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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.

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 »

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.


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?

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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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