Women's Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon

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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.


Donated blood supplies. Wikimedia Commons

In the Middle Ages, the power of blood-images was just as immediate. Yet, whilst the value of blood – the very essence of our fluid vitality – is almost taken for granted in its pulsating, energising potency, we continue to wonder upon, to gaze on, to almost fetishise, escaped blood.

Lost blood.

On a simple level, of course, lost blood signifies death. This explains, to a great extent, the human fascination with its aberrant appearance outside the body. Lost blood equals lost life.

But does it always? In medieval culture, blood was just as powerful in its iconographic symbolism, largely in the context of Christ’s crucifixion. Paintings and illuminations of Christ on the cross often emphasise the complete exsanguination of his body. His blood pours continually in a paradox of timeless velocity. Hanging, in corporeal entropy, Christ is depicted as dry and discoloured.


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.)

These were the physiological signs of a bleeding, dying body in medieval medical texts. The scientific ‘signs of death’ were not only the domain of the physician, but also the priests, hospital nuns, and even christen of the community who enacted death bed vigils. Both medic and priest were equally qualified to diagnose such ‘signs’ (which also included a ‘sharpened’ nose, shallow breathing, and tightness of the skin), not least because the border of medicine and religion in the Middle Ages was blurry to say the least. For example, in Cannon 22 of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Pope Innocent IV went so far as to declare that a priest should be called before a physician in cases of near-death. The health of the body and the soul were interrelated, but the soul’s health took precedence, for eternal life was of the greatest import:

As sickness of the body may sometimes be the result of sin… we by this present decree order and strictly command physicians of the body, when they are called to the sick, to warn  persuade them first of all to call in physicians of the soul so that after their spiritual health has been seen to they may respond better to medicine for their bodies.(Cannon 22, Fourth Lateran Council, 1215).

Images of the Passion resonate even more at this time of year, when the remembrance of Jesus’ birth is simultaneously celebratory and devastating: born to die a martyr’s death, the hope-filled tableau of the nativity scene is undercut by the dreadful subtext of Christ’s predestination. There is a terrifying continuity between the parturient blood of birth and the salvific blood of the crucified Christ.

Margery Kempe, one of the medieval mystics of greatest renown, was notorious for her bothersome crying and noisy piety (how dare a woman be so loud?). But despite her neighbours’ grumbling and irritation at her interruptions during Mass and her moral postulating at dinner parties, they hastily retract their annoyance at times of their relatives’ dying; actively requesting Kempe’s presence at the death-beds:

Also þe sayd creatur was desiryd of mech pepil to be wyth hem at her deying & to prey for hem, for, þow þei louyd not hir wepyng ne hir crying in her lyfe-tyme, þei de[sir]ryd þat sche xulde bothyn wepyn & cryin whan þei xulde deyin, & so sche dede. (BMK, Bk I, Ch. 72).

[Also, many people desired to have the said creature with them at the time of their death and to pray for them, because even though they did not love her weeping or her crying during their lifetimes, they desired that she should both weep and cry when they came to die, and this she did.]

Though there is satirical potential in the people’s desire to reclaim Kempe’s bothersome crying performances and to utilise this ebullience for their own dramatic end (quite literally), Kempe happily complies. To have watched the deaths of her fellow parishioners time and time again would have given her a familiarity with the ultimate transition from this world to the next, greater even than the average medieval person, whose contact with death was ordinarily frequent.


Death bed scene from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves.  The Morgan Library MSS M.917, p.180 – M.945, f.97r. Reproduced with permission.

Not all medieval deaths involved blood loss, of course. But, as Caroline Walker Bynum, Liz Herbert McAvoy, Peggy McCracken, and Bettina Bildhauer have demonstrated, blood was a central facet in the devotion, health, generation, and gendering, of medieval life.

Much has been written about the symbolic value of female menstruation. Since Eve’s transgression, women’s blood has been associated with impurity and (wo)man’s fall from grace. In the Middle Ages, menstrual blood was considered toxic: women who ‘retained’ this blood because of ill-health or age could injure small children or curdle milk just with their gaze. Medieval gynaecological texts prioritised regular menstruation as a crucial indicator of female health. If menstrual blood was inadequate, measures were taken to stimulate its activity. If bleeding was excessive, it was counteracted through phlebotomy or the drawing of the blood to other parts of the body using heat, or cupping.

But at the same time, menstrual blood was necessary for fertility, as the author of the Liber de sinthomatibus mulierum, one of the twelfth-century ‘Trotula’ texts, outlines:

The common people call the menses “the flowers”, because just as trees do not bring forth fruit without flowers, so women without their flowers are cheated of their ability to conceive (The Trotula, trans. and ed. Green, p. 72-3).

