The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 15 (October 2012)

New directions for early medieval women's history?1

Dr Rachel StoneMailto: Icon

Department of Coins and Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University

© 2012 by Rachel Stone. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2012 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  I was prompted to write about new directions in early medieval women's history by a passing remark in the introduction to a recent book: The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: New Directions in Early Medieval Studies. In their introduction, Jennifer R. Davis and Michael McCormick state:

We chose to approach a number of accomplished practitioners. We asked them to come to Harvard to discuss what they found most exciting and promising from their varied disciplinary perspectives. Those who could come proposed questions and issues that were wonderful in their variety. We were surprised at some of the themes that turned up, such as the weather, and at others that came up only rarely, for instance, gender. Even so, the volume offers a broad sampling of some of the most exciting new directions of early medieval research (Davis and McCormick 2008, 7–8).

§2.  The immediate question is thus raised: is gender no longer an exciting new direction for early medieval research? When you add this to Judith Bennett's recent lament (Bennett 2006, 30–53) about how women's history in the US has marginalized the study of medieval history (and indeed, all premodern history) then it's possible to start wondering if there are problems in early medieval women's history. Have the study of women and gender, which largely "appeared" in early medieval history in the 1970s and 1980s "disappeared" again, or simply gone out of fashion, like other 1970s phenomena? Have they, on the contrary, become so mainstream that their separate study no longer needs to be highlighted? I want to take an overview and look at where this field of history is currently going. Which themes are receiving research and what new directions are possible?

§3.  In what follows, I will be looking largely at the period 500–1000. There is a lot of vitality in late antique women's history in the late antique period, springing ultimately from the twin roots of feminist analysis of early Christianity, such as by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elizabeth A. Clark, and the work of authors such as Michel Foucault and Amy Richlin on classical sexuality. At the other end of the period, the Gregorian reform movement is currently a major focus of medieval gender studies. At a recent conference on masculinity I went to, "medieval" was effectively taken as meaning eleventh century and later. My comments here will also concentrate on western Continental Europe (and inevitably, Francia, my research specialism). My impression is that in geographical areas where there is a strong tradition of studying literature and history together (such as for Anglo-Saxon England and Viking Scandinavia), there are relatively few problems getting gender taken seriously.

Present strengths

§4.  Any suggestion that Carolingian women's history may be in decline is immediately countered by two forthcoming books: Valerie Garver's Women and Aristocratic Culture in the Carolingian World and Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West which Lynda Coon is writing. The previous work of these two historians shows the vibrancy of two very different traditions of women's history writing. Garver's work has focused on reconstructing the patterns of women's lives, trying to see beyond what the meagre sources tell us. In "Learned Women?" (2007), for example, she explores how networks of aristocratic women may have enabled the handing down of practical female knowledge in a way that remains largely invisible to us. Lynda Coon, in contrast, has a surplus of information for her explorations of monastic views on gender, as well as a substantial basis of theoretical material which can contribute to the study of the ideology of male and female bodies. Yet difficulties remain (as with many studies of gender) in connecting texts to reality. Coon has not yet really addressed the issue of the impact of the gendered discourses she has found; was anyone actually influenced by Hrabanus Maurus's exegesis, for example? Coon (2008) provides a possible way forward by the suggestion that gendered ideas of the world might by "encoded" into the spatial arrangements of churches, but there is still the difficulty of whether outsiders were conscious of such patterns.

§5.  If Garver and Coon's works show the diversity of the field, they certainly do not exhaust it. Several of the more "traditional" topics in women's history still seem very vibrant. Discussions of queenship, for example, building in particular on the pioneering work of Pauline Stafford (1983) are now thoroughly mainstream. Alongside analyses of the nature and practices of queenship both in Francia (Maclean 2003; Hartmann 2004) and early medieval Italy (Martin 2006; Vitello 2006), we now have studies of a widening range of individual queens (Nelson 2004; Goldberg 2006; Reuter 2006). One of the most interesting challenges now is the possibility of linking up this research with current work on queenship in the central Middle Ages (see Nolan 2003 and the long awaited biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Jane Martindale). Such studies of the longue durée may challenge the view of earlier historians who posited a loss of power by royal and aristocratic women from the eleventh and twelfth century onwards in comparison to the earlier period (McNamara and Wemple 1988; Stafford 1998, xvii–xviii).

