And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 18. desember 2015

Some thoughts on an inclusive syllabus - gender

Jousting women
BL MS Royal 2 B VII, f.197v, psalter, England, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

A few days ago, November 30, academic and blogger Erin Wunker launched an appeal to fellow academics for crafting syllabi that emphasised inclusiveness and diversity. The appeal was disseminated on Twitter via the hashtag inclusivesyllabus, devised by Wunker's co-blogger Aimée Morrison (Associate Professor at University of Waterloo). I myself became aware of this appeal thanks to medievalist Dorothy Kim who picked itand redirected it more specifically to teachers of the pre-1500 eras. What followed was an engaging discussion about various ways in which to make syllabi more inclusive. Some of the suggestions that arose were collected in storify by Jonathan Hsy, and it became evident that there were many ways to go about making a syllabus more inclusive.

Personally, as a historian of medieval texts, I embrace the idea of an inclusive syllabus because a history syllabus should reflect historical reality, and the reality is that the medieval world was both diverse and complex (though often not inclusive in the modern sense). In this blogpost I wish to present some of my ideas for an inclusive syllabus, ideas which emerged in the course of the Twitter discussion, and which I think are more easily fleshed out here. In the following I will only address one topic, and hopefully I will return to other topics in later blogposts. Since this post is the result of a collaborative discussion my ideas were inspired by the suggestions of several people, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in opposition. I will try my best to provide due acknowledgement for these ideas, and if some readers who participated in this discussion feel they have been forgotten, please let me know.

The following is a set of works, themes and strategies by which I believe a syllabus of a course in medieval studies can become more inclusive. It is worth noting that this is not an exhaustive list by any means. It is also worth noting that the following does not comprise a syllabus of its own, but that it is intended to provide ideas for those who are designing their own syllabi. Moreover, I want to emphasise that a great number of participants in this dicussion come from literary studies, while I myself have a background predominantly from history. This means that my perspective will be somewhat different, and it also means that many suggestions might be more suitable for history rather than, say, English courses. However, I'm of the opinion that to teach medieval literature without also bringing in medieval history to provide a context for this literature is shoddy and wrong.

A final remark worth making is that the degree and level of diversity and inclusiveness in a medieval studies syllabus depends very much on the course itself. I for my part would love to design a course which was centred on precisely the diversity of medieval history. However, even though syllabi can often emphasise diversity only up to a point, the important thing is to be aware that measures can be taken to ensure an increased attention to diversity, both in introductory courses and more specialised courses.

Marie de France writing her lais
Bibliothèque nationale de France - BnF, Arsenal Library, Ms. 3142 f. 256, France, 1285-92
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Suggestions for inclusive syllabi - gender

Scholarship and secondary reading

There are many ways in which a syllabus can be made more inclusive, and a good place to start is to make sure that the reading list includes scholarship done by both men and women. In medieval studies, this is not difficult at all: Many brilliant scholars, both male and female, have contributed to the field of medieval studies for decades, and to have both men and women is important not only because it is more inclusive but also because that often is the only way to accurately represent the contributions done in a field of medieval scholarship. Once when I was a teaching assistant at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, after having finished my MA thesis, I was approached by one of the female history students who asked if I could give her some names of female academics. She made it quite clear that she wanted someone of her own gender to look up to, and in a field like history I can understand that very well as it often comes across - at least to first-year students - that history is largely written, and enacted, by men. Having done my MA thesis on the cult of Saint Edward the Confessor in the High Middle Ages, I was not short on suggestions and ended up compiling a long list of female academics whom I had myself relied on for my dissertation. To provide students with the sensation that they have someone from their own gender to look up to, and via those role models to be reassured that their gender does not prohibit a career in a field of medieval studies, is one of the cornerstones of an inclusive syllabus.

The same point, that students need to feel represented, should also be made when it comes to ethnicity. However, in medieval studies - especially history - that is less easily done simply because a vast majority of medieval scholarship is conducted by Caucasian men and women in Europe and in North America. When possible, inclusion of relevant scholarship by non-Caucasian academics is a positive thing and is to be encouraged. 

Catherine of Siena
Autun - BM - ms. 0269, f.170v, Book of Hours, Use of Autun, c.1480-1490
Courtesy of

Female medieval authors

The majority of recorded medieval history is dominated by men. The majority of known individuals from the Middle Ages, both in the political sphere, the religious sphere, the cultural sphere, the mercantile sphere and so on, are men. Most of the texts written in the Middle Ages were written by men and largely for men. This is how the situation is, and the majority of primary sources for a syllabus in medieval studies is most likely to be comprised of male writers or male authors (not always the same thing in the Middle Ages), unless the course was designed specifically to teach female writers, which would be an interesting challenge. The problem, however, is not that most medieval sources were written by men, this is to be expected. The problem arises when the many female influences on medieval texts are ignored, and it is here an inclusive syllabus can make an important difference.