The Benedictine abbess, visionary and healer, Hildegard of Bingen (d.1179), even prescribed menstrual blood as a cure for leprosy, to harness its fertile and nourishing potency:

If a person becomes leprous from lust or intemperance… He should make a bath…and mix in menstrual blood, as much as he can get, and get into the bath’ (Physica, trans. Throop, p. 61).

While male lost blood was associated with valour and usually aligned with Christ’s ultimate sacrifice or the courageous spilling of blood by knights or warriors on the battlefield, female lost blood demanded wariness, sometimes repellence, but it was also profoundly necessary.

But what about the stage of life when women lose blood in a different way?

During the menopausal years (another middle age, perhaps), medieval women have been shown by scholars like Anneke Mulder-Bakker to become more male; to gain authority, status, and the credibility to write and to teach (if not to preach). It could be suggested that women of this life stage were more authoritative because they had lost the menstrual blood that had previously defined them as stained and polluted. No longer the antitheses of the Virgin Mary, whose own gestational and menstrual blood was regarded by theologians like Thomas Aquinas as pure because of the operation of the Holy Spirit, women could identify in different ways, post-menopause.

In my doctoral thesis, I investigated Margery Kempe’s menopausal years in this very light. How was she ontologically and experientially different, after the lost blood of menopause? What was the meaning of losing the very blood that medieval culture loaded with so many different meanings?

One of my most interesting findings was the correlation of the end of Kempe’s ten years of boisterous crying with the age at which most medieval medical texts situate the onset of menopause: around fifty. Kempe received the gift of tears at Mount Calvary in Spring 1414, aged forty-one. This violent style of weeping lasted for ten years ‘ϸis maner of crying enduryd ϸe terme of x ȝer’ (BMK, Bk. I, Ch. 57) until she was around fifty-one, after which point her tears became softer and quieter. Is it coincidental that her loss of blood –  the excessive superfluity that medical texts suggest is absent after menopause – coincides with her loss of boisterous tears? Now characterised by less excess, Kempe was more measured and balanced, free to heal and to minister.

Liz Herbert McAvoy has identified the way in which anchoresses, and those in monastic enclosures, practised regular phlebotomy [blood-letting] to regulate their bodily health. These practices were stipulated by Rules such as Ancrene Wisse. Such deliberate blood-letting, far removed from the bloody curse of Eve, allowed religious women to regain control of their lost blood and to harness it for the health of their body and their soul.


Blood-letting in Aldobrandino of Siena’s Régime du Corps. British Library, MS Sloane 2435, f.11v. France, late 13thC. Wikimedia Commons

So, what, then, is the meaning of the lost blood of the Middle Age?

Today, it is primarily (and understandably) a symbol of wounded-ness in the pejorative sense. In the Middle Ages, however, the meaning of lost blood was multivalent, transferable, and, ultimately, salvific. That blood increased in value in medieval culture when it was on the outside – escaped, and lost – reveals how medical and spiritual ideologies were interrelated. The exsanguinated body (purified for God), is a body that is bled in union with Christ. Such a body is not weakened, but strengthened by the plurality and potency of blood’s life-giving substance: even if that life is necessarily of another world.














‘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’.

The Manere of Good Lyvyng is a translation of the Liber de modo bene vivendi, which has often been attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux and was supposedly written for his sister, Humbelina, who entered a monastery in 1124. The  Latin text, one of many medieval works that lack a modern edition, can be found in Migne’s Patrologia Latina (PL 184. 1199-1306). Thus it is difficult to know how many manuscripts of the work in Latin have come down to us, but it is clear, when one considers the many early printed editions or translations into European vernaculars, that it was a popular text. One of the manuscripts in Sweden has a note (in another hand) to the effect that St Birgitta always carried this work with her. In England the text was translated into English three times, once in the fifteenth century and twice later. The medieval translation, which survives in a unique manuscript of the Bodleian Library in Oxford (MS Laud misc. 517) and was intended in all likelihood for the Bridgettine sisters of Syon, is quite faithful to the Latin and is introduced by the following rubric:

A devoute tretes of holy Saynt Bernard, drawne oute of Latyn into English, callid The Manere of Good Lyvyng, which he sent unto his own suster, wherin is conteyned the summe of every vertue necessary unto Cristis religion and holy conversacion.

Although Bernard of Clairvaux was not the author, the text was probably written at the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the early thirteenth century. The author, whoever he was, and he may have been a religious following the Rule of St. Augustine, describes his efforts thus: ‘I have by the helpe of your devoute prayers, as Y myght not as I ouȝte, gadred togethyr som small lessons of religious conversacion oute of the writyngs of my forfathirs, which in this litell boke I sende unto youe accordyng to your peticion’. Although the text does not reveal its sources, a large number of these ‘small lessons’ are taken from Isidore of Seville’s Sententiae and Synonyma. But the text also specifically refers to St Augustine, St Jerome, St Ambrose, Gregory the Great and others.

