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Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500

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Medieval Women looks at a thousand years of English history, as it affected - and was made by - women. Henrietta Leyser considers the problems and attitudes fundamental to every woman of the time: medieval views on sex, marriage and motherhood; the world of work and the experience of widowhood for peasant, townswoman and aristocrat. The intellectual and spiritual worlds of Medieval Women looks at a thousand years of English history, as it affected - and was made by - women. Henrietta Leyser considers the problems and attitudes fundamental to every woman of the time: medieval views on sex, marriage and motherhood; the world of work and the experience of widowhood for peasant, townswoman and aristocrat. The intellectual and spiritual worlds of women are also explored. Based on an abundance of research from the last twenty-five years, Medieval Women describes the diversity and vitality of English women's lives in the Middle Ages.


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Medieval Women looks at a thousand years of English history, as it affected - and was made by - women. Henrietta Leyser considers the problems and attitudes fundamental to every woman of the time: medieval views on sex, marriage and motherhood; the world of work and the experience of widowhood for peasant, townswoman and aristocrat. The intellectual and spiritual worlds of Medieval Women looks at a thousand years of English history, as it affected - and was made by - women. Henrietta Leyser considers the problems and attitudes fundamental to every woman of the time: medieval views on sex, marriage and motherhood; the world of work and the experience of widowhood for peasant, townswoman and aristocrat. The intellectual and spiritual worlds of women are also explored. Based on an abundance of research from the last twenty-five years, Medieval Women describes the diversity and vitality of English women's lives in the Middle Ages.

