieval Latin, romance studies is dominated by female medievalists: certainly many of the field-defining scholars working on romance over the last twenty years are female. Helen Cooper, for example, has not only played a significant role in constructing romance studies’ parameters, but has been the scholarly catalyst for many other important scholars who began academic life as her doctoral students: as the first female fellow at University College, Oxford, and latterly as the Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, her influence has been and remains immense. Statistics also seem to support this sense of a field driven by women: at a recent fascinating conference on romance, 71% of the listed speakers were female.

However, there is no pre-existing reason that I know of, unlike Latin education, for this female dominance in romance studies. It may be in part because of the importance of feminist and gender studies in the field, for which it has of course been a fertile area, particularly for research into women’s literary culture. Such research is far from being exclusively the preserve of women, but another database trawl with ‘romance’ and ‘gender’ as search terms brings up 100 hits, with 26 by individuals with names traditionally given to men. (This is a very neat statistical reversal, since exactly the same percentage – 26% – was attributed to female names for articles on the medieval Latin Alexandreis above.) It would seem that one reason for women’s engagement with romance studies is because of this theoretical approach, which seems to resonate with female scholars in particular. So again there seems to be a certain relationship between critical approach and scholars’ gender.

Does this relationship mean that women ‘research like women’ in romance studies more widely, however, as is potentially the case for medieval Latin? Interestingly, moving away from gender studies makes the case less clear-cut. A database search for ‘romance’, refined by ‘manuscripts and palaeography’ (the nearest option to ‘source study’ available) makes this clear: it gives an almost exactly 50% gender split by name for the first 100 entries. (These entries only cover the last 10 years or so: it would be interesting to see if the gender balance is different in past decades.) So this example contradicts the apparent situation in medieval Latin studies, since both men and women are ‘researching like men’. Does this mean that the apparent correlation between scholar and subject, between academic and approach, is only demonstrable from a very sweeping perspective, and breaks down on closer scrutiny? Or is it the case that different fields attract certain kinds of research (and researchers) for reasons that are not primarily to do with gender? I don’t know: a lot more research is needed. In any case, these delvings into romance studies’ statistics seem to show less of a correlation between gender and genre of criticism than is the case for medieval Latin.

These brief investigations have made me realise just how complex a business identifying connections between medieval studies and their medievalists is. Certainly I would not claim any essentialist relationship between field, gender and mode of research, either from a personal perspective or an analytical one: as I said above, I’m no statistician, and I can’t get away from the suspicion inherent in ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’. However, if we return to the larger question of what gendered fields and (potentially) approaches might say about medieval studies more widely, I wonder whether lack of gender balance might be one sign of other biases with an impact on scholarship: are we creating silos and echo chambers in which we simply talk to others like ourselves, and therefore aren’t challenged to look out beyond the horizon? Recent conversations about lack of ethnic and racial diversity in the academy come to mind here as a parallel. From this perspective, gender and critical genre are only one aspect of a larger question about who we are collectively, and how we relate to, and reflect, wider society in the 21st century: whether we choose to stand bellowing on distant peaks or to reject seclusion and evolve into different, more expansive individuals and institutions.

Whatever our personal perspectives on that question, I want to end by returning to the issue of what it means to write as a medievalist, of any gender, in the 21st century. Beyond all the database trawling and statistical wrangling, if we accept that as medievalists we reflect our own experiences and views in our choice of subject and our approach, then there is a relationship of fundamental importance between what we write and who we are, between our textual and extra-textual selves. In researching women’s literary culture and the medieval canon, then, we are not just undertaking ground-breaking research: all of us, whatever our gender, approach, or background, are writing ourselves, prehistoric or otherwise.

Dr Venetia Bridges



Jacquetta of Luxembourg – A Female Reader of Christine de Pizan in England


Personal motto and signature of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, British Library MS Harley 4431, f. 1r  Copyright British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

On the opening page of British Library Harley 4431, a collected works of Christine de Pizan, there is a small inscription. If you look only once you are likely to miss it – the inscription is dwarfed by the other markings on the page and an attempt has been made, at some point in the manuscript’s history, to erase it altogether. The obscured inscription is the name of a woman – ‘Jaquete’ accompanied by a short phrase – ‘sur tous autres’ (above all others), perhaps a personal motto.

When I first saw this signature, I felt as if I had struck gold. Here was evidence of a female reader engaging with the work of a great woman writer, Christine de Pizan. But as my elation subsided, I began to wonder – what exactly did the inscription mean? Should I interpret it as a mark of ownership as does the British Library catalogue? Did a signature on an opening flyleaf necessarily imply that the person who possessed the book also read the book?

Tracking down a medieval female reader can often feel like a treasure hunt. The persistent researcher/detective must collect small scraps of evidence, decide how to interpret these clues, and then carefully piece them together. Evidence for readership comes in many forms. Book ownership is sometimes indicated in wills, inventories, registers, household accounts, and medieval library catalogues. For example, in a detailed will prepared in 1498, Anne Wingfield Harling, an East Anglian gentlewoman, bequeaths “A French booke called the Pistill Othia” to “my lord Surrey.” The book in question is almost certainly Christine de Pizan’s The Letter of Othea (1399), a knightly conduct book. Similarly, as Carol Meale has noted, we catch a glimpse of Alice Chaucer’s reading interests in an inventory of goods transferred to her family estate in 1466. The document lists seven literary manuscripts including a “french boke of le Citee de dames” and “a french boke of temps pastoure,” quite possibly Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) and The Book of the Shepardess (1403).

