An illuminated initial from the Wilton Psalter, showing a group of nuns reading (my photograph)
For a woman to read as a woman is not to repeat an identity or an experience that is given but to play a role she constructs with reference to her identity as a woman, which is also a construct, so that the series can continue: a woman reading as a woman reading as a woman. (Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction, 64).
Women read in the Middle Ages. If they didn’t read material texts, they were certainly still engaged with what one might call “literary culture”. They heard and shared stories, they listened and talked, they laughed and engaged with literature, with letters, with the letters of the alphabet and those you exchanged and sent, with accounts and records, with the emerging world of the written word. I don’t think anyone today would deny these statements outright, and if they did, there would be a plethora of articles and books to cite proving the contrary.
Yet for several years, I have struggled to find funding for a post-doctoral research proposal that seeks to study one corner of this emerging literary world, the Anglo-Norman compilation manuscript and the women that read them. I know there could be many reasons I haven’t been able to find funding, and I don’t want to claim that I haven’t gotten funding because I want to focus on women readers. There are so many variables that go into what makes a research proposal viable, and I think that the project just probably isn’t ready yet, but I’d like to consider here my own reluctance to devote myself to it: lately I’ve been sending it out without this focus.
Why did I decide to do this?
Anglo-Norman manuscripts haven’t been studied as a body of work, and I suppose I thought that perhaps it would be more legitimate to start from a broader perspective. But more importantly, I realized that many of the people who would give me funding perhaps wouldn’t believe women read them in the first place. It certainly wasn’t a given to anyone I spoke to about it. It was though I had to first prove that women read them, to myself, but also to the people I was requesting funding from, and even to the women who are my academic advisors.
Why is this?
I wrote my dissertation on a 13th century Anglo-Norman manuscript, the Bodmer 82, that probably belonged to Wilton Abbey, the richest religious house for women in England during the long Middle Ages, from its founding around the turn of the 9th century to the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th.
During the time I spent with this manuscript, it became clear to me that it was intended to be read by women. I may be convinced of this simply because I read it as a woman and I identified with the women who would have read it at the time it was compiled. I suffered with them and felt their need for its message, which brings home the essential nature of love and underlines the difficulties of chastity and fidelity, while maintaining the importance of taking it all with a grain of salt, of applying the balm of story and humour. From a didactic point of view, I think these lessons would have made sense to the women at the abbey, both those within the orders and without.
Even though we have no proof now of the contents of the abbey’s collection of books, I was able to trace ownership of the manuscript back to someone whose ancestors very well could have gotten it from the religious house itself, and I included this assertion, hesitantly, in the conclusion of my thesis. I was also able to locate the Bodmer manuscript in relation to other books we know the abbey owned, such as the famous Wilton Psalter currently housed at the London College of Physicians, and I was able to trace a parallel between its contents and the life of the abbey’s patron saint. Yet I gave this part of my argument short shrift in my dissertation, and my advisor, who is a woman, also generally found it unconvincing. Ironically, the male professors on my board were more convinced, but it remains the part of my argument that still feels the weakest to me.
In order to understand how women learned from books in the Middle Ages, I decided I wanted to pursue my research on what women were reading more broadly at the time. In my initial project I wanted to investigate what women read throughout religious houses in Europe in order to understand the role narrative played in medieval women’s education. A trusted reader deemed this far too broad for a post-doctoral proposal, so I returned to the drawing board.
As many of you undoubtedly know, applying for post-doctoral funding can be daunting and discouraging, especially as a first foray out of the relatively structured world of graduate school. The proposal must be appealing, relevant, interdisciplinary, and trendy, while enriching the broader public, the discipline, and academia as a whole. As a scholar who is between continents if not disciplines – I’m an American who was trained in Switzerland and wants to study Old French in England – it has been challenging to know how to formulate an acceptable proposal.
I’ve also come upon a conundrum: I’ve been trying to convince people to give me money to study a series of medieval books that I am convinced were primarily read by medieval women when it’s still largely believed that women didn’t read them. It’s somehow a given that men read in the Middle Ages, while female readers are the exception. Where does this belief come from? I think largely from the history of my academic discipline, medieval French, which was founded in the 19th century by men who did not hold the female intellect in high regard. But that was a long time ago now. I feel like that elderly woman at the protest holding up the “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this” sign.
Yet I feel I must still stand up for my convictions, with an inner knowing that Marie de France was indeed a woman – one male scholar famously argued that she wasn’t – and the feeling that women readers and writers may have been the rule rather than the exception more often than we think. This doesn’t, however, feel very academic.
But why not flip the expectation?
There could have been a world in which men couldn’t possibly be reading because they were off fighting. Women were at home, reading, praying, teaching their children. This doesn’t sound so improbable. Furthermore, I feel I owe a debt to those unnamed women readers. It feels urgent to establish that women read, and that not only did they read, but that their reading was essential to the creation of what we call literature and literary culture today.
Am I not reading as a woman, and as a woman might have read in the past (and many, many women have read)?
I find that medieval texts speak directly to this identity of mine as a woman reading. This approach may not feel very academic to my university-trained mind, but there are jewels to be found in following my intuition, and how is it different really from earlier generations of scholars who just assumed that only men read?
So I’m returning to the drawing board again and following this thread: in the Middle Ages, women read.