30 review for Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jan-Maat

    You've climbed up through woodland to the summit of a hill. From there your companion points out below the flash of sunlight on a distant stream, a stretch of path emerging then disappearing among the trees, a corner of a glade. That was my experience of reading this book – the closest thing I've ever come across to a historical If on a Winter's Night a traveller. Each chapter covers different topic (view spoiler)[Archaeology, History & Hagiography, Law Codes, Vernacular Literature, 1066 for You've climbed up through woodland to the summit of a hill. From there your companion points out below the flash of sunlight on a distant stream, a stretch of path emerging then disappearing among the trees, a corner of a glade. That was my experience of reading this book – the closest thing I've ever come across to a historical If on a Winter's Night a traveller. Each chapter covers different topic (view spoiler)[Archaeology, History & Hagiography, Law Codes, Vernacular Literature, 1066 for Women, Sex Marriage & Motherhood, Women at Work, Widows, Female Monasticism, Anchoresses and Recluses, Lay Piety, Literary Interests & Images (hide spoiler)] . The chapters, bar one or two references, are not interlinked, you could read them as free-standing, well not as free-standing essays because the chapters plainly are not like essays – they pose no one question and come to no one answer. It makes for a curious reading experience, like wandering through the bare bones of a very much longer book that hasn't yet been written. The reality of the book undermines the subtitle, there can't be a history – a narrative – of all women, covering a thousand years and more, even if one only considers England (view spoiler)[not that Leyser does that exclusively, St. Bridget of Sweden and her daughters fight their way in even if Joan of Arc doesn't (hide spoiler)] . Perhaps that is a point that Leyser wanted to make. The downside of this is that if you asked me to recommend a book to learn about the lives of Anglo-Saxon aristocratic women, Female monasticism, peasant women, I could not recommend this one on it's own, Leyser eludes comprehensiveness. She shares insights, and at the paragraph level I read happily, but the abrupt changes of direction tired me, the prospect of the next chapter was a little wearying, so much so that Seierstad was able to grab me by the hand and drag me off to spend One Hundred and One Days in Baghdad with her in the middle of reading Leyser's book. There, I became an adulterous reader. Leyser has many interesting things to say – on Anglo-Saxon politics being family politics (view spoiler)[a point I think we both learnt from Pauline Stafford's book Unification and Conquest (hide spoiler)] the role of the English Queen – invariably non-English after 1066 they at once played the role of intermediary and intercessor with the king as well as the part of hated foreigner coming over here with a boat load of grasping, greedy, work-shy relatives, the difficulty of approaching female spirituality for instance we understand that women were excluded from the formal structures of the medieval church and churchmen could be at a complete loss as to what to do with a holy woman yet at the same time there were the Anchoresses, described as the anchors holding steady the ship of the church against the powers of evil. I am, perhaps by nature and nurture both, strongly in agreement with Leyser's cautious reading of evidence. Looking at wills left by Anglo-Saxon women, she points out, we don't and can't know if they really express their wishes or what they had previously agreed with their husbands or families, likewise she stresses caution in making judgements of misogyny in medieval literature particularly when one work would denigrate women and the same author in their other work praise them, nor is it wise to take at face value Christine de Pisan (view spoiler)[Leyser doesn't restrict herself absolutely to considering England (hide spoiler)] leaping in with her own response. These are literary people engaged in a literary culture, a literary culture which was more about performance than private reading than today's, their writings may or may not reflect personal views they certainly represent an opportunity for them to show off their abilities. Among other interesting titbits since the home and the family were the basic labour unit, women are involved with craftwork of all kinds, and even though they had no guild status court cases show widows were expected to continue the training of apprentices (or allow for the training to be continued). There were virtually no tasks that were not undertaken by women in the countryside and in places joint tenancies for husbands and wives were normal, after the Black Death women only tenancies were not unusual – though Leyser mentions one lord who allowed women to only hold their tenures for a year before getting married – perhaps he thought that the promise of their broad acres and bushy copses would lure in yeomen to boost the numbers of his tenants. Castration was a popular non-judicial punishment for rape or assumed rape - as famously in the case of Héloise and Abelard. In marriage both parties were considered to be in debt to each other – both could agree to be celibate, but for one to withhold or be sexually incapable, were grounds the other could go to court over. In cases of alleged male impotence, wise women were appointed to observe the couple's attempt to copulate – this is graphically described in the court records (view spoiler)[ in a nice touch we are told that the wife warmed her hands at the fire before taking hold of her husband's penis and testicles, no lawyer in this case was to object that the iciness of her grasp rendered the test invalid and substantially unfair to his client (hide spoiler)] - which no doubt if the root of the problem was performance anxiety was a great help. What is clear is that Leyser is drawing on decades of research into court records, but these courts are often enough incomplete, or we lack other evidence to flesh out the picture of the people involved in the cases. The evidence itself works against a grand social history of medieval English women as much as it allows for an understanding of women's centrality in the ale business. But then incompleteness of evidence was part of the medieval experience itself, as much as it is in how we experience our own lives. The penultimate chapter on religious experience shows us a church on the back foot when it comes to dealing with the enthusiasm of women for a more religious life. A priest, noticing Margery Kemp's famously excessive weeping and wailing during a church service, tells her to still her tears as Jesus died long ago, only for Margery to prompt upbraid him – all Christians should feel the passion of their saviour as if they were present at the cross themselves. Here we are at the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy – Margery in the course of her wanderings was to be accused four times of being a Lollard. This is also typical of the reading experience – we are at the point at which Leyser could push her argument and discuss the role of women at leading religious change and make a wider point, but she doesn't, moving on to something else – something else interesting no doubt, but she consistently shies from conclusions. So perhaps I will too.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    The title's misleading: this is a collection of essays on various topics concerning medieval women. They are very interesting essays but hardly constitute a cohesive "history" of medieval women in the traditional sense. I recommend this book for scholars or serious amateurs but not for those who want an introductory popular-history type of source.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lily

    It was okay, and full of information, but honestly not that gripping.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Karen Brooks

