Women's Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon

Over the last three decades medieval women's writing has become a significant focus of scholarly research. This project looks at the importance of considering women's engagement with literature in understanding the established canon.

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  • by Roberta Magnani, Swansea University


    Figure 1: a gold belt plaque depicting Scythians resting under a tree with their horses. This artefact demonstrates the Scythians’ sartorial sophistication and the importance of horse riding to their everyday life. From the exhibition at the British Museum, photographs (c) Roberta Magnani.

    At the beginning of The Knight’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer celebrates the victory of Duke Theseus over the formidable Amazons. Once invincible women warriors, they have now been bent into submission by the powerful ‘conquerour’. Much like their land, here aptly renamed ‘Femenye’, which configures femininity as a space to be occupied and conquered, Queen Hippolyta has been ravaged and taken with brutal force. She is now, alongside her sister Emily, reduced to what Luce Irigaray would define as an ideal paradigm of femininity, a war trophy, that is, a silenced ‘mirror’ reflecting back Theseus’s patriarchal power.

    Their exile from Scythia, their homeland, marks the obliteration not only of their female masculinity, but also of the racial identity. As they travel to Athens with Theseus’s impressive army, their complex and hybrid ethnicity is eradicated and recast as a model of white Western femininity. Scythia, in fact, is a capacious geographical and cultural signifier: extending from Siberia to the Black Sea, it is at once a liminal and an expansive space which encompassed a richness of ethnicities and traditions far beyond any restrictive Euro-centric and fundamentally white Christian subject position. The gender and cultural binaries that the Amazons defy, both as phallic warrior women and as nomadic hunters roaming vast expanses of land, are firmly re-established once they arrive in Athens; in its architectural and power structures, Theseus’s Athens resembles more those medieval Western European cities with which Chaucer was so familiar than ancient Greece. Enclosed in walled gardens, policed by phallic towers, and subjected to the male gaze, the Amazons are no longer powerful warriors straddling the boundaries between East and West, and masculinity and femininity, but they are normalised as acquiescent virgins whose futurity can only be imagined as an inescapable heteronormative trajectory towards marriage.

    It is with a profound sense of loss and nostalgia for such a heroic figuration of femininity that I eagerly booked our tickets for the exhibition Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia hosted by the British Museum, which ran from 14 September 2017  to 14 January 2018. I longed to encounter the unadulterated fierceness of Scythians women. I was desperately seeking traces of Emily and Hippolyta’s past as self-determining phallic women, expertly hunting and fearlessly fighting in the vast expanses of land beyond the confines of the walled garden. My longing for their Amazonian past was mostly, but not fully, sated by the exhibition.

    At the exhibition the beautiful archaeological finds and the helpful maps conveyed effectively not only the enormity of the territories controlled by the Scythians, but also the sophistication of their civilisation. Projections on the walls of the exhibition space showed the lands they occupied as awe-inspiring but often inhospitable landscapes. The assumption is that their nomadic life-style and the harsh conditions they had to face would dictate a rather Spartan existence geared towards mere survival rather than indulgence in wasteful pleasures. This was most definitely not the case. Their complex mercantile and cultural exchanges with neighbouring civilisations, objects of all kinds, from cooking tools to fearsome weapons, musical instruments, intricate fabrics and garments, and rather elaborate contraptions to consume recreational drugs point in the direction of a powerful, fierce, sophisticated culture known as much for its military prowess than for its unapologetic penchant for revelries.

    Figure 2: an elaborate torc probably worn by a man. Far from being a rudimentary civilisation, the Scythians were accomplished hunters, riders, warriors, and artists, with a love for sartorial decorations and partying! From the exhibition at the British Museum, photograph (c) Roberta Magnani.

    Rows and rows of sartorial embellishments, from the smallest brooches to the most impressive buckles, fearsome torcs and ostentatious sheaths transported me to a proud civilisation whose prosthetics and gadgetry, as Jack Halberstam would put it, speak loudly of their ability to harness and celebrate the power of the body, and its profound connections with nature and the land.

    While admiring those beautiful artifacts, I could imagine Emily the Amazon riding fearlessly across those awe-inspiring landscapes, strong and athletic, confidently making her presence apparent by sporting one of those extravagant headgears that Scythian women were so well known for. Unmistakably phallic, the women’s hairstyles render them a formidable presence in the landscape.

    A GCI projection pictured a Scythian man charging through a vast valley on his horse. Irrespective of the rather unimpressive pixilation of the image, this was such a missed opportunity. In Getting Medieval Carolyn Dinshaw describes history as a queer touch between past and present, queer because it breaks down the linearity of traditional accounts of time as a teleology moving inexorably towards the heteronormative imperatives of marriage, reproduction, death. Instead, much like Elizabeth Freeman in Time Binds, Dinshaw conceptualises history as a form of desire for the past, a longing to touch it and encounter it affectively. Safely protected by glass cases, the impressive vestiges of this extraordinary civilisation allow me to follow the footsteps of Emily and pursue my desire to encounter her outside the confines of the walled garden. They don’t, however, allow an affective interaction. The CGI projection could have afforded this opportunity by animating a detailed scene of formidable men AND women riding proudly in their full hunting or military attire; such vivid proximity would have (almost) made my dream of hunting with Emily true.

