Medieval Women and the Book

Course Organiser: Professor Michelle Brown
10-14 July

This course reviews the evidence for the role of women in the creation of medieval manuscripts, as scribes, illuminators, patrons and authors. These range from the 4th-century pilgrim Egeria to Elizabeth I and include writers such as Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Mother Julian and 'desktop publisher' Christine de Pizan.

It is telling that within the medieval guild system, only the book-related trades permitted women to inherit businesses from fathers and husbands and to trade in their own right. This may have something to do with the long history of women being involved in writing, studying and making books in the religious sphere earlier in the Middle Ages.

We shall begin by examining how the role of women began to change in the late Roman Empire and Early Christian church and how, as monastic founders and daring missionaries, they prepared the way for better-known spiritual authors such as Hildegard, Mother Julian of Norwich and laywomen, Marie de France and Margery Kempe. We shall also consider the role of women as book producers in the medieval urban milieu, including the audacious author / publisher, Christine de Pizan. Female patrons and book-owners will also be considered, including Queen Emma (and Cnut), Queen Margaret of Scotland, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Christina of Markyate, Queen Isabella, Elizabeth de Bohun, Bona Sforza, Joanna the Mad and the Tudor queens.

Evidence for women’s lives is often difficult to find for this period, but by examining the books they read, made and commissioned, as political and religious leaders, courtiers, educators, household managers, physicians and tradespeople, we can construct a fuller picture of their contribution to society and culture. We shall read excerpts from texts written by women, examine the nature and constraints of the evidence for their activities in this area and discuss images of some of the manuscripts made by and/or for women.

Course Outlines


1 Introduction 

2 Women in late Roman, Early Christian and Byzantine literacy.

3 Women in Anglo-Saxon, Frankish and Celtic society and its book culture.

4 Women in Anglo-Saxon, Frankish and Celtic society and its book culture.

5 Viewing of manuscripts and facsimiles in Senate House Library

6 Women in the Norman and Gothic periods.

7 Women in the Norman and Gothic periods

8 Woman as urban book-makers.

9 Women as medieval authors and patrons

10 Women as medieval authors and patrons

11 Visit to British Library 

12 Case studies

13 Conclusion

Further details to follow.

Outcomes for Students

To follow. 

Required Reading

Taylor, Jane and Lesley Smith, (eds), Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence (British Library Studies in Medieval Culture), (British Library and University of Toronto Press: London and Toronto, 1997) 
Watt, Diane. Medieval Women's Writing: Works by and for women in England, 1100-1500 (Polity, 2007) 

Additional useful sources:

Burgess, Glyn and Keith Busby, The Lais of Marie de France. Translated into Modern English prose with an introduction (Penguin Books: London, 1986)~
Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. by Rosalind Brown-Grant (Penguin Books: London, 1999)
John-Julian, The Complete Julian of Norwich (Paraclete Press: Orleans, MA 2009)
Staley, Lynn (ed), The Book of Margery Kempe, (Kalamazoo: MIP, 1996), online via the University of Rochester:

Recommended Introductory Reading

Brown, Michelle P, 'Female book-ownership and production in Anglo-Saxon England: the Evidence of the Ninth-Century Prayerbooks', in C Kay and L Sylvester, (eds), Lexis and Texts in Early English: Papers in Honour of Jane Roberts (Brill: Amsterdam, 2001), pp. 45-68.
Burnett, Charles and Peter Dronke, eds. Hildegard of Bingen: The Context of Her Thought and Art. The Warburg Colloquia (The University of London: London, 1998)
Classen, Albrecht (ed), The Power of a Woman's Voice in Medieval and Early Modern Literatures: (Walter de Gruyter: Berlin and New York, 2007) ISBN 978-3-11-019941-3
Dronke, Peter. Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2001)
Margolis, Nadia. An Introduction to Christine de Pizan. New Perspectives in Medieval Literature, 1. (University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2011)


Michelle Brown is Senior Research Fellow and Professor Emerita of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Studies, University of London. She is a Visiting Fellow at St Chad’s College, University of Durham, a Fellow of the Courtauld Institute and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. She was formerly the Curator of Medieval and Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library and a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Medieval Studies, University of Leeds. She has published, lectured and broadcast widely on the cultural history of the Middle Ages. Her publications include ‘A Guide to Western
Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600’, ‘Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: a Glossary of Technical Terms’, ‘The Book of Cerne’, ‘The British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts’, ‘The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe’, ‘The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval World’, ‘The Holkham Bible’ and ‘The Luttrell Psalter’. The exhibitions she has curated include ‘Painted Labyrinth: the World of the Lindisfarne Gospels’ (BL, 2003) and ‘In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000’(Smithsonian Inst., 2006-7).