    This book is a much-needed addition to the growing body of non-fiction that seeks to fill the enormous gap in our understanding of women in history. Where social history was once ignored in favour of power struggles, geographical conquest, religious upheaval, exploration and wars, the stories of (mostly) men, Leyser is an historian who turns to the role of women to understand social history and the people who lived it, in order to provide layers and depth to the broader landscape with which we This book is a much-needed addition to the growing body of non-fiction that seeks to fill the enormous gap in our understanding of women in history. Where social history was once ignored in favour of power struggles, geographical conquest, religious upheaval, exploration and wars, the stories of (mostly) men, Leyser is an historian who turns to the role of women to understand social history and the people who lived it, in order to provide layers and depth to the broader landscape with which we are already familiar. Leyser does this by offering historical insights into the lives of medieval women from different walks of life - peasant, towns-woman, aristocrat, religious orders - and both confirms and challenges other historical understandings as well as contemporary preconceptions about the role of women in medieval, patriarchal society. For example, Leyser analyses other historians' work as well as source material from the era to demonstrate that women, in marriage, widowhood, spinsterhood and as daughters, sisters and mothers, played a more significant role and often undertook greater responsibilities than popular history may suggest. Able and entrusted to manage businesses and lands in their husbands' absence (mostly during wars) and after their death, many women not only thrived in the Middle Ages, but earned respect and an independence that women today might envy. While some were treated as chattels of exchange between men in order to advance social and/or financial standing, others found the role of 'wife', merchant, nun, beguine, and even spinster, liberating. If they survived childbirth and outlived their husbands, some women opted (or were maybe directed through a husband's will) to remain unmarried, thus granting them control over their destiny. Others were able to go on to choose their future husbands, this time from a position of power as opposed to need or to advance their own or families' social standing. Obviously, the idea that persists, that medieval women were largely oppressed and at the mercy of men, still holds true for some (eg. Those forced into religious orders, marriage etc.), there was both female complicity in this arrangement and an ability to use it to some advantage as well. The evidence is there and Leyser cautions readers in relying on generalizations to glean an understanding of women in this epoch, countering and yet supporting this notion with some fascinating case studies. Delving into contemporary records and extrapolating information, Leyser draws an interesting and relevant picture of women in the middle ages, acknowledging their diversity, abilities, restrictions (religious, legal, sexual, gendered), freedoms and the way many women worked within these to lead fulfilling lives. She doesn't shy away from exploring the limitations and misery some of these may also have caused, and touches on fears and anxieties of women of all classes as well), but is always cautious to remind readers that positing a notion and extracting a fact are very different things. While some readers have found the writing dry, I did not. I found the book easy to read; I also felt it achieved what it set out to do which was not to paint a complete portrait of women over this period (Leyser admits this is impossible), but to offer insights and observations about women of different classes, education and from different households and represent aspects of specific lives and interests against a backdrop of political, social and religious upheaval. Recommend for anyone with an interest in more than general history, and for those wanting to learn about the diversity of female roles and their impact on social history. Her sources, both primary and secondary are very good as well.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    Selected chapters read for research for Honours History thesis.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    I've given this book a non-committal 2 stars becuase I have only read part of it, but the section I've just read deserves comment. There is a short passage on pages 54-9 of my 1995 edition purporting to summarise the role of Wealhtheow in Beowulf. My wife gave me this section because I was reading Beowulf at the time. I was shocked to find Leyser's summary bore no relation to the text I had in front of me, and the final statement on page 58-9, "Not only does Wealhtheow make her presence felt I've given this book a non-committal 2 stars becuase I have only read part of it, but the section I've just read deserves comment. There is a short passage on pages 54-9 of my 1995 edition purporting to summarise the role of Wealhtheow in Beowulf. My wife gave me this section because I was reading Beowulf at the time. I was shocked to find Leyser's summary bore no relation to the text I had in front of me, and the final statement on page 58-9, "Not only does Wealhtheow make her presence felt through her speeches of welcome and of praise; she also, be her words, brings about Beowulf's action." is simply untrue. Beowulf came to Heorot expressly to destroy Grendel, he is introduced to the Hall as having this intention and he openly announces this over several hundred lines of the poem before Wealhtheow enters. Indeed she does not speak at all - her words are reported. Now, historians of mediaval women, the family, children, the underclasses etc have slender resources to work with, but it is essential they do not inflate the role of such groups in texts, nor overinterpret their findings. The risk is a breach of trust. How am I to approach the rest of the book? Do I have to check every reference myself? I would appreciate it if someone else would check the passages I refer to and tell me if my comments are reasonable. Leyser wrote the book a long time ago and I was not going to bother responding, but the number of recent references at this website has encouraged me to share my concern.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Pear