    Figure 3: this impressive chainmail breastplate demonstrates the fearsome reputation of the Scythians. From the exhibition at the British Museum, photograph (c) Roberta Magnani.

    My longing for a queer touch with the mythological Amazonian past via the Scythians came, however, uncomfortably close to fruition when I was confronted with layers of human skin, remarkably well preserved by the extremely low temperatures of the burial sites in which the embalmed bodies of the Scythians were laid to rest. What was most astonishing about these precious relics of former lives were the remarkable tattoos adorning the skin of these fierce men and women. As the explanatory note placed next to the glass cabinet points out, the tattoos were clearly gendered, but in surprising ways. Perhaps predictably, the Scythian men, much like Theseus in The Knight’s Tale, wrote on their skin their desire to be viewed as invincible hunters, while women used their bodies to give voice to experiences of predation and torment.

    I read the writing on the Scythian women’s skin as a manifestation of their agency. In particular, I saw the markers of predation inked on their skin as evidence that traditional paradigms of femininity cannot be wholly applied to these formidable women. Writing on skin is an act of defiance of the type of enclosed and policed femininity to which Emily and Hippolyta have been condemned in Chaucer’s tale and in traditional figurations of medieval European white and Christian womanhood. Rather than an envelope or a blank canvas upon which the patriarchy writes and imposes its master narrative, as Irigaray explains, these Scythian women control the operation of writing and therefore of identity formation. Whether they self-fashion themselves as powerful hunters in the steppes, or whether they articulate visually their own experience of being predated, hunted and conquered (an ancient #MeToo), their agency becomes visible on the surface of their skin.

    Nonetheless, my desire to trace the steps of Emily’s warrior past was mercilessly thwarted. As one of the explanatory panels laconically explains, the archaeological evidence does not link the Scythians’ military activity with women. Notwithstanding this lack of irrefutable proof of the existence of real-life Amazons, I found something perhaps even more empowering: the vestiges of fiercely sophisticated and resilient women confidently straddling the boundaries between East and West while celebrating the power of their body and its pleasures. And all with amazing headgear and sartorial accessories. Realistically, I couldn’t have asked for much more.






    5th -7th April 2018

    We are grateful for the support of:

    The John Fell Fund, Oxford University

    University College, Oxford

    Society for Medieval Languages and Literatures

    Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship




    09.30-10.00    Registration and coffee

    10.00-10.15    Welcome and opening remarks

    10.15-11.15    Plenary 1: Professor Anthony Bale

    Chair: Diane Watt

    11.15-11.45    Coffee

    11.45-13.15    Panel 1: Space and Self

    Chair: Laura Varnam

    Alicja Kowalczewska: Kempe and Glück: Performance of Transgressive Self

    Ruth Evans: Margery Kempe’s Internal Reality

    Juliana Dresvina: Creating a Margery-Sized Space: Margery Kempe’s Psychological Defences and Offences

    13.15-14.15    Lunch

    14.15-15.45    Panel 2: Care and Cure

    Chair: Annie Sutherland

    Ivan Day (food historian): Medieval Food and the Medicinal Use of Sugar

    Laura Kalas Williams: The Swetenesse of Confection: A Recipe for Spiritual Health in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823

    Michael Leahy: The Intimacies of Care: Margery Kempe and her Patients

    15.45-16.15    Coffee

    16.15-18.00    Panel 3: Sights, Sounds, Senses

    Chair: Hannah Lucas

    Rachel Moss: Falling in Love and Crying: Academic Culture and What Margery Can Teach Us

    Laura Varnam: Framing The Book of Margery Kempe: How the Good Mystic Taught her Readers

    Katherine Lewis: ‘And þerfore sche dede no þing wryten but þat sche knew ryghth wel for very trewth’: Margery Kempe, Oral History, and the Value of Subjective Memory

    Einat Klafter: ‘Boldly take me in the armys of thi sowle’: The Eschewing of Somatic and Erotic Language in Margery Kempe’s Unio Dei

    18.00-19.30    Wine reception and Poster session



    09.15-10.45    Panel 4: Dialogues

    Chair: Liz Herbert McAvoy

    Clarck Drieshen: Margery’s Visionary Script? A Middle English translation of a German Nun’s Vision of the Passion

    Diana Denissen: Social Exclusion as Self-Representation in Margery Kempe’s Book and Alijt Bake’s Boecxhen

