Sunday 3 March 2013

All the Women We've Never Heard Of: Women's History Month.

March is Women’s History Month or International Women’s Month, depending on whereabouts you are in the world. This is an interesting recent innovation, coinciding with Women’s Day on March 8 and indicative of the increasing social awareness of centuries, perhaps millennia, of female marginalisation. In terms of historiography, the emancipation and study of women’s lives really only moved into focus in the twentieth century. Biographies of queens did exist before that time but they were typically the products of a post-Romantic movement, focusing on figures whose lives had been tragic or dramatic, like Mary, Queen of Scots or Anne Boleyn. A key innovator in the study of women’s lives was Eileen Power, whose work on medieval women in the 1920s made her one of the first to place them on the historical stage in their own right, rather as appendages to their more important menfolk.

                                                                     Joan of Arc

Since then, in the post-Feminist world, the emphasis on the female experience has greatly increased in all fields of study. For historians, the study of queenship in particular has blossomed as a valuable genre, allowing exploration of important women beyond just their function as child bearers or figures to distract men and be wedded or divorced. Significant steps have been taken towards the evaluation of the contributions individual queens made to national politics, the personal nature of their influence and how certain women contributed to discourses of disaffection. In particular, we know the names of women who caused trouble in the past, rather than those who towed the line. Those who lived lives that did not show up in the legal records, who avoided conflict, escaped terrible illnesses and died quietly in their beds are still relatively unknown. This is partly a problem of documentation. The higher up the social scale a woman was, or the more difficult she was in refusing or failing to conform, the more paperwork she created. We know about the glorious coronations of Queens, the rumours about their sexual behaviour and the adoration they inspired. Figures such as the visionary Joan of Arc, Protestant Martyr Anne Askew and the “holy maid” of Kent, prophetess, Elizabeth Barton, along with others who suffered the ultimate price for their beliefs during the Marian burnings or the Seventeenth Century witch trials, are well recorded. So basically, if you were rich or naughty, you got noticed; do things ever change?

Yet, in terms of understanding the female experience, historians have still only scratched the surface. A browse through Amazon’s listings proves that tastes still veer towards the anointed queens and mistresses of Kings. Our current examples would equate to the modern study of a foreign country simply by analysing the lives of their celebrities. The experiences of “average” women in the past are far less recoverable although the existence of such an “average” or “typical” female life is as unlikely as it is for women today.  These are the women who appear on the margins of illuminated manuscripts, scattering corn to chickens, herding pigs or cutting corn. Continual narratives rarely exist for them, which is unsurprising when we consider that even hugely famous women’s birthdates, like those of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard are uncertain. They did not know they were going to become famous, whereas the birthdates of Catherine of Aragon, Mary I and Elizabeth I are practically carved in stone, so significant as they were.

There seem to be two categories of women in the past; the “famous” and the “other.” Often, only a slice of the lives of these others exist, for example, when they fall foul of the courts or are married, divorced or create some scandal, such as falling pregnant outside marriage. That is, at the interface of where their lives clash with the legal and moral codes of men. For Women’s history month, I would like to explore a few experiences of those “others,” the millions and millions about whom little or nothing is known, but whose existence was essential in roles behind the scenes as administrators, facilitators, mediators, educators etc. These are the women we have never heard of and some, no doubt, will question whether they are worthy of study. The answer to this lies in female roles today: we are not all Queens or martyrs. Modern women have many more opportunities than their counterparts in the past and each life is different, shaped by individual choice but we can only come close to understanding how our roles have evolved by studying the breadth of female existence rather than the extremes. I suppose it also depends on whether you think the human experience is an interesting subject matter in itself. I do. These are a few of the women I have uncovered whilst researching other things.

