Women's Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon

An International Network Funded by the Leverhulme Trust

Jerusalem Through Women’s Eyes


Judaean Desert

Judaean desert (credit: Diane Watt, 2016).

This summer, I revisited Jerusalem, a city familiar to me long before I first set foot in it. Jerusalem is regarded as a holy place by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and many people encounter it for the first time through reading sacred texts. As a medievalist who has spent much of my academic career studying English women’s visionary writings, my first trip to Jerusalem was filtered through my reading of the fifteenth-century Book of Margery Kempe,  which includes an account of Kempe’s three week stay in the Holy Land and describes in some detail her spiritual experiences and the revelations she received as she visited the various sights, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mount Zion, and the Church of the Tomb of the Virgin (which she tells us, she visited twice).  According to her Book,  Kempe travelled from Jerusalem on to Bethany, Bethlehem, and the Mount of Temptation or Mount Quarantania in the Judaean desert. Yet despite providing us with the itinerary of her pilgrimage, the Book pays little attention to the places themselves, focusing our attention instead on the Biblical landscape, on Kempe’s mental re-enactment of Gospel scenes, and on her affective responses to them. (I discuss Kempe’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in more detail in my article ‘Faith in the Landscape’ in A Place to Believe In, edited by Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing).


Tomb of the Virgin Mary

Church of the Sepulchre of the Virgin Mary (credit: Diane Watt, 2016)

Kempe’s is certainly not the only account of medieval Jerusalem, or even the earliest. A millennium earlier, in the late fourth-century, a woman called Egeria wrote a long (but now incomplete) epistle to a circle of Christian women describing her extended pilgrimage in the Holy Land, which included a three year stay in Jerusalem, and also excursions to other sites such as Mount Nebo. In fact I read the Itinerarium Egeriae (Travels of Egeria) when I was travelling in Jordan last summer. After describing her travels, Egeria provides an extremely detailed and valuable eye-witness account of the liturgical practices that were evolving in Jerusalem at that time.


Mount Nebo

View towards Jerusalem from Mount Nebo (credit: Diane Watt 2015)


On this, my second visit to Jerusalem itself, it was a narrative written some four hundred years after Egeria’s that provided the literary backdrop to my own travels. In the late eighth century, an English nun called Hugeburc (or Huneberc), from the double monastery of Heidenheim in Germany, wrote the Hodoeporicon (voyage narrative) of her kinsman St Willibald, a work that describes the saint’s life and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 730s. Hugeburc’s narrative is closely based on the saint’s own oral account related to the community at Heidenheim after his return. Hugeburc then, unlike Margery Kempe or Egeria, did not visit Jerusalem herself, but this did not prevent her from writing about it. Hugeburc is, in a sense, an early armchair traveller.

(It is worth noting that other religious women connected to the German mission did go on pilgrimage at this time. For example, at around the same time as Willibald was making his way to the Holy Land, St Boniface wrote to a nun called Bugga, weighing up the merits of making the journey to Rome. I discuss this letter and others relating to women and pilgrimage in my recent article A Fragmentary Archive: Migratory Feelings in Early Anglo-Saxon Women’s Letters).

Written from the confines of her own religious house, Hugeburc’s book traces the spiritual journey of Willibald. Hugeburc emphasises the truth-value of her narrative, which she insists is not a far-fetched traveller’s tale, but rather evidence of the sanctity of her relative. Yet what is so striking about the Hodoeporicon is that, despite this claim, it is less concerned with the recording miracles and other evidence of Willibald’s remarkable piety, than with describing the details of his wanderings, including information about the practicalities of his voyages, the difficulties he encountered, and the sights that he saw. At times Hugeburc’s narrative reads like a guide-book, especially in its depiction of the sites in Jerusalem, with its focus on the architecture and furnishings of the churches, such as the fifteen lamps on the rock where Christ’s body was placed. Hugeburc may never have visited the Holy Land herself, but she succeeds in imaginatively mapping a journey she was unable to undertake in person.


Lamps above the Stone of Unction

Oil lamps over the Stone of Unction (credit: Heike Bauer, 2013)


Revisiting Jerusalem, then, has taken me back in time, from the early fifteenth century to the eighth century, and beyond. This journey reflects the trajectory of my own research. In 2007, I published Medieval Women’s Writing: Works by and for Women in England, 1100-1500 (Polity), which includes analysis of the writings of Julian of Norwich and Margey Kempe alongside other less widely read works. I am now working on my fourth monograph, on women’s literary culture between 650 and 1150, to be published in Bloomsbury’s Studies in Early Medieval History (series editor, Ian Wood). Intellectually, I have travelled from the later Middle Ages to the early medieval period, but my focus on women’s literary culture remains. There are, of course, considerable differences across this long time span. For a start there are far fewer known and named women writers in the centuries before the Conquest. But as I have been researching this book, I have been struck nevertheless by the continuities; continuities that have typically been hidden by traditional scholarly period boundaries. As these examples of women’s pilgrimage literature reveal, the devotional writing that so characterises the late medieval women’s literary tradition in England undoubtedly has its roots in the early Middle Ages and late Antiquity.

