WOMEN IN THE PUBLIC LIFE IN LATE MEDIEVAL ENGLAND – Kaisa Pulliainen

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Margery Kempe, one of the era's few female writers.  She wrote what is thought to be the first autobiography in the English language.

Margery Kempe, one of the era’s few female writers. She wrote what is thought to be the first autobiography in the English language.

This work is not exactly a book, although it is book length.   It is a Master’s Thesis written by a student at the Finnish university of Jyvaskyla.

In it she (I think this person is a she – not many men specialize in Women’s Studies) examines English medieval life with an emphasis on the impact on women.

She covers the extent to which women in late medieval England were able to use power or authority (very little, and most of that behind the scenes), the attitudes of society towards women who were seen to be independent, or possessing some degree of power or authority.

She also looks at how visible women were in public life, their means of income, and the cultural set up which made them dependent on men.

She discusses in depth literacy in that time, which I found particularly intriguing.  It turns out that getting a clear view of the level of literacy was fairly difficult, because ‘literate’ in the primary source material could mean that the person could read only, or read AND write, or whether they were literate in Latin and/or the vernacular.  Sometimes it simply meant that the person can speak Latin.  Sometimes it meant a formal education.

The level of literacy varied a great deal, even within classes.  I was interested to learn that some of the most powerful men in England at the time were not able to read, while at the same time many of the lower classes were eager to acquire some level of literacy because of the career opportunities that would come with it.

Another interesting tidbit:  in the middle ages, composing a letter was an art, and followed certain formal conventions.  The actual writing of it was just a menial task, often done by scribes or another family member.  Thus, information available today from these historical epistles is usually not terribly private, because so many others had access to the letter.  Sometimes the recipient had to find someone to read it to them.

A different tidbit:  The most common profession for single women (yes, even more so than prostitution) was as a maid.  It was so common, in fact, that the word ‘maid’ became a synonym for an unmarried woman, a term still in use today for a single young woman.

Another interesting take away was that the medieval economy was a family-based home business, and that the wife was usually fully occupied in helping run it.  All women were expect to earn their keep somehow.  No such notion back then as a SAHM.

When we think of educated and publicly visible women, we think of convents, but in actuality, convents were not very common, and could not take on everyone who wanted to join.  And women were expected to bring a dowry with them when they became a bride of Christ,  so that eliminated that choice for a lot of poor women.  Few aristocratic women became nuns.

Margery Kempe, pictured above, is a very interesting woman who barely escaped being burned for heresy a couple of times.  She is discussed at length in this thesis, and I recommend you hitting Wiki for a nice concise review of her life and work.

All in all, I found this to be a wonderfully readable and informative piece.  It has the potential to be expanded, reworked a bit, and turned into a excellent secondary source book.

(A side note:  over the years I have come across and enjoyed a number of monographs and thesis on various topics.  You can use Google Scholar as well as other academic search engines to find something to your taste.)

 

 

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