Women, Writing and Religion in England and Beyond, 650-1100 
by Diane Watt.
Bloomsbury, 240 pp., £28.99, February 2021, 978 1 350 23972 2
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In​ the mid-seventh century, a busy and well-connected abbess in Northumbria took a promising new poet under her wing. This unassuming elderly man, who worked as a cowherd, had never managed to learn a single song. He went to feasts with the other agricultural workers at the monastery, but always left before the harp could be passed to him. One night he departed early and went to sleep in the cowshed as usual. What he said happened afterwards was hard to believe, even for people who lived in an age of daily miracles. He told the abbess that a mysterious figure had appeared in his dream and commanded him to sing of the creation of the world. Was it an angel or a demon? The abbess and her advisers listened to the cowherd’s poem and decided it was godly. She had the old man tested again: they read him a passage from a sacred book, presumably translating it from Latin, and gave him a night to render it into English verse. He did so ably, and wasting no time the abbess ordered him to join the monastic community. It must have been hard for the old man to adjust to a new way of life, but this particular institution was a spiritual and educational powerhouse, and the abbess an experienced teacher. She directed the brothers to teach him sacred history, from the Creation to the Last Judgment, and the new monk transformed what they told him into exquisite poetry.

Caedmon, whether he existed or not, did well to follow the abbess Hild’s directions. There isn’t a single poem in English that is indisputably by him. Bede, who relates his story in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, recorded the gist of ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’ in Latin; the version that survives in Old English may well be a back translation. Even so, the semi-mythical cowherd became known as the first English poet and the father of English sacred song. His ‘Hymn’ has pride of place in anthologies of Old English poetry. For a while, anonymous biblical poems in Old English were ascribed to him too. Provided with the name of a vernacular poet – so rare in the early medieval period – scholars couldn’t resist embellishing Caedmon’s accomplishments.

Bede described the abbess’s career with admiration, and related the miracles performed by some of the bishops she trained at Whitby. She was canonised, and a legend about her turning snakes into stones inspired the 19th-century palaeontologist Alpheus Hyatt to name a genus of ammonite, Hildoceras, after her. But, unlike her contemporaries, we would not now understand her work with Caedmon as a form of literary creation.

It’s difficult to find women authors in early medieval England. The names of women who wrote in other places have come down to us: the Arab poet Layla al-Akhyaliyya; the Japanese Tanka poet Ōtomo no Sakanoue no Iratsume; Dhuoda, the Frankish author of the Liber Manualis, among others. The English record is thinner, for a number of reasons. One is the fragmentary nature of the historical record: many medieval works named by contemporary authors have not survived. (Beowulf exists only in one manuscript: others were lost to fire, shipwreck, conquest and monastic suppression.) Authorship practices in the multilingual literary culture of the time also play a role. Most Old English poetry and much prose is anonymous; compositions in Anglo-Latin are more likely to have an author’s name attached.

Almost a hundred years ago Virginia Woolf proposed, in A Room of One’s Own, that ‘Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.’ Generations of feminist scholars have filled in the history of women’s writing in the late medieval period. Much of it isn’t anonymous: university reading lists have been populated by Héloïse and Hildegard, Margery and Marie, Julian and Christine. Our understanding of women’s literary culture has also been expanded to include works by unknown authors that were written for a female audience. The Ancrene Wisse and the Middle English translation of The Doctrine of the Hert, guidebooks to the spiritual life composed for anchoresses and nuns respectively, may be thought of as women’s writing. But the study of early medieval England has remained frustrating for those interested in women’s voices. The period’s many Anons are still quietly assumed to be men.

Diane Watt’s book attempts to reveal the roles played by women in English literary culture. Building on scholarship by Clare Lees, Gillian Overing, Stephanie Hollis and Liz McAvoy, Watt shows how we might learn to discern the work of women in the spotty textual records left to us. Her first strategy is to consider a larger geographic range – hence the ‘England and beyond’ in her subtitle. There are a number of eighth-century English women whose works and names we have and who were active as missionaries on the Continent after being educated in England: women like Hugeburc, the abbess of Heidenheim, who wrote a travel narrative about St Willibald’s journey to the Holy Land, or Leoba, who included verse in her letter to St Boniface and became abbess of Tauberbischofsheim.