In addition to a Prologue, The Manere of Good Lyvyng  consists of seventy-three chapters which the Middle English version calls ‘exhortacions’.These cover a wide range of subjects, including Virtues and Vices; advice for novices; Examples of Holy Fathers; Prayer, Reading, and Labour; an examination of the Active and Contemplative Lives, Psalms and Hymns; Dreams, and so on. The Prologue compares the text to a mirror and tells its reader: ‘therin looke ye as in a glasse’ to learn ‘howe ye shall love God and your neyghbour, howe ye shall dispyse all yerthly and transitorye thyngis, how ye shall covett everelastyng and hevenly thyngis, how for Crystis sake ye shall suffer paciently thadversitie of þis worlde and dispyse þe prosperite and the flateryng of the same […] howe in your prosperite ye shal not be hygh-mynded, ne in adversite broken with ire’.

The numerous addresses to the recipient, ‘my loved suster’, ‘wel beloved suster’, ‘good virgyn’, and the use of the first person by the author make the words come to life and the suggestion of a dialogue is sustained by questions and answers such as the following: ‘[A question] Peraventer ye wold aske me: broþere, what ys it þat is radd in Scriptur: “no man or woman ys holy, good and ryȝtwous, but oonly God?” [The answer] My loved suster, as it is writen, so yt ys. Sothly oonly God ys good, holy and riȝtwous, for he is very goodnes hymself’.

In many ways then, The Manere of Good Lyvyng may be compared to other texts written for female religious such as the Ancrene Wisse or The Doctrine of the Hert. It has the advantage over these two other works of being written in relatively short chapters which perhaps makes it easier for the reader to retain her ‘lessons’. Indeed the sister is advised to: ‘rede overe this boke, and rede it thorogh agayn and agayn’. Although The Manere of Good Lyvyng at times uses everyday images, as for instance in its discussion of the man or woman ‘þat be sory and wepe for their synnes’ and ‘doeth worthy and dewe penaunce’ ‘for he þat wepyth and ys sory for his syn and doeth the same agayn ys lyke to hym that doeth wasche a newe and a grene tyle-stone which the more he waschyth it, the fowler he makyth it’, such images are much less frequent than in the other two works mentioned.

The manuscript of The Manere of Good Lyvyng is unadorned and simple, but written in a beautiful script (‘fere-textura’) with the initial capital of every chapter, two-line long in blue ink and usually inscribed in a decorated square in red ink. Its appearance matches its contents and style, and the text could be described as a ‘quiet’ text, a text that appeals perhaps more to the intellect and helps its reader to ‘kepe [her] eyesight, withdrawe it and fixe it not upon the bewte of the stynkyng bodye’ or anything else which could detract her attention from God. She is told: ‘good suster, I counceyl yow and praye yow both to correcte your own lyfe with al diligence, so þat your communicacion be religious, your goyeng honest, your sight humble and meke, your speche well sette and spoken, your mynde full of love, your handis full of good werkis, and all with the helpe of God withoute whom ye can doo no good thyng’.

However, there is another side to the text, a more lyrical streak, which often expresses itself with quotations from and glosses on the Song of Songs. For example, ‘The ixth exhortacion sheweth how religiouse habite shuld not be precious nor curyous nor superfluous, and how the habite and good lyfe shuld agre togyther’. It warns the sister:

Good suster, lete clene gere be aboute yow, not for comlynes but for necessite of the bodye, les þat when ye ar arayed with preciouse ornamentis, ye fall in þe fylth of þe soule. For the more þe bodye ys appareled and arayed outeward for vaynglorye, so much more ys the soule withyn defyled. […]

Loved suster, clense your conscience from all malys that graciously it may be sayde to you of Jhesu Cryste, your celestyall spouse, þat is radd in Scriptur: ‘thou art verey fayr, my love, þu art verey bewteous, thy eyes be as þe eyes of culvers’.  That ys to sey, ye be feyr for the perfeccion of bodye and clennes of thouȝte. Ye ar betewes, havyng a clene and innocent intent of harte and mynde, for all þat ye doo, it ys not for favour of peple, but to please God. Ye have the eyes of the culver when ye be clere from all malice, symulacion and faynengs.

My moste loved suster in Cryste, therfor I shew yow all this, þat ye may be more gladde withyn in þe soule of holy vertues than withoute in þe bodye of gloryous vestures.

In order to be appreciated, The Manere of Good Lyvyng requires from the modern reader the same degree of attention that was required from its medieval audience. It is only when one ‘rede overe this boke, and rede it thorogh agayn and agayn’ that one can discover its quiet beauty.

One suspects that Benjamin Franklin’s understanding of ‘good living’ and ‘good drinking’ differed somewhat from what the author of The Manere of Good Lyvyng recommended to its readers. Nevertheless, since his work urges them to ‘clense [their] conscience from all malys’, although he may phrase it differently, he most probably would fully agree at least with another quotation from the American Founding Father: ‘a good conscience is a continual Christmas’.


