Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.

Conclusion

My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in an upcoming special edition of History of Education Quarterly and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast, both of which will be linked here once live.  

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd


[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).

Grotesque Ghosts and Moral Reproof in Middle English Literature: The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn

The day has suddenly turned to night; King Arthur and his knights are all frightened; and Guinevere, who is accompanying the entourage, begins to cry when out of nowhere the woods ring with terrible sounds of howling and wailing and grievous lamentation. A female-seeming being approaches Sir Gawain, having risen from a lake, and

Bare was the body and blak to the bone,
Al biclagged [clotted] in clay uncomly cladde […].
On the chef [head] of the cholle [neck],
A pade [toad] pikes [bites] on the polle [skull],
With eighen [eyes] holked [sunken] ful holle [hollow]
That gloed [glowed] as the gledes [coals]. (ll. 105-106, 114-117)[1]

The apparition continues to yell and murmur and groan as if it were mad and is shrouded in some sort of unfathomable clothing, covered by toads and circled on all sides by snakes.

Gawain finds his courage and, brandishing his sword, demands that the specter give an account of herself. She concedes, saying that she was once a queen—the fairest in the land—and was wealthy and privileged beyond compare, even more so than Guinevere. But now she is dead, having lost all—her body a filthy, rotting corpse—and, she says, “God has me geven of his grace / To dre [suffer through] my paynes in this place” (ll. 140-141).

The place that she is referring to is the Tarn Wadling, a lake in Cumbria, just south-east of Carlisle by about ten miles.[2] Tarn (< ME terne, tarne) is a word that originated as a local northern English term (< ON *tarnu, tjorn, tjörn) meaning ‘a lake, pond, or pool,’ but it has since come to be used to mean specifically ‘a small mountain lake, having no significant tributaries.’[3]

Entrance to the woods surrounding the Tarn Wadling.

King Arthur and crew come upon the Tarn Wadling during a hunt in Inglewood Forest. The finery of the court—and especially of Guinevere—is described in several stanzas, much as the ghost describes the splendor she once enjoyed a number of stanzas later. After Gawain talks with her for a bit, she begs to see and speak to Guinevere. We quickly find out why, for she proclaims to Guinevere, “Lo, how delful [doleful] deth has thi dame dight [left]” (l. 160)! The spirit is her mother, and she urges Guinevere to “Muse on my mirrour” (l. 167). Death will leave her in such a fashion too if she does not give thought to her actions and the afterlife.

Arthur and Guinevere. London, British Library, MS Royal 20 D IV, f. 207r[4].
The first thing that Guinevere’s mother counsels is that, if you are rich, you should have pity on the poor, for it is in your power to do so. When you are dead, nothing will help you at that point, but “The praier of poer may purchas the pes” (l. 178). She stresses this to Guinevere and holds herself up as a counterexample. She failed, and now, she says,

“[…] I, in danger and doel, in dongone I dwelle,
Naxte [nasty] and nedefull, naked on night.
Ther folo me a ferde [troop] of fendes of helle;
They hurle me unhendely; thei harme me in hight [violently];
In bras and in brymston I bren as a belle [bonfire].
Was never wrought in this world a wofuller wight. (ll. 184-189)

While Guinevere’s mother advocates for compassion and generosity, we discover, however, that it was lust and the breaking of her marriage vows that landed her in torment. These sins bear obvious relation to Guinevere’s own life, and the author doesn’t even feel the need to clarify. Her mother is a mirror.

Guinevere and Lancelot. London, British Library, MS Additional 10293, f. 199r[5].
Nonetheless, it is interesting that what this text emphasizes the most is the need for all to have and to practice charity. Sin is bad, of course; and pride is the most hateful fault, as Guinevere’s mother explains. But the Awntyrs is not a treatise on the sins; it is a work that teaches that, of the virtues, “[…] charité is chef [paramount], and then is chaste [chastity], / And then almessedede aure [above] al other thing” (ll. 252-253). The duty of the Christian, according to the author of the Awntyrs, lies in each person’s responsibility towards every other. And this extends ad infinitum, for the prayers of those on earth are succor to the dead. The audience learns this because Guinevere promises to provide Masses for her mother’s soul, praying that Christ will bring to bliss she for whom he was crucified, he to whom she was dedicated in Baptism, though her mother stresses again that Guinevere must also provide for those living who lack food.

