So, excuse me while I blather on about this. As I was saying, gender is a complex historical phenomenon, and part of a much bigger social matrix. In this post I want to talk about one example, Katherine Paynel, a widow in late 13th-century England, whose case helps, I think, to dispel a few mythical assumptions of the kind that students tend to make about the position of women in medieval society.

Katherine’s story hasn’t yet completely been unpicked – this is one of the projects sitting in my ‘to do’ tray at the moment, and will sadly remain on the back burner for a few months yet while I finish up my thesis. However, what we do know indicates that she was a woman of some independent means, and certainly a woman of character. Katherine was a tenant in chief of the king,[1] having jointly inherited the lands of her father, Adam de Periton, with her nephew, Robert, and sister, Isabel;[2] but she is known to us principally because a letter she sent to the chancellor, John Langton, c. 1292,[3] survives in The National Archives, Kew, as SC 1/27/113. In my rough translation,[4] it reads:

To her own very dear special friend in God, if he please, Sir John de Langton, chancellor of our lord king, his own liege and erstwhile mother,[5] if he please, Katherine Paynel, greetings and her blessing and [herself] always ready for your commandments. Dear lord and son, I have great joy in the heart from your advancement and may God be praised for the grace which he has given you that all men love you, and [for] that perserverance which ought to remain all your life; that is my prayer and it has been and will be as long as I live. As to that, dear lord, it is known to you, if it please you to remember, that since our first meeting I have had a difficult task to sustain and guide myself and my children with scarcely any aid. But, blessed be the Lord, they are agreeable enough to me, and humble, and each of my sons has some livelihood, and my daughter can take counsel with them when she desires. Dear lord, my younger son, Stephen Paynel, prays and requests me often that I send him to court in service or company where he can acquire sense and manners, so that he can recover the goods (pust aver recoverir) after me if he should be of service. And indeed, lord, I now have no sure aquaintance except, if it please, yours. Thus, I pray and request you, dear lord, for love of me and for all friendship that by your counsel and aid he may be entrusted to you yourself, lord, or to your bailiff. And I, lord, will work on his behalf for the costs in every way in my power, if by that he may support himself. Dear lord, concerning this prayer may you wish by your letter to tell me through this same bearer; and often, in all other matters, your pleasure; and concerning your state of body and health, which may God cause to be good and long. Lord, I commend you to God and His sweet mother.

Reading this letter in light of some of my complaints from the previous post, let me point out a few of the most salient points.

First, this letter constructs a gendered world in which men and women are both participating, actively yet differently. As a widow with children Katherine is in some ways the chief of her household: her children remain under her guidance to some degree, despite that they seem to be adults. They are ‘humble’ and agreeable to her; and she on her part ‘stuggles’ to sustain and guide them. Her sons’ role in life is clearly distinct from that of her daughter – the sons have livelihoods, while the daughter implicitly does not – and yet the daughter is not described as an empty or passive instrument. She can ‘take counsel’ with her brothers ‘when she desires’, and is thus recognised as a person who (a) has desires, and (b) has affairs in which she may require advice. Part of Katherine’s role as mother, which is clearly articulated here, is to establish and advance careers for her sons by whatever means open to her. One of those means is this letter.

Here we have a woman participating actively in what we might loosely term the ‘patronage economy’ of the royal court. She has connections and she is aware of how to use them, positioning herself as intercessor on behalf of a ‘client’, in this case, her son. The role of queens as intercessors and patrons has been examined in this period,[6] but this letter shows us what we should already have assumed – that women at other levels of society could also serve as conduits for favour and friendship if they were suitably connected, and this shows us another point which should be unremarkable – that women were embedded in the network of people that constituted their society. In this letter Katherine uses gendered language to appeal to the finer feelings of the patron whose assistance she is seeking, but her actions in approaching him for help are in many ways no different from the approaches of many, contemporary, male suppliants.We should also acknowledge that the imagery of family, and the association between mothers of children and the Mother of God articulated in this letter were aspects of persuasive rhetoric that were not necessarily open to men. To talk like a woman and as a woman mustn’t be assumed to be speaking from a position of true and uncomplicated inferiority. Emaphsising one’s reliance on one’s patron in a petition not only revealed hierarchy, but also constructed it as a means of flattering the patron and honouring him or her as one holding the position of the lord, dispenser of grace and favour. To paraphrase the title of Carpenter & MacLean’s volume of essays on gender, there can be power in weakness.[7]

