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

Preface to Part I: Authorship and Intellectual Life: Jewish and Muslim Women


The intellectual and literary achievements of medieval Muslim and Jewish women are not as well known among medievalists as those of Christian women, even when we may actually have the names of more authors in a given genre. The chapters in Part I focus on people who are doubly othered in relation to medieval studies as it has traditionally been practiced in Europe and North America. But it is not just that they bring material that is well known in one scholarly community to the attention of another. Neither Jewish Studies nor Islamic Studies has been at the forefront of recognizing women's activity and leadership. These chapters therefore do important recuperative work in giving us women who have been if not totally ignored, then drastically under-interpreted by previous scholarship. None, perhaps, reaches the status of a Catherine of Siena or Christine de Pisan in terms of the amount of information available about her. Our knowledge of many women authors and scholars, across all traditions, is much more contingent, often dependent on one source or one manuscript fragment.

The Jewish and Muslim women in question, like many of the Christian women discussed in this book, were able to do what they did because of the families into which they were born or married. We do not know anything about the family background of Alice the convert of Worcester, whom Adrienne Williams Boyarin discusses, but she was wealthy, and it is unlikely that her wealth was entirely self-made. The wife of Dunash ibn Labrat, whose poetry S. J. Pearce places at the center of her analysis, is known to posterity only through her connection with her husband. Sitt al-Qudah, like other women Asma Afsaruddin discusses, was from a family of scholars. It is important to note, of course, that this was the case for most medieval men as well. Documents tended to focus on transfers of money and property, and therefore they tend to give us the names of people who controlled money and property. People who were educated were most often so because they came from families who could afford to educate them.