    Godelinde Perk: Channel-Hopping Saints: Margery Kempe as Modern Devout Mystic

    10.45-11.15    Coffee

    11.15-12.45    Panel 5: Historicity

    Chair: Laura Varnam

    Susan Maddock: ‘Comyn hom into Lynne’: The Historicity of Margery Kempe’s Book in Relation to her Home Town

    Pat Cullum: Monitoring, Mentoring, and Admonition: Margery Kempe and the Prelates

    Vincent Gillespie: The Latin Margery Kempe

    12.45-13.45    Lunch

    13.45-14.45    Plenary 2: Dr Sarah Salih

    Chair: Vincent Gillespie

    14.45-15.15    Coffee

    15.15-17.15    Panel 6: Performances

    Chair: Laura Kalas Williams

    Hannah Lucas: Clad in Flesch and Blood: The Sartorial Body and Female Self-Fashioning in The Book of Margery Kempe

    Daisy Black: Margery Kempe: The Player, the Production Manager, and her Unruly Audiences, or, Reading The Book of Margery Kempe as Religious Drama

    Tara Williams: Revisiting Margery and Julian’s Holy Dalyawns

    Dorothy Kim: Margery Kempe in Jerusalem: Sonic Wars, Religious Soundscapes, and Christian Noise

    17.15-17.30    Comfort break and move to college chapel

    17.30-19.30    Marge & Jules performance

    19.30               Conference dinner (University College dining hall)



    09.30-11.00    Panel 7: Devotions and Receptions

    Chair: Pat Cullum

    Sue Niebryzdowski: ‘Wolcomyd and mech made of in dyvers placys’: The Shared Piety of the Citizens of York and Margery Kempe

    Josephine Koster: ‘I cry the mercy, blisful Lord’: The Prayers of Margery Kempe and the Construction of Orthodoxy

    Sarah Macmillan: Margery in Print: Asceticism and Imitatio

    11.00-11.30    Coffee

    11.30-13.00    Plenary 3: Professor Liz Herbert McAvoy and Professor Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa

    Chair: Katherine Lewis

    13.00-14.00    Lunch

    14.00-15.30    Panel 8: Theorising Identity

    Chair: Einat Klafter

    Christina Hildebrandt: The Book of Margery Kempe, Disability, and the Power of Discourse

    Margaret Sheble: Fracking with Gender: Reading God and Margery Kempe as Female Masculine

    Johannes Wolf: Margery Kempe as De-Facement: Pathology, Autobiography, and ‘this Creatur’

    15.30-16.00    Coffee

    16.00-17.15    Plenary 4: Professor Diane Watt

    Chair: Laura Kalas Williams

    17.15-17.30    Reflections

    For full information go to:


  • By Kate Travers, New York University.


    BnF Fr. 854, also known as Occitan Chansonnier I, taken from f.125r. (Source: Gallica)

    Medieval lyric poetry, a genre used throughout western Europe that often focused on love and erotic desire, is often imagined to be a genre of lovelorn poets petitioning for favours from silent, unforgiving ladies. For those interested in women’s contribution to literary history, the question of whether the ladies of lyric ever composed poetry, instead of being the object of it, proves fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. For me, nothing exposes the problems and possibilities of studying women in medieval literary culture better than the trobairitz.

    The term trobairitz is taken from a medieval narrative text, the Roman de Flamenca, where it is used to describe women who sing or perform poetry. It’s the feminine form of a more familiar term from the Occitan language: “troubadour”. Why do the trobairitz pose such a challenge for scholars of women in literary history? As previous blog posts have pointed out, the question of whether women read, let alone composed poetry, remains a vexed subject. Even when women are named in manuscripts as the originator of a poem, the question of whether or not we can associate the grammatically feminine voices found in the manuscript record with the bodies of historical women remains fraught.

    The troubadours and trobairitz, poets and singers writing in Occitan, a language originating in what is now Southern-France, popularized the version of lyric poetry that we associate with lovelorn knights and their ladies. Troubadour poetry spread far outside the regions in which Occitan was spoken day-to-day, into what is now Catalonia, Northern-France and Italy. Its indirect influence was felt even further-afield, notably in Sicily and in German-speaking territories, where the Minnesänger drew heavily on the Occitan poetic tradition. While some of the most famous troubadour poetry is indeed about larks, spring-time and love, some is satirical, some is political, and some is down-right scandalous: see Count Guilhelm IX’s “Farrai un vers [de dreg nien]”, where the Count is willing to be mauled by a cat in order to sleep with two women.

