Addressing Women in Early Medieval Religious Texts

Guest post written by Kathryn Maude, author of the book, ‘Addressing Women in Early Medieval Religious Texts‘.

Can you tell us about your earliest interest in the Middle Ages and something of your studies since?

Growing up in the North East of England, there was always a lot of medieval heritage around me (like Hexham Abbey, with Wilfrid’s 7th-century crypt!) but I really became interested in studying the Middle Ages when working with Dr Dan Wakelin during my BA in English at Cambridge. My interest in texts written for women in particular started with my undergraduate dissertation on the Wooing Group texts written for anchorites. I then moved on to an MA in Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds, where I worked on some of the Ælfric sermons found in the book, and then to a PhD in English at King’s College London, working with Professor Clare Lees.

Could you briefly outline the basic premise of your book?

My book argues that by analysing texts deliberately written for and addressed directly to women we gain an insight into the horizons of possibility for their lives. The male writer, in the moment of address, creates a relationship with his female addressee. The address could be a personal one – my sister, my beloved, my friend – or a general one – you women, you nuns, you widows – but in either case the terms of address used claim intimate knowledge of the text’s addressee and her relationship to the writer. This relationship attempts to define how the woman should be – what she should do, how she should behave, what kinds of things she should focus on. When we do not have substantial evidence of women’s writing, focusing on these texts that address women directly allows us access to the scripts through which women were encouraged to compose their lives.

Is there any writing by women from the period you cover?

There is very little writing by female authors as we would understand them now in England and Scotland from the period. There are some letters (from, for example, Matilda of Scotland who I talk about in the book) but we don’t have any longer texts written by named women. I turned to texts addressed to women to think about women’s literary culture more broadly, as women’s involvement in medieval literary production can’t be contained within a traditional single author model.

Turning to the texts that you discuss, those that address women, are there very many of those?

Many more! Women were extremely active as patrons and commissioners of texts throughout the period, so we have texts like the Life of Margaret of Scotland commissioned by Matilda of Scotland in memory of her mother or like De institutione inclusarum, requested from Aelred by his sister who was herself a recluse. There’s also a range of texts that are addressed to women but weren’t commissioned by them, like the Old English sermon texts addressed to women, or the Regularis concordia, a regulatory text addressed to the ‘monks and nuns of the English nation’. 

What led you to look only at religious texts?

I concentrate on religious texts as these are explicitly instructional: they address women directly in order to provide a script for their lives. I’m interested in how women are told to behave, and that’s the central concern of religious texts. There are also more religious texts addressed to women, probably because of this interest in shaping their readers and hearers. 

How did you choose which ones to focus on? And what’s the split between Old English and Latin?

I wanted to ensure that I included both Old English and Latin texts, and also a representative group of texts addressed to different types of women (laywomen, nuns, recluses). By including early medieval sermons and twelfth-century guidance writing for female recluses, I was able to trace the possibilities for women’s Christian subjecthood in Britain from pre- to post-Conquest times, from the early medieval Benedictine Reform to the mid-twelfth century. The first chapter of the book concentrates on Old English sermons, and then the rest of the book discusses Latin anchoritic writing, saints’ lives, and sermons.

Did they tend to share a common aim, if not a common style?

All of these texts want to transform their readers, either by giving them models to follow (like the lives of saints) or by telling them explicitly how to behave. The way these male writers address women shapes the women’s capacity to imagine lives for themselves as Christian believers. Sometimes that address is invited and welcome, and sometimes it very much is not!

And who were the women to whom these texts were addressed? 

One of the exciting things about researching the book was seeing the wide range of different groups of women who are addressed in these religious texts. Each chapter of the book concentrates on a different group of addressees. Chapter 1 focuses on sermons addressed to groups of laywomen. The central chapters discuss texts addressed to a woman whom the writer knew well, Chapter 2 focusing on female recluses and Chapter 3 on powerful women (an abbess and a queen). Finally, Chapter 4 analyses texts addressed to communities of nuns who were well-known to the writer.

Is it possible to tell which writings had the greatest impact, for good or bad, or if any were particularly valued?

Often we can’t see how a text was received directly, but by attending to whether women were involved in the production of the texts that address them – whether by commissioning, copying or rewriting – we can see which scripts women valued and attempted to follow. Women’s desire for intimate address manifests in many different ways: women rewrite texts to address themselves (the Regularis concordia, the Rule of Benedict), they commission texts (Aelred’s sister, Queen Matilda, the nuns of Wilton and Barking), they copy texts that do address them (the nuns of Wilton and Barking, the scriptrix at Nunnaminster), and they create intimate relationships with their confessors in an attempt to be addressed as full Christian subjects (Christina, Margaret, Aelred’s
sister, Eve). Not all these attempts are successful, but all of them make clear these women’s desires to be taken seriously as Christian women, to be both seen and addressed in their own right. 

Among all the works you read, do you have a favourite or an extract that particularly appealed?

In around 1080, Goscelin wrote the text we now call the Liber confortatorius  to a woman named Eve. She had started a new life without him in a hermitage in France. He writes to her, imagining her in her ‘little home of pilgrimage and pasture, this little house eight feet long…secluded from the onset of the world, and hidden away from worldly seas as if in the ark itself’. Elsewhere he calls her tiny living space ‘a house of refuge from the hurricane of evils’. At the beginning of the Covid19 pandemic, finishing this book, I couldn’t stop thinking about this description of Eve’s cell. I think it really captures the aspiration of reclusive life, where you avoid worldly distractions and can devote yourself to what really matters.

In all your research did you uncover anything that surprised or shocked you?

There’s a particularly surprising moment in the Life of Edith of Wilton that I always tell people about when discussing the book. We discover that the saint had a private zoo that she would retreat to from the ‘uproar of the world’. Among the ‘exotics and natives’ in this zoo, we are told, there was a ‘ferocious branching-antlered stag’ that she had a pet name for, and he would eat from her hand! The writer tries to suggest that this is like Christ spending forty days in the wilderness, but even he doesn’t seem that sure – and we can probably see this as a hangover from her royal upbringing. She was also told off by Bishop Æthelwold for wearing clothes that were too nice for a nun (purple with gold trim!), so she obviously had a taste for the finer things in life. 

Your book covers the Conquest period. What happens to women’s writing in the thirteenth century, or is that the subject of a future book?

I don’t have plans for the next book yet, but you never know! In the thirteenth century, texts written for and by women really increase in number (possibly just because more texts from this period survive), and we see texts increasingly written in vernacular languages like Anglo-Norman and Early Middle English. There’s a lot of great scholarship on texts written for recluses, which my book acts as a precursor to – Aelred and Goscelin’s work addressed to female recluses has been seen as the beginning of an English anchoritic tradition that reached its full flowering with the Ancrene Wisse. Since the latest text I treat chronologically is Aelred’s De institutione inclusarum, I show the continuity between his address to his sister and earlier addresses to women throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries, thereby placing these later texts addressed to anchoritic women within the broader context of earlier texts concerned with women’s religious lives.

We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?

I have been very lucky this year – I was on sabbatical in the UK finishing off this book when the COVID19 pandemic hit in March 2020. As I was coming to the end of the project, most of the underpinning research had already been done. When I was doing the final referencing checks, though, I did have to ask #MedievalTwitter for some page numbers and publication dates, as I wasn’t able to go into the library to check them myself! I’m back in Beirut now, but our library here is still closed, so I’m very reliant on online materials, digital archives and the kindness of colleagues.


KATHRYN MAUDE is Assistant Professor of Women and Gender Studies at the American University of Beirut.

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