Friday 19 August 2011

'Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England, 450-1500' by Henrietta Leyser

The first thing that struck me about this book was that it covered a large period of history for such a short book. I have always tended to lean towards broad areas of interest myself, although sometimes this proved to be a shortcoming. I was intrigued to see how Leyser dealt with it. The book is split into four sections; the first three chronological, the final section on literature and spirituality. I found the book very easy, and enjoyable, to read, which is always pleasant, as so many history books I have come across deal with a fascinating topic but just are not written with much flair. The way this book is laid out helps digest the information, separating the various sources we have to help enlighten us to the lives of women in the earlier periods dealt with, and for the later period, split into the various areas of women’s lives.

It was quite refreshing to read a history book about women, by a woman, without it having many feminist rants and constant jibes against men in. I agree that throughout most of history women have been treated hugely unfairly, but it is nice to read a book that does not feel too biased because of the gender of the author. Indeed, in the literary section especially, she seemed to try and dispel ideas of misogyny surrounding many texts.

The idea of some of the medical procedures made me squirm, but I was interested in the writings that claimed if a pregnant woman lost her beauty then the baby was a girl. I had never heard of this idea before, but I then saw a programme on TV where this same idea was put forward in a modern setting. Leyser claims that this was a sign that male offspring were much preferred in the Middle Ages, which makes it seem all the more strange that people still believe it to be true today.

I appreciated the fact that medieval women were not portrayed in such a helpless and vulnerable fashion as often thought. They worked hard, and, in some cases, had a lot of power and influence over their husbands. I was interested in the sections on marriage and sex, and what was essential for a marriage to be legal. The story of the parents who beat their daughter and encouraged a prospective husband to rape her because she wished to become a nun was truly disturbing. It seems to me that the idea of rape as being accepted as somewhat normal in this period is a common belief. It was therefore fascinating to discover that a common punishment for rape was castration. Men could not get away with such behaviour after all!

All in all a highly informative read which is written well and very easy to read. The extracts from primary sources at the end were useful, and particularly appreciated as they are not readily available to the common reader. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in medieval, or women’s, history.

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