Before Guinevere’s mother departs, Gawain pipes in, having clearly been listening. He asks about those nobles and knights who enter other’s lands in territorial expansion, crushing under their heels the people and seizing the glory and the riches without any right. Now, if anyone is familiar with Gawain, this is rather too self-aware for his character—clearly the author is speaking here. The royal wraith responds by denouncing Arthur as too covetous a king and saying that the court should be wary. The second half of the Awntyrs deals precisely with these problems of excess and conquest, and I leave this part of the plot for readers to explore on their own.

Concerning the fifteenth-century text that has reached us, it is preserved in four manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324; London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 491.B; Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91 (Thornton Manuscript); and Princeton, Princeton University Library, MS Taylor 9 (Ireland Blackburn Manuscript).

The beginning of The Awntyrs off Arthure.f. 1r of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324 (c. 1450-1475)[6]. Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
The underlying dialect in the manuscripts is northern, being locatable most likely to the historic county of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria), which is also where the action of the narrative takes place. The work is extremely ornate, making use of both alliteration and rhyme. And as the text’s editor, Thomas Hahn, also notes, given the themes, it is quite probable that the author was a cleric, possibly residing in Carlisle. The Latin exempla tradition most certainly influenced the text, but the genius of the author was to weave his moral teaching into an exciting Arthurian tale, sweetening the medicine, as it were, with a captivating literary exterior.[7]

Be this as it may, the Tarn Wadling has always been eerie, emitting strange sounds and even once having an island appear and then disappear. It is hard to say whether it was due to a desire to bring an end to the place and quash superstitions or increase his arable land and acreage that Lord Lonsdale ordered the lake to be drained and filled in sometime during the nineteenth century.[8] Sadly, the tarn itself is no more, but the stories persist—as perhaps do the spirits.

 

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

 

[1] The edition used is the following: “The Awntyrs off Arthur.” Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Ed. Thomas Hahn. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. This can be found online here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hahn-sir-gawain-awntyrs-off-arthur. And here is an introduction: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hahn-sir-gawain-awyntyrs-off-arthur-introduction.

[2] You can find information about the location here: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/wood/4726/tarn-wadling/.

[3] See the entry “tarn” in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as “terne” in the Middle English Dictionary.

[4] The entire manuscript is digitized here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_20_d_iv. Dated c. 1300-1380, it contains part of the Lancelot of the Vulgate Cycle. The image shows Arthur and Guinevere receiving news from a damsel.

[5] See the catalogue description with some images here: https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=18463&CollID=27&NStart=10293. This manuscript contains another copy of the Lancelot, c. 1316.

[6] See images here: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/inquire/Discover/Search/#/?p=c+0,t+,rsrs+0,rsps+10,fa+,so+ox%3Asort%5Easc,scids+,pid+f03eea52-0af3-4ff7-9069-c41a4b2f6c6b,vi+6e581efc-2391-4258-b621-0f85fe45f40f. You can find more information here: http://medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/A_ghostly_encounter.

[7] On this, see especially David N. Klausner’s “Exempla and The Awntyrs of Arthure.” Medieval Studies 34 (1972): 307-25. Thomas Hahn provides further reading, editions with introductory material as well as scholarly articles, at the end of his introduction (see note 1).

[8] For more on the history of the Tarn Wadling, go here: https://www.cumbriacountyhistory.org.uk/tarn-wadling-background.

“Of hiest God, Asneth, blessed thu be”: Female Readers and The Storie of Asneth

Many readers may not be familiar with the figure of Asenath, though she made her debut for modern audiences in DreamWorks Animation’s film Joseph: King of Dreams (released in 2000 as the prequel to The Prince of Egypt (1998)).

