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Book Review: Reading Families: Women’s Literate Practice in Late Medieval England

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Writing history without any sort of theoretical framework tends to produce what might be called the David Starkey outcome &#8212 everything that happens is the result of personal idiosyncrasy and chance. But the current academic fashion &#8212 to use theoretical jargon to obfuscate rather than communicate &#8212 has produced a problem with books that do have theories about why things happen: an apparently unbridgeable gap between serious academic public and the general reader. This results in texts designed to be read by an audience of at most a few score, with other interested bystanders standing around the edge of the opaque whirlpool, plunging in to the elbow occasionally, in the hope of extracting a nugget from the morass.

Rebecca Krug’s Reading Families: Women’s Literate Practice in Late Medieval England is a delightful departure from this trend. It sets out its theoretical grounding in a couple of pages in the introduction. This is practice theory, which, Krug says, “by focusing on the relationship between structure and individual… allows me to consider women’s involvement in literate culture less as a matter of violation (or oppression) and more as a process of negotiations and adjustment”.*

She uses this theoretical basis, lightly but clearly, and with far less jargon than is common practice, to address four individuals or groups of medieval women and their encounters with the written word: Margaret Paston (the gentlewoman from the family whose letters have survived in surprising profusion), Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry VII and patron of Caxton), the women Lollards at Norwich (who Krug says may not have been as “literate” as is commonly claimed), and the Bridgettine nuns at Syon Abbey (looking particularly at their personal ownership of books and what this implied about their relationship with them).

Krug presents Margaret Paston as a woman of impeccably gentle origins marrying (having been chosen at least in part for that status) a family that suffered from a hideous taint in medieval terms &#8212 that they might not have always had the same status, that one of the recent Paston ancestors had married a bondswoman (serf). Because of this her husband, John, a lawyer, was particularly keen to find and use written evidence to “prove” the family’s status, finally confirmed in a proclamation by Edward IV recorded in 1466.

It was through him, probably, that Margaret was introduced to the practical use of writing, particularly letter writing, although she could not &#8212 probably &#8212 wield a pen herself. (But as Krug makes clear this was no particular handicap. Even fully literate men often used scribes &#8212 the mechanical process was not the important part of the exercise.)

And she thus learnt to use letters in a particular, quasi-legal way, that suited her audience, John, who was for months at a time in London while she was in Norfolk running the family estates. Krug analyses the letter in which Margaret comments on her first pregnancy &#8212 not communicating the news, which John already knew &#8212 but telling him to proclaim it to the world by wearing a ring with the image of St Margaret, traditionally associated with childbirth, and also noting that her mother-in-law had told local important people. “The letter functions as a witness to her social importance, a document that shows her husband the manner in which she reinforces his success visibly and publicly.”

But, “later in her marriage, Margaret claim to employ direct quotation less in simple praise of her life and more to validate her understanding of situations. For example, in a 1449 letter written to John, she told him that Lord Moleyns had threatened to kidnap her if John refused to give up his claims to the estate at Gresham, where Margaret was staying. To ground her report in reality rather than exaggerated fear for her own safety, she notes that Lord Moleyn’s men said that her kidnapping “xuld ben but a lytell hert-brennyng” to John.”… If her behaviour looked ‘feminine’ and hasty, her letter demonstrates that it is, in fact ‘masculine’ and judicious.”

But Margaret was left a widow, and their son, John II, became head of the family. And she suddenly ran up against a new audience. Krug explains:

“Margaret’s authority depended ultimately on her husband’s willingness to accept the validity of her interpretations, and her understanding of literate authority was ultimately based on a misrepresentation of her social position: she came to believe that her literate authority was a natural property of her person, rather than an “effect of the network of social relations” … Margaret [was forced ] to confront the family-dominated basis of her literate practice.”

Her son became head of the family, but she controlled estates, and revenues, that would only pass to him on her death. And there was a further source of conflict. She’d learnt from her husband to place great store on written evidence, in a very lawyerly way, but their son, growing up in the royal court, had “witnessed the manner in which the Yorkist government made its decisions on the basis of royal favour rather than by judicious consideration of evidence” had a different approach.

So on August 21, 1449, in a castle under siege, Margaret wrote, under the shadow of overflying crossbow bolts, to her son to demand that he ask a high official to send “wryting” to guarantee the family’s “lyfes and ther goodes”. He responded three days later saying that the obtaining of letters and the saving of the estate were two entirely separate things. She wrote back accusing him of “dysworschep”, denying that she wrote “fabyls and ymagynacyons” and resolutely affirming that she would continue to write.