A ‘Literary Queen’ in the Arctic


Möðruvellir in Eyjafjörður. Photograph by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir 

If you drive south from the seaside town Akureyri in North Iceland, you will go along the Eyjafjörður valley, a wide valley flanked by the sea to the north and tall, majestic mountains on other sides. The landscape is relatively gentle in a country known for its rugged volcanic features and towering waterfalls, and although the winters here are long and cold with lots of snow, the area is green and lush in the summer, with plenty of grazing fields for cows and horses. In ca. 30 km you will arrive at Möðruvellir, a typical Icelandic farm with a small but handsome wood church.  It stands above the river, overlooking the valley at a point where it forks into two smaller outlets. In such a quiet, idyllic spot, it is perhaps difficult to picture that this remote farm was once a bustling estate with several dozen inhabitants, the seat of generations of wealthy, powerful magnates who had royal titles and offices and belonged to the top layer of society.


The church at Möðruvellir and its eighteenth-century belfry. Photograph by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir 

Möðruvellir was also one of the most prolific centres of book production in late medieval Iceland and several of the fifteenth century’s most illustrious vellum manuscripts were made here. The farm, and probably its scriptorium, was run by Margrét Vigfúsdóttir, a woman who reigned over the district for forty years after she became widowed. Why would a woman pour vital resources into making expensive books? What kinds of texts was Margrét interested in putting down on parchment and what do they say about her?

Margrét was born in Southwest Iceland in ca. 1406 to an aristocratic couple; her father was a governor appointed by Margrete, Queen of Sweden, Norway and Denmark (including Iceland), and her mother counted King Hákon Hákonarson of Norway (1204‒63) among her ancestors. When she came of age, Margrét would have been one of the most marriageable young women in Iceland, and the story goes that when her brother Ívar – who was involved in a quarrel with one of Iceland’s two bishops – was killed in a house burning, Margrét, who narrowly escaped the fire, subsequently vowed to marry only the man who avenged his death. The author of this account may have modelled Margrét on one of the strong, proud heroines of the Icelandic sagas, but we know that in ca. 1436, she married one of the most eligible bachelors of her age, Thorvard Loftsson. His father was a governor and member of the Scandinavian court, so he was a worthy match for Margrét in terms of social status, and he was likely involved in the murder of the same bishop in 1433, so he may have been Ívar’s avenger, at least in Margrét’s eyes. The couple made their home in Möðruvellir in the North and had three daughters before Thorvard died in 1446, leaving a great deal of property to his wife.

We know very little about Margrét’s everyday life or whether her marriage to Thorvard was a happy one, but even if we discount the story about her steely resolve to have her brother avenged, judging from less biased sources, it’s not difficult to imagine her as a force to be reckoned with. When she became widowed, Margrét was forty years old and mature enough not to let herself be pushed around by her relatives or in-laws. Numerous charters show that she was a major operator in North Iceland, buying, selling and managing property. She also donated significant amounts of money and expensive objects to local churches, including ornately carved alabaster statues and luxury textiles. (Please click here to see a newspaper article showing the alabaster altarpiece donated by Margrét Vigfúsdóttir to Möðruvellir church in ca. 1470. It is now in Akureyri Museum.)  As a matriarch, Margrét made illustrious matches for her three daughters, celebrated in a fabulous triple wedding at Möðruvellir in 1465. This event was clearly the medieval equivalent of an A-list celebrity or royal wedding, so lavish that it was talked about even almost 200 years later (which is its earliest extant mention in writing).

Assuming that she was equally in control of activities at Möðruvellir, Margrét must have run its scriptorium. There was a long history of book production on Thorvard’s side and this scriptorium was manned by scribes and illuminators who were among the best craftsmen and artists of their time, so Margrét was upholding an old family tradition. Although their works do not rival the most exquisite Icelandic manuscripts from the fourteenth century, the books made by these people – mostly in the third quarter of the fifteenth century (ca. 1450‒75) – required a huge amount of material resources, expertise and time.

What texts do these expensive books contain and what function did they serve? Their contents are eclectic and there was something for everyone at Margrét’s estate. Some of the manuscripts are like modern day paperbacks, small and plain books crammed full of riveting stories about knights or Viking heroes. They would have kept the farm’s many inhabitants and guests of different ages and walks of life entertained through the long winter nights and at feasts. Another is a decorated lawbook containing secular and church laws, the kind of book anyone who had power and property had to own.


A mid-fifteenth century lawbook. Reykjavík, Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, AM 132 4to. Photograph by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir 

A third book found at Möðruvellir was the so-called Icelandic Book of Drawings: artists working in the scriptorium would have used the models as templates for decorations.


Saint George and the dragon. From the 15th century Icelandic manuscript AM 673a III 4to in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland. The Icelandic Book of Drawings was a book with models or templates for artists who illuminated manuscripts. It is badly damaged but it is the only book of its kind from Scandinavia to have survived to modern times. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons.

Other books from Möðruvellir speak to more unusual interests, and they were also larger and finer than most manuscripts produced in the country at the time. First, one book contains the saga about the reign of King Hákon Hákonarson, Margrét’s ancestor, as well as two other sagas about Norwegian kings. Judging from a second codex, Margrét had an interest in literature popular at the king’s court, i.e., translated romances originating in France and England – imparting the values of chivalry and crusades – as well as original Icelandic compositions adapted from or written in imitation of these texts. A third book preserves an original text written at the Norwegian court, the King’s Mirror.


