Warrior Women

Patrick Wormald

I was recently quite shocked – though I’m not sure why – when a cherished colleague upheld the study of women’s history on the grounds that it was ‘fashionable’. Most historians respond to contemporary trends in their discipline, though without being so frank about it. Would I have been as disturbed if he had defended his researches on Medieval literacy in similar terms? I suspect myself of reacting not to his reason for endorsing the subject but to the subject itself. Should I therefore be branded with the infamous three initials applied to so many of my sex?

Women’s history is indeed fashionable, but it does raise problems, which are no less real for being so banally obvious. Why is it appropriate to make the history of half the human race into a subject in its own right? If the answer is that historical writing has hitherto been monopolised by the other half, is this not because the pace of events in nearly all known human societies has been set by men? And, however undesirable this may have been, does not the resulting bias of the sources interpose near-insuperable obstacles for those concerned with the place of women in societies not responsive to statistical or anthropological analysis? There is the further difficulty that women’s history is now as ‘political’ a subject as that notorious crux, the condition of the English working class in the early Industrial Revolution. It is anticipated that one’s opinion of its value will be predetermined by one’s sex – something that most of us can do even less to change than our class-conditioned prejudices. It is studied and discussed by most of its exponents with the often avowed objective of teaching men about their past sins. To express doubt is reactionary if one is female, and worse (albeit predictable) if one is male. Clio’s academy hath few furies like Women’s Studies scorned.

But woman’s historical lot is not a new issue. At the beginning of the last century, when the working class was still experiencing its controversial ‘condition’, Sharon Turner (a man, actually) was writing, in one of the half-dozen best-ever books about the Anglo-Saxons: ‘Nothing could be more calculated to produce a very striking dissimilarity, between the Gothic nations and the Oriental States, than this exaltation of the female sex to that honour, consequence and independence, which European laws studied to uphold.’ In 1848, John Mitchell Kemble, in one of the top three, assured (reassured?) Queen Victoria that ‘woman among the Teutons was near akin to divinity, but not one among them ever raved that the femme libre could be woman.’ On the other hand, some scholars (few of whom would make the top hundred) imported their scandalised reaction to African bride-wealth into their perception of the Old English past: not only were ‘Anglo-Saxon women ... sold by their fathers’, they were also ‘always beaten by their husbands’, and were ‘menial servants even when of royal rank’ (my italics). In the end, however, it did not matter whether woman’s past was horrible or a great improvement on the present: all was grist to the political mill.

Professor Fell is much too good a scholar to write with a political purpose, but this will not save her from being classed with the reactionaries. The message of this book is expressed at the end of the Introduction: ‘It is salutary to remember that scholarship does not require us to read only, always and inevitably a history of oppression and exploitation of the female sex. The real evidence from Anglo-Saxon England presents a more attractive and indeed assertive picture.’ However, ‘oppression and exploitation’ get their share of attention in the book’s last two chapters: it appears that the Norman Yoke bore especially hard upon women, and that the ‘harsh realities’ of their post-1066 existence were aggravated by the fact that their ‘literary image ... becomes stereo-typed’.

This is a very learned and deeply enjoyable book, full of unexpected insights. The weight of scholarship which Dr Clark has put into her chapter on the ‘factual evidence’ after the ‘Conquest is evident only to the expert (or to those who ruminate on her startling bibliography). Professor Fell is one of the leading English philologists, and words are an important part of her argument. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus asserted that the early Germans attributed prophetic powers to women, and this is one of many respects in which modern scholars have sought to discredit him. Professor Fell shows that such scepticism may be misplaced, cautiously pointing out that Anglo-Saxons translated the Latin terms Pythonissa and Parcae in ways that suggest their familiarity with priestesses or ‘wise women’; this in turn argues that archaeologists: may not be wrong to see magical significance in the crystal balls which most frequently occur in women’s graves. It is a crucial and convincing part of her argument that words which historians instinctively translate as applicable to the male sex are semantically neuter. Thus a charming poetic passage on parental love is sternly transferred from the masculine gender adopted by previous translators into a set of pronouns that modern English could not apply to a person. So, too, a law of King Aethelberht of Kent – the earliest extant piece of written English – is firmly removed from the sphere of sexual misdemeanour, where historians (with characteristic prurience) had located it hitherto, and shown to refer to the housewife’s command of the keys. And Professor Fell has the courage of her learning: coming from almost anyone else, the suggestion that there may be archaeological support for the Norse literary image of the warrior-woman would provoke scathing silence – from Professor Fell, one can believe it.

