Women's Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon

An International Network Funded by the Leverhulme Trust

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.

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.

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.

The Lost Blood of the Middle Age


The Crucifixion, Pietro Lorenzetti (1320-44), tempera and gold leaf on wood. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift and Gwynne Andrews Fund, 2002).

Images and stories of bloodshed have been ubiquitous of late. Bloodied and wounded children in Syria are carried towards hospitals by wailing parents after being exploded by man-made weapons. Blood supplies are being transported by drones in Rwanda to rural medical clinics where five hour journeys have been sliced to 30 minutes: a life-saving operation for patients like postpartum, haemorrhaging women, who represent a massive proportion of mortalities in this region – not dissimilar to the Middle Ages, when postpartum deaths were commonplace.

‘A Good Conscience is a Continual Christmas’: The Manere of Good Lyving (Liber de modo bene vivendi): ‘A Devoute Tretes’ for Nuns


‘Cistercian nuns’, London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 11, fol. 6r, Source Wikimedia Commons

With the approaching festive season, many people will concur with the following saying, attributed to Benjamin Franklin: ‘there cannot be good living where there is not good drinking’. The Manere of Good Lyvyng perhaps surprisingly does not completely disagree: ‘Drynke (…) my loved suster, wyne moderatly and meanly, and hit shal be to you helth of body and gladnes of mynde, and shall take awey from you sluggyshnes and dulnes and shall make you dyligent and devout in þe service of God’.

‛I am the rightful owner of this book’ : books owned by Icelandic women in the middle ages to the 18th century


ÍB 65 8vo. A common girl (born 1689) writes in her own hand that she owns this book of hymns. Picture Helgi Bragason, The National library of Iceland.

Though published records have little to say about the bookish activities of secular women in Iceland in the high and late Middle Ages, the limited available evidence confirms that the links between women and books have a long history. The fact that they gifted books to churches and religious houses is the clearest evidence that they owned individual volumes, and perhaps even accumulated modest libraries. Women were educated in the home, normally under the supervision of their mothers, and this remained the case until the nineteenth century. However, evidence suggests that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries women organised schools in which girls and boys were taught. It seems that initially these children were taught side by side, but that they later went their separate ways when writing instruction began. However, a select number of girls did learn to write, and the fact that such activity attracted written comment confirms that it was a source of interest and admiration. Some girls also learned to count, as can be seen from their skill in calculating the dates of liturgical calendar feasts and the like. That said, female education differed significantly from that available to men; its nature and quality was more dependent on the competence and knowledge of the mother.

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