Image Source: DreamWorks Animation Wiki

She is mentioned just three times in the Book of Genesis as the “daughter of Potiphera, priest of On” whom Pharaoh gave to Joseph as a wife (41:45). Before the seven years of famine came to Egypt, as predicted by Joseph, she bore two sons (41:50) who are named Manasseh and Ephraim (46:20). Asenath is thus remembered as occupying an important place in the genealogy of Israel.

Jacob’s Blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:8-20). Pictured also are Asenath and Joseph. Vienna, Nationalbibliothek, MS Theol. gr. 31, f. 23r (6th Century A.D.)

Despite scant mention of her in the biblical text, however, she had quite a life outside of it. Judaic commentators were driven to explain how Jacob’s lineage could rightfully be passed through a non-Hebrew woman, and the first attempt made was among the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt, probably in Alexandria, around the time of Trajan’s rule (98-117 A.D.) (Burchard 104). Written in Greek, some scholars have placed the text among the Pseudepigrapha (though the work does not purport to have been written by anyone in particular); while others view it as an example of Midrashic tradition (Dwyer 118); and still others consider it to be a Hellenistic romance (Pervo 175; Heiserman 184-186). From the multi-cultural hub of Alexandria, the text passed through Christian hands into a myriad of Near-Eastern and European languages (Peck 2). It was quickly subsumed into Byzantine hagiography (Dwyer 118). And in the twelfth century, it was translated twice into Latin, once possibly at Canterbury, and it was this version that became the basis of a Middle English translation (Reid, “Female Initiation” 138).

The Storie of Asneth was translated into Middle English sometime during the first half of the fifteenth century in a West Midlands dialect (Peck 3). The only surviving copy we have of the text, though, is preserved in Huntington Library, MS Ellesmere 26. A. 13., copied sometime around 1450 or 1460 (Peck 9). The text can be found on ff. 116r-127r.

The Beginning of The Storie of Asneth. El 26 A 13, Egerton Family Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, f. 116r

The manuscript can be divided into three parts. The first (ff. i r-v v) is in the hand of John Shirley (c. 1366-1456), book dealer and scribe famous for his copies of Chaucer, Lydgate, Hoccleve, and Trevisa. His section contains some devotional verse and poetry by Lydgate, a few lines of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde with some additions from Petrarch, and some lines from John Walton’s translation of Boethius’s De consolatione Philosophiae. The second part (ff. 1r-115v) of the manuscript is in a different hand and includes a few more short poems by Lydgate but mainly consists of Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes. The third part is taken up by The Storie of Asneth, written in yet another hand (Hume 55). By all accounts, the manuscript appears to be a composite, but just when the three parts were bound together is difficult to ascertain.

The entire digitized manuscript may be viewed here.

For more information, see the Digital Scriptorium Catalog Entry.

What is most interesting is that on the verso side of f. v, Shirley fashioned a bookplate that displays the names of sisters Margaret and Beatrice Lynne as well as his own. Shirley married Margaret at some point between 1421 and 1441, so it has been posited that he gave the first section of the manuscript to the sisters as a gift (Peck 2-3). In the second part of the manuscript, there is also a reference (f. 115r) to “Aluredo Corneburgh de Camera Regis,” written, it would appear, in Shirley’s hand. Avery Cornburgh was a Yeoman of the Chamber to King Edward IV and was wed to Beatrice sometime between 1459 and 1467, likely bringing into this arrangement section two of the manuscript. Shirley and Cornburgh seem to have known one another and eventually joined themselves to the same family. It makes commensurate sense, then, that the first two parts were bound together, and it is quite possible that at this time, the third section was added, though this cannot be verified (Hume 55-56).