Leaf from the King’s Mirror. Copenhagen, Arnamagnæan Collection, Copenhagen University, AM 243 a fol. Image reproduced with permission of the Arnamagnæan Collection, Copenhagen.

The text, probably written for King Hákon’s son, is a learned, encyclopedic treatise about subjects including natural phenomena, Christian ethical behaviour and courtly etiquette, and there is a section for merchants with advice about how to outfit a boat and succeed in business. Many of the texts gathered in these three books had seemingly not been popular for many decades before they were written down at Möðruvellir but Margrét’s interest in the King’s Mirror may be the reason for a subsequent spike in its popularity: more than a dozen books or fragments containing the text are preserved from the following decades. The physical size of the books might also have played a part in this development, further indicating the texts’ prestige in Margrét’s eyes. Large, decorated volumes such as these were display books and status symbols, just like an expensive piece of furniture or a car nowadays.

Although she let the household have their entertaining but, at times, vulgar stories, no one who came into the living quarters at Möðruvellir would have missed the large and thick volumes with the saga of her ancestor, King Hákon, and the literature he favoured. By cultivating the king’s literary interests, Margrét wasn’t making books for reading in private. She was crafting an identity to project to the outside world, whether to neighbours, relatives, friends or rivals. The texts in these two luxurious books align Margrét with King Hákon, expressing to the community that she is of royal blood, has royal interests, and should therefore have top status in society. In other words, Margrét was saying, with her books, that she’s no arriviste trying to impress her social superiors, but, rather, people should aspire to her tastes and values. Just as Queen Margarete, the monarch who appointed her father to his office, managed to fulfil a leadership role despite her gender, Margrét’s status was based on her wealth, noble lineage, cultural capital and perhaps an assertive, charismatic personality. Through her match-making and feast-giving, patronage of churches, and above all, book production, Margrét Vigfúsdóttir of Möðruvellir, if not actual royalty, emerges as a queen of books who made a lasting mark on Iceland’s cultural heritage.

The research leading to these results has received funding from the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under REA grant agreement no. 331947.







Leverhulme Trust Boston Meeting: Gender and Genre Workshop


The second workshop in the Leverhulme-funded international networks research project, “Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon,” met at Boston University this summer from July 26th to 28th for three full and exciting days of papers, discussion and planning for future research. Entitled “Gender and Genre,” the workshop was attended by ten member of the Network team, who were joined by two scholars based in the United States and one undergraduate researcher, and two scholars based in the UK. Our larger project is an investigation of the substantial corpus of medieval English writing by and for women which sets out to show connections between women’s texts, genres and themes and those at large in medieval literary culture more generally. How does the consideration of women’s engagement with literature change our understanding of the established canon? Do Chaucer and other male authors have more in common with women’s literary culture than has previously been assumed? Participants in the project think these are questions that need asking and we asked them again in the beautiful and (in the Boston heatwave) mercifully cool seminar room at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies.



Diane Watt (University of Surrey), our Network leader, opened the proceedings by welcoming the group and paying tribute to the founder of the Center for Jewish Studies at BU, Elie Wiesel, writer, Holocaust survivor, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1986, who died only two weeks before the conference was to begin at the age of 88. After that, the workshop proper began with a paper by local network visitor, Nicholas Watson (Harvard University) on the “lost first draft” of the Book of Margery Kempe. Although it is often described as an autobiography, the Book is written in the third person, as though by a male cleric, and there have been several attempts to identify this clerical voice with that of Kempe’s second scribe, her confessor and parish priest Robert Spryngolde. Nicholas argued that Kempe was herself the creator of this voice, and wrote her own Book in the male genre of the woman’s visionary biography.

Difficulties of genre and situating medieval women’s voices continued to be at issue in the presentation that followed: Diane Watt, focused on the writing by Anglo-Saxon women in the collection now known as the Boniface correspondence. Can we approach these letters as expressing a specifically female experience of isolation and exile during this 8th century conversion mission, Diane asked? Suggesting these letters constitute “fragments of an early queer archive of migratory feelings” Diane further explored the way these voices collapse distance and have designs on us, as contemporary medievalists.


One of the particularly exciting aspects of this summer’s meeting was that we had the opportunity to learn about on-going research at other large, multi-year research projects with shared interests in women’s writing. Network visitor Mary Dockray-Miller (Lesley University) gave us an update on her current research that uses Lexomics, a digital lexical and textual analysis system developed at Wheaton College by Michael Drout http://wheatoncollege.edu/lexomics/, to ascertain the authorship of the Vita Edwardi. Mary argued that monk-hagiographer Goscelin wrote the text, perhaps for the retired Queen Edith while at Wilton Abbey during the mid-1060s. Following Mary’s paper, undergraduate researcher Jillian Valerio (Wheaton College) provided a demo of Lexomics and left us all excited about the possibilities this digital tool has for our own research needs.

After a lively discussion over lunch, Liz McAvoy (Swansea University) explored the echoes of Booke of Gostely Grace by visionary writer, Mechtild of Hackeborn (d. 1298) in late medieval literature, and especially in Dante’s Divine Comedy and the anonymous Middle English Pearl. With notable shared images, turns of phrase, and theological concepts, Liz argued that the Pearl-poet was familiar with both Mechtild and Dante, suggesting not only that Pearl needs to be read as informed by a well-established tradition of female spirituality, but also that our current assumptions about the poem’s early readership and authorship may need reconsideration.