All the same, aspects of this book do provoke doubts. Some are relatively trivial. Given that the illustrations in the Harleian Psalter are copied faithfully from the superb Carolingian manuscript then in England and now in Utrecht, it should not have been said, without a word of warning, that they ‘presumably reflect Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical usage’. One can see what Professor Fell means when she dismisses the – potentially appalling – implications of the Anglo-Saxon penitentials, because it is true that they represent ‘a system of codification already formulated in the country of origin’. Nevertheless, it is legitimate to wonder why they were then considered appropriate in England, and whether (or why) conditions in England were so very different from those of Italy, Gaul or Ireland. As a matter of fact, Archbishop Theodore’s seventh-century penitential, which the best modern authorities are prepared to accept was written in England and for Englishmen, very obviously reflects the mores of Anglo-Saxon warrior society: together with King Alfred’s law-book, it provides the best evidence that loyalty to a lord took precedence over kin-solidarity. Inasmuch as another great scholar has found evidence in such texts of ‘a promiscuity crisis’ in Early Medieval Europe, their implications for Fell’s case are serious.

Further, to grind a personal axe, I suggested, nearly ten years ago, that Anglo-Saxon women may have been more literate than their bedfellows. Professor Fell thinks that this is a ‘generalisation which would be difficult to support from Anglo-Saxon evidence’. It was. I made it because evidence from comparable Continental societies led me to expect as much. But I would not have done so unless Asser had said that it was King Alfred’s mother who staged a literacy competition between her young sons, unless the only lay ex libris among Anglo-Saxon manuscripts had been a woman’s, and unless the only two non-clerical wills that even mention books were those of women. The colleague whom I mentioned at the beginning of this piece will soon publish a book arguing that women were more important than printers in spreading the literate habit in the later Middle Ages. It would be a mistake to ignore the prehistory of this critical social phenomenon: Memling’s superb Annunciation, in which Gabriel finds Mary with books scattered about her bedroom, has its foretaste in Theodoric’s angry Gothic warriors, who murdered their dowager regent in her bath because she was bringing up her son to fear the strap more than the spear.

This is not the only respect in which Professor Fell and her colleagues seem curiously to understate the case for women. So little is said of queens that one might have thought that they had been set deliberately aside in order to make room for the ‘ordinary woman’ – except that justice is done to Aethelflaed, King Alfred’s extraordinary daughter. More can be said about other queens (though Alfred’s sister was not entitled ‘Queen of English’, and it would have been amazing if anyone had been at that date). Consider Alfred’s daughters-in-law, the successive wives of King Edward the Elder. The first was apparently not considered legitimately married (it is not at all easy to see what did constitute lawful wedlock in the early English royal family), but her son was the great King Aethelstan, who, with a generosity to which European history offers few parallels, kept the throne warm for his young half-brothers. The second produced the best surviving piece of pre-Conquest embroidery, and so reinforces Professor Fell’s erudite semantic case for thinking that the Anglo-Saxon lady’s place was at the loom. The third inspired a remarkable charter, in which her legal fortunes can be traced over sixty years, and directly related to petticoat politics. Or take the case of 1066 itself. The dynastic dispute that erupted into the Norman Conquest had its origins in the political connections of two formidable women: Emma, successively wife to Aethelred the Unready and Cnut, mother to Edward the Confessor and great-aunt of William the Conqueror; and Edith, wife of Edward and sister to Harold, who, in one of the most successful propaganda coups of all time, escaped the charge of childlessness by fostering the legend of her husband’s virginity. The role of gossip in Anglo-Saxon politics is a reminder that highborn women were more than landladies: they were important politicians in their own right.

It is, however, on the consequences of the Conquest that I have the greatest reservations. We have already seen that the downgrading of post-Conquest women was paradoxically accompanied by their elevation to new heights in literature, but that the authors of the present book modify the significance of this by declaring the literary image ‘stereotyped’. This is as much as to say that there was now a lot more literature about women. Dr Clark’s long list of things that married women could not do independently after 1066 is depressing, but it is not really demonstrable that they could do many of them before, at least not as a matter of course: there are a quite significant number of charters and wills in which Anglo-Saxon women dispose of property, but I have found no case where they can be proven to do so against the will of a living husband. Both before and after the Conquest, a woman’s share of the family property seems to have been one-third. Professor Fell rightly cites Cnut’s laws against the exploitation of widows, but it is not sufficiently emphasised that very similar legislation was issued by Henry I and features in Magna Carta. The implications of this are surely the same for Anglo-Saxon as for Anglo-Norman society: widows had rights, and they were being abused (Cnut’s laws may actually have been couched originally as a ‘charter of grievances’, just like Magna Carta itself). The important point here is that, insofar as woman’s lot in England deteriorated after the 11th century, this was only one aspect of a much wider set of social, legal and cultural changes. As my colleague has shown, the lawyerly and bureaucratic mind took a grip on society as a by-product of the 12th-century Renaissance; and whether or not the Normans ‘introduced feudalism’, they were much better aware of the cross-cutting and competing rights to any piece of landed property, those of the crown prominent amongst them. Thus restrictions on their rights were an experience women shared with heirs, minors and sub-tenants of every status.

The point is perhaps a reminder of the real drawback in Women’s History, which is that it makes a separate field of what can only be well understood by considering society as a whole. It is true that the contemporary fashion for such books is a sharp and justified comment on the inadequacies of ‘Social Histories’ hitherto, and it cannot be denied that this richly-textured book has implications that extend well beyond the feminist crusade. But, by that token, what we need is not more books on women but better books on history.