Another source of information on medieval readership comes in the form of dedications to specific patrons. Sometimes these dedications are tantalizingly vague, as when the writer Stephen Scrope addresses an unnamed “high princess” in the prologue to his translation of Christine de Pizan’s The Letter of Othea. Other dedications are more specific. For example, the manuscript noted above, Harley 4431, opens with a “prologue addressed to the queen” (Prologue adreçant a la royne) in which the author, Christine de Pizan, dedicates her collected works to Isabel of Bavaria, Queen of France. The act of dedication is shown in a beautiful illustration at the beginning of the manuscript in which a group of aristocratic women gather as Christine gives the large manuscript to the Queen.


Christine de Pizan presents her collected works to Isabel of Bavaria, British Library Harley MS 4431, f. 3r   Copyright British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Finally we come to the type of evidence that seems most immediate and concrete – the appearance of physical marks left by readers in extant medieval manuscripts. Like other clues to readership, however, these marks vary in clarity and meaning. A manicule, check mark, or X might point to a particular passage of text but leave no information about the reader’s identity. Or a name inscribed on a flyleaf may tell us who owned the book but not whether he or she took an interest in a particular section of text. In many cases it is difficult to differentiate ownership of a book from engagement with the text.

On some rare occasions a connection between flyleaf and marginal annotations may provide evidence that an individual owned a medieval book and read its contents. Such is the case for ‘Jaquete,’ the female reader of Harley 4431. Not only does her name appear on the opening page of the manuscript, it is also inscribed in the margins of three additional pages, suggesting that she read the Christine de Pizan texts enclosed within the covers of her beautiful book.

But who was ‘Jaquete’ and how did she come to possess the book? Here the researcher/detective must pull out the tools of biography and book history to illuminate the name left on the page of the manuscript.

The signature in Harley 4431 has been identified as the hand of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the Duchess of Bedford from 1433 to 1472, and, according to several medieval writers and one modern novelist – a dangerous sorceress. Jacquetta arrived in England in 1433 at the age of seventeen, having left her home in present-day Belgium to become the wife of a powerful English nobleman. Her new husband, John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, was the brother of King Henry V and had been named the Regent of France in 1422. The Duke’s marriage to Jacquetta was intended to bolster the alliance between England and the Dukes of Burgundy during the Hundred Years War with France.

Though initially used as a passive pawn to secure foreign support, Jacquetta quickly became a political player in her own right. Described by a contemporary chronicler as “lively, beautiful, and gracious,” Jacquetta wasted no time integrating herself into the royal court of her new home (La chronique d’Enguerran de Monstrelet, vol. 5, p.55). Within a month of arriving in England, Jacquetta became an English citizen, and less than a year later, she was given the robes of the Order of the Garter. Although her husband died only 18 months after their marriage, Jacquetta chose to remain in her adoptive home and continued to style herself the Duchess of Bedford for the rest of her life.

Perhaps in an effort to remain powerful and autonomous, Jacquetta chose as her second husband not a Duke but a lowly knight named Richard Woodville. The marriage was contracted through Jacquetta’s “own free will” and was loudly lamented by her relatives who believed Richard to be “inferior to her first husband and to herself in regard to birth” (La chronique d’Enguerran de Monstrelet, vol. 5, p. 272).

In 1463, some 25 years after her controversial marriage to Richard Woodville, Jacquetta engineered another unexpected union – this time between her eldest daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, and the new king of England, Edward IV. This successful political maneuver, termed witchcraft by several medieval chroniclers, propelled the Woodville family to a position of high favor and influence at the English court (For further details on Jacquetta see the work of historian Lucia Diaz Pascual).


Elizabeth Woodville, Queen Consort of Edward IV of England, c. 1471, Queen’s College, Cambridge, Portrait 88 Public Domain (Wikipedia Commons)

Jacquetta’s social ascension and political triumph accord well with the inscription she left on the opening page of Harley 4431 – ‘above all others.’ Did the book itself play a role in Jacquetta’s social and political success?

As noted above, the lavish manuscript was originally owned by the queen of France, Isabel of Bavaria. However, less than ten years after Christine gave the book to the queen, it passed into the hands of Jacquetta’s first husband, the Duke of Bedford, who purchased the Louvre library upon becoming the Regent of France in 1422. The book came to Jacquetta, as either a marriage gift or an inheritance in Bedford’s will, between 1433 and 1435.

Jacquetta was no doubt aware of the French-royal provenance of the manuscript and the political meaning encoded in its passage to England. The book was a superb example of the artistic and literary French culture over which the English sought dominance. That a duchess living in England had come to possess a book intended for a French queen was likely seen as an English triumph. Did Jacquetta use this cultural capital to advance her social prestige in England? Did she perhaps share the impressive continental book at social gatherings or display it continuously on a lectern at her London residence? Jacquetta’s ownership of Harley 4431 would have reinforced her status as the widow of the great Duke of Bedford and would have helped to declare her commitment to English efforts during the Hundred Years’ War.

Through a combination of archival evidence, biographical research, book history, and literary-historical analysis, the obscured female name on the opening page of Harley 4431 becomes the site of an exciting story. While reconstructing the lives and reading habits of medieval women can sometimes feel like working on a complex jigsaw puzzle, through the use of multiple scholarly methods we can begin to piece together a more complete picture of women’s literary practice in the Middle Ages.

