material for medieval women
ACQUIRING BOOKS - BOOKS FOR
WOMEN - NUNS WHO READ - BOOKS OF HOURS - ROMANCES
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.
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
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.
"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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
© Rosalie Gilbert
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