Which medieval texts were written by women?
Where are the women scribes of the medieval period? At first glance, it might seem as though they never existed. Of the 1,615 scribes listed in work undertaken by scholars and reported in Alison Beach’s Cambridge book, Women as Scribes,only 1 percent, or a scant 16 of them, were women. However, as Elaine Treharne has noted, these figures account for only medieval manuscripts signed by their authors, and overwhelmingly, medieval manuscripts were penned anonymously and left unsigned. Treharne, Roberta Bowman Denning Professor of English, shared her work at a recent Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows event.
Treharne specializes in medieval literature before 1350, and she is working with two mortuary scrolls from the earlier thirteenth century to bring the lost female scribes of the medieval period back into the light. Such recovery of unseen writers can be an uphill battle: for the entire history of medieval studies as a field, the convention – unspoken but unshakeable – has been to automatically gender all scribes as male unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is no burden of proof for gendering a scribe male, but to gender one female, a scholar must have irrefutable evidence.
[F]or the entire history of medieval studies as a field, the convention – unspoken but unshakeable – has been to automatically gender all scribes as male unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
For instance, though no biographical details are known about the medieval poet who composed the epic poem Beowulf, scholars have long gendered the anonymous poet male. Attempts to gender the poet female are widely met with derision and demands for evidence of the claim – though there has never been any evidence that the poet was male in the first place.
Scholars also have tended to use instances of abbesses or other female religious figures signing their name with a cross as a sign of the woman’s illiteracy, but in doing so ignore the fact that it was common for literate men to sign their name with a cross. Using a cross for a signature was a contemporary convention that did not necessarily denote illiteracy during the medieval period.
Though modern scholars have tended to erase the contributions of women scribes, these women existed, and they wrote despite facing significant challenges in their own time. Treharne’s work in the digital project Medieval Networks of Memory has pointed out the significant discrepancy between the education, training, funding and resources received by female versus male scribes. Women scribes of the medieval period lived under much harsher conditions than their male counterparts, and had to make do with less of everything, from training, to food, to funding. Treharne’s work seeks to illuminate these women and their substantial contribution to the human record.