Sarah Wilma Watson

Chaucer, Religious Controversies and Women’s Literary Culture


Chaucer, Ellesmere Manuscript. Image from Wikimedia Commons

My most recent book project, entitled Chaucer and Religious Controversies from the Middle Ages to the Augustan Age, adopts the comparative, boundary crossing approach that generally characterizes my research. In this project, however, I shift my attention from texts and figures that are, by and large, relatively unknown to one of the most canonical of literary figures, Geoffrey Chaucer. The idea that Chaucer is an international writer raises no eyebrows. Scholars have long elucidated vital connections between Chaucer’s work and that of French and Italian writers including Machaut and Boccaccio. Similarly, a claim that Chaucer’s writings participate in English confessional controversies in his own day and afterward provokes no surprise. Indeed, Chaucer’s ecclesiastical satires and critiques in the Canterbury Tales were so well known that Protestant reformers adopted him as one of their own after Henry VIII broke with Rome. Relatively little work has been done, however, considering Chaucer’s Continental interests and influences as they inform his engagement with religious cultures and his production of religious writings. Likewise, while the early modern “Protestant Chaucer” is a familiar figure, Protestant claims to the Chaucerian legacy were not uncontested, though the early modern “Catholic Chaucer” has not received much attention. Writing my two previous books convinced me of the vital importance both of adopting an international perspective in studying the religious and textual cultures of England and of rethinking conventional demarcations of historical periods. Thus, this book seeks to fill gaps in Chaucer scholarship by situating Chaucer and the Chaucerian tradition in an international textual environment of religious controversy spanning four centuries.

Chapters in this book address such topics as Chaucer’s female monastic pilgrims and the complex hybridity of later fourteenth-century English religious culture, in which innovative yet orthodox trends in female spirituality from the Continent blended with trends characteristic of the emergent Lollard movement; the place of Chaucer in Catholic contributions to the so-called “Stillingfleet Controversy” sparked by Serenus Cressy’s publication of Julian of Norwich’s revelations as well as in Dryden’s near-contemporary publication of his Fables Ancient and Modern, which he wrote after his conversion to Catholicism; and the use of the Chaucer tradition by the colonial American writers Cotton Mather, Anne Bradstreet, and Nathaniel Ward.  Two chapters, though, are particularly relevant to the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon project and have been the subjects of my presentations at the Leverhulme Network events at Chawton House in 2015 and in Boston in 2016.

In the second chapter of Chaucer and Religious Controversies, which follows my analysis in chapter 1 of Chaucer’s female monastic pilgrims, I consider manuscripts containing texts by Chaucer and texts in the Chaucer tradition found in the later medieval and early modern libraries of Denney, Syon, and Amesbury.  I explore what reading such texts may have meant to the nuns in these communities, since the fact that nuns from these houses inscribed their names in the manuscripts containing Chaucerian texts suggests women religious actually were reading them.   The Chaucerian material available to the nuns of Denney fits squarely within the expected parameters of later medieval and early modern monastic women’s devotional reading.   This community most likely owned MS BL Arundel 327, a complete text of Bokenham’s Legendys of Hooly Wummen.  This mid-fifteenth-century manuscript, probably produced for Thomas Burgh to give to the nunnery, bears a scribal notation indicating it was “doon wrytyn in Canebryge by his sone Frere Thomas Burgh, in the yere of our lord a thousand foure hundryth seuyn and fourty, whose expence dreu thretty schyligyns, and yafe yt on to this holy place of nunnys that þei shulde have mynd on hym and of hys systyr dame Betrice Burgh; of þe wych soulys Jhesu have mercy. Amen (f. 193).”  Bokenham’s Legendys of Hooly Wummen features Chaucer prominently; Bokenham on more than one occasion invokes Chaucer as a master of the English vernacular, as an authoritative predecessor poet.  For instance, in a classic use of the humility topos, Bokenham writes:

But sekyr I lakke bothe eloquens

And kunnyng swych maters to dilate,

For I dewllyd neuyere wyth the fresh rethoryens,

Gower, Chaucers, ner wyth lytgate…. (lines 414-17)

The nuns of Denney accordingly encounter the figure of Chaucer in MS Arundel 327 as a great English poet in the context of religious material one would readily expect to find in a nunnery library.


Farmhouse converted from the former Denney Abbey. Wikimedia Commons, photograph by Rob Enwiki

My focus in this chapter is primarily on the communities of Syon and Amesbury rather than on Denney, however, since Chaucerian texts found in the libraries of Syon and Amesbury comprise potentially more surprising reading material for nuns than the contents of Arundel 327.  The texts by and featuring Chaucer found in the Syon and Amesbury libraries are not saints’ lives or other conventional devotional texts (like Lydgate’s Life of Our Lady, which contains ample praise for Chaucer but of which no records survive indicating possession by an English nunnery).  Rather, the Chaucerian material found in the libraries of Syon and Amesbury concerns courtly and political subjects.

