Women and writing in the Middle Ages

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Could many medieval women read and write? We consider the evidence for female literacy, authorship and book ownership, and how much the Church and patriarchal society constrained and/or facilitated women's reading and writing. Authors studied will include Marie de France, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and Christine de Pizan.

Until a few decades ago, it was widely believed that almost no medieval women were literate or owned books. Female literacy and authorship have become very hot scholarly topics in recent years, and more and more evidence of women’s ownership and use of books is being discovered. The number of female authors remains small (though of course some anonymous texts may in fact be by women), but their work is receiving much more scholarly attention and appreciation. How were women educated? What sorts of literature did they read, and write? It is anachronistic to speak of ‘feminism’ in the Middle Ages, but is it possible to discern a ‘woman’s voice’, or a particularly female point of view in writing by medieval women? Did women write about the same subjects as men? Were they interested in chivalry and fighting (for instance in the Arthurian legend)? Were there taboo subjects for women authors? Are they more or less sympathetic to female characters than their male counterparts? Medieval society was Christian, of course, patriarchal and (by our modern standards) misogynist. How does this cultural context affect women’s writing (and reading)? Much of the surviving writing by women is religious, in particular accounts of mystical visions. To what extent did the Church and patriarchal medieval society constrain or facilitate women’s reading and writing? 

In this course we shall look briefly at the work of women troubadours and at the letters of the star-crossed lover Heloise, highly educated and a reluctant nun; but the main focus of the course will be on the enigmatic lays (or mini-romances) of the late twelfth-century writer who calls herself Marie de France; the mystical visions of the recluse Julian of Norwich (c.1342-c.1416); her contemporary Margery Kempe’s account of her trials and travels for the love of Christ, who constantly advised and supported her (perhaps the first autobiography in English); and a selection of work of the French widow Christine de Pizan (including autobiography, advice for women, and defence of women against male criticism), who was perhaps the first medieval author in Western Europe to make a living exclusively as a writer. These four women all have some connection with England, though not all wrote in English (Marie and Christine wrote in French). All texts will be read and discussed in modern English versions (though those who wish to may also read the original Middle English or French).

This course is part of the University of Cambridge Medieval Studies Summer School.

To apply for this course, please enrol on the Medieval Studies Summer School and select the courses you wish to study.

For more information about other Summer School programmes please visit:
www.ice.cam.ac.uk/intsummer/programmes.

Comments

Unless otherwise stated, teaching and assessment for ICE courses are in English. Students whose first language is not English should refer to the Competence in the English Language Policy for further guidance.

Printable versions of our brochures are available to download from the Summer Schools brochure download page.

This course is part of the University of Cambridge Medieval Studies Summer School.

To apply for this course, please enrol on the Medieval Studies Summer School and select the courses you wish to study.

For more information about other Summer School programmes please visit:
www.ice.cam.ac.uk/intsummer/programmes.

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University of Cambridge
International Programmes
Institute of Continuing Education
Madingley Hall
Madingley
Cambridgeshire
United Kingdom
CB23 8AQ

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Course details

Start date

5 August 2012

End date

11 August 2012

Application deadline

23 August 2012

Course code

Ka4

Duration

1 week

Venue

International Summer Schools
Sidgwick Site
Sidgwick Avenue
Cambridge
United Kingdom

Teaching sessions

Meetings: 5

Course director