§6.  There is also a lot of current research on the role of women within early medieval aristocratic families. In particular, a number of women's historians are involved in the LAMOP (the Laboratoire de Médiévistique Occidentale de Paris) project network on early medieval elites. As well as established scholars such as Régine Le Jan and Cristina La Rocca, these include younger scholars, such as Sylvie Joye and Emmanuelle Santinelli. A continuing stream of thematic volumes is being produced on women's history and family history topics, arising from LAMOP and related conferences (Lebecq et al. 1999; Bougard, Feller, and Le Jan 2002; La Rocca 2007; Santinelli 2007).

§7.  This research doesn't yet seem to have been exploited fully by women's historians in the Anglophone world. Also, the question whether the many case studies we now have on the early medieval nobility can be synthesized without losing their explanatory power. Does the contingency of female power and activity mean that any attempts to see consistent patterns beyond the most basic are doomed to failure? A second challenge is exploring long-term continuity and change in aristocratic women's history, crossing the implicit barrier of the year 1000. A few authors have already shown the possibilities of such explorations of noble families, such as Martin Aurell's work on the marriages of Catalonian counts (Aurell 1995). The influence of Georges Duby's work on this later period has been very strong and possibly not entirely helpful (Klapisch-Zuber and Zancarini-Fournel 1998). Attempts to re-assess ideas of "la mutation familiale" may lead us to more constructive models of marriage, noble families and women's roles within them (Stafford 1998; Evergates 1999; Bouchard 2001).

§8.  One of the early focuses of early medieval women's history was on religious women, an interest which spilled beyond the academy into wider feminist thought (Schulenburg 1989). The latest research complicates the original picture of a "golden age" of monasticism followed by decline. Studies on Carolingian female monastic institutions, for example, show that simple categories of nuns and canonesses do not correspond to reality: female religious life was less uniform than the normative texts suggest (Peyroux 2001; Lorenz and Zotz 2005; Rudge 2006). German researchers are currently particularly active in the field and two ongoing projects are of special importance. One is the conferences and publications of the Essener Arbeitskreis zur Erforschung der Frauenstifte. The second is an attempt to provide data for further research by the construction of the FemMoData database of female monastic foundations. Central to the work of both projects have been two of the most prolific German researchers on early women's monasticism, Katrinette Bodarwé and Hedwig Röckelein.

§9.  The use of manuscript evidence also provides a broader picture of the intellectual achievements of religious women, with several recent articles by Felice Lifschitz and Rosamond McKitterick. The use of early medieval hagiography by women's historians, meanwhile, is increasingly being influenced by the linguistic turn, with more hesitation about assuming that such texts are transparent windows onto the reality of women's lives (Korte 2001). The work of Julia Smith on the textual representation of gender in hagiography has been particularly important here. There is also a growing interest in the gendered aspects of lay male saints' lives (Airlie 1992; Nelson 1999; Stone Forthcoming).

§10.  The flow of translated sources for women's history also continues. There are already more translated vitae of early medieval female saints than male ones; two of the few contemporary Carolingian lives have recently become available (Paxton 2009). More unusual sources for women's history are also becoming available, for example with the recent translation of the formularies of Angers and Marculf (Rio 2008).

Emerging directions

§11.  As well as this continued interest in some of the relatively long-established fields of women's history, there are new areas of research where a gendered view of the evidence is being usefully employed. One is in the use of charters to explore social interactions. An earlier generation of women's historians primarily used quantitative studies of women's charter participations to explore women's power (Herlihy 1962). New work, heavily influenced by developments in the study of dispute settlement (Brown and Górecki 2003), is exploring how specific women used charters to support the interests of themselves and their families (Nelson 1995; Jarrett 2003; Halton 2006). There is also new work by Genevieve Bührer-Thierry and Julie Hofmann on the topic.

§12.  While much research inevitably focuses on high-status early medieval women (given the limitations of the sources), a new interest in gendered aspect of slavery has emerged, with several recent articles discussing how a lack of freedom affected men and women differently (Stuard 1995; Obermeier 1996; Devroey 2000; Rio 2006). One disappointment, however, is that Carl Hammer's book on slavery did not go into detail about much of his earlier work on female slaves, so this research has not been introduced to a wider audience (compare Hammer 2002 with Hammer 1983 and Hammer 1995).