Our last presentation of the day by Corinne Saunders (University of Durham) provided a glimpse into the work being done at Durham’s Wellcome Trust-funded interdisciplinary research project ‘Hearing the Voice’, which explores the phenomenon of hearing voices without external stimuli. Demonstrating that the project offers a valuable lens through which to view the Book of Margery Kempe, Corinne returned us to the problem of discernment of Margery’s own voice, this time focusing on the multi-sensory aspects of her visionary experiences, and how the Book consistently brings to the reader’s attention back to the problematic experience of (inner and outer) voices throughout the book, and the difficulty of articulating to others inner sensorial phenomenon.


I began our second day, with a paper on Syon brethren Richard Whitford’s works that returned us to discussion of male writers’ drawing on traditions of female spirituality. In a 1537 compilation, Whitford’s A Work for Householders is joined with a death manual, A Daily Exercise of Death, which presents itself as written “at the request” of Syon Abbess Elizabeth Gybbs The death text includes rarified exercises of willed self-annihilation especially associated in the period with woman visionaries. Circulating widely during England’s violent 1530s, these works together redirect advanced female modes of spirituality to lay male political subjects as material for potentially activist and resistant praxes.

Our discussion of the imaginative role medieval women played in the religious and political conflicts of the sixteenth century continued with a presentation by Nancy Bradley Warren (Texas A&M University), whose paper centered on the Catholic William Forrest’s History of Grisild the Second (1558). Written for Queen Mary, Forrest retells Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale with Henry VIII occupying the role of Walter and Katherine of Aragon occupying the role of Griselda, drawing on both Chaucer as auctoritas and Marian devotion to offer Mary Tudor a model of “medieval,” “cloistered” queenship.


After lunch, Sue Niebrzydowski (Bangor University) got us out of our seats and into groups to puzzle over an Anglo-Norman prayer for the protection of women in childbirth. Written in the first person voice of the mother-to-be and with a special focus on the Virgin Mary, the prayer is found in deluxe books of hours, one of which names the prayer as by Matilda Becket (d. c. 1141), mother of Thomas Becket (b. c. 1120). This apparently utilitarian prayer, we found after analysis and discussion, was both theologically and linguistically complex and provided a fascinating glimpse into female pregnancy culture and uses of personal prayer.

Our discussion of Marian devotion and its special relationship in the period to female voice continued: Christiania Whitehead (University of Warwick) took as her focus the three short Middle English hymns of the hermit saint, Godric of Finchale (d.1170), in Reginald of Durham’s late 12th century Latin vita. While often studied as possibly the earliest post-conquest vernacular religious lyrics, in their original context the hymns form part of an account of one of Godric’s visionary experiences in which the female voices of his dead sister, Burgwine, also a recluse, and of the Virgin Mary are central. Read in context, these hymns present female (especially Marian) voice as especially associated with emergent vernacular textual practices and new musical modes.



Laura Saetveit Miles (University of Bergen) was joined via Skype by Barbara Zimbalist (University of Texas at El Paso) and together they returned us to the question of the influence of female spirituality on late medieval English culture more widely. They focused on texts first written for Syon women such as the Speculum Devotorum as well as on the vitae of thirteenth-century holy women found in Oxford, Bodleian Library Douce MS 114, with Laura discussing imaginative community-formation and behavior regulation and Barbara discussing holy women’s reported verbal and vernacular expression as shareable devotional expressions. Medieval devotional texts, they suggested, not only formed communities, but individual readers through offering themselves as a focus for “participative piety.”


Following this, we had our third joint presentation and “state of research” update from the FNRS-funded multi-year project spearheaded by Denis Renevey (University of Lausanne) on late-fourteenth and fifteenth-century devotional compilations. Denis was joined by Marleen Cré (University of Lausanne) to discuss how devotional compilations work to mediate reader access to source texts, which might include more canonical materials from biblical, patristic or contemporary religious writing. Late medieval compilations always address or imply female readership, either professional religious or lay, suggesting the importance of this form of “mediating” textual dissemination for this constituency. Presenting important new research on the organization, address and provenance of The Chastising of God’s Children, and Disce Mori, Denis and Marleen explored the significance of female readers (implied or real) and enclosed religious culture to the popularity of devotional compilations in later medieval England.

In his wrap up, David Fuller (University of Durham) asked us to return to the word ‘genre’ in the title of this year’s workshop and offered a wide-ranging tour of various theories of genre, from classical canonical articulations of genre by Aristotle, and notes on genre by 19th and 20th century thinkers, including Burke and Derrida: how does genre form readers’ “horizons of expectation”? How is genre “an invitation to form”? Most interestingly, David pointed out that, although in the workshop title, genre as such was rarely discussed, but lurked quietly behind various recurring questions: is Margery Kempe’s book a ‘treatise’? Is an Anglo-Saxon woman’s letter best translated as a poem? Is there a genre particularly associated with women’s literary culture or is one of the signs of it mixed or hybridity of form? The implication of literary form in women’s literary culture, we agreed, is a question worth more discussion at the next workshop meeting.