Oxford, Bodleian Library Laud misc. 416 is one manuscript filled with courtly, politically oriented Chaucerian material that was owned by the Brigittine nuns of Syon.  Laud misc. 416 is a compilation that as a whole emphasizes the socio-political with a focus on the common profit.  One of the texts included in the compilation is John Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes.  The Siege, a text framed as an addition to the Canterbury Tales presenting the Theban backstory to the Knight’s Tale, is, as Derek Pearsall’s asserts, perhaps Lydgate’s most political poem.  Lydgate’s Siege is preceded in Laud misc. 416 by part two of Peter Idley’s Instructions to His Son, which draws upon John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes.  In fact, the “Fall of Princes is…a supplementary source” to Robert Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne in Book II of the Instructions.  According to Charlotte D’Evelyn, from the Fall of Princes “Idley has taken undisguisedly forty-six stanzas….  Nearly all of the forty-six stanzas are incorporated with only slight changes, many lines with no change at all” (p.49).  Following the Siege is Lydgate and Benet Burgh’s Secrets of Old Philosophers, a text that, as Charles F. Briggs notes, purports to be a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great covering topics “from ethical and political advice, to prescriptions for diet and hygiene, to astrological lore” (p.21)  Laud misc. 416 additionally includes the universal history Cursor mundi and an English prose translation of Vegetius’s treatise, De re militari, which Catherine Nall describes as “perhaps the most authoritative military manual of the Middle Ages” (p.11).  The final text in the manuscript is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, an imperfect version consisting only of lines 1-142.  This portion of the Parliament readily fits the thematic concerns of the other texts in the manuscript, since lines 1-142 of the Parliament concern themselves primarily with a synopsis of Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, which is the final part of his De re publicaM. C. Seymour indicates that at least eight folios are “lost after f.289,” so Laud misc. 416 most likely originally contained the full text of the Parliament of Fowls (p.25).

The Amesbury nuns too had opportunity to encounter Chaucer in a manuscript context that emphasizes the courtly and the political rather than the overtly devotional.  Like Laud misc. 416, BL Add. 18632 is a mid-fifteenth-century manuscript, and it bears a sixteenth-century Latin inscription indicating that it was presented to the prioress and convent of Amesbury by “Richardus Wygyngton, capellanus” in 1508. The full inscription reads: “Istum librum dominus Richardus Wygyngton, capellanus, dedit prioresse et conuenti monasterii Ambrosii Burgi in vigilia natiuitatis beate Marie uirginis Anno Domini m<illesim>o quingentesimo octaua, ut ipse ex caritate orent pro ipso et amicis suis.  Et si aliquis istum librum a monasterio alienauerit, anathema sit” (fol. 99v ; quoted by David Bell, p.104). Interestingly, “The fly-leaves of this manuscript (fols. 2 and 101) contain fragments of the household accounts of Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster.  The accounts cover parts of the years 1356-9 and are of interest in mentioning payments made to Geoffrey Chaucer when he was a page in her household” (Bell, p.103).  So here is Chaucer triply present in a monastic library—a manuscript containing two texts in which the figure of Chaucer appears is bound with accounts in which Chaucer also features.  Also like the materials in Laud misc. 416, the contents of Add. 18632 are not as clearly applicable to the situation of female monastic readers as are female saints’ lives of Arundel 327.  In this manuscript, a copy of Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes is accompanied by Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, his speculum princeps that gives pride of place to the figure of Chaucer.



Amesbury (Church of St Mary & St Melor). Wikimedia Commons, photograph by Chris Talbot

What the significances of such texts were for women religious, and how nuns engaged with these texts within and outside their monastic communities, are what occupy me in this chapter of Chaucer and Religious Controversies.  As I discuss, the nuns of Syon and Amesbury were positioned to draw upon these texts to develop rhetorical strategies and courses of action in complex political situations, and these texts played important roles in the sophisticated devotional cultures of these monastic communities.  As I argue in chapter 1, Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale represent a sophisticated engagement with contemporary, and controversial, overlapping debates concerning Continental female spirituality and heterodox English religious thought, debates addressing female religious authority, vernacular theology, and religio-political reforms.  The female monastic communities in which Chaucer’s manuscripts were located were communities in which the Second Nun might have felt right at home; they were communities at once committed to vibrant vernacular textual cultures, devotional and theological innovation, and political engagement.  And, just as the Second  Nun’s St. Cecelia offers “conseil” to her husband and instruction to Tiburce, Maximinus, and Almachius, the monastic communities of Syon and Amesbury had interests in the provision of religious as well as political instruction, enterprises for which the Chaucerian works in their libraries were well suited.

The chapter that follows this one in Chaucer and Religious Controversies is also relevant to the work of the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon project.  Chapter 3 concentrates on texts from the 1550s through the 1580s in which a Catholic strand of Chaucer reception develops to counter the dominant early modern reception of Chaucer as a proto-Protestant, as a “right Wyclevvian” as John Foxe calls him in the Acts and Monuments.  Among the texts representing this Catholic tradition are William Forrest’s History of Grisild the Second (1558) along with other religious writings that he produced in a manuscript (BL Harley 1703) on which he worked possibly into the early 1580s. William Forrest was a royal chaplain to Queen Mary, and he presented the History of Grisild the Second to her in 1558. Prior to this royal service, he had been at Oxford in 1530, when Henry VIII sent to the university to procure a judgement in favor of his proposal to divorce Katherine of Aragon.  Forrest was also present at Katherine of Aragon’s funeral at Peterborough in 1536, so he was an eyewitness to arguments and events he brings into his reworking of the Griselda story.  In Forrest’s writings, the interplay of gender, authority, female devotion, and women’s religious speech—questions that preoccupy Chaucer’s treatments of women religious and inform English monastic women’s engagements with Chaucer and the Chaucer tradition—remain prominent.  A nexus of overlapping debates about literary canon formation, the nature of the true English church, and competing representations of English dynastic histories that are central to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts treated in the final two chapters of this book also emerge perceptibly in Forrest’s engagements with Chaucer and the Chaucer tradition in the second half of the sixteenth century.