§13.  Another possibility for exploring the lives of women of varied social classes is provided by new archaeological techniques. More detailed osteoarcheology studies and the use of DNA and isotope evidence potentially provide important new ways of exploring women's lives and lifecycles. A couple of recent syntheses of the techniques by historians hint at the gendered possibilities of such approaches, though without yet fully developing them (Fleming 2006; McCormick 2008).

§14.  The wealth of information in Carolingian sources on sexual allegations and marriage disputes has long been well known and exploited by legal historians, but there have been relatively few attempts to look at the details in terms of gender (one exception is Airlie (1998) on the divorce of Lothar II). I have recently done such a gendered analysis of four other cases (Stone 2007), and am currently trying to compile a handlist of references to such cases: there are a number of other references lurking in councils and placita.

§15.  Two other recent topics of scholarly interest which particularly invite gendered approaches are also receiving them: exploration of early medieval honour and of emotions. Nira Pancer has produced provocative views on of the similarities between male and female honour in the Merovingian world, although her work remains worryingly dependent on the slippery evidential basis of Gregory of Tours's anecdotes. The most influential work on early medieval emotions has undoubtedly been by Barbara Rosenwein; the question remains whether such work can also provide insights into wider historical issues. Discussions of gendered anger seem most historically productive so far (see papers in Rosenwein 1998).

§16.  The subfield of early medieval women's history which has developed most rapidly is probably the study of masculinity. Ten years ago, there was work on masculinity in early medieval Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England available (see e.g. Sørensen 1983; Clover 1993; Frantzen 1993), but interest by historians of Continental Europe had only just started (Smith 1998; Hadley 1999). A decade on, there is sufficient research for Ross Balzaretti to develop a course in Dark Age Masculinities. The plural of "masculinities" in the title is significant in two ways. It demonstrates the currently prevalent view in gender theory that denies the existence of a single standard of male behaviour; it also reflects the fragmentation of current research on the topic. Work on clerical and monastic masculinity (Coon 2004) and the research on monastic celibacy of Albrecht Diem has been mostly separate from recent discussions of lay masculinity (Halsall 2004; Stone 2005). It seems helpful now to return to the broader perspectives of some of the early articles (such as Smith 1998 and Nelson 1999) and see if their generalizations hold up. I have attempted to do this for Carolingian Francia in two forthcoming publications.

§17.  The booming field of the historical study of sexuality occupies a slightly awkward place in women's history, even though the best synthesis in the field (Karras 2005) is written by a prominent women's historian. Because of evidential problems, studies of sexuality have often been studies largely of male sexuality, without the implications of this being considered. (This was a particular complaint about the pioneering work of Foucault in The History of Sexuality (1978)). More theoretically aware studies of early medieval male sexuality are now developing, influenced by wider studies of masculinity (see above). Research discussing female sexuality for the earlier Middle Ages is still relatively hard to find, especially in contrast with material on late antiquity and on female sexuality in the Anglo-Saxon world. Although the quantity is limited, the range of topics covered by research on early medieval female sexuality is relatively wide (Payer 1984; Elliott 1993; Benkov 2001; Pancer 2001; Weston 2001; Mitchell and Wood 2002). The biggest current gap in the study of early medieval sexuality is probably that of medical views of sexuality; the otherwise excellent book by (Cadden 1993) has little on the topic.

Future possibilities

§18.  Despite all the scholarly activity I've discussed in this essay, some topics in early medieval women's history still seem to me to be rather neglected. The recent revival of interest in the use of early medieval exegesis and sermons as sources (see in particular Chazelle and Edwards 2003) has not been taken up by many scholars of women's history, with the exception of Lynda Coon and papers by Mayeski (1997) and Bailey (2007). The quantity of their sources and their repetitive nature has probably deterred many scholars, although such texts potentially offer the opportunity to show how subtly changing ideologies of gender may be visible even in texts which are largely derivative of earlier ones.

§19.  There has still been very little work done on representations of women in early medieval Latin literature since the efforts of Bezzola (1944) sixty years ago; the overwhelming focus of research has instead been on women writers such as Dhuoda and Hrotsvit.

§20.  Perhaps most importantly, the recent revival of interest by early medievalists on socio-economic history and trade has tended to marginalise the role of gender. It is noticeable that Framing the Early Middle Ages, Chris Wickham's magnum opus, has more index references to "wood" than to "women" (Wickham 2005). An important issue for women's historians will be whether and how to link the small-scale gendered archaeological evidence (from grave goods, for example), into wider studies of socio-economic change. Did the end of the ancient economy, for example, have the same impact on male and female peasants? Did the gendered consumption explored by Bonnie Effros have the same role in early medieval economic growth that it did in the later Middle Ages (Howell 2008)?

