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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: April 2020

Introduction: Taking Early Women Intellectuals and Leaders Seriously


Arguing for medieval women as intellectuals is a battle fraught with perils from all sides and even at times subject to friendly fire. Since women were normally denied access to public educational institutions, gateways to most leadership positions, modern scholars have naturally tended to study learned women as simply anomalies and medieval women, generally, as victims. The concept of women intellectuals, therefore, can be subject to critique as unwarranted extrapolation from the “exceptional few,” or, more broadly, a gesture of disloyalty to the memory of gender victimization. This volume, however, while always respectful of the historical truths and theoretical positions supporting these views, argues instead for a via media – not least because the evidence is not yet all in. The digital revolution is making new medieval manuscript and archival sources available daily, and scholars of medieval women are reaching further afield for more multidisciplinary methods. We suggest here that, if we look more closely, more medieval women attained some form of learning than scholars often assume and that women with legal, social, or ecclesiastical knowledge in turn often also wielded professional or communal leadership.

This volume is intentionally trans-disciplinary, involving contributors from the fields of literature, history, and religion. It challenges several traditional views: first, the still-prevalent idea that women's intellectual accomplishments were limited to the Latin literate. We take for granted the major Latin women writers because, happily, other studies of them already abound; so, too, studies of queens, the one group of medieval women whose learning and leadership have been well canvassed. With respect to Latin, as Megan J. Hall notes here in her essay on the Latinity of early women readers of Ancrene Wisse (Chapter 15), “the predominant language of literacy was shifting.” So, too, our ideas of what constitutes intellectual accomplishment for women must shift. This collection therefore engages heavily with vernacular writings (in Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, French, Dutch, German, and Italian) and also with material culture (manuscript illumination, stained glass, fabric, and jewelry) for evidence of women's advanced capabilities. But in doing so – and here is our second challenge to traditional views – we strive to avoid a different kind of trap: the view that women's accomplishments were limited to the vernacular and the material, a view related in part to decades of scholarly emphasis on the “embodiment” of women's experience.