Last night, sublime music, women’s voices soaring in a Medieval Women’s Choir concert at Trinity Church. I was transfixed, transported by the voices. During the instrumentals I closed my eyes and watched all my beloved characters dancing to the vielle and harp. Members of the Medieval Women’s Choir will perform at my book launch on 4 May at the University Bookstore in Seattle!
When I began my career in crime writing, my library from graduate school was light on women. I scrambled for information about women in the 14th century, sifting through mountains of books, documents and papers hungrily copying down the smallest of gleanings about women and their lives in the period. But as you know if you keep up with the field or if you’ve followed this blog, that has changed. Radically. Historians are writing brilliant books about women in the middle ages. Hurrah!
Where to begin?! If you’re just starting, I can’t think of a better introduction and overview than Susan Signe Morrison’s new book, A Medieval Woman’s Companion (Oxbow Books 2016). A few weeks ago, as a guest on this blog, Susan treated us all to a lively discussion about how we might make use of her new book in writing novels about medieval women. So you’ve already sampled Susan’s engaging style and the range of women she discusses.
Not only does Susan introduce the reader to a grand assortment of women from a wide variety of backgrounds, but she discusses the broader themes touching on women’s lives at the time—attitudes about women’s bodies; women’s occupations; religious movements; women in the arts, including playwrights and troubadours and Japanese writers. Each chapter includes a resource guide for further exploring the women and the topics. The resources include websites, videos, novels, as well as source documents.
Who can resist a book with chapter titles such as: “Textile Concerns: Holy Transvestites and the Dangers of Cross-dressing”? The chapter isn’t solely about cross-dressing, though that isn’t just a come on. Susan discusses the political implications of clothing including the sumptuary laws, how water-powered mills for grinding grain freed women to work in textiles—and all facets of that production, and, yes, the women who dressed as men to protect themselves or to protect their cities and kingdoms—women donning armor!
One of my favorite parts of the book is the final chapter, “Looking Forward” Contemporary Feminist Theory and Medieval Women.” Susan states at the beginning: “Medieval women’s lives and writings prefigure many issues that have arisen in more recent times. Indeed, the medieval period helped form current beliefs and attitudes toward women.” In this chapter Susan cites a wide assortment of writers on the importance of revising what we consider the “canon”, that is, the works considered worthy of study in schools and universities, as well as the necessity of questioning attitudes we’ve carried forward through the ages—women’s work is unimportant, women’s innocence is best protected by ignorance, how women have been considered the Other. The chapter is thought-provoking and engaging, not angry. If you are using this book for a class, this is the chapter I’d imagine inspiring the liveliest discussions with support from the earlier chapters.
As if all this weren’t enough, Susan has created a companion website for the book that will be continually updated—in fact, she’s already adding material.
If you’re writing about medieval women or teaching medieval history or literature, this book is an essential. What a resource!
Once you’ve begun, look back at the non-fiction I’ve featured on this blog:
A Poisoned Past by Steven Bednarski
Perilous Passages: the Book of Margery Kempe by Julie A Chappell
Inventing Eleanor by Michael Evans
The Beguines of Medieval Paris by Tanya Stabler Miller
Defending the City of God by Sharan Newman
Queenship in the Mediterranean by Elena Woodacre (be sure to look at part 2 as well)
My graduate school reading that was so light on women—that is happily a thing of the past.