I love seeking out women from the past who have broken the rules. Decades before the Reformation took hold, when the seventeen-year-old Henry VIII succeeded to the throne of England as a good Catholic, there were already criticisms raised against the trappings of religion. In 1509, an Elizabeth Sampson, or Simpson, of London visited the church of St Mary, Willesden. It had long been associated with miracles, possibly named after an early healing spring and by the late fifteenth century, was very popular. Pilgrims visited from all over the country and carried away small phials of holy water to cure all sorts of ills. The famous statue that stood within the church was blackened by centuries of candle smoke and when Elizabeth visited that year, she described the Black Madonna as a “burnt- tailed elf and a burnt-tailed stock.” Then, she added that if the statue could not even take care of itself it was not of much use to those who sought its aid. Elizabeth was made to do penance for her criticism; probably declaring she was wrong and swearing an oath in public, or even receiving lashes in the market place. What made her speak out ? Elizabeth was from London and the church is now in the north-west of the modern city, although in her day, it was a distant village beyond the walls. Did Elizabeth have some particular purpose in making a pilgrimage there? Did she hope for the intercession of saints for her health or fertility, as the traditional association went? Perhaps she had already tried some of the holy water and had not seen the results she had hoped for. This may have been a personal response or an ideological one; was she an early critic of the excesses of Catholicism, or reflecting an increasing discourse of satire against those who exploited it? Only three years later Erasmus would produce his famous satire on pilgrimage. We will never know what motivated Elizabeth. She did her penance. Did she have a choice?

Next, a typical tale of late sixteenth century illegitimacy developed around Sarah Smythe of Elm, Ely, Cambridgeshire, who was at the centre of a paternity debate. In 1584, shoemaker William Wylson of Brentwood, Essex, confessed to having fathered a child with his servant Sarah. According to the Assize rolls, he claimed that “after “divers and several times the use of her body”, Sarah became pregnant and delivered a boy at the house of Wylson’s brother. Wylson was examined at the time and acknowledged the child, declaring that he and Sarah were man and wife. Sarah disagreed; she denied it and ran away. Still Wyslon did not give up but pursued her and brought her back to Brentwood, whereupon she was questioned by the justices and confessed that the child’s father was actually one Abraham Smythe, another of Wylson’s servants who had absconded. Wylson was then “absolved” of both woman and child. This case illuminates only a fragment of the complex connections and legal implications of social and sexual relations of the time. Wylson appears to have acted honourably for the most, despite having had relations with his servant: as he was later calling her his wife, it seems that this was consensual and the he was unaware of her relationship with at least one other man. Abraham and Sarah Smythe were servants in the same household with the same surname and may have been cousins or more distantly related. It would have benefited Sarah socially to have accepted Wylson as her husband but either love or her conscience dictated otherwise. The case raises questions as to her motives in entering a sexual relationship with her master and the degree to which she had a choice; also it seems that Sarah and Abraham were able to find some privacy on at least one occasion and that Wylson was ignorant of the behaviour and morals of his own servants. There is of course, the possibility that Sarah was not telling the truth, accusing a man she desired and who was not present to testify in his defence but that opens more questions than the records of this case can answer.

It’s always interesting when women get accused of using speech as a weapon. One court roll of High Roding in the early Sixteenth century, requested the removal from the village of a woman named Agnes for being a “common scold” and “disturber of the peace to the great annoyance of her neighbours.” At Barking in 1581, the wives of Edmund Body and Geoffrey Wood were reported as “common scolds”, as was Matilda Glascock of Becontree in 1575, although no punishment was recorded. It is difficult not to wonder what they said; it was likely to have been something that damaged the good reputation or “common fame” of an individual that was considered so valuable at the time. This must have been part of a long-running dispute between neighbours, which reached a head when one was deemed to have overstepped the mark. Yet it was clearly a common problem, which men loathed. Bald’s Leechbook contained a cure against a woman’s chatter: the advice to eat a radish at night whilst fasting and one the next day, to ensure the chatter cannot harm you, suggests a real belief in the possibility of tangible harm being done through speech, either bodily, or to a man’s reputation. The potential overlap of female disobedience, secrecy and witchcraft becomes even more apparent in the pseudo-religious advice of receipt books and almanacs. Men might make a salve “against women with whom the devil copulated”, using hops, wormwood, lupin, vervain, garlic, fennel and other ingredients. They should place these in a vat under an altar, sing nine masses over it, boil it in butter and sheep’s grease, add holy salt and strain the liquid through a cloth into running water. The man who anointed himself with this salve would be saved from “evil temptation”. With the majority of women being so powerless in legal terms and voiceless through illiteracy, this social silencing was particularly brutal.

