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Reading material for medieval women

Medieval women were often better educated than is generally supposed- at least in the higher merchant classes and the noble classes. While not every woman did, some women could.

Acquiring books
Women could get books the same way we do. They could buy them from a shop. Many people tend to forget that medieval towns and cities existed and were quite cosmopilitan.

London, Florence, Rome, Winchester, Canterbury were thriving places with all that you would expect to find there, including shops.

Women could also commission them. Books were made in cities with an enormous number of specialist craftsmen. Parchment makers, ink makers, quill producers, letterers, illuminators, gilders, book-binders.They were often personalised and elaborate.

Women might have them handed down in wills. Books often passed from mother to daughter along with other precious items and clothing.

From the will of Gilemota (Wilmot) Cerrak, from York, which was written in Latin in 1408. Folio 585v:

"Also to Alice, daughter of William Bowes an English book of "The Spirit of Guy" and a French book of "Barlaham and Josephath."

This indicates that she herself and the Alice who was to receive both books, read in English and French.

Books by women, for women:
The City of Ladies

Famous medieval woman writer, Christine de Pisan's target audience was other woman. Her books were feminist morality tales which often features allegorical characters like Justice and Love.

City of Ladies was an extremely helpful book and was a fabulous instructional tome on virtues and behaviour in women and the many ways that they should strive to behave. The principal characters are allegorical figures and they build the imaginary City of Ladies with their allegorical bricks of character traits and behaviours.

As it was written by a woman and for women, it became an absolute 15th century best-seller. One of her characters lauches into a speech championing Christina's new found feminism as she states:

"Should I also tell you whether a woman's nature is clever and quick enough to learn speculative sciences as well as to discover them, and likewise the manual arts? I assure you that women are equally well-suited and skilled to carry them out and to put them to sophisticated use once they have learned them."

Books for women: The Goodman of Paris
Another two well-known pieces of literature are How the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter and Les Menagier de Paris, better known as The Goodman of Paris, which was written in 1393 as an instruction manual from an older nobleman for his young fifteen year old bride. The Goodman of Paris's wife.

There are three existing copies of this today, all written in the 15th century. Two are held by the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, France and the other in Brussels in the Bibliotheque Royale.
Intended audience was his 15 year old child bride. He himself was around 40 years old, and as his new wife was still quite young in the ways of running a household, he felt he might like to jot down a few pointers for her on how to run a house, her deportment, her devotions and generally how to be a better wife.

Some of this advice is quite specific, telling her that when walking outside the home, that she should look a certain way, dress a certain way, speak a certain way and only hand out with approved people. Although this seems to modern readers nothing short of controlling behaviour and domestic abuse, we can learn a great deal about the way a "decent" woman behaved.

Other advice was more practical and contained handy recipes for marking linen with ink, poison for wolves, growing the best crops and when to harvest them, how to store roses and keep them red for up to one year, and how to best store clothes and clear furs.

The important thing here, is that the new wife was fifteen years old and there was no question that she would not be able to read this book and refer to it often. The husband himself was not a noble, but a wealthy townsman who was very aware of his social standing.

This indicated that the young bride was literate enough to be able to read it, even at fifteen. It was intended to be studied and referred to.

Educated nuns
In a letter to a nunnery sent by Bishop Gray to the nunnery at Elstow about 1432, we learn that nuns are required to be educated to a certain standard or not be admitted at all.

He says:

"We enjoin and charge you the abbess and who so shall succeed you ... that henceforward you admit no one to be a nun of the said monastery ... unless she be taught in song and reading and the other things requisite herein, or probably may be easily instructed within a short time."

Sending a young girl to a nunnery was one way to ensure that she learned how to read.

Books of Hours & Books of Saints
Many religious books were commissioned especially for women- Books of Hours and Prayer Books which were usually beautifully illuminated with bright colours and gold leaf.

St Anne Teaching the virgin to read is an incredibly popular image in medieval art and we see it again and again. This shows us that in the early stages at least, it was not considered unwomanly to be literate. Certainly, if the Virgin herself could read, other women might do likewise.

Other countries have had their medieval patron saints as well. In the 12th century in Belarus, St Euphrosyne, who was an Abbess of Polotsk was a popular choice.

Other women weren't happy to just buy a devotional book of hours, but preferred to commission them and have them custom made.

Mary of Burgundy who lived between 1467 and 1480 was the owner of a book of hours which included a page illuminated with her portrait. Katherine of Cleaves also had a book of Hours commissioned for her around 1440 by the Master of Catherine of Cleves. Utrecht, from the Netherlands.


Romance stories
Books of poetry and tales of romance like Lancelot and Guinevere were also intended for a female audience. Noble ladies would gather in a Lady's Solar for reading aloud to other ladies.

The Lancelot series was often a set of books put together telling the stories of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere's forbidden Love, the Quest for The Holy Grail, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table. It had everything. Action, romance, adventure!

We know a bit about what sorts of book people were buying from household inventories.

Among the books the Paston family owned were books written in English 'Englysshe bokis' are a number of contemporary favourites- 'a boke of Troylus', 'þe Dethe off Arthur' and Caxton's printed edition of 'The Game and Playe of the Chess.'

One of the most popular books of the medieval period was the 13th century Romance of the Rose, which was a love poem written in France by Guillaume de Lorris. He died before it was completed and his work was picked up by Jean de Meun, and it was a popular with women everywhere.

The poem was a lengthy love story between a young man and a Rose. As with many stories, the characters are emotions or character traits, so we see Lady Envy, or Lady Fate stepping in with helpful advice for the main hero. Allegorical stories were meant to be examples to the everyday person.

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