It’s true that as a woman Katherine probably wouldn’t have been writing this letter if she’d had a living husband: the activation of patronage networks might then have been his task. However, the fact remains that when necessary, she could and did. The Inquisitions Post Mortem reveal that Katherine was the niece of Philip Basset, a justiciar under Henry III.[8] Philip’s robust loyalty during the baronial revolt of Henry’s reign had earned him royal gratitude. This and his network of associates provided members of his family with political protection and useful connections at court on which to call in need, and this may explain Katherine’s apparent familiarity with the mechanisms of petition and patronage at the level of the royal court. Perhaps not every medieval woman was as well informed. By this time Uncle Philip was dead, as were many of his allies and contemporaries from the turbulent 1260s. For a woman, whose opportunities to attend court may have been limited unless she were a lady in waiting to the queen, or nurse to one of the royal children, the chances to forge new acquaintances and alliances would also have been restricted, so the decline in Katherine’s existing networks may have been irreversible unless she chose to remarry – securing for herself the assistance and ‘friendship’ of her new husband and his patrons. We don’t know precisely how she was associated with John Langton, but it’s clear from her letter that she considered him her best, if not only hope of securing Stephen a place at court. If nothing else, this shows she knew how the system worked and was capable of participation. Here gender is intersecting not only with rhetoric and self-representation, but also with politics, public life, status, and socio-political networks.

What else? Katherine is a widow – one of those who seem to have exercised their right not to remarry (huzzah for freedom of relationship, right!?) – but she doesn’t seem that sanguine about it. Financial concern and anxiety about whether she’s up to the task of helping her children make their way in the world permeate this document. That’s partly good rhetoric – the persuasive pose of humble and destitute suppliant – but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t also real. It shouldn’t need reiteration, but this is reminding us – and I hope, showing students – that marriage and children weren’t considered universal evils by contemporary women. On the one hand, marriage was practical and purposeful. If it was like a business, it wasn’t (necessarily) one in which the husband ran the show like a petty dictator and the wife was an oppressed and long suffering secretary in the general typists’ pool. They each had roles to play which were complementary to the other’s, and success in the partnership as an enterprise could no doubt be personally satisfying as well as bringing status and financial reward. Marriage and children were not only valuable and rewarding of themselves (a curse on whoever thought up the notion that medieval people didn’t love their children. Grrrr!) but also fundamental to a woman’s place in society as seen from without, and as experienced by themselves. Katherine’s anxiety about her success in raising her children is also partly anxiety about her success and reputation both as a woman and as a person in the terms recognised by herself and her contemporaries.

We can also see in this letter that lineage and inheritance mattered to Katherine; and the recovery of the mysterious ‘goods’ mentioned in a rather ambiguous passage was an aim she intended to be carried through even into the next generation. She was completely embedded in the assumptions of the landed, inheriting ‘class’ of society, planning for the future of the line in which she was proud to stand, not standing outside it with a critical or ironic eye.[9] The management of the lands and estate across generations is her work. This letter doesn’t show her ‘holding down a job’ in any sense an undergraduate student would recognise, but she is certainly no idler.

This quick race through a single text therefore shows how gender intersects with status, political behaviour, concepts of purpose, tools of persuasion, criteria of social and cultural value, the nature of work, and not doubt much, much more. In fact, there’s lots more I want to say about this letter, but for that you’ll have to await my published work… (She says with brash confidence!)

The end of the tale? In the event, it seems that Stephen Paynel never received a place at court, his mother’s plea going unheeded for some long forgotten reason. There could be many explanations for this, but one is that the plea of a woman really didn’t count for as much as that of a man – all other things being equal; so my students probably weren’t completely wrong…

[1] Calendar of the Fine Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office, 1272–1307, Reprint edn (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1971), p. 378.
[2] Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem and Other Analogous Documents, Vol. 1, Henry III (London: HMSO, 1904), no. 633.

[3] The letter refers to Langton as chancellor, and to his ‘recent advancement’, leading me to suggest it is closely contemporary with his elevation to the chancellorship in December 1292. See his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <doi: 10.1093/ref:odnb/16040> [accessed 8 October 2011]. The letter can’t be referring to his second period as chancellor (1307–1310) since Katherine was dead by November 1296: Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem and Other Analogous Documents, Vol. 3, Edward I (London: HMSO, 1912), no. 373.
[4] The original is in Anglo-Norman and is published in K. Edwards, “The Social Origins and Provenance of the English Bishops During the Reign of Edward II,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 9 (1959): 51-79 (pp. 78-9).
[5] The Anglo-Norman here is jadis mere. Katherine can’t have been John’s biological mother; Edwards, “Social Origins” (p. 63). Note that in Middle English elde-moder (n.): (a) Grandmother; (b) mother-in-law; so perhaps this is a calque? See:
[6] I’m thinking here of the work of John Carmi-Parsons and of Lois Huneycutt, for example in Power of the Weak: Studies on Medieval Women, ed. by Jennifer Carpenter and Sally-Beth MacLean (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), pp. 126-46, 147-77.
[7] Power of the Weak, ed. Carpenter and MacLean.
[8] See: Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem and Other Analogous Documents, Vol. 2, Edward I (London: HMSO, 1906), no. 819.
[9] Fuller discussion of this phenomenon with attention to gendered participation is in Scott L. Waugh, The Lordship of England: Royal Wardships and Marriages in English Society and Politics, 1217-1327 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).