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Until not many decades ago, despite the pioneering early efforts of Eileen Power and a few others, it seemed to most scholars that there was too little evidence to say anything much about the role of women in medieval intellectual and institutional culture. David Knowles, great student of English monasticism, considered the materials surviving from convents too sparse and confusing to be worth detailed study, devoting a distinguished career to the study of monks and their foundations in incongruous isolation from their female counterparts. As happens all too often in medieval studies, absence of evidence was confused with evidence of absence. Unaware of the great trove of surviving Latin, French, and English books associated with late-medieval nuns and too ready to equate learning with Latin learning, even Power imagined that, after the Anglo-Saxon period, England's convents had become intellectually stultified, ripe for the teasing treatment Chaucer metes out to the Prioress with her bad French, genteel preciosity, and passionate anti-intellectualism in The Canterbury Tales.
Although feminist scholarship has been justly critical of certain of the assumptions earlier generations brought to the study of medieval women, this was not necessarily anyone's fault. After all, if prejudice and even misogyny were sometimes part of the problem, even now new evidence for medieval women's roles and activities remains far from easy to come by. This seems to be partly because, in a patriarchal society, women were at a nearly consistent disadvantage when it came to building the kinds of institutions that kept and preserved records and partly because these records, which seldom set out to answer the specific questions we ask of them, are so often silent about issues of gender at just the moments when we most want them not to be. In many medieval contexts, gender offered a less pertinent basis for categorization than social estate, ecclesiastical estate, citizenship, or affiliation with parish, guild, manor, or household. Women escape notice for the reason that the records for the most part treat them, simply, as people.