Although most medieval authors were men, we have quite a list of female authors as well and these can be employed in a wide range of syllabi, covering several angles and subjects. Since women in the Middle Ages had several restrictions for how they could participate in society. However, many women did become notable authors, for instance due to their education as nuns. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that many authors did not themselves write the works they authored, but dictated them to a scribe. This also meant that the literacy was not necessarily the obstacle we might think it is. I also want to point to Hildegard of Bingen for a case where lack of education was seen as a strong point. In her collection of celestial visions Scivias, Hildegard emphasises her insufficient education and lifts it up as a mark of the authenticity of her vision. Because she is lacking rhetorical prowess and can only describe her visions in simple words, her prose is also - she argues - more true, more accessible, more accurate. This claim of superiority in content through inferiority in style is a timeworn topos of much medieval writing and originated in part in opposition to the rhetoric of pagan writers of the early Christian period. Hildegard is here following an old tradition, but she employs the motif as a woman: Since she, as a woman, is less educated than high-ranking churchmen, her prose is untouched - thus not falsified - by rhetorical ornament.

It is also important to note that although there were many medieval femal writers and authors, several female voices gained dissemination through the translation of their words into Latin. This was the case with Saint Birgitta of Sweden whose revelations were translated by her confessor. In the case of some Italian female recluses who became venerated as saints, their stories were also written down into Latin by their male, mendicant confessors. The stories and the content of the works came from women, but word and content was shaped by men educated in the hagiographic genre.

Despite social restrictions, women could become powerful voices in their age, and could be ardent critics of men of powers, be they kings or popes, such as Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena respectively. Most of the primary sources from the Middle Ages which have a female authorship are religious works since it was in the religious sphere could be most active and could most easily express themselves in literature. These works, however, are applicable not only to religious matters but can be used to explore several aspects of medieval culture. 

Christine de Pizan
BL MS Harley 4431, various works by Christine de Pizan, France, c.1410-c.1414
Courtesy of British Library

Below is an incomplete list of female late-antique and medieval authors which provides important suggestions to elements of an inclusive syllabus:

Anna Komnene, The Alexiad

Anonymous nun of Barking Abbey, Life of Edward the Confessor (in Anglo-Norman verse)

Birgitta of Sweden, Revelations

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies; The Treasure of the City of Ladies

Clemence of Barking, Life of Saint Catherine (in Anglo-Norman verse)

Egeria, The Pilgrimage

Elisabeth von Schönau, various works

Hadewijch of Brabant, various works

Heloise, Letters

Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias

Hrothsvita of Gandersheim, various works

Jorunn Skáldmær, skaldic extracts preserved in The Prose Edda

Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe

Marie de France, Lais

Medieval women as patrons

As was pointed out by Erica Weaver, medieval women of power - either as queens or abbesses - were important patrons of arts and were the dedicatees of many important works of medieval literature. Chrétien de Troyes, for instance had Marie duchess of Champagne as his patron, and Marie's mother Eleanor of Aquitaine was the patron of writers such as Wace and Benoit de Sainte-Maure. One of the perhaps most interesting cases of female medieval patronage is Queen Emma of England who commissioned the historiographical work now known as Encomium Emmae Reginae (alternately Gesta Cnutonis). This latter work is available in translation and has been the subject of much excellent scholarship.

Emma receiving the encomium
BL MS Add. 33241, Encomium Emmae Reginae eleventh century
Courtesy of Wikimedia

It is here important to note that although female literacy was generally lower than the literacy of men, literacy in the Middle Ages is not the same as being familiar with literature. In the Middle Ages, reading was a communal activity and one person would often read aloud to others, either during mealtimes in the monastery, in the royal court, or in the families of nobles and the merchants. Precisely since the ability to read was so limited, those who could read were often given the task of reading to others, and sometimes work could be recited from memory - which was made easier by writing in verse, and which is why prose texts could sometimes be rendered into verse as a mnemonic tool. Medieval literature had a strong oral element we sometimes tend to overlook.

Medieval female saints

In addition to teaching works authored by women, an inclusive syllabus also needs to contain works written about women, even though these works were authored by men. One helpful perspective here is history, where legal documents of various kinds provide examples of the the roles, the constrictions, but also the possibilities of women in the Middle Ages. Even in a literature course, it would be a great addition to provide some historical context for the lives of medieval women, for women in the Middle Ages were not secondary characters to historical events although they have been made to be so by traditional historiographical works.