‛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.

Up to the sixteenth century only the daughters of aristocrats and officials learnt to read and even write. During the seventeenth century, however, poor priests’ daughters followed suit, with some achieving knowledge of Latin. The image of the literate working woman also emerged at this time. While Guðbrandur Þorláksson was Bishop of Hólar (1571-1627) he organised the publication of many religious volumes designed to instruct the laity in the new faith. This played its part in promoting literacy among ordinary folk, not least, of course, among priests’ daughters. Around 1700 the spread of literacy was greatly helped when the authorities began to require greater knowledge of Christian doctrine among the population at large.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century estate inventories show that up to fifteen religious books could be found in the average Icelandic household. Even poor, unmarried working women left a few such volumes behind when they died. The church’s printing house certainly saw to it that the spiritual needs of the laity were met. However, there are few if any extant printed books that were once owned by women during the period from the middle ages to 1730. The chances of such volumes surviving in tact in damp and dingy Icelandic households were slim. We may note that secular printed volumes or manuscripts are rarely mentioned in inventories. Until the removal of the church’s printing monopoly at the end of the eighteenth century such texts circulated mainly in manuscript.

Scholars believe that only a small number of those manuscripts are now extant in the Icelandic national archives, perhaps as few as one in ten. Bearing in mind that little is known about the provenance of many surviving manuscripts, it is surprising that so many of them can be linked to women. The oldest manuscripts owned by women are from the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth century. Though few in number they are splendid in appearance. The care and custody of manuscripts improved over time. During the seventeenth century paper became cheaper and the copying of manuscripts flourished under the influence of continental humanism and antiquarianism. Women benefitted from these developments, with a growing number owning two or more volumes that are still extant today.

Initially, ownership of manuscripts was confined to aristocratic women from Iceland’s finest families. Many were connected by ties of kinship.  Prominent among them were the wives and daughters of educated men, and they helped to make such volumes available to other women. Bookish mothers and grandmothers also played a key role in promoting book-ownership among their successors. Though we know that women inherited books, it was more often the case that manuscripts were either copied for or gifted to them. As paper became less expensive during the seventeenth century there was an increase in book ownership among the wives and daughters of less wealthy farmers and poor priests. Far from being connected with Iceland’s leading families, several of these new book owners and readers were from modest social backgrounds. Bookish women of this kind become more prominent during the eighteenth century under the influence of Icelandic enlightenment-age thought, with its emphasis on popular education and its legislation on the teaching of reading.

To some extent women’s books reflect one of their principal roles, as mothers and housewives. Until the eighteenth century lawbooks featured prominently on women’s bookshelves. The lawbook (Jónsbók) and the Bible were used to teach children to read. By learning in this way boys were prepared for work in a society whose main official positions were associated with law and theology. And because it was the mother who took responsibility for the primary education of her children, women inevitably learnt to read these volumes themselves.


AM 334 fol, a law book on parchment. Many women owned such books and used them for teaching children how to read. Picture Jóhanna Ólafsdóttir, The Árni Magnússon institute for Icelandic studies.

Miscellanies written for women in the seventeenth and eighteenth century were clearly regarded as handbooks (or, as it were, toolboxes) for housewives, and were probably more often found in their apron pockets than preservation evidence suggests. Such volumes were all written shortly before or after their owners got married. They contain material of use for instructing children, e.g. extracts from Latin School textbooks, riddles, and arithmetical and astrological information. Other material included reminds us that the role of mother and housewife was regarded as far from easy: notes on on gender relations, the Lutheran faith, the calendar, verses about the weather, and any other information that might help protect the household against the forces of evil at work in the world. The home was the major workplace in Icelandic society, and responsibility for the welfare, development and educational attainments of all who lived there lay squarely on the shoulders of the housewife.

From the outset women were eager owners of saga manuscripts, such as the Sagas of Icelanders and the Kings’ Sagas. On the other hand, Árni Magnússon’s diligence as a manuscript collector at the beginning of the eighteenth century left women’s holdings of such volumes much depleted. Although sagas were read for entertainment their educational and utilitarian value was also recognised. Just as is the case in Iceland today the Sagas of Icelanders were part of the school curriculum. Knowledge of Icelandic history was a key element in the education and self-awareness of every Icelander. Saga manuscripts served many purposes for women. In pre-Reformation times—and even afterwards—women owned manuscripts of sagas about the Holy Maidens. Margrétar saga, for example, served as an aid during childbirth, and all extant manuscripts of the saga are thought to have been owned by women, even though specific evidence of this cannot always be found. Legendary Sagas, Chivalric Sagas and chapbooks were popular reading materials for both men and women. Though serving primarily as sources of entertainment, such works offered much civilising counsel. Chivalric tales could teach readers about courtesy and proper behaviour, while many Legendary and Chivalric sagas and chapbooks explore gender relations. By the middle of the eighteenth century it was even considered safe for a well-born young woman to learn to read and write from such stories. Women were every bit as keen as men to learn from old tales how best to cope with life’s vicissitudes.

