Medieval Women and the Book

Professor Michelle Brown
Maximum: 15 students
Venue: Senate House

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

Key Texts

Jane Taylor 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) ISBN-13: 978-0802080691
Albrecht Classen, 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
Diane Watt, Medieval Women's Writing: Works by and for women in England, 1100-1500 (Polity, 2007) ISBN 978-0-7456-3256-8.
Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society (Thames and Hudson, London, 1990) ISBN 0-500-20354-7

Recommended Reading

Michelle P Brown, 'Female book-ownership and production in Anglo-Saxon England: the Evidence of the Ninth-Century Prayerbooks', in C. Kay & L. Sylvester, eds, Lexis and Texts in Early English: Papers in Honour of Jane Roberts (Brill: Amsterdam, 2001), pp. 45-68.
Rosalind Brown-Grant, Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defense of Women: Reading Beyond Gender (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Charles Burnett and Peter Dronke, eds. Hildegard of Bingen: The Context of Her Thought and Art. The Warburg Colloquia (The University of London: London, 1998)
Nadia Margolis, An Introduction to Christine de Pizan. New Perspectives in Medieval Literature, 1. (University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2011)
Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2001)
Kathryn Smith, “Book, Body and the Construction of the Self in the Taymouth Hours,” in Negotiating Community and Difference in Medieval Europe: Gender, Power, Patronage, and the Authority of Religion in Latin Christendom, ed. Katherine Allen Smith and Scott Wells (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 173-204.
Kathryn Smith, “Books of Hours,” in Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia, ed. Susan Mosher Stuard, Thomas Izbicki and Margaret Schaus (London: Routledge, 2006), 89-92.
Kathryn Smith ,  Art, Identity and Devotion in Fourteenth-Century England: Three Women and their Books of Hours, The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture (London: The British Library Publications and Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 2003).

Student Comments

It would be hard to imagine someone with more passion and knowledge if the subject! It has been a treat to be taught by Michelle, she makes fascinating links between facts of different periods - there appears to be no limit to her knowledge of history. Wonderful to listen. 

Excellent. Michelle is so passionate about her subject that it is such a pleasure to listen to her. With her evidently formidable memory, there was no shortage of information.