While in chapter 2, I explore ways in which actual later medieval and early modern monastic women engage with texts by Chaucer and in the Chaucer tradition dealing with such topics as good government and right rule, in my analysis of William Forrest’s writings, I examine a different configuration of the intersection of gendered political authority, Chaucer’s writings, and the provision of royal advice.  In this age of female rule, also an age in which Catholicism was strongly associated with transgressive femininity by Protestant reformers and polemicists, as Forrest ponders questions of royal and religious authority and considers how rulers should be advised, he turns to a different part of the Chaucerian corpus than those which occupied the female monastic readers considered in chapter 2.  Forrest turns instead to the Clerk’s Tale, retelling the story of Griselda and Walter with the starring roles played by Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, and he associates Chaucer with a type of Marian piety and forms of female devotion in some ways quite different from those found in the Second Nun’s Prologue and in the Prioress’s Prologue and Tale.

Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale helps Forrest to reanimate a Catholic, medieval past that was an age of female virtue and Catholic religious devotion.   In chapter 3 my 2005 book Women of God and Arms, I argue that later medieval and early modern writers often adopted a strategy of “cloistering” such politically engaged women writers as Christine de Pizan and such politically active women as Isabel of Castile, mother of Katherine of Aragon.  In many respects, Forrest’s History of Grisild the Second represents another iteration of this strategy, one that draws upon the authority of Chaucer to advocate a feminine, Catholic, nonthreatening mode of queenship.  Thomas Betteridge contrasts Forrest’s vision of Mary with that of John Heywood in The spider and the fly, saying that while Heywood’s Mary “sweeps away the past and restores order, there is a sense in which Forrest’s Mary is being sucked back into the past” (Betteridge, “Maids and Wives,” LOC 3179).  I would add, she is being “sucked” into a particular interpretation of the past—the medieval, Catholic past envisioned as an age of “cloistered” women who are chaste, passive, silent on matters of religious controversy and political conflict, obedient to male authority figures, and whose lives center on traditional devotional practices of prayer, contemplation, and good works.  That Catholic, medieval past continued to live in Katherine of Aragon embodied as Griselda in the History, and Forrest means by his presentation of her exemplary life to ensure it is revived in Mary and perpetuated in the lives of the offspring he hopes she will have.

Forrest’s prescriptions for female virtue and ideal queenship minimize possibilities for women’s activities in the religio-political spheres, particularly the sorts of didactic, autonomous activity represented by the Second Nun and her St. Cecelia or by the nuns of Syon and Amesbury.  In the History of Grisild the Second, and elsewhere in Forrest’s writings, the preservation of English religious orthodoxy, which is Roman Catholic orthodoxy, and the assurance of the proper government of the realm depend on the maintenance of these modes of female conduct and female devotion.  As he will do for Dryden and the Catholic controversialists whom I discuss in chapter 4, “Father Chaucer” proves quite useful in Forrest’s efforts to mobilize yet manage medieval legacies and to assert fairly narrowly constrained roles for women in religious and political affairs.  As I argue in the final chapter, though, the active, vocal, didactic women of the Chaucerian tradition like the Second Nun and the Wife of Bath do not disappear from the scene, and will come to have a role of their own to play in the writings of the New England poet Anne Bradstreet, who participated in the confessional controversies of her day.

Professor Nancy Bradley Warren


The Enclosed Garden and Female Religious Identity


The Paradiesgärtlein (Garden of Paradise), c. 1410, The Upper Rhenish Master, Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Public Domain (Wikipedia Commons)

When thinking about medieval women and the enclosed garden, we commonly recall the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs: ‘hortus conclusus soror mea sponsa hortus conclusus fons signatus’ (4:12). Interpreted by the Church Fathers as an allegory of the mystical union with Christ, the fons signatus became imbued with Marian iconography; the female body was a ‘fountain sealed up’, enclosed in turn by the horticultural surrounds. This tempered layering is a form of claustration in the most etymologically rudimental terms, implying a confining of the female body as much as of the garden. Arguably, the hortus conslusus was used as a tool by which to interpret the often-troubling matter of the Word becoming Christ via female flesh, an issue at the heart of many pre-Reformation theological discourses. This is evident in Bonaventure’s fourth sermon on the Annunciation, which speaks of the creator residing in the tabernacle of the virginal womb that will later become the nuptial chamber. Many fourteenth- and fifteenth-century representations of the Annunciation locate Mary in similar architectural enclosures, from gardens to chambers, often placing the angel Gabriel on the threshold of the structure that Mary inhabits. The below fresco by Fra Angelico for the Convent of San Marco in Florence (c. 1450) is an early example of architectural perspective and spatial awareness used to situate the figures centrally within a semi-exposed chamber, in turn enclosed by the hortus conclusus.