Before the Reformation Konungs skuggsjá (Kings mirror) and Elucidarius were part of the curriculum at Latin Schools in Iceland. Women certainly owned copies of these works during the sixteenth century and it has been suggested that earlier they may have constituted part of a woman’s dowry. The works’ moral teachings were appropriate for women, and the information about geography and natural history in Konungs skuggsjá would be useful for educating children. Geographical knowledge was important for a woman’s education, irrespective of any child-rearing responsibilities. Konungs skuggsjá also discusses politics and armaments, topics that were of interest to some women. Women could find themselves involved in quarrels and power struggles, and this, as with their role in education, could call for knowledge relating, for example, to the laws operating within Icelandic society. Women would also participate in dinner-table conversations during which topics of all kinds would be discussed. Those same women could have views on matters of social concern, though these might only find expression within the household. Thus, wide-ranging knowledge was important for women not just in their role as mothers but also for their overall self-esteem.

Religious books were commonly owned by women, as they oversaw the spiritual life of their children and, even, of the overall household. Of particular importance were hymnbooks, sermon collections and meditative texts. Such volumes also played a key role in women’s spiritual development. Intended for and popular with a female readership, they were a source of spiritual strength, protection and consolation, and promoted the idea that women were more sympathetic and good-hearted than men. Women’s minds were thought to be more sensitive and empathetic towards those less fortunate. Reading the scriptures would help protect them from the devil’s assaults. Many women sought to live up to the ideal of the pious woman that found fullest expression in the perfect housewife and mother. Others, however, were tireless in their pursuit of wealth and power, though they sometimes sought to hide this from their contemporaries. Women, no less than men, were concerned with their image and if it was in any way compromised on life’s journey they could try to conceal the fact.


JS 602 4to, a collection of sermons. The manuscript was made for the author‘s daughter. Picture Helgi Bragason, The National library of Iceland.

During the seventeenth century, though women read a broader range of other books than had once been the case, they had a particular fondness for poetry manuscripts. The Reformation saw the arrival in Iceland of new poetic genres and verse forms. The most common books of verse were those whose selected pieces were both religious and secular, serious and light-hearted. After due reverence had been shown to God there was room for levity. The contents of such manuscripts were not always designed to find favour among the ecclesiastical authorities, with some of the poems included mocking foolish menfolk. The rules applying to manuscripts differed from those for printed books, with manuscripts more readily reflecting their owners’ tastes and attitudes. Some manuscripts were regarded as part of the cultural capital of the ruling social order, with the achievements of the family celebrated in verse. It is, however, in miscellanies and poetry books that the image and attitudes of women find fullest expression.

Women put books to a variety of uses. The high-born owned many genealogical volumes; it was very important for an individual’s image and reputation that their aristocratic lineage could be fully authenticated. Accordingly, such books were status symbols. Most volumes, however, served as cultural resources and support for a woman’s principal role as mother and housewife, and their contents certainly reflected social change. At the same time books revealed the education, interests and self-esteem of their owners. Women also looked to them for comfort and protection in an uncertain world. Book ownership was therefore a complex interplay of multiple factors, including education, entertainment, image projection, and cultural capital.

Despite their exclusion from formal Latin School education in Iceland women acquired a good deal of bookish learning. The most important factors for women seeking access to books were ambitious parents and a well-disposed husband.

Guðrún Ingólfsdóttir Ph.D.


Guðrún Ingólfsdóttir is the author of a new book, The Things our dear old ladies hoard. Icelandic women’s book culture from the middle ages to the 18th century. Her book has been nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize for academic and non-fiction works.


The book seeks to examine women’s literary culture in Iceland from the Middle Ages up to 1730, i.e. women‘s ability to read and write and how books benefitted women. The best way to gain insight into women‘s education, role, world view and self-esteem is to examine their books. The present volume does not aim to present an overall picture of women’s lives in Iceland, not least because relevant sources for the period between the Middle Ages and 1730 are often relatively sparse. However, full use has been made of available documentary evidence in order to better understand the role of women in Icelandic book culture. There are, for example, funeral eulogies about a small number of women in which female morality and piety is invariably valorised. There are also commemorative verses and elegies that contain important information also found in biographical accounts but the latter are much less common. The yearbooks of Jón Espólín, Iceland’s first “gossip columnist”, were another irresistible source of information. In examining these sources the overriding priority was to provide these women with a voice by allowing their books to speak to us. Indeed, the present study draws on the traditional notion of the book as a mirror, in which a man can observe himself, both as he is and as he ought to be. Here, however, the focus is on the image of women as reflected in their books; we learn of their world-view and preoccupations, and the role that books played in their lives. The first chapter examines the manuscripts of one common woman, thereby allowing the voice of such individuals full expression alongside the aristocratic women.