    I must firstly note that I am not a scholar and I didn't study any of this specific period of history at school. However, I did study art/cultural history with a social slant and an especial interest in women's history and representation. If, like me, you're not coming into the field directly, then this book is still accessible: Leyser provides a lot of valuable context written in clear and elegant prose. Each chapter looks at a different portion of the Medieval period and different aspects of I must firstly note that I am not a scholar and I didn't study any of this specific period of history at school. However, I did study art/cultural history with a social slant and an especial interest in women's history and representation. If, like me, you're not coming into the field directly, then this book is still accessible: Leyser provides a lot of valuable context written in clear and elegant prose. Each chapter looks at a different portion of the Medieval period and different aspects of women's lives, e.g. Part 1 concerns Anglo Saxons spanning their Archaeology to Vernacular Literature, while Part 3 is about the High and Later Middle Ages and various family roles, striking a balance between breadth and depth. Leyser presents very clearly the material evidence and primary sources - archaelogical sites, artefacts, manuscripts, books, etc - and the work of other scholars, firmly weaving them together into a dense and convincing narrative. Plus, at the back of the book, Leyser provides the actual text of select primary sources which makes for some very interesting reading and valuable knowledge. Leyser sticks very closely to her wealth of primary sources, not hesitating to call out misogyny where it is evident, while also being as careful as possible not to make ahistorical projections - a hard task for any historian, but especially one who is presenting history which goes against the grain of the dominant narrative. She is cautious not to assume that women made significant achievements in some areas where there is as yet very little evidence of any such success. However, this is very much balanced by the fact that it is made clear that is no such thing as one type of medieval woman; Leyser does well to represent the multiple roles, ideas, spaces, products and ambitions revolving around the category and bodies gendered as women. Due to my amateurish level of knoweldge I cannot more authoritatively recommend the book with particular regard to Medieval women or methodology, but I will say that I enjoyed steadily making my way through the book. There is such a variety of knowledge here: law, medicine, spirituality, work, sex. It amused me to find out that during the High and Later Middle Ages men were expected to please women in bed to the point where a man was humiliated in court, cursed by a body of women, due to his impotence. Hee.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jada Roche

    ha! I finally finished it! It's a great little read just extremely dense and not well suited to right before I go to sleep reading. Lots of things to ponder...I loved how it turned the idea of women as totally passive objects on it's head. I'd like to read this again when I have more headspace and explore the source material as well..this is exactly the kind of stuff I had wanted to be doing in university.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Anchoress Evelyn

    A general survey but with helpfully specific constraints: time (Medieval, 450-1500), space (England), and subject (women). Henrietta Leyser does popular history right. Though written for a lay audience, this is explicitly a popularization of and guide to contemporary scholarship, rooted in the latest research. I've come to expect that a work of women's history, or herstory, usually means cis women's history, call it cistory. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find Leyser provide moments of A general survey but with helpfully specific constraints: time (Medieval, 450-1500), space (England), and subject (women). Henrietta Leyser does popular history right. Though written for a lay audience, this is explicitly a popularization of and guide to contemporary scholarship, rooted in the latest research. I've come to expect that a work of women's history, or herstory, usually means cis women's history, call it cistory. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find Leyser provide moments of trans affirmation. Chapter 1 ends by noting evidence of Anglo-Saxon transsexuality: Grave 9 at Portway, Hampshire, features female adornment on a skeleton excavators assign male, while a ninth-century penitential reprimands the practice of men who dance in women's clothes. Later, Leyser introduces us to the thirteenth-century fiction work Silence, by Heldris of Cornwall, about a woman raised as a boy; it sounds utterly fascinating. The final section, 'Culture and Spirituality', is of particular interest.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Steve Howarth