Huntington Library, MS Ellesmere 26. A. 13. has, then, a strong connection to two literate, book-owning women, and in fact, another name appears in the margins (f. iii v)—“Elizabeth Gaynesford,” a friend of Beatrice. Thus, the book may even have circulated among a close-knit group of female readers. The circumstances surrounding the production of the Middle English Storie of Asneth are no less interesting. In her article “Patroness of Orthodoxy: Elizabeth Berkeley, John Walton, and the Middle English Storie of Asneth, a West Midlands Devotional Text,” Heather Reid has mounted considerable evidence that points to Elizabeth Beauchamp (née Berkeley), Countess of Warwick (1386-1422) as patroness of the Middle English text, having engaged her cleric, John Walton, an Augustinian canon at Osney Abbey, as translator. We can observe a decidedly female interest in vernacular translation of this text on the other side of the Channel as well. Vincent of Beauvais included an abbreviated version of Asenath’s story in his Speculum historiale (1253), and in 1332, Jeanne de Bourgogne, wife of Philippe VI de Valois (r. 1328-1350), commissioned Jean de Vignay to translate this text into French, producing the Miroir historial (Lusignan 497-498). So what made the account of Asenath so attractive to female readers?

First of all, the narrative tells how Asenath comes to love Joseph. Born the beautiful daughter of the priest of Heliopolis, a powerful position, she is haughty and refuses all suitors. When asked by her parents if she would marry Joseph, Pharaoh’s right-hand man, who will just so happen to be paying them a visit, she balks at the idea. But when she watches him approach from her tower, she begins to feel the pangs of lovesickness. To add to the intrigue, though, Joseph spurns her, rejecting any woman who does not worship his God. Asenath is distraught and locks herself in her room, fasting and donning the sackcloth and ashes of repentance amidst her wails of lamentation. Eventually, she throws the household idols and all religious paraphernalia out the window. And after a significant period of such penance, she stands one night at her window and prays to the Hebrew God, converting, as it were, to Judaism. She is then graced with a mystical experience as a beautiful man appears to come down from Heaven, “a prince of Godis hous, and of Hys hevenly ost” (l. 420). He tells her to clean herself and change her clothes, for she will marry Joseph. Dressed afresh, Asenath demonstrates her hospitality by offering to get him some bread and wine from the cellar. He asks instead that she bring him a honeycomb, and she is upset because she knows there is none. He tells her to go check nonetheless, and lo, a honeycomb is present. Together, they share the honeycomb, about which she is told that

[…] blessed be thei that come to God in holy penance,
For thei schul ete of this comb, that bees made of Paradise,
Of the dew of rosis there, that are of gret plesance.
The angelis of God schul ete also this comb of prise,
And who that eteth of the same schal never dye in no wise. (ll. 545-549)

As soon as the “man com doun fro hevene” (l. 415) departs, Joseph returns to the house. He has received knowledge in a dream that Asenath is to be his wife, and the very next day Pharaoh marries them. We are then told: “And after Joseph knewe his wyf and sche conceived sone, / And bar Manasses and Effraim – this was here procreacion” (ll. 682-683). The remainder of the story deals with a threat upon Joseph’s life and a dramatic combat.

The full text is available here.