Workshop Take-Aways and Notes for Future Research

Although participants presented on a wide range of texts and topics, our discussions returned with some urgency to a fairly concrete set of questions and concerns:

1) The necessity for more archival study and work on authorship, the production, manuscript organization and circulation of texts, and for closer engagement with new research tools and interdisciplinary approaches. It is clear from the new knowledges presented over the three days that we can’t assume that we know what the archive of women’s literary culture is, that it is complete, or that we already have a complete toolkit for approaching it.

2) The difficulty of discerning female voice and new formulations for thinking about it. The cultural role and particular form of women’s voices was a recurrent thread. We discussed both Margery Kempe’s inner voices and her textual clerical voice; the voices of Anglo-Saxon women, and the queer connections they create with us as modern medievalists; the voice of Mary and how it calls forth (in the imagination or in reality) the voices of real women, in prayer or in hymns; and various reports of spoken utterances that become shareable vernacular devotion.

3) Women’s religiosity, visionary and devotional, implied, real or imagined, as a crucial and marked player in the wider context of later medieval English culture: whether as inspiration for a male author’s poetic practice and theological imagery; as imaginary focus for individual and communal self-shaping; or as a modality deployed in the religious and political controversies of Reform and Marian England.

We fully expect and are excited to return to these questions at Bergen in June 2017, a meeting we began to plan at the end of this workshop in a presentation headed by Diane Watt and Laura Miles, who will host the event.

Amy Appleford

Boston University

Naming the Rapist in Chaucer’s “Legend of Philomela”

Tarquinius and Lucretia

Titian, Tarquinius and Lucretia, c. 1571. Image from Wikimedia Commons, used to illustrate the general entry on rape.

In Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women – a project of dubious sincerity, in which Chaucer’s narrator claims to be telling stories of ‘good women’ and the men who betray them – there are no fewer than two rape narratives. The more gruesome of these is the story of Philomela, famous from Classical literature, and also the basis for Shakespeare’s even bloodier version in Titus Andronicus. The Latin version of the story, which Chaucer probably knew best, begins with the rapist, Tereus, who falls madly into lust for his wife’s sister Philomela. Tricking her into following him to a remote location, he rapes her and then imprisons her, cutting out her tongue so that she cannot speak. The imprisoned Philomela weaves her story into a tapestry, and sends it to her sister. United, the sisters turn the tables on Tereus in bloody revenge, murdering his son, and feeding the child’s body to him. As Tereus, maddened, chases after the women in a rage, the gods transform all three figures into birds.

The medieval Latin legal term for the crime Tereus commits is raptus, a word that means both sexual violation of the kind Tereus unambiguously carries out, and also abduction, and even, conceivably, the consensual abduction of a willing woman. The word is notoriously ambiguous, and its disturbing ambiguity contributes to the murky subtext of Chaucer’s narrative. For Chaucer teases his readers with the familiarity of the Latin version of the story, the version that culminates in the transformation of all three characters into birds. He repeatedly foreshadows this metamorphosis, describing Tereus as ‘foule’ (fowl) and incorporating from his sources a simile comparing the rapist to an eagle seizing a dove in its cruel talons. The simile hints at a further hidden pun. An eagle is a raptor, a bird of prey; a rapist in Latin is a raptor, a person who engages in raptus. The avian pun was available to a late fourteenth-century writer. As Chaucer’s contemporary, the translator Trevisa, evocatively puts it, ‘the Goshauk … is i-clepid … raptour and rauyschere’: the goshawk is called a raptor and ravisher. The transformation of rapist into hawk, raptor into raptor, offers a tantalisingly perfect coincidence of language and meaning: Tereus’ hidden crime publicised in his bird-form, his human name lost and collapsed into his avian identity.

At the surface level, this implicit pun fits with the narrator’s moralising gloss on the text. Right at the start of his story, Chaucer’s narrator compares Tereus’ name to a corrosive venom, a substance so corrupting that it infects the eyes of the reader who reads it, and deforms the very meaning of the word ‘man’. At the end of the narrative, we are warned that it is only fear of a loss of reputation that prevents other men from joining Tereus in his violent attacks. Rape – so we are led to believe – indelibly marks and stains a man’s name in the world.

Yet, as so often, Chaucer’s puns lead us up the garden path. At a crucial moment in what, for earlier readers, was the middle of the story – the scene in which the weeping sisters are reunited over the tapestry that mutely communicates Philomela’s violation – Chaucer stops short. He refuses to give his readers the classic account of the women’s revenge and the transformation of all three figures into birds, insisting that the tale is done. The disturbing similarity between the muted, mutilated woman and the truncated narrative makes it easy to see the text as a form of literary violence, a corpus of inherited tradition cut short and a woman’s body butchered, and both ending in premature silence.