    A bit of a slog, with it being more essay collection than history. The structure suffered somewhat by pinging around subjects and periods of history, rather than following the subject from saxon to tudor times. The earlier essays were quite interesting with regards to legalities and equality and very interesting to see some of the obscurer source material at the end. The later part on spirituality did start to bore me with content vs interest level. A few useful points foe me to consider with A bit of a slog, with it being more essay collection than history. The structure suffered somewhat by pinging around subjects and periods of history, rather than following the subject from saxon to tudor times. The earlier essays were quite interesting with regards to legalities and equality and very interesting to see some of the obscurer source material at the end. The later part on spirituality did start to bore me with content vs interest level. A few useful points foe me to consider with future research.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jill Hudson

    A brilliant and very balanced study of the lives of medieval women. This is neither a feminist tirade nor sentimental nostalgia, but a serious and very readable piece of scholarship. One of the things that come acrosss very clearly is that far from marginalising women, the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages gave them power and influence few have enjoyed since.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Claire Biggs

    Was a bit hard to get into at first, and found myself angry at the way the women were treated back then, but then it was the Medieval period, if you was a quick and easy read then don't read this but overall an ok book

  13. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

    An essential book for anyone who is portraying medieval women as an Actor or Reenactor. The book tells the history of women from the She-Wolves of Anglo Saxon England to the women of the high medieval England, this book is an interesting and informative read.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jess

    An interesting and very readable book - does pretty much what it says on the cover and covers a wide range of topics - work, family life, marriage, religious devotion and monasticism.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Muhemed Masika

    Haven't you noticed nothing changed in 2019 for women? They stay medieval

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Hilton

    Interesting and generally readable. Ended abruptly!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Joanne Wood

    Really interesting book and, considering the subject, an effortless read.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ashley Catt

    A lot of books/works based on gender within history seem to be driven by an agenda to prove that women were always the victims of patriarchy. Although, patriachal society could enormously supress women (and still does to an extent today), I feel that going about womens' history this way does it a disservice, and makes victims of women, often casting their other attributes into shadow. Luckily, this book is not agenda driven, but seems to be wholly impartial. Many women are made examples of, A lot of books/works based on gender within history seem to be driven by an agenda to prove that women were always the victims of patriarchy. Although, patriachal society could enormously supress women (and still does to an extent today), I feel that going about womens' history this way does it a disservice, and makes victims of women, often casting their other attributes into shadow. Luckily, this book is not agenda driven, but seems to be wholly impartial. Many women are made examples of, deriving from the high nobility to tge yeoman wife and with as much effort to attain a representative stratification of female society, both of the laity and within the church. Perhaps the examples are driven a bit too much, and explanation of the broader context would be helpful in this book, in order to get to grips with the general role of women. A very enjoyable, informative book. I get the feeling that a lot of consideration of representation went into this, rather than a lazy look at simply the records of aristocratic women, there is a big effort to highlight examples of women lower down the hierarchy. Ends on a sudden note.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kate Millin

    I found it a little heavy going at times, but I think that is because I have got out of the habit of reading history books. It reminded me of my history A level when we were judging the validity of source material( maybe that is why I have become a librarian where we do knowledge management which is very similar. Henrietta Leyser considers the problems and attitudes fundamental to every woman of the time: medieval views on sex, marriage and motherhood; the world of work and the experience of I found it a little heavy going at times, but I think that is because I have got out of the habit of reading history books. It reminded me of my history A level when we were judging the validity of source material( maybe that is why I have become a librarian where we do knowledge management which is very similar. Henrietta Leyser considers the problems and attitudes fundamental to every woman of the time: medieval views on sex, marriage and motherhood; the world of work and the experience of widowhood for peasant, townswoman and aristocrat. The intellectual and spiritual worlds of medieval women are also explored. This book celebrates the diversity and vitality of English women's lives in the Middle Ages. An easier read the second time.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Victoria Johnston