Reading en route with Margery Kempe


The remains of the Franciscan monastery at Mount Zion, Jerusalem, which was the ‘headquarters’ of medieval European pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Photograph by Anthony Bale.

During her difficult journey from her home in Norfolk to Jerusalem in the spring of 1414, the medieval mystic Margery Kempe was persistently bullied by her co-pilgrims. According to her account, they cut her clothes short, refused to eat with her, stole her money, and disbelieved her accounts of her visionary communication. Kempe and her party spent ten weeks at Venice before they sailed for Jaffa. Here, Kempe made her way back into the pilgrimage group, although not without friction: she was only allowed to dine with them after making an agreement “to sit still and to make merry” at dinner, rather than weep and wail and talk about God. However, things weren’t so straightforward:

Sythyn it happyd, as this creatur sat at mete wyth hir felawshep, that sche rehersyd a text of a Gospel lych as sche had leryd befortyme wyth other goode wordys. And anon hir felawshep seyd sche had brokyn comenawnt. And sche seyd, “Ya, serys, forsothe I may no lengar hold yow comenawnt, for I must nedys speke of my Lord Jhesu Crist thow al this world had forbodyn it me” (The Book of Margery Kempe, book I, chapter 27).

[Later, it happened, as this creature sat dining with her companions, that she repeated a text of the Gospel that she had learned beforehand along with other good sentences. So then her companions said that she had broken the agreement. And she said, “Yes, sirs, in truth I can no longer keep the agreement, for I really must speak of my Lord Jesus Christ, even though the whole world has forbidden me to do so.”]

There’s much of interest here, especially Kempe’s strategy of resistance to the “comenawnt” she has made with the other pilgrims. But the aspect I want to explore in this blog-post concerns the clause “sche rehersyd a text of a Gospel lych as sche had leryd befortyme wyth other goode wordys.”

Kempe’s moment at Venice connects with my larger research project around Kempe’s journey: that of the role of books and reading during the later medieval pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, and Venice. The use of the word “reherysed’ suggests a learnt repetition and it is clear that she had “leryd” the “goode wordys” at some point previously. Referring thus to memorised citation, Kempe suggests that she was travelling without a bible, and that her speechifying is based on a recall of “text” that she had encountered before.

Elsewhere in The Book of Margery Kempe, books are notably portable, motile objects. Kempe’s first semi-miracle occurs as she is holding a book, as a kind of protective talisman, when in her church at St Margaret’s (Lynn) a beam crashes down onto her but she remains unharmed. Later, on her pilgrimage, a priest is accused of stealing Kempe’s sheet, but he swore “by the book in his hand” that the sheet is his; whilst it’s not clear what this book is, it was probably a portable bible, breviary, psalter, or book of hours. Elsewhere, an example of Kempe’s wisdom occurs around a porthose – a portiforium or breviary – that a hapless monk is nearly conned into buying from a crooked young man who claims to be from Pentney Abbey. One of Kempe’s most arresting visions is of “an angel, all dressed in white as if it were a little child, bearing a huge book in front of him”; Kempe identifies this heavenly book as The Book of Life (as described in Rev. 17:8), and it contains the Trinity, all “done in gold”, with Kempe’s name written at the foot of the Trinity. More generally, the scenes of reading and writing of drafts of The Book of Margery Kempe itself attest to a volume being passed around between various people in and around Lynn, and a range of remembered texts – by Bridget of Sweden, Jacques de Vitry, Richard Rolle, and others – constitutes key parts of Kempe’s narrative. So one gains from The Book of Margery Kempe the sense of a world busy with mobile, trafficked, and remembered books.

Clear evidence of pilgrims taking books with them on their international pilgrimages is rare. Pilgrims sometimes affixed pilgrim badges to their books, although this may have been done before, during, or after the pilgrimage. There was a library for clerical pilgrims at the Franciscan monastery at Mount Zion in Jerusalem, and at least one manuscript (now Versailles, Bibliothèque Municipale, Lebaudy MS L.097), was copied there before being brought home; its scribe wrote in it that he had copied the manuscript, which contains a variety of religious writings about the Holy Land, at Mount Zion on the 24th January 1471.

Venice and Rome were centres of the European book trade, and it’s likely that pilgrims encountered all kinds of text there, from scholarly tomes to cheap text-based souvenirs like ribbons and indulgences. Other pilgrims may have taken travel guides with them; my work on one such book – a copy of Mandeville’s Travels now in Chetham’s Library in Manchester – is forthcoming in Studies in the Age of Chaucer, and suggests that a London merchant, Sir Edmund Wighton (d. 1483), took his copy of Mandeville to the Holy Land and all the way to the Crimea with him. As Kathryne Beebe has described, the German pilgrim Felix Fabri wrote notes about his pilgrimage on wax tablets as he travelled, and wrote them up when he returned home.

