Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: April 2020

Epilogue: Positioning Women in Medieval Society, Culture, and Religion 397


Well into the twentieth century, the roles and achievements of women in medieval European society and culture, indeed their very presence, hardly registered in accounts of the ten centuries or so that make up the Middle Ages. Medieval historians, focused primarily on politics, economy, and warfare, mostly left bit-parts at best to women, their roles perhaps as pawns in dynastic arrangements or as queens, very occasionally as a duchess or abbess treated in her own right. Or, alternatively, they were lifted out as wholly extraordinary figures, thus an Eleanor of Aquitaine for instance. In literary and cultural studies, scholars (mostly male) puzzled over the interpretation of texts projecting women primarily as adulterous consorts or distant objects of desire, figures on whose behalf men consumed their strength to prove their virtue. In religious studies, scholars might highlight the role of the Virgin Mary or of female saints, their lives lifted out as exemplary, also their merciful interventions as leavening hardship in a merciless male world. But women as actors or writers in their own right rarely appeared, or then as truly extraordinary figures, even eccentric, a Hildegard of Bingen as prophetic seer or Heloise as early exponent of free love (not as learned abbess). This all may seem overstated on my part, but not by much. The Booke of Margery Kempe, rediscovered in the 1930s, 500 years after its initial writing, became no serious part of literary or religious studies until the 1980s. Indeed its reception – scorn first from high literary and religious types for its “gushing” prose, defenses of the Booke then as articulating distinctively female attitudes and religious affections, efforts next to credit Kempe with a highly literate authoring of this “Margery” persona, arguments too over whether Margery Kempe could oversee the production of her own Booke (a female scholar negative on this, a male positive), now new documentary finds seemingly confirming her place in history – it all mirrors, and here only in part, the interpretive world through which approaches to women in the Middle Ages have passed, and debates continue.