A long time ago, I began a project on women’s letters in the collection formerly known as Ancient Correspondence (Kew, The National Archives, SC 1). In the course of events, this project took a number of turns, catapulted around the dark side of the moon, and eventually became a project on letters that didn’t discuss women’s letters at all, except in passing.
Now I’m back. I’m revisiting the data I collected about female representation in the correspondence of Edward I. For a thirteenth-century archive, there are lots! At the moment I’m considering the connections among the women represented in the collection, and between them and the (largely) men they corresponded with. It’s part prosopography, and part epistolary-cultural history. I want to know what conditions enabled women to send these letters, and I suspect that this was partly to do with who they were in combination with who they knew. What I really want is some whiz bang software that can help me visualize this network while also encoding relationships between them – like the interface they’ve got at the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project which I often drool over. In the absence of said amazing software, I’ve begun to plot this out on my amazing personal double whiteboard (see previous posts!), and I have to say, the results surprise even me.
Even when it’s part of your hypothesis, it’s hard to imagine how closely inter-connected the upper echelons of British society were in the thirteenth century. I’m not even talking about royalty here, which, as anyone with the slightest acquaintance with medieval history is probably aware, was as interrelated as the proverbial. I’ve begun my investigations down among the people whose names are not immediately recognizable. I asked myself what was the lowest social rank represented among women whose letters ultimately came to be preserved by the royal government (which, I acknowledge, is by no means the same as all women who sent letters)? So far, Alice la Converse, a converted Jew living on royal charity in Worcester, is the lowliest of the correspondents – but she’s an isolated case. So far, most of the less recognizable women in the sample turn out to be married into the minor nobility, tenants in chief in their own right, relations of the chancellor at some remove, and, frequently, related to one another. Take for example, the descendants of William FitzAlan, 2nd Lord of Oswestry:
Although the details are probably too small to make out here, it’s probably enough to say that all the ‘wavy’ boxes with red outlines indicate women whose letters are represented in the SC1 collection. It strikes me as impressive that so many women in this fairly restricted kinship map wrote letters to the thirteenth century government of England which have survived. Are the FitzAlan women unique? Or was this level of female epistolary involvement standard? Can we know? Or is the evidence too incomplete? These women shared degrees of kinship with Edward I’s confidant and chancellor, Robert Burnell (rectangular red box): was this the ‘in’ that opened up high status epistolary opportunities to them? Or were other factors at play? This looks like data worth mining in more depth…
1. Although, let’s be honest, I don’t actually think software that cool comes for free, and I am just a lowly level A academic, not a well-funded, multi-investigator research project… Yet, I can dream!
2. Two letters from Alice survive: Kew, TNA, SC 1/16/63, and SC 1/24/201. The former (to Edward I) is printed in Recueil De Lettres Anglo-Françaises, ed. by F. J. Tanquerey (Paris, 1916), no. 61; and translated in Letters of the Queens of England 1100–1547, ed. by Anne Crawford (Thrupp: Alan Sutton, 1994), pp. 246–47. The latter (to Robert Burnell) has not been printed.
3. There are 440 letters from women that can be dated to the reigns of Henry III and Edward I in this collection, 92% of which (406) date from Edward’s reign. For some more cool stats about this corpus, see my ‘From Letters to Loyalty: Aline la Despenser and the Meaning(s) of a Noblewoman’s Correspondence in Thirteenth-Century England’, in Authority, Gender and Emotion in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, ed. by Susan Broomhall (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), pp. 18–33.