The Annunciation, c. 1450, Fra Angelico, Convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy, Public Domain (Wikipedia Commons)

It is the representation of the hortus conclusus as a point of conjunction between the corporeal and the heavenly in which I am most interested. The ‘space’ of the garden is a liminal locus that through cultivation becomes a deliberately organised ‘place’ with signified value. The enclosed garden becomes a way of taming the macrocosmic associated with the eremitical wilderness. Nature, and in turn Mary’s body, is sealed and safely secured; sanctioned by the Church and transformed into a locus amoenus, a pleasant place. It is worth noting, too, that once Jesus has been born, as in the Upper Rhenish Master’s Paradiesgärtlein (above), Mary is decentred in her own hortus conclusus, returning to her reading while Christ is the central focus. In this context, it seems that situating the female body within the enclosed garden is a way to manage its messy implications.

We find this too in The Book of Margery Kempe, when Margery is invited into the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel’s garden at Lambeth. This follows a woman threatening Margery with a heretic’s death by fire: ‘I wold thu wer in Smythfeld, and I wold beryn a fagot to bren the wyth; it is pety that thow levyst’. However, the Archbishop approves of Margery and she is ‘wel comfortyd and strengthyd in hir sowle’. Ecclesiastical authority allays the scrutiny to which Margery’s form of performative piety subjected her, sanctioning her ‘maner of levyng’ that is so preoccupied with devotional images. This private audience in the enclosed garden continues ‘tyl sterrys apperyd in the fyrmament’, and Margery departs. The hortus conclusus is here not only a stage in the settling of the matter of a potentially troublesome female, but also acts as a sanctuary for Margery, relocating her away from her critics. She is literally, as are her religious practices, wrapped up – enclosed – in devotional iconography and imagery.

In her study of the visual and material culture within The Book of Margery Kempe, Laura Varnam examines Margery’s relationship with devotional objects, the crucifix and the pietà specifically. Employing Judith Butler’s formulation of gender identity as enacted – ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ – she argues that religious identity for medieval women could be created in the same way. Varnam persuasively proposes that Margery makes use of devotional objects to enact a ‘self-fashioning’, with objects becoming ‘events’ through the narratives that they evoke. Shannon McSheffrey has suggested that this focus on imagery was ‘one area of religious practive that women could control and make their own’, while Lollardy could not offer women ‘the same autonomy’. While Varnam examines the church and the domestic space as locations of this ‘repetition of acts’, I am interested in the possibility that the enclosed garden can also facilitate this performance of selfhood.

Just as Margery draws upon the ‘set of meanings’ established in devotional objects, religious women were invited to identify with the imagery of the hortus conclusus. The Middle English translation of St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue, for example, was penned as The Orcherd of Syon (c. 1415-20) for the benefit of the nuns at Syon Abbey, and was subsequently published as a printed work by Wynken de Worde so ‘that many relygyous and devoute soules myght be releved and have conforte therby’. This text employs the ‘goostli orcherd’ as a space of spiritual edification, and the translator’s Prologue encourages the reader to ‘walke and se boþe fruyt and herbis’. The reader is here invited to ruminate upon Catherine’s life and revelations in order to cultivate their own religious identity. However, this process rejects Catherine’s own practices of asceticism and repudiation of the senses, instead embracing a multi-sensory, full-body devotional experience: to find profitable fruit, to ‘taste’ and to ‘chewe it wel’, whether it be ‘scharpe’ or ‘bitter’. The hortus conclusus becomes a veritable sensorium, a virtual pilgrimage through the ‘aleyes’ of the orchard and through one’s own faculties. This impact of the hortus conclusus on the senses and on wellbeing, among other interesting avenues, is being explored by Liz Herbert McAvoy’s current project at Swansea University, ‘The Enclosed Garden’.

For women who could not venture on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as Margery Kempe did, or even when for those who wanted to relive a pilgrimage through sensory memory, this metaphorical image provides an appealing alternative. I’m reminded here of the horti conclusi of the Low Countries: small cabinets of curiosities forming an enclosed garden. Not dissimilar to reliquary boxes, these objects were crafted by nuns, filled and decorated with relics, small clay and wooden figures, silk, pearls, paper quilling, artificial flowers and fruit, patterned knots of thread and textiles. The horti conclusi provide a pilgrimage to paradijs, the archetypal paradise of the Garden, as well as ‘a small sample of the Holy Land’, as Barbara Baert has observed. These mixed media creations also offer a true microcosm of female devotion where, Baert remarks, ‘hands could flourish’ in a kinetically-charged creative process. This is a hybrid devotional object-cum-setting, in which evocative images are enclosed in sacral topography. This is performative expression of identity through the manual creative process, and a citational visual and sensory aid to devotion.

The enclosed garden thus seems to furnish women with both an image and setting through which to cultivate – to create, perform, enact – their religious identity, when they were not afforded the opportunity to do so through, for example, ordination. This in itself is a form of pilgrimage, in which women traverse the paths available to them. A fitting example to refer to is folio 25r from the Book of Hours of Marguerite d’Orléans, in which the central image shows Marguerite praying to the Virgin and Child, while the large margins are filled with illuminated horticulture, a path embedded with Marguerite and her entourage weaving their way through vegetation on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Marguerite is here enclosed by the layered images, a flowery border enwrapping the domestic space in which she is praying, enveloped in turn by the floral margins, and finally bound within the quires of the book itself. This enclosure, I believe, does more than simply confine the female body, but situates it within liminal spaces charged with potential, most significantly the potential for movement, to return to the kinetic image of cultivation. The hortus conclusus, as an intersection between heaven and earth, seems to lend power to that which resides on thresholds or on peripheries. Inseparable from the visual and the material, it is referential and highly evocative, offering women the opportunity to cultivate and enact an intensely formative pilgrimage in the margins.