This dramatic ending, however, threatens to distract us from a more disturbing undercurrent in the text, an insistent resistance to give the rape – and the rapist – the unambiguous condemnation he deserves. Hinting at the raptor pun and then averting it, Chaucer draws on a key uncertainty that spills through the other versions of the tale. While Sophocles’ Greek version (almost certainly unknown to medieval readers) does make Tereus into a hawk, recognisable by its sharp beak, Ovid’s Latin disagrees, declaring ‘nomen epops volucri’: the name of the bird is “hoopoe” (Mets 6.674), and it can be identified by its weapon-like crest. Gower, Chaucer’s contemporary, adds to the confusion: the name of the bird-rapist is a lapwing, ‘the brid falseste of alle’ (Confessio Amantis 5. 6047). Like contradictory witnesses, the authors of these other accounts of the rape of Philomela disagree about a crucial detail, and that indelibly marked name – the name of the rapist, the name of the bird – dissolves into competing anecdotes. Each author assures us that the bird makes visible the inner identity of the rapist; each name – hawk, hoopoe, lapwing – publicises his crime. And yet, each name is different, offered anew, rewriting an older identity for the same rapist.

In Chaucer’s text, the uncertainty about the name of the rapist is bedded even deeper into the weave of the narrative. On the written page, Chaucer’s Tereus ‘loses’ his name repeatedly, long before the moment at which the averted transformation should have overwritten it with the name of a bird. Copying errors render Philomela’s rapist disturbingly easy to confuse with the protagonist of the previous narrative, the similarly-named Theseus. Scribal confusion between the two would be suspiciously predictable for anyone who knows how medieval scribes tend to operate, and especially in the flowing structure of the Legend of Good Women, which barely marks breaks between separate subsections. Chaucer, who notoriously uses the metaphor of ‘rape’ to describe the copying errors of careless scribes in his ‘Wordes unto Adam Scriveyn,’ may well have anticipated such confusion, and Tereus becomes variously Theseus, Therius, Tireus and Teseus as his narrative unfolds across the manuscripts. In one manuscript, a scribe marking proper names with capital letters, rubric and underlining struggles to recognise ‘Tereus’ as part of the proper name category; in another, the very line in which Chaucer laments the corrupting effects of Tereus’ name on the material fabric of the world is written over a scrubbed-out erasure, the ink darker and spiky over rough scraped parchment. Finally, at the end of the narrative, Chaucer refers to Tereus as a “morderour and knave,” without specifically naming his crime of rape. Like the cutting of Philomela’s revenge from the record, this lapse mutilates the narrative. The earlier passionate emphasis on the corrosive, horrific power of the rapist’s name gives way to a muted uncertainty, a grey area of doubt, and our resistance to its strange vagueness is worn down by the repeated exposure to a rapist whose name does not remain the same throughout the manuscript pages we read.

These scribal errors and erasures occupy the grey area between strategic continuations of the theme of reluctance to name the rapist, and accidental or unconscious errors, whose ironic aptness is only coincidentally visible to us as we read. The rapist – the raptor – slips out of the reach of language, dissimulating, fragmenting, renamed and reclaimed, hidden and excused, under a variety of new versions that rewrite Tereus’ fate slightly differently each time. Even as he claims to be publicizing Tereus’ crime and naming him as the rapist, Chaucer’s text works against itself, shrouding Tereus’ name in ambiguity, just as the wider tradition of Philomela narratives refuses to commit to a single, unambiguous version of his punishment.

In this, Chaucer constructs a cognitive dissonance about rape that is still hugely influential: a narrative that assures us of the corrosive, powerful importance of naming rapists, and a narrative that simultaneously works to cut out, obscure, rewrite and euphemise, the name of the rapist. What’s strange to me is that this contradictory rhetoric still seems so prevalent in modern responses to the study of rape in medieval texts. This conference season, there were several papers at NCS on the subject (including mine), and from what I heard of conferences at Kalamazoo and Leeds, patterns were similar elsewhere. Papers and posts on the rape in the Reeve’s Tale stir up particular controversy – ask Carissa Harris and Rachel Moss – but there’s a wide trend of responding to the word ‘rape’ in the context of medieval literature with a knee-jerk backlash of qualifications, clarifications and obfuscations. Rape attracts a fluent rhetoric of denial and dismissal, a rhetoric that is both remarkably unchanging across times and places, and incredibly insistent upon the temporal specificity of the doubts it expresses. Of course, it’s necessary to know that raptus is an ambiguous word, but – as Chaucer’s “Legend of Philomela” indicates – that ambiguity has a long history of being pressed into service to blur out the names of rapists, to stop us from naming rape.



New Chaucer Society Congress Graduate Student Workshop 2016



(Senate House Library, by stevecadman [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

At the New Chaucer Society Congress in July 2016, I was fortunate to attend the Graduate Student Workshop on Manuscripts organised by Dr Aditi Nafde. The workshop consisted of a series of mini-lectures on the Sunday before the congress officially began and a ‘hands-on’ experience on Wednesday afternoon. I had previously followed the Stanford Online course, Digging Deeper: Making Medieval Manuscripts led by Professor Elaine Treharne (@ETreharne) and a team of scholars at the Universities of Stanford and Cambridge, so I had some prior knowledge of medieval book production, and the scholarly terminology used to describe manuscripts, but this was my first opportunity to encounter manuscripts directly rather than virtually.

During the first half of the workshop we covered a large range of fascinating material related to medieval manuscripts and print: London scribes and scripts (Simon Horobin), correcting (Daniel Wakelin), illumination and reading practices (Jessica Brantley), paper and materials (Orietta da Rold), binding (Alexandra Gillespie), and print (Alexandra da Costa). Though some members of the group had more experience of palaeography than others, the first half of the workshop was engaging and informative and there was certainly something new for each of us to learn and a range of activities to encourage us to look at the tiniest details of a manuscript or book.

