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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.[1] 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,[2] is the lowliest of the correspondents – but she’s an isolated case. So far, most of the less recognizable women in the sample[3] 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:


Boxes represent generations of the FitzAlan family and their marital relations. Boxes include spousal details of the primary FitzAlan relation where relevant. Wavy red box outlines indicate women with letters preserved in SC1. Colour coding indicates the primary patronymic under which individuals in a given generation are known.

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.

Oh boy, I have been waiting a long time for this kind of software to be free and accessible to mere mortals, and finally, it is here! This is the preliminary result of me testing out a piece of shareware devoted to displaying frequency analyses as pretty cloud diagrams.[1] Basically all I’ve done here is paste a random, small assortment of Latin letter transcriptions from TNA, SC 1 (familiar to many readers here) into an online tool I recently discovered, called Wordle, and play with the display settings until I liked what I saw:

latin cloud

How cool is that?! In one visual sweep, you can start to pick out the most commonly recurring elements of vocabulary (granted, in declined form – but maybe that’s important and interesting in a different way from the stem lemma…).

My next project is to build some select files so that word clouds can be compared between, for instance, letters to the King, and those sent in his name; or letters from men, compared to letters from women… Such tantalizing possibilities! Bring on the summer!


[1] Perhaps it’s the scientist in me, but I often find visual data so much clearer to deal with. Give me a nice graph and a regression line, and we know where we stand – including the awareness that those little lines/dots/asterisks are a product of fallible human intent and design, rather than any kind of all-knowing objectivity whether derived from or metaphorically similar to an ultimate deity. Got that? Good.

A while back I remember being horrified by a post at Vaulting and Vellum on the defacement of illuminated manuscripts. When you work on less visually elaborate and aesthetically pleasing sources, say administrative letters for the sake of argument, the chance of that kind of sin being perpetrated on your materials is much lower. What is much more common in this scenario is the source which has been damaged by the attempts of past scholars, editors and archivists to read it.

Like this:

Archive damage

Kew, TNA, SC 1/3/106. Apparently a letter from Thomas fitz Alan to Henry III, c. 1220. Luckily in this case the text was printed by both Prynne and Shirley, because good luck making anything of it now… Photo by Kathleen Neal

A significant number of thirteenth century letters in the SC 1 collection bear similar evidence of chemical agents having been applied at some time to increase the contrast of ink on parchment. Happily in most cases only small portions of the text are affected, typically at the edges, and often UV can help you see through the murk… if you happen to be in Kew with the original in front of you, that is. When you’re forced to rely on digital reproductions from several thousand miles away, it gets your goat to find that some element of dictaminal rhetoric vital for your argument has been obliterated, to all intents and purposes, by otherwise well-meaning predecessors, some of whom helpfully calendared the contents but failed to reproduce them in entirety. One of these days I will tabulate all the examples of this defacement in SC 1 and by correlating them with editions or scholarship of certain authors point a stern and censorious finger at likely culprits. For now I simply say, “Curse you, Oh archivists of the past!”

The Call for Papers for Kings and Queens II sent me scurrying through my *large* database of potential letters for a neat little nugget I might be able to turn into a conference paper. As I have about 13,000 individual items from the SC 1 (Ancient Correspondence) series at TNA saved as photographs on my hard drive, I’m quite spoilt for choice! I’d initially considered the correspondence of Edward I with his first cousin-once removed, Philip IV of France, as a potential case study. This seemed like an appropriate and interesting proposal since their relationship started off rosily, but took a particularly nasty turn around 1294 when Philip decided to annexe Edward’s Gascon territory to the French crown, despite having given assurances in private diplomatic meetings that he wouldn’t.[1] Sadly (although perhaps, on reflection, not particularly surprisingly), none of the extant letters between the two monarchs date from this crucial period. They come from earlier (up to 1293) and later (from about 1303). There’s probably still much of interest to be had from them, but this set back put a damper on my initial idea.[2]

Kew, TNA, SC 1/13/28. Detail of a draft letter from Edward I to Marie of Brabant, dowager queen of France, 12 August 1295. Photo by Kathleen Neal.

What does survive from the crisis period, however, is a set of draft letters drawn up on a single day in the name of Edward I to no fewer than three queens of France: his aunt, Marguerite of Provence, widow of Louis IX; Marie of Brabant, widow of his cousin Philip III; and Jeanne of Navarre, queen consort of Philip IV. Interestingly, in the same breath, as it were, the king also wrote to his ally against Philip, Adolph of Nassau, the so-called King of the Romans, but this letter was the last to be drafted in the set: it’s fourth on the parchment sheet under Edward’s letters to the three queens. Is this perhaps an indicator of a hierarchy of significance in political communication in which the royal women of Edward’s network were more important to his diplomatic efforts? Possible, although perhaps not provable… Nevertheless, this tantalising find – or rather rediscovery, since I’ve passed my eyes across this letter before – has got me rather excited in the context of the conference theme. Read the rest of this entry »

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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