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I’m the kind of reader who tends to have the OED Online open in another tab whenever I’m working through a book or article, and I try to keep a note of the interesting words I find for future reference. So it seems appropriate to instigate a series of mini posts here in which I share my most recent ‘new word’, its definition, and the context in which I encountered it.

Map of Wales c. 1200, a fissiparous entity if ever there was one. From A. G. Little’s “Mediæval Wales, Chiefly in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries” (1902).

Today’s Word of the Day is fissiparous (adj.). The OED gives:

a. Of organisms: Producing new individuals by fission.

b. Of or pertaining to the process of reproduction by fission.[1]

In other words, this is a marvellous word for describing things which have a tendency to split apart into many, fragmented units.

This interesting new piece of vocabulary came to my attention in reading Simon Meecham-Jones’ introduction to the book he co-edited with Ruth Kennedy for Palgrave Macmillan’s The New Middle Ages series: Authority and Subjugation in Writing of Medieval Wales (2008). It crops up in Meecham-Jones’ discussion of the distinction between Wales and the English Crown’s other, later, imperial projects, namely, a pre-existing textual tradition and documentary culture. He reminds us that “it was far from the truth to imagine that Wales was a land without textual resources of its own. England’s first colonial wars were aimed at subduing a people who, however fractious and fissiparous their political culture, nonetheless enjoyed both a highly developed and long-standing legal code… and a prolific and sophisticated literary culture…”[2]

Nice phrase, isn’t it? I’m reading this in the final stages of development of an essay I hope will appear somewhere or other reasonably soon which examines the particular rhetorical construction of kingship that emerged from the correspondence of Edward I with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, between the two Welsh Wars. I’ll let you know when I’m done… Meanwhile, try to use fissiparous in a sentence at least once this week.

[1] “fissiparous, adj.” OED Online (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2012). <; [accessed October 31, 2012].

[2] Simon Meecham-Jones, ‘Introduction’, in Authority and Subjugation in Writing of Medieval Wales, ed. by Ruth Kennedy and Simon Meecham-Jones (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 1-11 (p. 4).

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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