Asenath’s Meeting with Joseph; Asenath Locked in Her Tower; Asenath Throwing Out the Idols. Tempera on oak panel, c. 1500. Part of a series of six tondos portraying the life of Joseph. Repository: Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The text reads like a romance—ever a much-loved genre—but it is also biblically based and hagiographical in tenor. The Storie of Asneth shares similarities with accounts of heroic Old Testament women, like those found in the books of Ruth, Esther, Tobit, and Judith (West 76). And as Susan Bell notes, “Throughout the Middle Ages, following the teachings of the early Christian fathers, women were exhorted to model themselves on biblical heroines” (158). In one sense, the text could have been conceived of as an exemplum, demonstrating the “ethical virtues” of “self-discipline, penitence, humility” (Kee, “The Socio-Religious Setting” 185). Such a didactic yet romantically appealing narrative could have served well for instruction within a household (Peck 4-5). In the first section of her article “The Storie of Asneth: A Fifteenth-Century Commission and the Mystery of Its Epilogue,” Cathy Hume also demonstrates that the Middle English Storie of Asneth reflects fifteenth-century trends in hagiography and textual consumption, particularly by women, and she argues that what made the text so well received is that it presents an exemplary account of pious married life. The text shows that women can be religious and married, not forced to choose between the two, something that we know real women struggled with, like Margery Kempe. This makes figures like Asenath more imitable, a subject upon which Catherine Sanok has also had much to say. In an earlier article (“Female Initiation Rites and Women Visionaries: Mystical Marriage in the Middle English Translation of The Storie of Asneth”), Heather Reid discusses the text also in relation to accounts of women visionaries and writes a great deal about Asenath with respect to sacred marriage, chastity, and mysticism—all important topics also for this time period, as Dyan Elliott likewise attests. However, Asenath’s actual marriage to Joseph is also quite intriguing.

Asenath is an admirable young woman but so too is her relationship with Joseph, though little has been said about the spirituality of her human marriage. However, for the majority of the female lay readership of Asenath’s story, this would have been the subject of more immediacy. When Joseph comes to see Asenath after her conversion—both having received a vision from God—he “[…] streihte out his hand, and loveli gan her brace. / Thei kiste then bothe in same with cuntenance excellent” (ll. 621-622). Asenath welcomes him, as she did before, yet this time she moves to wash his feet, a gesture reminiscent of Christ towards his disciples. She tells Joseph, “I schal hem wasshe […] / Thi feet ar myn owne feet, thi handdis also with alle, / And thi soule ys my soule: thu are thn myn owen fere” (ll. 627, 630-631). While she exhibits humility towards Joseph by washing his feet, she also declares their relationship to be reciprocal: he is hers as much as she is now his. For all intents and purposes, she describes the two of them to be the biblical “duo in carne una” (Mark 10:8). This paints a rather encouraging picture of human love and marriage; indeed, it is the prelapsarian ideal in its parity. For a fifteenth-century female audience engaging with this text, this is not only enlightening and inspirational; it is also empowering. The union Asenath is establishing with Joseph is Edenic in quality, and this is something for which Joseph also seems to strive. Both are represented as exceptional human beings who achieve an extraordinary relationship, and their union is one in which God is the center. In fact, their marriage is brought about through God, once Asenath—who possesses a noteworthy degree of control over her own destiny—decides to dedicate herself to “the heyhe Lord God of Joseph, almyhti in His throne” (l. 349). And the bond produced from such a relationship is one of equal affection and regard, of selflessness and charity. The presentation of marriage in The Storie of Asneth is one in which both parties are able to honor God through their relationship with one another, a union not only approved of, but promoted by God—something that would have resonated well.

On so many counts, The Storie of Asneth would have been a captivating text for a fifteenth-century female readership. Women were in no way ignorant of the fact that they endured the insidious yoke of patriarchy in both temporal and spiritual spheres, even though Judeo-Christian theology is very clear that women’s souls are equal. It is no surprise, for instance, that Catherine of Alexandria was such a popular saint, as discussed in a blog post by Mary Helen Galluch. Asenath is less radical than Catherine, though, in her devotion. And she weds and continues the family line, marrying, as it were, piety and the lay life—much as many medieval women did.

The Birth of Ephraim. Pictured from left to right are Joseph’s attendant, Joseph, Manasseh, a midwife presenting the infant Ephraim, and Asenath. Mosaic (narthex, bay 8, dome), c. 1200-1299. Venice, Basilica di San Marco

But her example lends a dignity to the lay life, and there are a number of parallels between Asenath’s actions in the text and those of the righteous woman of Proverbs 31. While on the one hand, Asenath remains circumscribed by patriarchal society (as the woman of Proverbs 31 is also) and can be seen as something of a safe, contained model; on the other hand, her claim to be Joseph’s peer in marriage and her exemplary conduct as a human being (regardless of gendered expectations) bring her far above the level of vessel and drudge. She is not a beautiful but passive romance heroine, for she energetically shows physical charm to be of far less importance than virtuous actions and that “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Bibliography (Cited and/or Suggested):

Primary Sources

“The Storie of Asneth.” Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991. 1-23.