    A hardgoing but well researched book which in truth is more a collection of essays. This book focuses on women of all types- queens to peasants. However sometimes the relevance of men in relation to some parts of the book is sometimes glossed over. I was surprised to learn the extent if women's working roles in the medieval period - albeit normally in association with a husband or a son. Women were perhaps not always as second class in the past as we may have thought. They often had legal rights A hardgoing but well researched book which in truth is more a collection of essays. This book focuses on women of all types- queens to peasants. However sometimes the relevance of men in relation to some parts of the book is sometimes glossed over. I was surprised to learn the extent if women's working roles in the medieval period - albeit normally in association with a husband or a son. Women were perhaps not always as second class in the past as we may have thought. They often had legal rights could intact own property as a femme sole and worked in a variety of jobs. An interesting and well researched book if at times a little dry.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ralph Britton

    This book reads like a reworked Phd thesis. The material is excellent and fascinating but unlike Peter Laslett (The World We have Lost) the author does not try to move outside a scholarly audience to the general reader. Some of it is hard going. Leyser summs up the results of contemporary research which is completely inaccessible except to academics and gives the interested reader information which can be relied on instead of vague and unreliable generalisations. She is scruplous about the use This book reads like a reworked Phd thesis. The material is excellent and fascinating but unlike Peter Laslett (The World We have Lost) the author does not try to move outside a scholarly audience to the general reader. Some of it is hard going. Leyser summs up the results of contemporary research which is completely inaccessible except to academics and gives the interested reader information which can be relied on instead of vague and unreliable generalisations. She is scruplous about the use of evidence and refuses to hazard a guess when no research is available. This is an admirable book, but not one to give a casual reader who has just enjoyed, say, a TV blockbuster on the middle ages!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Elaine

    I picked this book up on a whim in an English Heritage gift shop. As someone who doesn't know a massive amount about the medieval period, it provides an interesting look at the role of women in society and the different roles in life that they could expect to take up. I have no complaints about the content of the book overall but I did find it a bit dry and hard to keep engaged. The most intersting area for me was actually the primary source extracts included at the end, which are a really I picked this book up on a whim in an English Heritage gift shop. As someone who doesn't know a massive amount about the medieval period, it provides an interesting look at the role of women in society and the different roles in life that they could expect to take up. I have no complaints about the content of the book overall but I did find it a bit dry and hard to keep engaged. The most intersting area for me was actually the primary source extracts included at the end, which are a really interesting read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Graham

    I bought this book because I'm doing some research into the Norman Conquest, and I wanted to find out about it from a woman's perspective. Although only one chapter in the book is devoted to this era, it's a good chapter, describing plenty of sources, royal scandals and women's behaviour during the 11th century. It's a dry, weighty book, but this is true of almost all scholarly research, but neverthelss I found it invaluable. I hope to get around to reading the rest at some point.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Joyce

    Well-researched scholarly study of English women during the medieval period focused on the 11th-14th centuries with a good survey of the preceding centuries. Leyser includes archaeology, history, hagiography, law and literature and what 1066AD/CE meant for women. Also included are employment for different classes of women and the impact of sex, marriage and motherhood. Extensive annotated primary sources and bibliography add to this book's value.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Loretta

    This is the second time I have read this book. It contains many things of interest, but I am not a historian, although I am reading it for research, and I did struggle with the text at times. It is quite dry, but worth reading.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Caroline Button

    I found this very dry and was not keen on the writing flow, although well researched, the author had so much that she wanted to share with us, I found it perhaps to packed full of information to be easily digestible. I love the period and hope some of it has sunk in.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Angi Plant

    Fabulous book about the place of women in history

  28. 5 out of 5

    Susan Grimshaw

    Interesting first section, the rest was informative, but rather tedious.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ally Beal

    This book taught me of the existance of Anglo Saxon drag queens. For that I cannot thank it enough.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Joan

    A good, if somewhat dry, read. I liked that she went beyond the aristocracy and dealt with women from various classes. The notes and sources are especially good-perhaps the best part of the book.

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