Four female saints (the Magdalene, Mary of Egypt, Margaret and one more)
BL MS Royal 2 B VII, f.308, psalter, England, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

One field in which the role of women, the perception of women and the importance of women in the Middle Ages can be seen is in the cult of saints. I emphasise this field because the cult of saints is my own particular field, so I am more than a little biased. Nonetheless, I maintain that in the cult of saints we see the convergence of many subjects and many perspectives which are useful to the topic at hand. For instance, when reading texts pertaining to medieval female saints, we can in some cases grasp the outlines of the historicity of the lives of these women (though that historicity has been obscured by the pre-requisites of hagiography). We can also be able to detect how male medieval writers viewed women. A great number of such writers held a view of women which was tinged with various degrees of misogyny inherited largely from patristic writers and parts of the Biblical narrative, and which was cultivated by a monastic environment in which celibacy and separation of the sexes were seen as crucial steps towards spiritual perfection. Also secular writers, like Giovanni Boccaccio, were likely to hold such views of the feminine. However, men who wrote down hagiographies for women were faced with a subject which had attained holiness and yet belonged to what was considered the weaker sex. In these hagiogaphies, therefore, male writers were compelled to provide a more nuanced depiction of women, and even though they might exude a more negative attitude to women in general they at least had to acknowledge that their protagonists were holy persons.

The cult of saints is an important source for an inclusive syllabus, not only because it is a repository for mixed attitudes towards women, but also because women themselves could write hagiographies. I've mentioned above the Life of Saint Catherine written by Clemence of Barking, for instance. Clemence's Life was, however, an adaptation, a vernacular version of an existing legend.The norm was that men were the ones writing the Latin, seminal lives, such as when Goscelin of Saint-Bertin and Osbert of Clare were commissioned to write the vitae of English female monastics who were believed to be saints. In the genre of hagiography, however, we see an interesting intersection of men and women in the cases where the lives of the women were dictated by the women themselves in the vernacular and then translated into Latin as the vita of that woman by a male figure, often her confessor. This is believed to be the case with Christina Markyate in the twelfth century, and became a widespread trend in the emergence of cults of female recluses in Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. In the case of the Italian ascetic women, their confessors and/or hagiographers were often monks of the Dominican and Franciscan orders who sought to make of these women examples for others to follow, and who also were likely to give these vita a certain mendicant spin. This relationship between a female author and a male writer, translator and editor is an interesting area of study, and there are numerous examples of this relationship. As mentioned above, the same relationship goes for male scribes who latinized the visions and polemics of women religious who later became saints, such as Birgitta of Sweden, but in those cases we can at least expect that the author has been active in the editing process, whereas in the case of hagiographies the author and protagonist has been dead for some time by the time the hagiography is published.

Elizabeth of Hungary reading
Chambéry - BM - ms. 0004, f. 652, Franciscan breviary, Milan, c.1430
Courtesy of

During the Middle Ages, there were many female saints which were venerated throughout Christendom. Some of these women were mythical and belonged to such a distant past that their mere historicity is dubious, namely SS Margaret, Lucy, Agnes, Agatha, Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara and others. Some were results of more slowly coalescing legends, as in the cases of SS Ursula, and Sunniva of Norway. Other women were historical, although veneration and hagiography naturally added some sediments of myth to their stories, such as Eadburga of Winchester, Elizabeth of Hungary, or Margaret of Scotland. This rich repository of medieval stories about women is a great and needful addition to an inclusive medievalist syllabus.

Below is a list of some lives of female saints available in English translation:

Anonymous, The Life of Christina Markyate (Oxford World Classics)

Clemence of Barking, Life of Saint Catherine (Everyman)

Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (Oxford Medieval Texts)

Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, texts on the female saints of Ely (Oxford Medieval Texts)

Niketas Magistros, Life of Theoktistes of Lesbos (Dumbarton Oaks)

Raymond of Capua, The Life of Agnes of Montepulciano (Dominican nuns of summit)

Shorter versions of legends and lives can be found in Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend (Princeton University Press). For a more detailed studies of these women, it is also necessary to work with their liturgical offices.

In addition to these female saints, it is of course important to remember the omnipresent cult of the Virgin Mary, which resulted in an expansive body of literature, both in Latin and in the vernacular. This subject is too big for this present blogpost, but should not be overlooked as it covers both religious and secular literature, hymns, liturgical offices, miracle collections and prose narratives. 

Mary of Egypt
BL MS Royal 20 D VI, Lives of the saints, Wauchier de Denain, France, 13th century
Courtesy of British Library

Women also appear in medieval texts as representatives of otherness, but this is a subject I hope to cover in a later blogpost.

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