The fact that they wrote in Latin plays a role in their omission from histories of English writing. The development of national philologies in the 19th century led to an emphasis on writing in the vernacular, and scholars became more interested in studying dialects that eventually developed into the languages of modern nation-states. The resulting monolingual bias has affected the way people imagine the literary histories of England, Spain or Germany. There is also a particularly strong association between women and the vernacular which dates back as far as the early 14th century, when Dante defended the eloquence of the ‘vulgar’ tongues that children learn not through schooling but by imitating their nurses.

Old English poems with female narrators, such as the elegies ‘The Wife’s Lament’ and ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ in the Exeter Book, may seem a sensible place to seek traces of medieval women writers. But there is no reason to assume those poems were written by women, just as it’s not certain that medieval poems about men were written by men, or that heroic stories were composed by warriors or travel accounts by people who had left home. If anything, the literary education of the time trained poets to speak in voices not their own. Learning to understand the writing of the period requires us to lay aside modern assumptions about the relationship between a writer’s identity and their subject matter. It means looking beyond local vernaculars towards a cosmopolitan literary culture shaped by the Roman Empire and the Western Church, one that joined North Africa, Asia Minor and Europe in networks of travel and intellectual exchange.

Watt’s study focuses on religious women and the monasteries that enabled and preserved their work. These institutions gave early medieval women access to formal education and to the substantial resources necessary to produce books – luxury objects in the millennium before print. Many of the women Watt studies came from noble families and used their wealth and elite connections to bolster their authority and the standing of their monasteries. Women writers used the same genres as their male colleagues: letters, biography, history, poetry. But Watt suggests that ‘no matter how powerful they were in religious or political terms, medieval women were perceived by others – and perceived themselves – as lacking the authority to be described as authors.’ Hugeburc began her Life of Willibald by apologising for her lack of wisdom and the feebleness of her sex – but then men of the time also made a show of disparaging their own eloquence. Women’s work was often ascribed to Anon, but so was men’s. From a distance of more than a thousand years, it’s hard to know whether medieval habits of authorship, such as leaving works unsigned or ascribing them to a historical figure, touched women writers more than men.

Watt’s most important argument is that we should think of medieval authorship as fundamentally collaborative. Chaucer’s work wouldn’t be the same without the patronage of John of Gaunt, or John Donne’s without Robert Drury. Given the sparseness of the documentation, it is particularly instructive to consider aspects of the creation of texts that are not what we would today think of as authorship. Watt looks at other ways in which women participated in writing, as with Hild’s patronage of Caedmon. Prominent women served as patrons throughout the Middle Ages, and provided male writers hired to compose official narratives with the information they needed.

Writing is not now considered a collective exercise. The Romantic myth of the lone genius persists. He is no longer always a white man – only most of the time. The black and white author photo is this myth’s icon, the desk its fetish object (now that cigarettes are out of style). What’s missing in this picture? The friends who made recommendations and offered diplomatic feedback on drafts. The editor who asked the right pointed question. The agent who gave direction on structure, and the mentor who handed down an idea. The research assistants and translators. The strangers on social media who answered a crowdsourcing call. The wives who typed up their husbands’ manuscripts, transcribing sources and checking for errors. The individuals who made it materially possible for a writer to write by ensuring their comfort and protecting their time. Many people contribute to the substance of a work beyond the individual who sits at the desk.