On Wednesday, after arriving at Senate House Library, the location for the second half of the workshop, and a brief look at the Shakespeare: Metamorphosis exhibition (running until 17th September 2016) we congregated in the Special Collections Reading Room where five manuscripts were laid out. Having had little experience of viewing manuscripts in the ‘flesh’, I was particularly excited for this part of the workshop and it certainly did not disappoint. Following a brief introduction by Aditi and Tansy Barton who oversees Manuscript and Print Studies at Senate University Library, we were armed with a guide detailing how to describe a manuscript and tasked with identifying the manuscript in front of us and giving as much information as possible to our peers.

Initially unbeknownst to Grace Timperley, a PhD student at the University of Manchester (@GTimperley ) and myself, we were sat in front of one of the most famous manuscripts containing ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’, MS SLV/88; popularly known as the ‘Ilchester’ manuscript and dated c.1400. The manuscript is so badly damaged that we were unable to handle it but it was thrilling to be able to see the colour and detail on the manuscript page and the distortion the tears and damage had caused. Using the guidelines, we made note of any significant details and proceeded to share our findings with the rest of the group before hearing their own summaries.

The workshop not only provided an opportunity to expand my own knowledge of palaeography, it also provided a vibrant networking opportunity as it allowed a group of graduates, working on very different areas of medieval studies, to interact and find connections between their areas of research that will hopefully lay the foundations for future collaborations.

I spent most of my train journey home that evening researching the Ilchester manuscript and confirming some of the details that Grace and I had noted down; I also found out more information that correlated with much of what we had learned during the first half of the workshop. Thus, the greatest achievement of the workshop for me was that it served as a reminder of why I chose medieval studies in the first place; by looking at the smallest details of a text or manuscript, we might make new discoveries and expand our knowledge of medieval culture.


Women’s letters from the margins: the case of Alice of Worcester

Kathleen Neal BritLibCottonNeroDiiFol183vPersecutedJews

Persecuted Jews, BritLibCottonNeroDiiFol183v, Wikipedia Commons

Scholarship on European women’s letter writing is increasingly challenging the canonical notion of women’s exclusion from medieval literary production. As Clare Monagle and I argue in a forthcoming chapter, there was a lot more letter writing by medieval women than has typically been recognised. However, even if we look beyond the customary shield maidens of women’s letter-writing culture —Héloise d’Argenteuil and Hildegard of Bingen, for example— it’s still true to say that most women who wrote (or at least, composed and sent) letters were members of some kind of elite. In this post, instead, I want to point to the important, rare occasions when other voices make their way into the record.

My own research examines English, thirteenth-century, royal and administrative correspondence. Most of these letters were sent by and addressed to men, but it’s already clear from my preliminary findings that women sent an unexpectedly substantial minority of the correspondence preserved in royal archives (roughly 6% in my sample). These were mainly elite women, usually with some personal connections to the court, as I have argued elsewhere. The graph below illustrates this forcefully: of the 440 thirteenth-century letters from women I’ve examined in the Ancient Correspondence series of The National Archives, UK, the vast majority were written in the names of the king’s royal relations and noble connections; a notable minority were written by women’s religious communities or their leaders; very few were sent by women of low social position or contingent circumstances (and some I’ve yet to identify firmly).

Kathleen's graph

Hence, two letters sent respectively to the king and the chancellor by a former Jew known as Alice of Worcester are unusual among those that survive from the reign of Edward I. My work in the correspondence of medieval English royal government rarely provides opportunities to encounter what might be called ‘marginal’ voices like Alice’s, making it all the more important to share it with a wide audience, here.

We don’t know a lot about Alice of Worcester. As with many conversi, there is no record of her previous, Hebrew name. She gives only the new baptismal name of her conversion, and her town of original residence. However, by the act of sending a letter itself, she presumably laid claim to some connection to the chancellor and king.

A number of converted Jews moved in royal circles in Edward’s reign. We know, for example, of an ‘Eleanor of St. Paul’, formerly a Jew of London. Although the law declared otherwise, after her conversion Eleanor was granted the right to retain her property by the king in 1289. Edward’s daughter had requested his assistance on the woman’s behalf. The fact that the king’s daughter (and her mother) shared a Christian name with this lady suggests that she (or they) sponsored her conversion for some reason. Eleanor of St. Paul may have had some commercial relationship to the royal family prior to her conversion, as seamstress or laundress, for example, or perhaps as a connection of one of the king’s London goldsmiths. Other conversi acted for Edward in a range of roles, such as Martin ‘le Convers’, who was given 15l. 6s. 8d. for buying a bay horse to carry the queen’s letters in 1300, and one Alexander ‘le Convers’, who was among the king’s naval leaders into the reign of Edward II.

However, converted Jews often found themselves struggling for livelihood: deprived of their former property and wealth, cast out from their former communities of support, and sometimes excluded from their earlier employment (especially in the case of money lending). For this reason, Edward’s father, Henry III, had instigated the Domus conversorum, a house of charity for converted Jews —one of which once stood in Chancery Lane and was overseen by the Keeper of the Rolls, with other domus apparently located in major towns such as Bristol and Oxford. Despite royal patronage, these houses frequently struggled to secure their essential income. So, while they may have offered some sanctuary to destitute conversi, the converts were not necessarily much better off inside the house than outside.

