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I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

The oldest writing in a woman’s hand

What is the oldest surviving text actually written down by a woman? (As opposed to dictated to a scribe or otherwise recorded.)

A British Museum gallery talk, last week came up with one suggestion: one of the Vindolanda tablets, the hoard of letters found in the fort of that name on Hadrian’s Wall that preserves the details of the everyday life of the garrison and their wives.

(Do check out the above link by the way – it is a model of archeaology on the web.)

One is a letter from Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brochus, the Vindolanda fort commander, to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the commander of a neighbouring fort. Most of the invitation to the birthday party is written by the garrison scribe, no doubt to Claudia’s dictation – his hand can be identified from other examples – but there’s a three-line personal note on the end in which Claudia adds a personal touch:

I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

(Sister seems to have been a term of endearment, rather than an expression of a family relationship.)

The gallery talk speaker, Sam Moorhead, suggested that this is the oldest surviving writing known to be in a woman’s hand — it is dated to between AD97 and 103 — which sounds about right to me. Can anyone think of an earlier example?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to visit History Carnival No 14, now up on my home blog Philobiblon.

Some of the questions it addresses: Do Hobbits come from Kentucky? If your mutt shags the Queen’s corgi, what can you be charged with? What poisons could ancient Roman matrons use to knock off an inconvenient spouse? Who was the first patron saint of Venice?

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.

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