Female learning and literacy in the Middle Ages

As some readers might note from the previous post, at the time Michelant wrote his introduction to Escanor it was still a widely held opinion that, due to the low level of what we consider to be ‘literacy’ even amongst the nobility, women were simply not active readers, writers, commissioners of literature or as educated as their male equivalents. Thankfully, the learning of many medieval women is becoming less and less surprising to us in academia now, and gradually in the general public too; that women were educated and took an interest in areas that, historically and traditionally in scholarship on the subject, used to be considered predominantly ‘male’ domains. Since Michelant wrote his introduction, works such as John Carmi Parsons’ biography Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England are attempting to overturn these assumptions. Certainly, female voice, competition between women, women as agents in their own romance plots, are prevalent in the text to the extent that one could wonder whether ‘Escanor’ is the right character to title this work. Works such as Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur have recently, in the last couple of decades, been accumulating waves of interest in its surprisingly neglected female characters – I say ‘surprisingly’, considering how long the text has been around. And we are only now hearing of discussions seeking to re-evaluate antifeminist strains in Arthurian scholarship with characters such as Guinevere. I went to a fascinating panel at the Kalamazoo International Medieval Congress just last week that contained such a paper by Elizabeth Maffetone on Guinevere’s portrayal in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur. So I think it is fortuitous for Escanor that it can become more prominent and more widely discussed now, and ride on the crest of this new wave of feminist interest in medieval texts. Not least because they help us learn more about gender dynamics we often take for granted and leave unquestioned nowadays.

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3 responses to “Female learning and literacy in the Middle Ages

  1. Fascinating! I had a friend at Kalamazoo, I heard good things about the conference 🙂 Now I’ll have to read more about Eleanor of Castile!

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  2. I was watching a documentary yesterday and it talked about how the monks at Glastonbury “accidentally” found the grave of King Arthur – “accidentally” just when Eleanor was queen and known for her fascination with Arthurian stories. Hmmm.

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