How did women make the Middle Ages?

Immediately surprise. Femina is a new book on the history of the Middle Ages “through the women who were expelled from it”. The book begins in 1913, when a spectator at a horse race suddenly jumps in front of the British King’s horse. This competition became the most famous and devastating equestrian competition since the French King Henry II was killed in a tournament in 1559. In 1913, spectator Emily Wilding Davison was seriously injured, as was the jockey.

Davison’s shawl with purple, white and green stripes shows her motives to the astonished audience: They voted for the woman she says. Her raw work against male authority has become a landmark in the modern feminist movement. On Davison’s hospital bed — which will also become her deathbed — a seriously injured suffragette receives a mountain of (masculine) hate mail that Twitter can now count on. Davison is the most famous martyr of the first wave of feminism.

But what does this have to do with the Middle Ages? Four pages later, Janina Ramirez, author of this highly intelligent book, reveals the title. Davison was a medieval historian. It’s a detail that is never mentioned in the stories about her act. Truth turns out to be closely linked to feminism. Davison – just like Ramirez himself – saw the Middle Ages as a time when there was a place for women.

Ramírez shows in great detail that the still medieval masculine image of walking knights and nobles waiting at home is really a post-construction—a reflection of the nineteenth century rather than a serious description of that vastly different and diverse millennium that we call the Middle Ages.

The wrong picture is not only the fault of historians. For example, in the still iconic art of the nineteenth century, sensual images of a few medieval women, heavily filtered by Victorian sensibilities, predominate. Ramirez: They are presented as virgins, victims, mothers, prostitutes or witches. The image of an inaccessible maiden stuck in a tower is recurring ad nauseam.

Ramirez does an excellent job of explaining that women make history just as much as men. It takes more effort to see this, because there is little interest in women in the surviving sources. However, there is enough. On the basis of a few small references in ancient records and some archaeological finds, Ramirez reconstructs, for example, the political influence and great international network of Queen Bertha of Kent (c. 600). Who, by the way, was at that time in good company with the powerful Empress Theodora of Constantinople and many other powerful women.

Women’s power

This power of women cannot be dismissed as an accident in one period. There have always been women who were not underestimated. in Femina So many carefully ranked fighters, powerful bosses, sharp queens, tyrannical heretical bosses and utterly distinct mystics pass through that you don’t even wonder where Joan of Arc has gone.

This is the truly innovative women’s history, as this branch of historiography definitively became human history and not just a sideline. Since the 1970s, women in historiography have held a place as a “special” subject within the traditionally male-dominated “real” history. To a greater extent you can practice naval or military history. Femina And similar books make it clear that those days are over, although ironically, you still need a separate women’s book for that.

Why is the renewal of dating slow? The division of roles between men and women still dominates our thoughts. In this context, a passing remark by the French anthropologist, Sandrine Gallois, is relevant. indicated a few years ago It is in this paper that the category of man or woman is often very ill-suited to understanding how culture or society works. “Because we always look at this difference between men and women binary, we don’t see the huge diversity that lies beneath.”

Davison, who was tragically killed for her race, was infatuated with The Canterbury Tales, a collection of famous medieval stories by Geoffrey Chaucer. The story “The Wife of Bath” touches on the question “What does a woman desire most?”. And the answers in her story of 1392: sex, money, land, independence and fun. How “manly” do you want it? How is the human?

Yes, of course, society in the Middle Ages was also under the control of a patriarchal ideology. But who can confirm that people have always faithfully adhered to the prevailing ideology?


From Femina He also learns a lot about “normal” medieval history. When it comes to the thirteenth-century Cathars of southern France, Ramirez, for example, beautifully maps out the modern debate over whether these heretics formed a coherent movement. And Ramírez’s description of the knightly ideals – so prevalent in the second half of the Middle Ages – should be hung on the wall in any history class: the daily grind of politics, gruesome deaths on the battlefield and the machinations of power-hungry people to something else, an ideology based on myth and legend that Where good triumphs over evil. She compares knight culture to “losing yourself in a fantasy movie today”.

Just as good Femina is the book Maiden shield, on “the unrecorded history of women warriors in the Viking Age”, particularly in the tenth century. Author Nancy Marie Brown focuses on reconstructing one of the most astounding discoveries in medieval archeology: the female warrior of Birka–fictional but well-researched.

Stories have long been told of female Viking warriors, but historians usually dismiss them as literary epic fantasies or Christian horror stories to denigrate “brutal” Vikings: “These heathens let their wives fight!”. But like a bomb went off in 2017, there was the surprising discovery (based on DNA) that a woman lies in the tomb of a famous 10th-century warrior in Birka, Sweden, filled with weapons and playing pieces. Even now, some maintain that she was an ordinary, peace-loving woman who was apparently buried with weapons for social and ritual reasons. This is theoretically possible, but such a traditional explanation is unlikely.

The context of this warrior’s grave is Scandinavian Viking culture at the beginning of the 10th century. Many know about this. But as for the Berka warrior herself, we only know she was there, and nothing more. In her reconstruction, Browne fills that gap in our knowledge by ‘imagining’ that the person in Birka’s tomb is the Viking chieftain Hirvur, a character from a late medieval Icelandic epic. Such a “mock” red line through a regular date turns out to be a good idea, providing many possibilities for stories and digressions. Then suddenly, for example, this magnificent sword in tomb Bj581 in Birka became the legendary sword that Hervor herself had taken from her father’s grave in a battle with dead spirits, much to the amazement of her ship’s mighty crew who, ghostly fear, had long since taken legs.

Brown also connects the story of this saga with the historical story of the great Norwegian Queen Gunhild by making Hervör her pupil. It also intertwines the story of “Hervör” with obscure references in Irish and German chronicles to a “Red Maiden Rusilla” said to have led a Viking fleet into the Irish Sea. Brown takes the Berka warrior away to Russia, where she, of course, communicates with the powerful Queen Olga of the Viking-Royce people of Kyiv – another historical figure. Finally Hirvor dies in Birka, killed by a vengeful slave girl.

Maiden shield It is a book about a woman and at the same time it is one of the most complete books I know of on the Viking world. This is the history of women as a human history.

The fictional construction in a historical work is very dangerous, because the reader can easily lose the thread between fiction and fact. But Brown does not fall into this trap as she carefully separates the realms of fantasy and historical reality, in style and explicit nomenclature. Her book is a textbook example of good history and fiction.

Compared to so much hidden wisdom, the recently published third book on women in the past is disappointing. in Miss Sans There are a lot of interesting facts about the role of women in prehistoric times, but specifically about traditionally feminine areas: clothing, family life, jewelry, and sexuality. Also, it is not clear whether women have a different role in this than men. The “many roles” of women are only mentioned in the last chapter. They may have hunted, for example, but “of course it is unlikely that pregnant or nursing women would have engaged in such life-threatening activities.” Why is this suddenly unlikely? Seemingly limited imagination of a group of writers Miss Sans Books, decades ago, were outdone by scientific reality. In the 1980s, pregnant female fishermen were already described among Agta fishermen in the Philippines. And what worked in the Luzon jungle in the 1980s was possible 15,000 years ago. Furthermore, the authors provide a good overview of the hunting opportunities for females. They describe archaeological findings that may indicate that a woman could be the same head of a group of people as a man. But why do they immediately assume that the permanently inhabited huts in northern Israel (which are 20,000 years old) will once again be furnished by women?

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