Medieval Women Workshop: Further Reflections

In this post, Elizabeth Biggs shares her reflections on teaching the first workshop, examining the students’ interaction with new, sometimes strange source material.

Mazer, Maplewood with silver-gilt mounts, made around 1380, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mazer, Maplewood with silver-gilt mounts, made around 1380, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Overall, I enjoyed this session and hearing about what students thought about such a distant part of the past, as well as its strangeness for them, including the lack of electricity. The session reminded me how much I now take for granted about the medieval world because I’m surrounded by books and papers that assume its peculiarities are normal. I can now identify a kirtle (a type of dress) and guess that a mazer is a shape of cup, but that’s not normal knowledge is it?We were trying to expose the students to a wide range of medieval women’s experience, show them both the constraints of their lives but also their ability to do things for themselves, exposing them to new things.

We also showed them educated men being tried as witches with a woman being thought of as the driving force behind the witchcraft, an inversion from the early-modern witch trope!  The students were really good with the images of Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, perhaps because they knew bits about them already, and because the self-presentation of each woman has been echoed in later royal images with which they were probably familiar, such as the famous images of Elizabeth I. Eleanor Cobham’s trial was difficult for my group for that exercise, not least because it’s a strange case with a lot of unfamiliar politics surrounding it, so just trying to understand what was going on was always going to be tricky. The medieval witchcraft angle, however, did seem to be of interest.

The religiosity of Alice Blakburn’s will was surprising, I think, because it was so alien to the student’s experiences, whereas for me, it looked like the standard concern for the dead in the period. The students didn’t comment on her lack of living family, whereas to me, it says high mortality rates rather than simply the small families that the students were presumably imagining. They were good at spotting the value of the goods, that these were not everyday items being given away, but valuable remembrances for friends and relations. The final exercise surprised me because my group for this exercise were more concerned with the strangeness of marriage being such a casual deal and the remedies for domestic abuse than with what everyday life might have looked like. On the other hand, their suggestions were very much about things they might do, suggesting that they saw Agnes Huntington as akin to a modern teenage girl.

By the end of the session, they were aware of the paucity of sources available for women, how easily women could slip unnoticed through the records until something went badly wrong and how we have to carefully stitch together scraps of information to begin to understand women’s lives in this period. I hope they felt that they learned something new about how history works, as well as how varied women’s experiences in the Middle Ages could be. I’ll be interested to see what they say about this session in the final project meeting.

Elizabeth Biggs


Elizabeth is a first-year PhD student at the University of York working on a whole variety of topics from diplomacy to building logistics and careers in the church, trying to understand a particular institution, the College of St Stephen’s in Westminster during its late Medieval existence.


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