Some of the saddest cases I have come across have featured infanticides. I originally had a section on this in my first book “In Bed with the Tudors” but I found it so upsetting that I took it out. When you study pregnancy and childbirth, there are inevitably sad stories. In this case though, it seems that a stillbirth was mistaken for murder. In May 1566, Margaret Cybson of Writtle, Essex, wife of a labourer, was accused of killing her newborn son. Thirteen men gave their oath that Margaret had given birth at home between the hours of eleven and twelve at night on the last day of March, then took the child and threw it down the well on the green, known as “Greneburie” where it drowned. The child was neither baptised nor named. At the Chelmsford Assizes that July she was found not guilty, with the judge ruling that the child had been dead when born. How exactly did this verdict come about? It may have been a question of gender. Margaret’s accusers were male. Perhaps the women who actually attended her birth were able to verify her version of events, marking a real divide between their knowledge and male supposition and suspicion, as they were traditionally excluded from the birth room. We cannot help but wonder why Margaret was accused with such certainty or exactly how these men thought they had gained their information. Even given the late hour of her delivery, Margaret’s female network would have been on alert and ready to attend her, if indeed she had one. There must have been some women with poor social connections, marginalised by choice, distance, necessity or social tensions who lacked this support. Somehow Margaret was able to convince the justices that what the men may have witnessed was the disposal of a body rather than a murder. And where was her husband in all this? Whatever the circumstances, relations between the Cybsons and their neighbours cannot have been easy after such an accusation.

Some women were making their mark in the medical profession too, albeit unofficially. Two female practitioners in late Sixteenth century London came to the attention of the authorities for their activities. A Thomasina Scarlett made her first appearance in December 1588,when she admitted giving emetics and medicines to in excess of a hundred people and agreed to cease practice. However it seems she did not. For many, lacking the essential funds for a male doctor, such women with their knowledge of herbal treatments represented the only attention they could access; the numbers of Thomasina’s patients testify to her good reputation. Some time before 1595, she was in trouble again and imprisoned, for in February that year, she obtained a letter from “various people of rank” requesting her release. It was denied. Only a week later, still in prison, she confessed to having administered an ointment and purge to a Mr Neeme, despite being illiterate and having no knowledge of the theory of medicine. When pressed, she “utterly refused” to refrain from practice. She was imprisoned again and fined in 1598, 1603, 1610 and 1611. After this, she disappears from the records. More successful was an Alice Leevers, described in April 1586 as an “unskilled and demented old woman who had long practised medicine,” who had the backing of Lord Hunsdon despite having made “errors, harms and offences” in the past. At her appearance before the court, she made the unusual step of asking to admitted as a member of the College of Physicians. In deference to her aristocratic patron, despite the court’s guilty verdict, Alice was permitted to administer external medicine and perform non-dangerous surgery.
The great period of witchcraft accusations and trials was the seventeenth century. Yet, this was always a critical part of the misogynistic dialogue that underpinned gender relations in the past. Such accusations were difficult to substantiate and prove; even if a claim was thrown out of court, the associated mud could stick. Royal women and commoners could suffer alike from this. In 1481, soon after the accusations made against Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester, Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Elizabeth Wydeville, a London woman was brought to the bar under similar charges. Named as a sorceress or sortilege, she had reputedly used magic to win lovers for herself, two of whom had nearly killed each other. Her husband lived in terror of her and she had tried to resort to poison when her spells had failed. Her fate is not recorded.
I could go on. As I research, the names of hundreds of women appear on the pages of court records, letters, accounts and manuals. Their complete lives are beyond my grasp but in these small anecdotes, they can be briefly glimpsed in their moments of conflict, which were just one part of their continuing struggle for survival. These are the “others,” all the women of the past we’ve never heard of. And of course, there are all the rest, of whom we will never hear: our great, great, great, great etc grandmothers.






  1. Great post Amy. I'm amazed at what you are finding in the records. I've always heard how suspicious people were back then but that potion you mention really brings it home. And it's good to know the judge listened to the women in the case of the still born child. This is really fascinating stuff. :)

  2. Thanks Susan. It's amazing what is out there. When we hear the same famous names recurring over and over again, it makes me wonder how representative they are of the female experience generally and whether our perceptions of the past may be a bit skewed. Yes, I like that the judge listened too- there are lots of surprises in the records. Thanks for your kind comment.