Fol. 25r, The Book of Hours of Marguerite d’Orleans, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 1156B, Public Domain (Wikipedia Commons)

Could Agnes Paston Write? The Problem of Letter 13.

Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440 (BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r)

Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440. (c) British Library Board: BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r.


The literacy of the Paston women has been widely discussed by critics in recent decades. The Paston correspondence of the fifteenth century is a unique archive, that includes the largest collection of letters by English women in the Middle Ages. Yet the most prolific of the letter writers, women or men, was Margaret Paston, who relied entirely on scribes (often family members or servants) in the production of her 104 surviving letters because she herself was almost certainly illiterate.

While it is generally agreed that Margaret Paston could not write, it has been recently suggested that perhaps her mother-in-law, Agnes Paston, could (see, for example, the recent British Library blog on the Paston Letters). The digitisation of the full collection of the letters by the British Library enables closer examination of the evidence.

The first of Agnes’ letters, written from Paston to her husband, William, on 20 April, probably in 1440, is a delightful letter, which has always captivated me (Davis 1, no. 13, which I will refer to as Letter 13 henceforth; BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r). The news it conveys is good – the young people whose marriage is being negotiated (their son John, and his future wife Margaret) liked one another immediately – and there is great charm in the way that Margaret’s behaviour is described, ‘she made hym gentil chere in gyntyl wyse and seyde he was verrayly yowre son’.


Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440. (c) British Library Board: BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r.

Letter 13 is also a pleasure to look at. The handwriting is absolutely neat, the lines evenly spaced and straight, as is the left hand margin. Diane Watt has made a strong case for its being Agnes Paston’s own work, citing the ending of the letter, ‘Wretyn at Paston in hast…for defaute of a good secretarye’ (Watt, 2004 p. 135). She further argues that, ‘in one draft of her will, [Agnes] explains that William 1 asked her to ‘‘reporte, record, and bere wyttnesse’’ (Davis 1, p. 46) to the changes he wanted to make’ to his will. Conceding that possibly ‘recorde’ could in this context mean oral rather than written testimony, she concludes that these pieces of evidence together support ‘the argument that Agnes could write’ (Watt, 2004, p. 136). If it is accepted that other women in the collection, such as Elisabeth Clere and Alice Crane, could and did write their own letters, then it is reasonable to claim that Agnes may have written hers.

It is also, however, necessary to examine the evidence against the proposition that this one letter is in Agnes’ own hand; it is generally agreed that Agnes’ other twelve letters were both written and signed by various scribes, seven in all.

The first argument against this letter being Agnes’ holograph is the sheer quality of the handwriting. The hand is very clear and legible, with neat and consistent letter-forms. The lines are straight and evenly spaced, with a well-defined left hand margin. The writer uses frequent diagonal ‘slashes’ for punctuation, and consistently uses well-formed capital letters for proper nouns – place names, such as ‘Redham’ (l. 2 of manuscript) and ‘Stocton’ (l. 4), and personal names, ‘John Paston’ (l. 2 and 3) and Agnes Paston (l. 8 and 9). Furthermore, the handwriting is consciously decorative, with all ascenders looped, most descenders either straight or slightly angled to the left, and many rather attractive, long and deeply curved left-sloping descenders on the frequently-used letter ‘y’. The general effect is charming. This is accomplished, practised penmanship. Davis describes the hand as ‘professional-looking’, suggesting that, in his view, it is the work of a scribe (Davis 1, p. 13). It is undoubtedly the work of someone who wrote frequently.

If we take as our ‘control group’ of female holograph writers in the Paston Letters, the two who exhibit neat, consistent handwriting, Elisabeth Clere and Alice Crane, were both, apparently, habitual letter-writers. All four of Elisabeth Clere’s surviving letters are almost certainly holograph, and there is written evidence that Alice Crane conducted her correspondence in her own hand.

Yet, if the hand of Letter 13 is Agnes’, we have no other surviving letters of hers, nor any reference to her letter-writing. One is tempted to ask, if Agnes did not even write her own letters – and it is generally agreed that her other twelve letters are not in her hand – what was she writing, to keep her penmanship so perfect?

Furthermore, it appears that John Paston 1 asked Agnes to get Elisabeth Clere to write a letter on her behalf, for Agnes replied, ‘touchyng the mater wheche ye desyryd my cosyn Clere shulde write fore, she hath doo, and I sende you the copy closed in this lettre’ (Davis 1, no. 25). If Agnes had possessed scribal ability of the standard of Letter 13, he would not have needed to request this, but would surely have asked Agnes to write the letter herself.

Also, it seems likely that Agnes, like Margaret, generally used whatever literate employee was available to write letters for her, for seven scribes write her other twelve letters. The scribe that Agnes uses to write six of her letters, nos. 19, 20, 21, 24, 28 and 29, has rather poor handwriting; it is neither attractive, nor particularly legible. If we accept that Letter 13 is hers, would she really have been happy to send so many letters out, written in a hand much inferior to her own?

