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

Preface to Part III: Recovering Lost Women’s Authorship: New Solutions to Old Problems


As anyone knows who regularly reads manuscripts, and especially miscellanies, vast numbers of texts and authors go unidentified in medieval transmission. As E. P. Goldschmidt wrote long ago: “Whoever enters upon any investigation in the field … cannot fail to be bewildered by the extraordinary uncertainty and elusive fluidity of the authors’ names. Almost every other book seems to be known habitually under a name which cannot possibly be that of its true author.” Anonymous, then, is our most prolific medieval author, but somehow “Anonymous” nearly always gets voted male. There are, of course, many reasonable excuses for this, and the obstacles to recovering medieval women's authorship remain enormous. But the chapters in Part III demonstrate, often magisterially, solutions to the many conundrums scholars face in recovering women's authorship. Together they function almost as a masterclass in the art, pedagogically so helpful that I’ve tried to enumerate their techniques in the hope that other scholars will see parallel possibilities elsewhere and apply them to future cases.

In “A Woman Author? The Middle-Dutch Dialogue between a ‘Good-willed Layperson’ and a ‘Master Eckhart’” (Chapter 8), John Van Engen brings us an anonymous Dialogue ostensibly between an unnamed layperson and “Eckhart,” a whopping great text some 60,000 words in length. The text contains tantalizing parallels to Marguerite Porete's theology and, I would note, was written during the single most dangerous medieval period for dissenters (the first quarter of the fourteenth century). One could add that during this time, Porete and her book were tragically burnt, the papal decrees known as the Clementines were published, and persecutions of beguines, Franciscan Spirituals, Joachite thinkers, and countless university academics (at Oxford, Paris, Cologne, and elsewhere) arose – persecutions that only increased as the vicious papacy of John XXII got fully underway by 1317. It is not an accident then, I think, that both the Dialogue Van Engen discusses, and the Bridget of Autrey text Nicholas Watson discusses here too, were produced at exactly this time, both bearing a history of censorship in some way.