Friday 1 December 2017

Medieval Heroines by Mary Hoffman (review)

First, the kitchen items pictured in my post on 1st November, some of which did look a bit medieval!

The first was a duck press (poor duck), the second an egg separator and the third was a fish knife and fork. The reason that special cutlery for fish was a class marker (a negative one), as alluded to in John Betjeman's poem, was that they needed to be silver, or at least silver-plated. If you had to have a set of them, the inference was that your normal cutlery was NOT silver.

How snobbish was that? It reminds me of Alan Clark's jibe about Michael Heseltine having "to buy his own furniture."

Eleanor's tomb in Fontevrault Abbey (g0ng00zlr)

Now, how many medieval women can you name? Eleanor of Aquitaine? Joan of Arc? Julian of Norwich? They are all here in Sharon Bennett Connolly's Heroines of the Medieval World (Amberley) but you have to find them in the index. The contents page is organised not by female subjects but more general categories like "Scandalous Heroines," "Warrior Heroines," "The Medieval Mistress" etc.

This does make navigating the book a bit difficult but that's my only slight criticism. What is fabulous about it is that it doesn't just treat the well known women listed above but some really recherché names. Bennett Connolly's blog is called History - the Interesting Bits. That gives you a clue to how enjoyable this book is.

Joan of Arc by Arnoud Schaepkens (Rijksmuseum)
The heroines are mainly royal, or at least aristocratic, because there aren't many women of humbler birth whose lives have been chronicled. The Maid or Orléans in an exception to the rule. Women such as Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror and Isabel de Warenne represented a kind of ideal of womanhood.

And perhaps the acme of that ideal was personified in Blanche of Lancaster, the first wife of John of Gaunt. It is almost certain that Blanche was the woman about whom Chaucer wrote his Book of the Duchess.

Chaucer was married to Philippa de Roet, whose sister, Katherine Swynford, later became John of Gaunt's third wife. Small world for nobles in the Middle Ages! But Katherine Swynford is another very well-known name, for her perseverance and devotion to her royal lover, bearing him four children, before he eventually married her. She features, naturally, in the chapter on "Medieval Mistresses," along with Alice Perrers, who was the lover of Edward the Third, John's father.

They might both have been placed in the next chapter, "Scandalous Heroines," since they certainly stepped outside the role society expected of them in their time. In fact the scandalous ones are Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of King John, Marguerite and Blanche, the daughters of Philip lV of France, Joan (the Fair Miad of Kent), who married Edward the Black Prince, Constance of York, the daughter of the first Duke of York and Eleanor Cobham (famous as Duchess of Gloucester in Shakespeare's Henry Vl, part two).

Another chapter, "The Pawns," reminds us just how much the fate of noblewomen - especially princesses - in the Middle Ages depended on their use as pieces on the gameboard of dynastic matrimony. Unfortunately, it was common for proposed matches, often contracted when the royal females were still in single figures, fell through. (Just read Melita Thomas's book about Mary Tudor featured in our guest post of 29th November, to see how many grooms were proposed for her, all without success).

In "Warrior Heroines," as well as Joan of Arc, you can read about the splendid Aethelfled, daughter of Alfred the Great (written about by our own Sue Purkiss in the History Girls anthology Daughters of Time, Templar). And Nicholaa [sic] de la Haye, who defied King Richard the First but defended Lincoln Castle against an Anglo-French force and helped save the throne of the underage Henry lll.

We are becoming more used  to stories of women who ruled, in their own right or as Regents, from accounts like Helen Castor's She-Wolves (Faber & Faber) and Sarah Gristwood's Game of Queens (Oneworld) but there is a good chapter here on Women who Ruled, like Anne of Kiev and Catherine, Regent of Castile (a daughter of John of Gaunt).
By Romeyn de Hooghe (Rijksmuseum)
"Literary Heroines" gives us Hildegard of Bingen and Héloise, the lover of Abelard, Marie de France and Christine de Pisan. None of these is obscure, perhaps by definition, since they left writings that have survived. But what a group read about together like this!

The final chapter deals with "The Survivors," which begins appropriately enough with Eleanor of Aquitaine (written about by Adèle Geras in Daughters of Time). But also lesser known women, like Joan of Bar and Anne of Woodstock and her contemporary Maud Clifford.

Sharon Bennett Connolly shows us women who have defied fathers and husbands, have ruled on behalf of their children, gone to war, defended castles, had love affairs with men of their choice and written works that have survived for centuries. All in all, this is the perfect book for anyone interested in history and specifically the history of women.

So a good Christmas present for any History Girl of your acquaintance.

1 comment:

Sharon Bennett Connolly said...

Wow! Thank you for such an amazing review. I will smiling all day. Best wishes, Sharon