Our picture of travelling books remains patchy. As The Book of Margery Kempe shows, books could be intensely physical objects but could also be immaterial, memorized and metaphorical objects. Books, for Kempe, seem to have been iconic, even, by her own account, she could not or did not read and she could not write. In Venice, as Kempe “rehersyd” her “text”, she draws our attention to a kind of literacy that was rooted in books, but not dependent on their physical presence.

The Merchant’s Tongue, the Maid’s Pear: Oral Satisfaction in Chaucer


The Merchant, pictured in the Ellesmere Manuscript (San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, MS EL 26 C 9, f. 102v, detail). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale has a reputation for crude and explicit sexual content. An elderly bachelor, January, seeks out a much younger bride, May, in the fond belief that her youth will make her a biddable partner as well as an excellent producer of heirs. Proving that it is not only millennials and their juniors who are in dire need of kink positivity, he proudly introduces her to his walled sex-garden, specially kitted out for the purposes of those sex acts which – intriguingly – are ‘nat doon abedde’. May, however, has fallen in love with a young squire in the household, one Damian, and she swiftly hatches a plot to cuckold her husband. Taking advantage of January’s recent blindness, she and her would-be lover counterfeit the key to the garden, and Damian enters and conceals himself in a convenient pear tree. Pretending to have a craving ‘to eten of the smale peres grene,’ May reminds January that a woman in a delicate condition should always be indulged. Assuming, delightedly, that his wife is coyly announcing a pregnancy, January hastily bends down to help May clamber up into the pear tree in search of a fruit to satisfy her appetite.

Arboreal constraints notwithstanding, May and Damian promptly set to, just as the god Pluto intervenes, restoring January’s sight and revealing an x-rated scene before him. Horrified, he begins to kick up an uproar, but quick-witted May intervenes with fluent excuses. Medical science, she explains, has taught her that there is no better cure for blindness than for a husband to see his wife ‘strugle with a man upon a tree’.

The impressive ingenuity and sheer cheek of May’s response more or less concludes the tale. There is no threat of repercussions for the lovers and no great sympathy for the foolish old man. Yet, as Carissa Harris points out in a brilliant paper on obscenity (you can find it in Essays in Medieval Studies, Vol. 27), there are actually several lacunae in Chaucer’s account where the seemingly feisty May is silent about her own sexual desires. May is given no direct speech during any of the sex scenes, and although at first reading the tale seems replete with blunt and bawdy descriptions of sex, it is also oddly euphemistic in the details. What exactly are those sex acts ‘nat doon abedde’? What does January see, when May convinces him he’s looking at a ‘strugle’ in a tree?

Two lines offer particularly concentrated ambiguity. As May climbs into the tree, we’re told – without textual or sexual preamble – ‘sodeynly anon this Damyan/ Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng’. The verb thringen – a fine old Anglo-Saxon term – means something slightly ruder and more vigorous than ‘to penetrate,’ with connotations of speed, vigour, and possibly even violence. But, although female readers might deplore the apparent lack of sexual preamble, in textual terms the line leaves far more to our imagination than it discloses. Whose smock does Damian pull up – his own, or May’s? In where does he ‘throng’? With what? Further complicating the issue is the location, which offers not only logistic, but also connotative, problems. As Penny Simons has observed, the medieval phrase faire le poirer (‘to make the pear’) means to stand on one’s head with one’s legs in the air: pear-tree sex hardly allows for the missionary position associated with approved marital sex in the Middle Ages.

Harris’s analysis of this text shows that fifteenth-century scribes were – perhaps much like us – divided in their responses between enthusiastic desire to know more, and shocked impulses to censor. One scribe expands Chaucer’s modest two lines to give May a spirited and cutting customer review of her two lovers. Damian, so we’re now told, thrusts in ‘a grete tente’ (a substantial rod), which May declares to be the ‘meriest fit’ she had ever enjoyed. By contrast, January’s aging manhood calls to mind the limp, drooping remnants of the saddest salad drawer ever: ‘he may not swyve [fuck] worth a leek’. It’s true that, as Harris argues, this revised version of Chaucer’s original gives May far more of a voice, allowing her to appraise and rank her lovers in a thoroughly liberated fashion.

But the rewritten version also – I’d argue – closes down an option tantalizing possibility in Chaucer’s original. As the Merchant, the narrator of the tale, approaches the climax of his text, he breaks off to address his audience of pilgrims. ‘Ladyes, I prey yow that ye be nat wroth,’ he excuses himself, before trailing off with the unfinished interruption ‘I kan nat glose, I am a rude man …’.