    Texts attributed to trobairitz span a range of genres, and some are pretty overtly sexual, too. Take for example the Comtessa de Dia’s declaration that she would like her knight to use her as his “pillow” (“Estat ai en greu cossirier”). We have a surprisingly large number of named trobairitz in the manuscript record; they constitute one of — if not the — largest body of vernacular poetry attributed to women in the European Middle Ages. Bruckner, Shepard and White list 21 named trobairitz in their edition of the corpus, their texts often accompanied by rubrics (the name of a poet, usually written in red ink) and sometimes supplemented with miniature author portraits and biographies, known as vidas.

    One of the most significant stumbling blocks for scholars hoping to write about women in medieval culture is a relative paucity of sources. Though the literary sources for the trobairitz might be intriguing, the lack of historical, biographical information about them presents a significant obstacle for anyone who would like to claim that the trobairitz can be used as evidence for the composition of poetry by women in this period. If historical and biographical information on these women remains in short supply, then our attempts to ground the grammatically feminine lyric voice in a woman’s body find only moderate success. We are then limited to the discussion of the literary presentation of the idea of women reading, composing lyric, or writing.

    Only three of the named trobairitz are widely considered to have been historical women. François Zufferey, in his essay “Towards a Delimitation of the Trobairitz Corpus” (pp. 31 -44), states that Azalais de Porcairagues (b. c. 1140), Castellosa (c.1155 – 1235) and the Comtessa (Beatriz) de Dia (c. 1150 – 1200) could be regarded as historical women who did author the poems attributed to them in Occitan songbooks. The rest are considered to be fictions. There are several good reasons why we might question the historical existence of these trobairitz.

    First of all, the earliest extant manuscript that records Occitan lyric was made in 1254 (Chansonnier D). The earliest recorded trobairitz were thought to have been born around a hundred years before in the mid-twelfth century, but possible dates associated with Gormonda de Montpeslier suggest that she may have been active in the mid-to-late thirteenth century. Whether a trobairitz is thought to have lived nearer the date of compilation of an extant manuscript is not a crucial factor in whether or not we consider them to have existed historically, however. Zufferey’s three historical trobairitz were established based on the validation of their identities in archival records and the number of manuscripts that record their texts. Unfortunately, many of the extant trobairitz texts we possess are recorded in one manuscript alone.

    Secondly, the earliest extant manuscripts we possess, along with the manuscript the preserves the greatest number of trobairitz texts (known as Chansonnier H), were produced in Italy. In the medieval Italian poetic tradition, it was common for male poets to invent a female interlocutor. Even though the way in which manuscripts present most trobairitz is very different to the presentation of invented feminine voices in the Italian tradition, it remains very difficult to prove that certain trobairitz were not, in fact, similar literary inventions.

    Thirdly, some trobairitz are recorded under pseudonyms, such as “Domna H” or “Lombarda”. This makes the possibility of ascertaining the historical identity of these poets almost impossible. David Bowe, however, has recently re-examined the manuscript context of texts attributed to another pseudonymous feminine voice, the Compiuta Donzella di Firenze, the first known example of an Italian manuscript attributing lyric texts to a woman poet. Bowe argues that the likelihood the Compiuta Donzella was the product of a game of textual drag remains slim. Perhaps the manuscript context of trobairitz with veiled identities can, in a similar way, tell us more about how their poetry circulated or was received.

    And so, there were three. Three trobairitz who can be said to have existed, who composed poetry. Can we definitively say there were not more? No, we cannot. Therein lies the contention. Those who would argue the trobairitz can be seen as example of women’s literary production in the Middle Ages feel as if they are left with the difficult task of proving a negative, of proving that they were not inventions by men. Others would maintain that unless sufficient historical evidence can be found, the argument in favour of their existence cannot be successfully made.

    The biggest challenge for those who want to explore the trobairitz’s role within the history of women in literary culture is this: how do we create a space in which the possibility of these texts having been written by women is not shut down? How do we keep that possibility open, whilst admitting the difficulty of discovering further biographical evidence that can link their lyric voices to the historical bodies that produced them?

    If we close our minds to the possibility of medieval women poets unless significant biographical information can be found to support their existence, not only do we shut down the possibility of female authorship of anonymous texts, but even of those texts which are attributed to women in the manuscript record. We cannot choose to ignore women and their contribution to literary culture in the Middle Ages, yet unless we are willing to extrapolate from the small number of trobairitz for which we do have historical evidence, we will continue to struggle to reconcile literary sources with the historical record. We will continue to describe the trobairitz we can verify as exceptions, as aberrations. In this regard, we remain trapped by the same rhetoric of exceptionalism that medieval commentators themselves used to describe women writers.

    I can’t prove the trobairitz all existed, but here’s what I can say for sure: the figure of the woman poet is a very real phenomenon in collections of medieval Occitan lyric, whether or not we can always tie the feminine voice of the poet to a woman’s body. Understanding how the figure of the women poet was represented and shared throughout Occitania, and across linguistic boundaries is definitely something we can achieve. Appreciating this could constitute a major step in deepening our understanding of women’s role in medieval literary culture.