The position of women's history

§21.  Bennett (2006, 4) pointed out how noticeable national historiographical traditions are in women's history, and this is certainly true even for the relatively internationalized study of early medieval women's history. US historians of women are often based in women's studies departments, and so tend to be strongly influenced by contemporary feminist theory and politics. This emphasis makes them prone to being marginalized within the wider historical community; although there are fewer British women's historians, their work has often won more mainstream acceptance in history departments. As my survey suggests, there is a considerable amount of research in France, Germany and Italy on the history of women (some Spanish work exists, but it has had little wider influence, and there is little Dutch work on earlier medieval women's history), but such work tends to be less explicitly feminist than Anglophone work. (This has lead to some culture clashes at international conferences, as Affeldt (1990) shows). The concept of "gender history" itself seemed so alien to French scholarship that (Pancer 2001) left it untranslated in her book, along with "queenship."

§22.  Despite these gaps between national traditions, it's clear that early medieval women's history still maintains its vitality. Is its lack of visibility in The Long Morning of Medieval Europe caused by having become mainstream as a topic? Not entirely. There are more early medievalists now who do some work on women's history or gender, as a recent book like Gender in the Early Medieval World shows (Brubaker and Smith 2004). But such historians may equally "switch off" discussions of gender in their other works (compare Leyser 2000 and Leyser 1999). Some of the standard textbooks on the early Middle Ages still have very little on women's history (Collins 1999; Innes 2007); there is a clear contrast here with Europe after Rome: a new cultural history 500–1000 (Smith 2005), written by an author who researches women's history. Despite all the advances in scholarship that have been made, it is all too easy for gender and women's history to slip away again. The Long Morning of Medieval Europe certainly suggests that; indeed, Thomas Head points out how "the authors [of a new database on Latin hagiography described in the book] have omitted gender as a parameter within the database" (Head 2008, 157).

§23.  The book also suggests how crucial a few key figures still are, particularly in the UK: Chris Wickham's single reference to gender in his article in The Long Morning is to Janet Nelson's work (Wickham 2008, 27). Several prominent British historians of early medieval women have recently retired (Janet Nelson and Pauline Stafford) or left academic life (Patricia Skinner). When King's College London (where Janet Nelson previously worked) had to cut down its early medieval history survey course, the lectures on gender were largely scrapped. Will these women's historians be replaced? In the UK a large percentage of all medievalists now have to leave the field after getting their PhD. It's hard to be sure whether this affects women's historians disproportionately, but it certainly does not help the development of the field. This also means that many theses are not likely to be turned into monographs (Halton 2006; Martin 2006; Rudge 2006) and that particular angles on research are therefore truncated. The result is often a gap between textbooks and articles on women's history and in particular, a lack of sustained consideration of women's history in specific early medieval societies.

§24.  Given the different national traditions, this problem in the UK academy may also have knock-on effects in the wider academic world, especially since British work on early medieval women's history has often been particularly successful in combining rigorous historical scholarship with feminist-inspired insights. Early medieval women's history remains both vibrant, but also doubly vulnerable, in an academic world still sometimes marked by patriarchal assumptions and in societies that sometimes doubt the utility of historical scholarship itself.


§25.  This survey was written in the summer of 2009. Since then, the following publications described as forthcoming in the article have appeared:

Garver, Valerie L. 2009. Women and aristocratic culture in the Carolingian world. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stone, Rachel. 2010. "In what way can those who have left the world be distinguished?" Masculinity and the difference between Carolingian men. In Intersections of gender, religion and ethnicity in the Middle Ages, eds. Kirsten Fenton and Cordelia Beattie. Basingstoke: Palgrove Macmillan.

Coon, Lynda L. 2011. Dark age bodies: gender and monastic practice in the early medieval West. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

One other important new article should also be highlighted:

Smith, Julia M. H. 2009. 'Carrying the cares of state': gender perspectives on Merovingian 'Staatlichkeit.' In Der frühmittelalterliche Staat: europäische Perspektiven, eds. Walter Pohl and Veronika Wieser. Vienna: Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.


1. In this discussion I have followed the example of Bennett (2006, 4) and used 'women's history' as a shorthand for 'women's and gender history.' [Back]

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