Jessica Saraga is entertained by the lives of six women of the Middle Ages who bucked the trend and used wit, talent or personality to achieve independence.
What does a 12th-century German abbess have in common with two Norfolk-born housewives of the 15th century? What does her contemporary, Eleanor of Aquitaine, share with Christine de Pisan, widow of a French courtier 200 years on? What do any of them have in common with a peasant girl from Lorraine burned at the stake before turning 20, 100 years after that?
Well, for a start, documentation. Unlike the majority millions of nameless and forgotten medieval women, five of the six subjects of Andrea Hopkins's glossy brief female lives left history a personal account. Each of them, too, flouted prevailing norms by deploying wit, talent or personality to achieve independence within an entrenched patriarchy. And, as amply illustrated here, these six "wise and valiant ladies" were also united by God, sex and hysteria in varying measures, leavened with a good dose of the individualism which wasn't supposed to exist until the Renaissance, and with generous quantities of rage.
Apart from canny, competent Margaret Paston, who astutely married a man always away on business, they had a great deal to rage about. Eleanor's second husband, Henry II, locked her up for 16 years. Margery Kempe suffered puerperal mania and 14 children before deciding she'd had enough, was through with sex (it took four years to get her husband to agree), and would go travelling, to Jerusalem. Even the cool and talented Christine de Pisan only got that way after years of bitter, unbridled railing against the fortune which carried off her young husband and left her to fight for survival in the cynical male world of the law.
Medieval women were born into a world hostile to their sex, which denigrated their abilities, labelled them weak of mind and body, and laid at their door through the Biblical myth of Eve the responsibility for all sin. The six subjects of this book were among those who reacted with passion, medieval roaring girls who burst the bounds of the restrictive role in which society had cast them with an emotional intensity that was awesome. Saint, mystic or witch - contemporary labels indicate a struggle to find explanations in terms of the religious paradigm which was all there was, where today explanations would be medical or psychiatric.
Joan of Arc, Margery Kempe and Hildegard of Bingen all had visions. Hildegard's, now thought to be connected to migraines, featured flashing lights, shooting stars and lambent tongues of flame. Exalted by the brilliance of her attacks, Hildegard composed some of the most beautiful hymns ever written. She also wrote prolifically on religion, medicine and sex, having no qualms, despite her official virginity, about describing intercourse and orgasm. Having formed a passionate attachment to one of her own nuns, she launched an extraordinary campaign to keep her in the convent, attempting to enlist support from everyone, including the Pope.
Unsuccessful and humiliated, she admitted she had loved too much. But her description of herself as a feather on the breath of God was orders of magnitude adrift; a Valkyrie riding the whirlwind might have been an apter image.
Astonishingly perhaps, Hildegard remained much revered and was canonised locally, if never officially. Margery Kempe, the most overt rager of all of them, was similarly treated by many with surprising tolerance, though on pilgrimage she could empty a room in minutes with her loud and uncontrollable public crying fits and incessant talking. When her fellow pilgrims gave her the slip - which was often - she always found them again. Nevertheless, she attracted respect for her holy status as God's confidante; she was, she explained, in regular conversation with the Almighty.
Andrea Hopkins' stories oscillate effectively, if perhaps unintentionally, between the arch and the deadpan, the bland and the intellectual. Eleanor of Aquitaine "adored troubadours, and always took some with her wherever she went"; "Irritatingly, Henry was completely infatuated with Thomas Becket." On the whole though, the language is not for children; a failure to explain terms such as "prohibited degree", "relapsed heretic, apostate, idolater" sits uncomfortably with such artless sentences.
The illustrations, many in gorgeous colour, are authentically medieval, although often with only an allusive relevance to the text and sometimes given a less than authentic spin. Thomas Becket is not, I suspect, giving Henry II the finger as claimed in the caption, but pointing to the mitre he wears as a symbol of his spiritual authority.
This solecism is symptomatic of a slightly suspect historicism. But never mind. What is genuinely historical is the demonstration that, even in the most solid of patriarchies, , some women could still, in secular or religious life - Hildegard in her habit and Joan in trousers - spectacularly buck the trend.
* BY HER TROTH
Norfolk housewife Margaret Paston dictated letters and had them delivered to London by couriers, as depicted above. In the first extract, written in 1443, she enquires after her absent husband's health. The second piece, written some 30 years later, is more functional - a shopping list for fabrics, hats and stockings from the capital where there was a better choice than in East Anglia.
Right worshipful husband, I recommend me to you, desiring heartily to hear of your welfare, thanking God for your amending of the great disease that you have had, and I thank you for the letter that you sent me, for by my troth my mother and I were not in heart's ease from the time that we knew of your sickness till we knew verily of your amending. My mother promised another image of wax of the weight of you to Our Lady of Walsingham, and she sent four nobles to the four orders of friars at Norwich to pray for you; and I have promised to go on pilgrimage to Walsingham and to St Leonard's for you.
By my troth I had never so heavy a season as I had from the time that I knew of your sickness till I knew of your amending, and yet mine heart is in no great ease, nor shall not be till I know that you are truly well . . . I thankyou that you would vouchsafe to remember my girdle, and that you would write to me at this time, for I suppose the writing was none ease for you. Almighty God have you in his keeping and send you health. Written at Oxnead in right great haste on Saint Michael's Eve. Yours, M. Paston.
. . . buy me three yards of purple chamlet, price to the yard 4 shillings; a bonnet of deep murrey (i.e. mulberry, a deep purplish red), price 2 shillings and 4 pence; a hose-cloth of yellow-carsey of an ell, I believe it will cost 2 shillings; a girdle of plunket (grey-blue) ribbon, price 6 pence; four laces of silk, two of one colour and two of another, price 8 pence; three pairs of patterns . . . I was wont to pay but twopence ha'penny for a pair, but I pray you let them not be left behind though I pay more . . .