Whatever her previous status or employment, Alice of Worcester seems to have found herself among such a disadvantaged group after converting to Christianity. Both of her surviving letters were attempts to secure her livelihood and that of her son, and reveal how desperate her circumstances has become. (Alice’s son’s name is not recorded, but he acted as the bearer of her letters on both of these occasions, and others that are mentioned in passing.) Letters of this kind are often hard to date. However, from a mention in her letter to the king of his recent arrival in England and reference to previous arrangements for her upkeep during his father’s reign, the letter to Edward I probably dates to the second half of 1274. In this year, Edward returned to England as its king, after spending time abroad on crusade and visiting his lands in Gascony. In her letter, Alice asked the king to renew his permission for her to obtain her corrody (a type of royal pension) at the priory in Worcester where she had been staying, a similar grant having expired upon his return to England. This letter (The National Archives, SC 1/16/63), written in the French of England, was printed by Tanquerey in the early twentieth century (who, in my view mistakenly, dated it to 1289) and is available online. It isn’t clear how the king responded to this request, but he had obviously responded positively to an earlier approach made to him in Gascony by a similar letter, also carried by Alice’s faithful son, providing some relief —albeit temporary— in her need.

Alice’s letter to the chancellor (SC 1/24/201, is by far the most moving of the two surviving examples. It has never appeared in print to my knowledge, so I offer it to you in translation below. The letter probably postdates Alice’s correspondence with the king in c. 1274, since Robert Burnell, the chancellor to whom it was addressed, didn’t become the bishop of Bath and Wells until early in 1275. At some point since her previous letter, Alice had left the care of the priory at Worcester, and was living in Chester. She was unwell and apparently without support. She appears to have been in correspondence with Burnell on another, intervening occasion, at which time he had written to one of the domus conversorum on her behalf. Alice wrote to plead for further assistance. The domus had rejected her despite the chancellor’s previous instructions. Although her letter conforms to the typical format of all correspondence addressing the crown at the time, it sometimes departs from these standards in its language, which is rich in scriptural references compared to contemporary letters. In my opinion this was almost certainly the result of a personal touch, despite the undoubted (and entirely commonplace) use of a scribe to produce the final copy. It gives us a fleeting insight into Alice’s learning, her desperation, and her self-representation as a new Christian as she pleads her case.

Probably, given the known budgetary problems of the domus as an institution, the house in question was already over-extended in its financial commitments and wary of taking on additional mouths. The domus concerned was presumably the one in Chancery Lane. An inquest made in the reign of Edward II records that an ‘Alice of Worcester’ had been resident there sometime before 1280. It seems likely, then, that Robert Burnell acted to promote Alice’s acceptance by the domus, perhaps after receiving this letter. However, movingly, the fourteenth-century inquest also records that by 1280, Alice was no longer resident in the domus and that her subsequent whereabouts were unknown. Her struggle to maintain herself on royal charity apparently having failed, she either ‘apostatised’ and returned to her faith community in the hope of their support, found some menial work outside the house through which to support herself, or died, unremarked and unmemorialised.

Although these scraps of Alice’s story are particularly sad and affecting, in fact it was not only women of such marginalised communities as the late thirteenth-century conversi who found letter writing to be a useful, or perhaps their only avenue for seeking help when financial or other needs became pressing. For example, The National Archives also houses letters from the female relations of Edward’s ministers, such as Katherine Paynel, a connection of a later chancellor, John Langton, and Amice de Kirkby, mother of Edward’s treasurer John de Kirkby, who wrote to beg assistance from their better-connected kinsmen. Even though my research often means I spend my time making forceful arguments about the important and active place of medieval women in society and political life, I find it salutary to remember that disadvantage, exclusion and hardship were often a woman’s lot. Royal archives may be a surprising place to find evidence of this, but even there it is present.

In my own rough translation from the Latin (taking a few small liberties for the benefit of modern readers), Alice’s letter to the chancellor (c. 1275–c. 1280) reads:

To the venerable and discrete Robert, by the grace of God bishop of Bath [and Wells], and also chancellor of the lord Edward, our king, his wretched (captiva) Alice of Worcester, conversa, if it please him, [sends] greeting. I notify your pontifical excellency that the Domus Conversorum that you recently instructed, in writing, to assign my living to me and my son —bearer of this letter— until you can provide better for me, has not deigned in any way to accept your letters granted to me under your seal. On account of this I return to you as if to my refuge, pleading tearfully that in this matter you might wish to grant some remedy. Let it be known that I remain at Chester, not strong enough for travelling to work, lacking the above mentioned [living] until you might deign to send me some help, if it please you, by the bearer of this letter; then, on account of these matters, may it so happen that I, in my infirmity, am not I am forced to beg you, even if on hands and knees, that it is proper to intercede. Farewell. May you have mercy on my wretchedness with the greatest mercy, as the lord Jesus Christ had mercy for the Blessed Mary Magdalene. Farewell.

I would like to dedicate this post to the memory of my father-in-law, Anton Neal, who had an abiding interest in the history of the Jews and their faith, and who passed away as I was preparing these thoughts.

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