Secondary Sources

Bell, Susan Groag. “Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture.” Women and Power in the Middle Ages. Ed. Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. 149-187.

Burchard, Christoph. “The Importance of Joseph and Aseneth for the Study of the New Testament: A General Survey and a Fresh Look at the Lord’s Supper.” New Testament Studies 33 (1987): 102-134.

Douglas, Rees Conrad. “Liminality and Conversion in Joseph and Aseneth.” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 3 (1988): 31-42.

Dwyer, R. A. “Asenath of Egypt in Middle English.” Medium Aevum 39 (1970): 118-122.

Elliott, Dyan. Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Hartman, Geoffrey. “Midrash as Law and Literature.” The Geoffrey Hartman Reader. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004. 205-222.

Heiserman, Arthur R. The Novel before the Novel: Essays and Discussions about the Beginnings of Prose Fiction in the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Hume, Cathy. “The Storie of Asneth: A Fifteenth-Century Commission and the Mystery of Its Epilogue.” Medium Aevum 82 (2013): 44-65.

Kee, Howard C. “The Socio-Cultural Setting of Joseph and Aseneth.” New Testament Studies 29 (1983): 394-413.

Kee, Howard C. “The Socio-Religious Setting and Aims of ‘Joseph and Asenath.’” Society of Biblical Literature 1976 Seminar Papers. Ed. George MacRae. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976. 183-192.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard When Aseneth Met Joseph: A Late Antique Tale of the Biblical Patriarch and His Egyptian Wife, Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lipsett, B. Diane. “Aseneth and the Sublime Turn.” Desiring Conversion: Hermas, Thecla, Aseneth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 86-122.

Liptzin, Sol. “Lady Asenath.” Biblical Themes in World Literature. Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1985. 62-73.

Lusignan, Serge. « Le temps de l’homme au temps de monseigneur saint Louis : le Speculum historiale et les Grandes Chroniques de France ». Vincent de Beauvais : Intentions et réceptions d’une œuvre encyclopédique au Moyen-Âge. Ville Saint-Laurent, Québec : Les Éditions Bellarmin, 1990. 495-505.

Nisse, Ruth. “‘Your Name Will No Longer Be Aseneth’: Apocrypha, Anti-Martyrdom, and Jewish Conversion in Thirteenth-Century England.” Speculum 81 (2006): 734-753.

Peck, Russell A. Introduction. “The Storie of Asneth.” Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse. Ed. Russell A. Peck. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991. 1-15.

Pervo, Richard I. “Joseph and Asenath and the Greek Novel.” Society of Biblical Literature 1976 Seminar Papers. Ed. George MacRae. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976. 171-181.

Reid, Heather A. “Female Initiation Rites and Women Visionaries: Mystical Marriage in the Middle English Translation of The Storie of Asneth.” Women and the Divine in Literature before 1700: Essays in Memory of Margot Louis. Ed. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton. Victoria, British Columbia: ELS Editions, 2009. 137-152.

Reid, Heather A. “Patroness of Orthodoxy: Elizabeth Berkeley, John Walton, and the Middle English Storie of Asneth, a West Midlands Devotional Text.” Devotional Culture in Late Medieval England and Europe: Diverse Imaginations of Christ’s Life. Ed. Stephen Kelly and Ryan Perry. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. 405-441.

Sanok, Catherine. Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’ Lives in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Vikan, Gary. “Illustrated Manuscripts of the Romance of Joseph and Aseneth.” Society of Biblical Literature 1976 Seminar Papers. Ed. George MacRae. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976. 193-208.

West, S. “Joseph and Asenath: A Neglected Greek Romance.” The Classical Quarterly 24 (1974): 70-81.