Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Article of the Month

Indexers select an article or essay at the beginning of each month that is outstanding in its line of argument, wealth of significances, and writing style. We particularly look for pieces that will be useful as course readings.

September 2013

The Breedon Virgin
The Breedon Virgin, an eighth century carved stone frieze now in a church in Leicestershire.
The woman holds a book in her veiled left hand, while gesturing in blessing with her right hand.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Watt, Diane. "The Earliest Women's Writing? Anglo-Saxon Literary Cultures and Communities," Women's Writing 20, 4 (2013): 537-554.

Abstract: Who were the first women writers in the English literary tradition? This question continues to preoccupy feminist scholars in the twenty-first century, but very few would look back to the centuries before the Norman invasions in order to find the answer. Focusing on the religious houses of Ely and Whitby in the seventh and early eighth centuries this article reviews some of the surviving evidence of the first monastic women's writing. Looking for traces of early texts by women, it re-examines the lives of the Abbesses Æthelthryth of Ely and Hild of Whitby found in the fourth book of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, alongside the account of Hild found in the Old English Martyrology, and, more speculatively, it reconsiders the case for women’s involvement in the production of the anonymous first Life of Gregory the Great. This article argues that texts by women were 'overwritten' by the earliest male monastic writers, a process reinforced by later scholarship. By focusing on texts associated with religious houses ruled by women, and by seeing them as the productions not of individuals but of communities, it is possible to get a fuller and more balanced understanding of women’s writing in this earliest period of English literary history.