Interesting article by Eleanor Parker on History Today:
The Cultured Women of Essex
We should take more notice of the work of those once despised and disregarded.
‘It is asked of all who hear this work that they do not revile it because a woman translated it. That is no reason to despise it, nor to disregard the good in it.’ Many female writers have probably said, or wanted to say, something very like these words. They were written in the 12th century, around 1170, by a woman who composed one of the earliest texts from England known to be by a female author. She was a nun of Barking Abbey in Essex and, though we do not know her name, her words – and her work – demand attention.
The work she asks us not to disregard is a narrative of the life of Edward the Confessor, written in Anglo-Norman French (‘the false French of England’, the nun modestly calls it). Its author was an educated woman, able to turn a Latin source into engagingly chatty French verse and Barking Abbey must have been a congenial environment for her. Founded in the seventh century, Barking was one of the foremost nunneries in the country, a wealthy abbey which was home to many well-connected aristocratic and royal women. Its abbesses were frequently appointed from the sisters and daughters of kings and, around the time our nun wrote her Vie d’Edouard le Confesseur, Thomas Becket’s sister Mary – herself a woman of literary interests – was made abbess of Barking in compensation for her brother’s murder.
Across its long history of more than 850 years, Barking Abbey was a centre for women’s learning. It has been described as ‘perhaps the longest-lived … institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history’ and it had a strong literary and scholarly tradition that spanned the Middle Ages. In the early medieval period, authors such as Aldhelm and Goscelin of St Bertin wrote learned Latin works for the nuns of Barking; later, several nuns composed their own poetry and prose – even their own plays. In the 12th century, when women were increasingly becoming patrons, readers and, in some cases, authors of literary texts, Barking produced more than one talented writer. The first female author in England whose name we know, Clemence of Barking, was a nun there; she wrote an accomplished Life of St Catherine of Alexandria, a saint associated with female learning.
I’m a UK academic writing primarily for UK audiences (not that I’m not glad to have other readers too!), but online those distinctions are blurred; other academics will pass judgement, from half a world away, on conversations they only half understand, and some of them are very resistant to the idea that in different contexts it might be necessary to speak in different languages, to ask and answer different questions. Even the basic idea that words have different connotations in different varieties of English seems to surprise them. In their particular cultural context, medieval history intersects with questions of identity and exclusion in very different ways, and they won’t listen to anyone who tries to tell them things don’t operate like that everywhere in the world. We all have to do what seems right to us in our own context, and I’m sure they are trying to do that; I only wish they were prepared to consider that the rest of us are trying to do the same, just not in the same way. Some feel entitled to demand that every discussion which touches on ‘their’ subject should address their own immediate social and political concerns – not those of (for instance) the people of Barking, of whose existence they are so loftily unconscious. Some of these people also display a deeply exclusionary view of academic status and the privileges it confers on them, and an attitude little better than contempt for the public at large; if you don’t have a doctorate, you’re not worthy of their time or attention. I’ve been observing this tendency for several years, but it’s particularly noticeable at the moment. Since these academics don’t follow British and Irish politics, they really can’t see why this is such an especially bad time to be making pronouncements on how to use words like ‘English’ and ‘British’, without any understanding of the contemporary sensitivities surrounding those terms, and they seem completely unaware of the wider social context in which UK medievalists have to consider the issue of public engagement. I think some of them truly would prefer it if they could stop the public taking any interest in medieval history at all, because that interest is, to them, always inherently problematic; but while they can decide for themselves if that’s the case in their own countries, it’s absolutely out of the question here.