History. Women's Studies. Nonfiction. HTML:A groundbreaking reappraisal of medieval femininity, revealing why women have been written out of history and why it matters The Middle Ages are seen as a bloodthirsty time of Vikings, saints and kings; a patriarchal society that oppressed and excluded women. But when we dig a little deeper into the truth, we can see that the "Dark" Ages were anything but. Oxford and BBC historian Janina Ramirez has uncovered countless influential women's names struck out of historical records, with the word FEMINA annotated beside them. As gatekeepers of the past ordered books to be burned, artworks to be destroyed, and new versions of myths, legends and historical documents to be produced, our view of history has been manipulated. Only now, through a careful examination of the artifacts, writings and possessions they left behind, are the influential and multifaceted lives of women emerging. Femina goes beyond the official records to uncover the true impact of women, such as: Jadwiga, the only female king in Europe Margery Kempe, who exploited her image and story to ensure her notoriety Loftus Princess, whose existence gives us clues about the beginnings of Christianity in EnglandIn Femina, Ramirez invites us to see the medieval world with fresh eyes and discover why these remarkable women were removed from our collective memories. Supplemental enhancement PDF accompanies the audiobook.
The book is a series of essays about various medieval women, but I found it dissatisfying overall, since other than relating to medieval women, the essays are otherwise disconnected. As the only narrative thread linking these stories is that they are about women, it does not provide the “new history of the Middle Ages” which is the book’s subtitle, and I found any pattern too fragmentary, although the essays are engagingly written and well researched. Ramirez’s excellent introductory essay concludes identifying the book’s purpose more honestly: “We need a new relationship with the past, one which we can all feel a part of. Finding these extraordinary medieval women is a first step, but there are so many other silenced voices waiting to have their stories heard.”
Ramirez’s essay style of an introduction to each chapter’s subject by reference to a relatively contemporary event (for example the 1997 canonisation of the fourteenth century Jadwiga, “King” of the Poles in chapter 7), followed by an imaginative verbal recreation of an event in the individual’s life and then an exploration of their wider historical significance is a good approach. But it does become repetitive and underlines the discontinuity of the essays.
The book is well illustrated with photos of artefacts, artistic reconstructions and useful maps, but for me there appears to be an idiosyncratic choice of historical figures, some well known, others unknown (the Loftus “Princess”), although each essay is engaging and full of interesting stories. Also, after introducing her eminent women in the early chapters, Ramirez can appear to go off on a tangent due to the lack of records, but skilfully brings the narrative back to her chosen exemplar of a worthy woman in the period, providing relevant context for their significance.
In her final thoughts, Ramirez says : “Like so many others, I have been led by generations of historians before me, their contemporary agendas often presented in the guise of empirical truths. I have tried a different, but similarly loaded, approach in this book, putting the spotlight on women. It is no less biased, and is representative of the time in which I am writing. But by re-examining extraordinary women like Hildegard and Margery, casting a new light on over-written females like Æthelflæd and Jadwiga, and using recent discoveries to reconstruct lost individuals like the Loftus Princess and Birka Warrior Woman, the medieval world has taken on a different complexion.”
My overall impression is of the book trying to make a larger argument (thesis) from a collection of engaging essays about medieval women who were influential in their time. Instead the book reads like a collection of case studies with which to make the argument that the role of historically significant medieval women has been downplayed when histories of the medieval period were being being written in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. This is “topped and tailed” with essays outlining Ramirez’s argument, that the histories of the medieval period need to be expanded to reflect the simplification and distortion of women’s roles, and this book provides some examples of historically significant medieval women.
The challenge identified in this book can be seen to have been accepted in books such as Michael Woods’ 40th anniversary updating of In Search of the Dark Ages published earlier this year, which includes new chapters on the historically significant Anglo Saxon women Aethelflaed, Lady Wynflaed and Eadgyth. The ongoing challenge for popular history writers will be to incorporate the stories of historically significant women seamlessly into broader narrative history, so widening our understanding. It is a difficult balancing act to show relevance and significance, but not to be read by modern readers as just inclusion as positive discrimination of “token” women.
I received a Netgalley copy of this book, but this review is my honest opinion.
Femina is not so much a "new" history of medieval women's lives as it is a series of nine biographies of exceptional women who lived in the European Middle Ages. There are much fuller
Anyway, this book reminded me of everything I hate about the current trend of popular feminist frameworks of texts. Femina reminded me of the let-down that was The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society—A pop-history book promising to elucidate the reader on something much larger, complicated, and nuanced than the author is either able or willing to do. I always find it funny that the authors of books like this remind the reader over and over again how rich the tapestry of time is but cannot seem to go deeper than the surface-level critique their advertising promises. When will they truly take to heart that history cannot be boiled down to pithy feminist takes? When will (usually female) social historians give their readers something to really chew on? Why do I feel like women's-interest history always believe their readers are complete fucking dolts?
To summarize, I don't think it's possible to extract more than Ramírez simple thesis when you look at only nine people, and nine very, very wealthy and powerful people at that. It's interesting, sure, and these women absolutely deserve to be in the casual historical canon as the author argues, but... It is in no way a "new history," you know? That would entail much, much more than Ramírez is willing to put in.
Well... The book obviously strikes a cord though: look at those high reviews! I would only recommend this to people who know close to nothing on this period, and obviously only as a supplement to a more historiographical sound or primary source texts. I'm just annoyed at sexism and its over-production of limp-wristed non-fiction texts.
On to new pop history I will inevitably hate...