She had stopped being a witness in court, and started to assert her own authority. Yet in one letter she also conceded that she could not do things that a man could do.

I’ve gone into this tale in some detail both because I find it fascinating, but also because it shows the way in which Krug teases out the changing social circumstances in which Margaret finds herself, and the ways in which she was able to work within, and, most importantly, change them by her own actions. She was neither, as some gross analyses would have her, a servant of the patriarchy that oppressed her, blinkered by false consciousness, nor a rebel against that patriarchy, but one person whose gender, family position and personal relationships all effected her interactions with the world around her, while it changed according to the actions she chose.

I won’t, however, deal in the same detail with the other sections of the book, lest this post go on forever! On Margaret Beaufort one key point is her sponsorship of Caxton’s translation and printing of the romance Blanchardyn and Eglantine. Her engagement with the text is usually described as political, but Krug argues that before her son’s accession Margaret saw it as an idealised version of the world, exposing “the dangers of political factionalism but then affirming the ultimate safety and success of its hero”. By the time she had it translated in English it was “commemorative: she herself came to read the romance as a text in which she could already see (and perhaps believed she had always already seen) Henry’s accession of 1485.”

But she also sponsored Latin texts that she probably only at best partly understood, and Krug argues that these had a ritualistic meaning. Engaging with the text, by reading or following while someone else read, had a protective function. Further, by reproducing and spreading texts, she was creating communities, of scholars and laypeople.

This is, Krug says, curiously like the Lollard women of Norwich (on the absolute opposite side of the religious controversies of the time). Clerical critics of vernacular texts thought they were revealing hidden knowledge that should be reserved for priests, which is, Krug suggests, particularly attractive as an idea to academics today, since their own social practices value texts for similar reasons (as “proof” and “data”.)

“We have assumed that we know, without question, why someone would want a translation of a text… in describing the literate practice of the women Lollards in Norwich circa 1430, this chapter shows how demands for vernacular texts emerged from the sense that engagement with the written word constituted spiritual identity…. reading was certainly about learning but that learning was spiritually formative and not strictly rationative.” Having God’s work in your heart and in your home &#8212 and particularly in a communal space within that home that you shared with others, as more important than understanding it. (This reminds me of Pierre Bourdieu and his Algerian tribespeople using a strange, imported object &#8212 spoons &#8212 to “bring rain”.)

The final purpose of Krug’s work is to try to understand why a question at the centre of scholarship about 15th-century medieval women in England: why, when more and more were exposed to literate culture, and could read and write (if only by use of a scribe), did they not produce literary or religious texts?

Krug’s answer? They may have indeed at times been stopped by lack of access to formal education, social mores or family restrictions, but additionally, and probably more importantly, this was for many not the most important use to which they could put their literacy skills. “Even if they might have imagined that literary writing would be useful, they were already busy with literate activities that seemed, to them, more obviously beneficial.”

In Syon Abbey, the nuns, as, Krug reports, exposed by their controversy over their accusation of the “heretical” text of John Ryckes’s Image of Love, had come to be trained to think of reading as a way to experience God. “They were of course cautioned to read and perform the liturgy ‘accurately’, emphasizing bodily obedience, but at the same time they were encouraged to distance themselves from other people and concentrate on books.” (Rather than images, which were for less, lay, folks.) If you think you’re experiencing God through reading, how can writing be better?

But even if you are not interested in the broader academic questions, or the theoretical route by which answers are reached, this is a wonderful book to read to grasp the place of writing in the lives of the women it portrays, in a world so very different from our own &#8212 a truth that Krug is keen to emphasise. Yet this is the time in which women were, I would argue, through this engagement with the written text, beginning the long, tortuous climb into the public world that is (more than ever before) open to us today.

This is not, as academic books go, hideously expensive, and I would hope &#8212 probably against hope &#8212 that an affordable paperback might be forthcoming.

(There’s another review here.)

*Declaration of interest/bias – this theory, in a slightly different form, is one of the bases of my thesis in mass communications. And while I’ve come across many social theories in my time, while tripping lightly through the study of politics, sociology, history and related disciplines, it is the only one that I’ve ever felt came close to approximating to lived realities.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • Nancy

    Love the post, Miss Natalie! There are finally starting to be a few really good works on women. I’ll have to check this one out. Also can recommend translations of Hildegard of Bingen’s journals – another amazing & very literate yet immensely practical woman who had to cope as did Margaret.

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    Thanks Nancy. I have an old Penguin of Hildegard on my bookshelves, and “to read” list; unfortunately it is a long list.