Celebrating Women Historians of Medieval and Early Modern Europe

To coincide with International Women’s Day (and Women’s History Month in the UK) this blog focuses on some of the female historians who have inspired my own research into women and gender in early modern England.  There were loads of women historians I could have blogged about, but the three I’ve chosen are those whose work I’ve been engaging with most recently through my research into women’s work and gendered bodies.  Do feel free to post comments below this blog about which women historians you admire!

Reading Lyndal Roper’s scholarship on early modern gender history as an undergraduate at the University of Warwick made me rethink what History could be.  All historians have books which they re-read and from which they gain fresh insights from with each reading. For me, Oedipus and the Devil is one of those books.  Published in 1994, this is a collection of Lyndal’s essays which focus on a broad range of subjects in early modern gender history.  The most widely cited essay is probably that on ‘witchcraft and fantasy’ in which Lyndal unpacks what witchcraft accusations reveal about relationships between early modern women, and the role ideas about motherhood, housewifery and neighbourliness played in such cases.  However, the book is about far more than witchcraft and the chapters which I have returned to most recently are those on masculinity.  I still remember opening the book in the university library in 1998, looking at the table of contents (which listed chapters on ‘blood and codpieces’, ‘stealing manhood’ and ‘drinking, whoring and gorging’), and thinking ‘I HAVE to read this’!

The second historian whose work I return to regularly is that of Judith Bennett, who drew my attention to how important it is to consider continuity as well as change in History.  Judith is primary a historian of late medieval England (the period c.1300-1600 CE), but her work has been cited by a wide range of historians because she is unafraid to link the findings from her own research to those working on other places and periods.  One of the most important contributions Judith has made is to draw attention to a stubborn persistence in the gender pay gap across the last seven centuries, demonstrating that women consistently have been paid no more than 75% of the wages which men have received for doing similar or identical work.  This may make Judith’s scholarship sound like a depressing read, but to get a full sense of why her work matters you need to read History Matters.  Published in 2006 this is a series of essays which includes a defence of medieval history as a feminist project, advice on how to include women in traditional historical narratives, and a manifesto for what the history of lesbians and lesbianism might be.  The essays demonstrate how widely read Judith is and serves as an invaluable manifesto for how to write women’s history and why it is important for feminists to study the distant past.

The third historian who I want to draw attention to is Alexandra Shepard.  In Manhood in Early Modern England Alex demonstrated how age, social rank and marital status were as important as gender in determining what it meant to be a man in England during the eight decades before the outbreak of civil war in the 1640s.  This book is an important work of social, cultural, but also economic history, and one of the key themes which Alex returns to throughout the monograph is the importance men (and women) attached to financial independence when making judgements about whether a man had achieved full manhood.  Even being able to buy a round of drinks in the alehouse, Alex suggests, can tell us much about what it meant to be a man in early modern England.

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