Moreover, if Agnes could write a whole letter in such an accomplished hand, one has to ask why she did not sign any of her other letters. It could be argued that the situation of the surviving correspondence of another Paston connection, Dame Elizabeth Brews, is similar to that of Agnes, in that there appears to be one holograph letter, while the rest of her letters were all written by clerks, who also signed them. It is, however, easy to understand why Dame Elizabeth did not sign her letters, when one sees, from her holograph, the very poor standard of her handwriting. In Agnes’ case, if her handwriting was that of Letter 13, she could have had no such misgivings. Most of the men of the Paston family usually wrote and signed their own letters, but, according to Davis, ‘It is worth notice that when any of the men employed clerks to write the copies of their letters that were actually sent they nearly always signed them themselves’ (Davis 1, p. xxxvii). Why, if she had such good handwriting, would Agnes not have done the same?

In fact Letter 13 is also more accurate than most of the other women’s holographs. It has only one small cancellation in the second line of an otherwise perfect manuscript. There are none of the corrections, interlineations, ink-blots or over-heavy lines that are to be found in most of the holographs written by women. Letter 13 is the work of a very experienced, competent writer.

Some of the most powerful points of argument against Letter 13 being in Agnes’ own hand lie in Davis’ claim – based on an extraordinary act of scholarship – that, ‘the hand, though smaller, is certainly that of the writer of the beginning of no. 6’ (Davis 1, p. 13).

Close study of the letter-forms in both manuscripts show Davis to be right; both manuscripts were written by the same person. Letter 6 is a long letter of 10 ½ manuscript lines, that is 20 ½ lines in Davis’ transcript, on a matter of business, which has nothing to do with the Paston family itself, but concerns some problems of the monks at Bromholm Priory.   The letter, written from William Paston to the Vicar of the Abbot of Cluny, the Abbot’s representative in England, complains that the monks of Bromholm have no one to hear their vows, so cannot be ‘professed’. He asks the Vicar to authorise the Prior of Thetford Priory, another Cluniac house, to hear their ‘profession’. Most of the letter is written in the neat hand of Letter 13, leading Davis to comment that Letter 6, ‘seems to have been begun as a fair copy, for the first ten and a half manuscript lines are carefully written in a professional-looking hand, with a wide margin’ (Davis 1, p. 13). William himself finished it, writing the final three and a half lines, and he signed it.

After adding a number of interlineations and corrections, William, for whatever reason, decided not to send it – it has no seal or address – and it was then used , according to Davis, ‘as scribbling paper, and contains a variety of notes mostly in Latin or French. Those on the verso (this side) are in Paston’s hand, some of them written between the lines of the draft but upside down’ (Davis 1, p. 13). One of these ‘scribbles’, written in William’s hand, upside down, between the lines of the original letter, is a recipe, apparently given to him by ‘Sibill Boys’, on how to keep ale fresh! (Davis 1, no. 7). Only three and a half lines of the original letter stand clear above the later ‘scribblings’, making Davis’ identification of the hand impressive. The place for the date at the end of the letter was left blank, but William’s scribbled notes were dated in three places, and Davis writes, ‘The concurrence of these dates makes 1430 the probable date of the draft’ (Davis 1, p. 13), so some ten years earlier than Letter 13.

There are a number of features of this letter which make it highly unlikely that it is in Agnes Paston’s hand. Firstly, there are many examples in the Paston Letters of a man writing a letter for a woman, but not one single example of a woman writing for a man. Moreover, a male ‘scribe’, be he an employee or a son, was generally of inferior status to the man or woman for whom he was writing. Agnes, however, was an heiress, who brought three estates to her marriage; though she was a woman, she was not of inferior status to William. In the modern period it may not have been uncommon for a woman to act as her husband’s secretary, but it is completely unprecedented to find a medieval gentlewoman acting in this way. Besides, not only is Letter 6 very long, but it is on a matter which does not concern Agnes at all. It seems very unlikely that the fifty two year old William Paston would have requested that his thirty year old wife – who had at least four children under the age of ten, the youngest, Elizabeth, being still a baby – write a long business letter on his behalf. If he had done so, surely he would not then have discarded it and used it as scrap paper for jotting down recipes.

One interesting idea that the subject matter of Letter 6 suggests, is a possible alternative identity for the writer of both Letters 6 and 13 – though this is surmise. William Paston, in Letter 6, describes Bromholm Priory as being, ‘in my cuntre, but a myle fro þe place where I was born’; I, myself, have, one afternoon, walked from Paston to Bromholm and back. It is possible that a member of the Bromholm community walked to Paston to ask William’s legal advice and help in drafting this difficult letter, and that the man himself, perhaps a monk or a priest, actually wrote it. If one of this man’s duties at the priory was copying holy books, it would explain the high quality of the penmanship, its clarity and consciously decorative appearance.

Bromholm Priory

The Ruins of Bromholm Priory. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the same churchman, by now well known to all the Paston family, was invited to their house again ten years later, to witness, in William’s absence, the important first meeting of their son with his prospective bride. Might he not have offered to write an account of the happy occasion for Agnes?   Might he not, seriously or jokingly, have ended his letter, ‘for defaute of a good secretarye’ – for William certainly knew his hand.

Though the phrase ‘for defaute of a good secretarye’ could be taken to indicate that the letter is in Agnes’ hand, it is not unequivocal; it is ambiguous, and might imply that Letter 13 is the work of a friend, a relation or a churchman, rather than the letter’s author, Agnes herself.


A note on the printed edition of the letters

Parts I and II of Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, edited by Norman Davis, were originally published by the Clarendon Press in 1971 and 1976, and were reissued with corrections by EETS in 2004. The letters have been made available online as part of the University of Michigan’s Corpus of Middle English Verse and Prose.

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