I’ve just finished teaching a unit in first year history on Medieval Europe – although there are still essays trickling in for assessment. This has been a quite lovely experience, I must say. (Especially given the dire predictions of some colleagues about the low standards in written composition and general comprehension among today’s youth.  Personally, I blame society.) I’ve been spoilt with a great bunch of students, almost all of whom seemed genuinely happy to be in class. However, for all their engagement and enthusiasm, there was one thing in particular that bothered me about their grasp of the course material.

Women.

Now, it may not have escaped your notice that I am, myself, female. I’m on the record as saying that I’m basically glad I don’t live in 13th-Century England, because of the opportunities modernity offers me, in particular to be a scholar and a relatively independent person. I regard many of the attitudes towards women in the past as distasteful, and unconscionable in the present. But I also recognise that (a) history is not a long but simple story of the emancipation of women from male control; (b) some attitudes towards men in the past were also pretty lousy; (c) gender was only one factor – a factor, sure, even an important one, but still only one of a complex set of factors – in determining how good or bad you had it in the medieval world; and (d) women, as much as men, constituted the societies that held and expressed gendered attitudes.

I wish my students could see it that way. I’ve just finished reading a batch of research essays on the topic of gender roles in high medieval Europe, and there was a depressing sameness to them. Most assured me that women were uniformly detested and oppressed. Several failed to mention men at all (except in connection with oppressing women), even through the set question specifically concerned gender roles, and not the treatment of women. The (largely un-articulated) definition of oppression seemed to include involvement in arranged marriages (somewhat conveniently – or disrespectfully – forgetting that marriage, like the tango, takes two); the existence of the story of Eve (equally conveniently overlooking the many Biblical heroines); the fact that as wives they had and were expected to have children (as if women themselves were somehow immune to and separate from notions of lineage and status); and lack of participation in the workforce. In these terms, a number of essays concluded, at least the peasant ‘woman on the street’ was relatively equal to the man, even if they were all kneeling in the shit together. (And the great thing about endemic malnutrition and working as a wet-nurse is you don’t have as many children!) To be fair, this general impression is one they might easily have obtained from the assigned readings, about which I hope to make some recommendations for future years.

Now, I am not about to argue that, au contraire, medieval women had it easy, or that the imagery of the ultimate temptress wasn’t sometimes, or even often, used against them. But I do want to make a stand for some nuance; some complication; some questioning of this rather bland and unimaginative view of medieval women. In the first place, I object to the assumption that women then wanted the same things as women now, in middle-class, 21st-Century Australia (in fact, while we’re on the topic, do all 21st-Century, middle-class, Australian women even want the same things?). I also object to the implicit objectification of women in the view that society (often, explicitly, ‘The Church’ in the essays I’ve just marked) did this to them, as if they were completely passive instruments, utterly lacking in agency. They may have had limited opportunities to express their desires and decisions outside the social structures and assumptions in which they were embedded, but so do we, and so did contemporary men, by and large. Significantly, those structures and assumptions were/are also gendered, and so the ways and means in which men’s and women’s options were/are limited are not identical.

I shall have more to say on this over the coming weeks, in which I hope to bring together a number of examples of women in 13th-Century England, not so much to show how amazing, exceptional or admirable they were, but to show how complex their lives were, how much gender was only (an integrated) part of their many social roles, and how agency is actually everywhere if you only think of turning over a historical rock or two.

For now, I’ll close by asking: Have you come across this kind of uncritical approach to gender (or other topics) among undergraduate history students? How did you address it?