Monday, June 01, 2009

Canadian Scholar Discovers Medieval Book for Women

A Wilfrid Laurier University professor has just discovered an English book from 1457 that shows women in the role of healers, household managers, even fighters.

The 73-page book proves many women of this time were an "avid, active, intelligent, reading population," with varied and substantial roles in society, says James Weldon, an English professor.

He found the Middle English anthology in the national library at Naples, Italy. It's hand-sewn, handwritten and had pages of a type of paper made from linen.

Included are a variety of topics: medicinal recipes to help with the pain of childbirth, instructions on how to coax a rabbit out of its hole, a recipe for pear preserves, and directions for making sealing wax.

"There are very few secular vernacular books oriented towards women," said Weldon, who presented a paper on the anthology at a meeting of the Canadian Society of Medievalists, part of the annual Social Sciences and Humanities Congress in Ottawa. This one is interesting, he said, because it helps explain women's culture and reading.

The manuscript is quite clearly directed at wealthy, aristocratic women, he said, particularly because there are references to spices such as cinnamon, which was very expensive and hard to get then.

A true signal of the anthology's prospective audience was found in some unusual script, Weldon said. "I noticed in the Chaucer tale that every time the female name Grisilde appears it is extended out to the left and written in larger black ink. I thought: Why this focus on the name of a female?"

As he combed through the manuscript and discovered the first medical prescriptions in the anthology were for childbirth, Weldon could only come up with one explanation: the anthology was for women.

In total, there are 140 recipes or prescriptions in the anthology; most are medicinal but some are of a more domestic nature, giving instructions on how to make sealing wax, quince preserve and a broth thickener. The recipes all incorporate elements that were considered appropriate for women's activities, Weldon said.

And the recipes - both medicinal and otherwise - are meant to be read in conjunction with the romances, such as Sir Bevys of Hampton, the tale of a saint's life, and The Clerk's Wife by Chaucer.

What the anthology paints "is quite an interesting picture of women's interests and their real contribution in activities in the Middle Ages. ... Nobody knows how and why this distinguished secular manuscript ended up in Naples but it gives us quite a dynamic picture of women's culture."