The case of the tenth-century saint Edith of Wilton illustrates the way collaboration, patronage and public relations worked in a medieval context. Watt devotes a chapter to the account of Edith’s life and posthumous miracles by the Flemish monk Goscelin of St Bertin. Goscelin was an émigré intellectual who arrived in England around 1060. He worked as a tutor, chaplain and writer for hire, composing saints’ lives for a number of monasteries in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. He was commissioned to write the Life of Edith by Godgifu, the abbess of Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire. In his prologue, Goscelin explains that Godgifu and the other nuns told him about the events of Edith’s life, which were part of the community’s recent memory. Anticipating the objection that his sources were women and therefore not to be believed, Goscelin argued that the noble birth and sacred lives of these nuns gave them credibility.

Edith was a charismatic figure, at times too lively for the monastic life. She was the daughter of King Edgar and a woman he had abducted from Wilton Abbey. Three years later, Wulfthryth returned with her infant daughter. Edith received a splendid education at Wilton, where she was admired for her singing, reading, writing and exquisite embroidery. Goscelin remarks that in his time the monastery still held a book of spiritual devotions in Edith’s hand. As the daughter of a king, she was also a potential power player. When she was only fifteen, Edgar placed her at the head of three monastic houses, though she appointed other women to govern them while she remained at Wilton. Goscelin also relates the crisis three years after Edgar’s death, when his successor, Edward the Martyr, was killed. The nobility, Goscelin says, believed Edward’s half-brother, Æthelred, was tainted by the murder, and offered the throne to Edith, who refused it. Scholars have doubted this story, or suggested that the plan was to marry her to a rival successor. But Goscelin, writing for female patrons about a woman saint, wanted to make it known that she had turned down the offer of ultimate authority. The English considered a woman with ‘mature prudence’ a better leader than an ignorant child, he claims, adding that many nations are governed by women.

Though young – she died at 23 – Edith embodied ‘auctoritas’ in the full sense that word carried in the Middle Ages. She was powerful, exemplary, wise, and capable of expressing her designs on the world. Her legacy, as Watt notes, included a chapel she had built at Wilton, dedicated to Saint Denis and containing a series of paintings she commissioned from an artist called Benno. Goscelin’s account of their collaboration is a useful description of the way female patronage and authorship worked. Benno ‘brought out the images that she depicted in her heart’; he was the bee divining the intentions of Edith, the flower. Benno was the artist, but there was no doubt about who was the chapel’s author. Edith is also shown bringing stones to the construction site, feeding and cheering up the workmen, and encouraging them with promises of rewards. As patron, she was labourer, helpmeet and project manager. Goscelin didn’t say so, but his own employer, Godgifu, probably played a similar role.

Goscelin’s treatment of Edith’s idiosyncrasies reveals the balance he tried to strike between historical memory and the wishes of the Wilton community. Edith kept a menagerie of wild animals in a courtyard attached to the monastery. Goscelin compared her fondness for these exotic pets to God’s love for the beasts of his creation. Edith’s regal habits seem to have come under scrutiny from her contemporaries, but Goscelin usually found a way to turn the story round. Bishop Æthelwold criticised her for her extravagant way of dressing, which he thought inappropriate for a spiritual life. Edith told the bishop he should not judge people’s souls by external appearances. To prove the point, Goscelin related a miracle story in which a servant accidentally set a chest full of Edith’s clothes on fire. The flames spread throughout the room, but when the sisters opened the chest they found Edith’s finery unharmed. God apparently had no issue with the future saint’s sense of style.

Edith’s story, and that of the women who promoted her cult in the century after her death, shows the value of Watt’s undertaking. Shining a light on medieval women’s writing brings their other kinds of authority into focus. These highly educated individuals capably navigated secular and ecclesiastical networks of power both in England and abroad. They taught, guided and managed, sometimes while also dealing with political upheavals or missionary work. They leveraged their social and financial capital to build enduring legacies. The works they wrote and had written reflected their beliefs: that what a nun wore was no guide to the purity of her soul, or that a young woman might make an excellent ruler for a troubled nation if only she could be persuaded to take on the task.

Listen to Irina Dumitrescu discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast.

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