In this post, Jessica Knowles reports on the project’s first workshop which explored the lives of five medieval women
This week’s workshop focused on medieval women, aiming to give students an insight into the lives of four fifteenth century women. These examples were chosen because they were accessible and they drew on our own work. By choosing the fifteenth century we were hoping to use the century that the students could understand the most easily, drawing on previous work they had done on the Tudors and the visibility of the fifteenth century in popular culture. As such we began the workshop with the trailer from the recent BBC TV series The White Queen, in which the title character says very little. We were aiming to show that even the most recent work tends to see women as things rather than people, focusing on the role of male protagonists. To make this point we contrasted it with the trailer of the 1968 film The Lion in Winter which showed a woman more involved in making events happen. The students recognised that Elizabeth Woodville was not really doing anything but still saw her as central because the other characters were talking about her.
Our second activity also focused on Elizabeth Woodville (painted c. 1471), comparing a portrait of her with one of Margaret Beaufort (painted c. 1550).
This activity worked well with the students responding to our questions and coming up with their own suggestions about why the two women were depicted in certain ways. For example, why Elizabeth was painted as young and vibrant, and why Margaret presented as older, thinner and pious.
The third section looked at the witchcraft trail of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester. Eleanor was named as the instigator in a treason plot against the Henry VI. This case demonstrated the potential political power Medieval women wielded.
The penultimate section of the workshop looked at the will of Alice Blakburn of York. This was a good exercise as it gave the students an idea of the kinds of goods that were worn and used by a woman who was not of the highest social class. I think the details helped them to recreate to some extent an idea of fifteenth century life. If I was to do this again I would give them several wills, containing different details and ask them to compare them.
Finally, we looked at Agnes Huntington. This was partly to help them relate to a fifteenth century women by giving them an example of someone who had lived in the same place as they went to school. It was also meant to show them that ordinary women did have some power and could leave their husbands if they were abused. We also hoped that it would stimulate their imaginations to think about what she would have done on a normal day.
Overall, this workshop exposed the students to a selection of examples of medieval women. We achieved our aim in showing them that we do know something about the lives of medieval women and that they were not completely oppressed by a patriarchal society.
Jessica is in the third year of her PhD in the Centre for Medieval Studies. Her research examines the role of the family in the parish church, with a focus on family imagery. She did her BA and MA in the History Department of University of York.