The interpolation – the Merchant’s claim that he cannot ‘glose’ or ‘euphemise’ the description that is to follow – might be interpreted as mere titillation, a bit of textual foreplay leading to a damp squib of a sex scene, which at least one scribe chose to rewrite in a raunchier key. But that’s to miss a pun. The word ‘glose’ means not only ‘euphemise’ but also – if we take the Latin root literally – glossa, or ‘tongue’. The proximity of ‘glose’ to the sexual verb ‘throng,’ with its aural and visual echoes of the Middle English word ‘tunge,’ hint suggestively towards the nature of the sex act that is never quite described. A passage lacking in the specific sexual detail promised is ghosted with hints of a sex act other than the traditional PIV later scribes boldly imagined. As May claims to seek satisfaction for her oral desires in the form of a pear, it is perhaps a ruder oral satisfaction she receives.

A casual perusal of medieval smut would suggest that cunnilingus isn’t that popular a sex act to describe – it’s not up there with, say, the arse jokes that resound through the Miller’s Tale or line the rims of exquisite Psalters – although, of course, this may have something to do with our own preferences and blind spots as scholars, as we draw particular pages and passages to attention and miss other possible puns and innuendos. The ambiguity of the passage places us in January’s position, squinting at the text and attempting to make out the nature of the act we see with only partial clarity. While it’s possible to presume – along with the fifteenth-century scribe who rewrote the text – that all sexual euphemisms must involve a male member, I’d suggest Chaucer leaves open the possibility of more varied sexualities, even those which interrupt a male-voiced narrative to address the desires of the ‘ladyes’.


Lady Godiva: Gift of God


Image from Wikimedia Commons

How does a legend arise, and what purpose does it serve? Is myth the opposite of history, or can it elucidate the rather sparse hard facts that we inherit? And if the story of a noblewoman performing a highly unlikely action persists down through nearly a thousand years, what does that tell us of the period in which she lived and the hopes and beliefs of the intervening years. It was questions like these that aroused my interest in the Lady Godiva story, so universally known in Britain, and so variously interpreted and illustrated down the years.

Godiva is, without doubt, an historical figure. She was an Anglo-Saxon gentlewoman who lived between around 1040 and 1080 and was married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia. The correct form of her name, Godgifu, meaning ‘gift of God’, was fairly common in Anglo-Saxon England and is the name by which she would have been known before it was Latinised into the now familiar form of Godiva. We know that Godgifu was wealthy in her own right and that she was in all probability considerably younger than her husband. We also know that the couple were both generous benefactors, and that together they founded an abbey in Coventry.

When it comes to the famous ride, it is difficult to disentangle fact from fantasy. There are no contemporary records of it, the first mention of the story occurring in a document written by two monks in St Albans nearly a century after her death. They place the ride in 1057, and relate how Godgifu pleaded with her husband to relieve the people of their onerous taxes and how he, in a fit of pique at her persistent entreaties, agreed to do so if she would ride naked through the town square. In a spirit of generosity, she conceded to the deal and rode through the town on horseback, her body hidden by nothing more than her hair.

Other aspects of the story that appear in the various accounts include Godiva’s instruction to the townspeople to close their shutters and remain indoors so that no one should witness her shame, and the fact that Leofric did, indeed, revoke the taxes. A rather charming endorsement of this part of the story comes from Ranulf Higden (died 1364) in his Polychronicon, where he mentions the fact that Leofric freed the town from all tolls except those on horses. At the time of Edward I it was found that no tolls except those on horses were being paid in Coventry. Another later accretion to the story is the appearance of Peeping Tom, who disobeyed the instruction to refrain from observing Godiva’s nakedness and who was punished with blindness.

The level of Godiva’s sacrifice demonstrated by the story should not be underestimated. The name Godgifu means Gift of God, and a woman who performed such a self-sacrificial action for the sake of the people would most certainly have been seen as a gift from God. It is quite reasonable to suggest that in this story we have a respectable woman who makes what must have been for her the ultimate sacrifice for the good of her people. In other words, far from Godgifu being a salacious tale told for the titillation of men, it is actually a parable in which a woman is portrayed as an image of Christ.

In my sonnet, I celebrate this good and holy woman who, for the sake of the poor and downtrodden, performed a sacrificial act through which she was able to alleviate the misery of the people of Coventry.


She challenged the poverty and injustice of the age,

and when tears and arguments failed to hold much sway,

instead of reacting to bureaucracy with righteous rage,

she chose radical non-violent action to win the day.

The hair she’d brushed a hundred times each night

shone and shimmered, falling like a gown

to cover her nakedness and hide from curious sight

the beauty of her body as she rode through town.

To protect her modesty the people all agreed

to close their shutters and look the other way

until she’d passed, so that there’d be no need

to witness her sacrificial act that day –

except for a cheating boy who left this legacy behind:

for watching Godiva riding by, Peeping Tom went blind.




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