A Double-Edged Sword: Being a Medievalist Feminist

Let me cut to the chase: being a medievalist feminist is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, on an international level, we have the phenomenal support and extensive work of organisations such as the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies. In the last week, it was announced in the run-up to the annual Kalamazoo Medieval Congress that participants staying in campus accommodation would no longer be provided with blankets, a policy directly affecting those who can least afford it. Within hours, an SMFS member had circulated information regarding a crowd-funding effort started by Kathleen Kennedy, helping so many young scholars in a moment of need. In addition to acts of generosity such as this, there are many established and respected female academics in the field who offer practical and moral support for emergent scholars. And of course there is a wealth of untapped material and fascinating avenues of inquiry.

Yet, ever on the other is the constant questioning by outside parties. Students, lecturers, conference attendees, their motivations mixed, ask ‘why?’

‘You do know feminism didn’t exist back then?’

‘History happened in the past, you do realise?’

‘What do you expect?’

‘You’re reading this back onto something that it isn’t.’

‘Misogyny wasn’t a thing then, you know.’

‘Do we really need this?’

As I sat on a wonderful conference panel around a month ago, speaking alongside a strong and inspiring female colleague on aspects of a sixteenth-century manuscript miscellany, I was asked once again, ‘why were we bothering?’ Why try and map this feminist framework onto the manuscript, why talk about gender issues at all?

To this I said:

Just because it’s ‘not there’ doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering.

Just because it’s not the intent of the author, scribe or editor, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened.

Just because it’s something that ‘didn’t exist’ back then, doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant now.

This is why gender researchers are needed.

*****

Attending the PGRNS workshop in April was a perfect tonic to this. Discussing our writing in small groups, I found that where I expected to be corrected, critiqued or otherwise picked at, there was in fact a huge sense of mutual support and moreover, genuine interest in one another’s work. Papers on our table covered a vast array of topics, from Finnish feminist magazines right back to the mystic visions of medieval saints. Despite these apparent differences, the motivation behind each project was clear: we were writing about things that meant something to us, that resonated with our lived experience and our belief that these questions mattered.

To be an academic and embark upon research is a dangerous path for an idealist. A very important mentor of mine once expressed their disappointment that I was following a career in literature. Hurt, I asked them, why shouldn’t I, weren’t they proud? They replied, with solemnity, that I should be wary of studying what I loved for ‘you might end up not loving it any more’.

They were right, in many ways. There is always the danger of becoming numb to what drew you into the subject, what compelled you to follow that line of research. In the small hours of a late night, hunched over a computer, fighting for words where there are none, the resentment of your past choices tastes bitter on the tongue and it is easy to wish your commitment away to something ‘worthwhile’ with a tangible outcome, a resolution and effect.

But whoever said that love was easy? Love is a fight, love is a battle and your love for your research is no different. You see the potential, you see yourself reflected in the struggles and tangled questions that you want to answer, you feel the inexplicable joy in the moments where it all just clicks together, you work tirelessly to tease out these lines of enquiry and mould your argument into something meaningful.

It seems, unfortunately, that for feminist scholars this battle intensifies.

*****

Even now, in common parlance, these questions and half-baked observations are repeated, time and time again:

‘But we already have equality.’

‘The pay gap is a myth.’

‘I’m wary of feminism.’

’There are other things to worry about.’

‘The past has already happened, you know.’

‘Why bother?’

*****

The work of Joan Kelly continues to be a source of inspiration to me. In her writing Joan Kelly boldly points out the inherent patriarchy of historical reflection: every historical ‘fact’ we are confronted with is mediated through a patriarchal system, ensuring the privileging at all levels of the male experience. While men may tell us what it was to be a woman, through their omissions as much as their admissions, they do not offer us a true reflection of women’s history. 

To understand that histories are construed from a male position – and reinforce that position – is a concept not yet accepted by most professional historians.

Joan Kelly wrote these words in the early 1980s. Thirty years on and though strides have been made to embrace and cultivate this understanding of history as multivalent, we are still not yet there.

How do we get there? We work together, we support one another we remember the mantra:

Just because it’s ‘not there’ doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering.

Just because it’s not the intent of the author, scribe or editor, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened.

Just because it’s something that ‘didn’t exist’ back then, doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant now.

*****

If you’re looking to read more about the debates and questions of medieval feminism, there are some fantastic articles and texts out there. My own research focusses primarily on feminist questions in Scotland as mediated via the 1568 Bannatyne Manuscript. Being a textual miscellany means that many different aspects of debate unfold in analysis and the following selection provides a cross-section of theory, history and textual analysis. Other projects that are highly recommended include Women’s History Scotland and last year’s Dangerous Women Project at the University of Edinburgh which welcomed writing from a wide array of participants, offering 365 responses to the question of what it is to be a ‘dangerous woman’.

Suggested Texts

Dunnigan, Sarah M., ‘Feminising the Early Modern Erotic: Female Voiced Love Lyrics and Mary Queen of Scots’, in Older Scots Literature, ed. by Sally Mapstone (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2006)

Ewan, Elizabeth, ‘A New Trumpet? The History of Women in Scotland 1300-1700’, History Compass, 7 (2009), 431–446 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1478-0542.2008.00588.x&gt;

———, ‘Scottish Portias: Women in the Courts in Mediaeval Scottish Towns’, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 3 (1992), 27 <https://doi.org/10.7202/031043ar&gt;

Kelly, Joan, ‘Early Feminist Theory and the Querelle Des Femmes’, in Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly (Chicago, [Ill.] ; London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 65–110

Newlyn, Evelyn, ‘Luve, Lichery and Evill Women: The Satiric Tradition and the Bannatyne MS’, Studies in Scottish Literature, 26 (1991)

Newlyn, Evelyn, and Sarah M. Dunnigan, eds., Women and the Feminine in Medieval and Early Modern Scottish Writing (England: Palgrave, 2004)

Parkinson, David, ‘“A Lamentable Storie”: Mary Queen of Scots and the Inescapable Querelle Des Femmes’, in A Palace in the Wild, ed. by Alasdair A. Macdonald, Sally Mapstone, and L.A.J.R. Houwen (Leeuven: Peeters, 2000), pp. 141–160

Parkinson, David, and Carolyn Ives, ‘Scottish Chacuer, Misogynist Chaucer’, in Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority and the Idea of the Authentic Text, 1400-1602, ed. by Thomas A. Prendergast and Barbara Kline (Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1999), pp. 186–202

– Post by Lucy Hinnie.

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