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).

Thinking Sex, Teaching Violence, and The Book of Margery Kempe

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Margery Kempe. In fact, I’ve thought about little else the last few months, since her Book was the focus of my most recent chapter in a dissertation that examines women’s desire in Medieval English texts – and The Book of Margery Kempe has a lot to say on the subject. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about how Margery thinks about sex and why she thinks about sex the way she does.[1]

I’ve also been thinking a lot about teaching – lately, about teaching The Book of Margery Kempe. I love teaching, and I love thinking about literature courses I’d love to teach. As a scholar whose research focuses on representations of women, I look forward to teaching a course devoted to medieval women one day. The reading list would obviously include works written by women during the Middle Ages, and we have few examples, especially in English. I will be teaching The Book of Margery Kempe, and when I do, I want to do it well, so I was wary of the weariness I’ve experienced while reading it.  

The opening page of the manuscript containing The Book of Margery Kempe where the work is described as “a short treatise and a comfortable for sinful wretches” in the first line (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 1r).

Much like Margery, I have a confession to make: I have never been especially fond of her Book. But I have also never failed to recognize its value. As one of the only known Medieval English works written by a woman and often considered the first autobiography written in English, her Book is extremely precious, in part, because it provides us insight into a medieval woman’s life that is dictated in her own voice if not written by her own hand. It survives in a single manuscript, discovered in 1934 and dated to approximately 1440. When I had the opportunity to see the manuscript on display at the British Library, I revered the object behind the glass because I understand the worth of its words. When I re-read the narrative recently, I felt exhausted, often frustrated that so many pages remained until its end.

The Book is long; it is neither chronological nor linear. Sometimes it seems repetitive to the point of redundancy. But it is salacious, tender, even occasionally funny. It is also profoundly sad.

Excerpt in which Margery describes how “she went out of her mind and was wonderfully vexed and labored with spirits” for the better part of a year following the birth of her first child, during which time she was tormented by visions of “devils” (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 4r).

Best known for her spectacular physio-emotional displays that so often occurred in public and provoked concern, Margery Kempe has always been a controversial figure as a woman mystic. Her Book is, in many ways, a memoir that recounts her spiritual journey, tracing the origin of her mystical experiences to the birth of her first child at age twenty and the self-described madness that ensued. It is only when Christ appears to her, seated next to her on her bed, that Margery’s sanity returns. In many of her visions, Margery’s interactions with Christ exhibit sexual undertones; indeed, some visions are overtly sexual. While erotic language and metaphors were not uncommon in medieval mystical writing, especially those involving women mystics, Margery’s visions are unusual in that they imply sexual activity with Christ himself.

A characteristic episode of Margery Kempe describing a visit to “the church yard of Saint Stephen” where “she cried, she roared, she wept, she fell down to the ground, so fervently the fire of love burnt in her heart” (London, British Library MS Add. 61823, f. 71v).

Margery describes herself as illiterate in her preface, but this does not mean that she was unlearned. It does, however, mean that she required a scribe. Her narrative was mediated by two male scribes, which complicates her status as an author, an already fraught term in the Middle Ages on par with autobiography, since the genre did not yet technically exist. She was a wife, the mother of fourteen children, and inordinately mobile, traveling for extended periods of time on pilgrimage to holy sites, which took her away from her husband and children. Unlike other religious women, Margery was neither virginal nor cloistered. She preferred to be on the move, and traveling was one of the ways she was able to avoid unwanted sex.  

Bishop blessing an anchoress, a woman who lived a life of enclosure dedicated to prayer and contemplation (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 079: Pontifical, dated 1400-10).

Here, I pause to provide a content warning and meditate for a few moments on what that means. The discussion that follows involves sexual violence, a topic tied to gender and power, which are, in turn, topics pertinent to any discussion of literature. Because I am constantly working at the intersections of gender, sex, and violence, I think a lot about how to prepare my students to successfully navigate discussions of sexual violence, knowing very well that it may be personally relevant for them. After all, sexual assault is rampant in the United States, with one in three women experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime. One in five women experiences sexual assault while in college, and they are most vulnerable during their first year. While men experience sexual violence at a significantly lower rate than women, those who do are likely to have those experiences prior to or during college. Sexual violence remains an omnipresent part of our cultural conversation, even when we’re not talking about it explicitly and we should be.

A content warning is a standard feature of my syllabus. I believe that my students should be aware that they are likely to encounter sexual violence in our reading. It does not encourage them to opt out of reading assignments or evade challenging discussions; instead, the contextualization enables them to wrestle meaningfully with the material in the way that best fits their needs and fulfills our learning goals. If they are prepared for the content, they may be able to avoid unnecessary triggering, a term that gets tossed around far too frequently by folks who are far too flippant about rape culture and has been distorted through stigmatization. A “trigger” warning suggests an inevitable, uncontrollable reaction, whereas a “content” warning cues students to prepare accordingly. Semantics aside, we need to be proactive when teaching The Book of Margery Kempe.

Following the spiritual revelation that sparks her mysticism, Margery renounces sexual activity. She commits herself to chastity and begs her husband to live chastely with her – that is, to allow her to abstain from sex, to not force her to have sex with him. He refuses. For years, Margery endures marital rape.

I realized recently that my ability to properly empathize with her situation had been impaired by my own biases about the narrative’s style.

I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, which unravels the relationship between speech and gendered violence. There is a point at which Solnit refers to the 1940s and 1950s, which I always think of as the decades from which Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique emerged and exposed the tragic irony of America’s failure to understand how women could possibly be so miserable as housewives when they couldn’t get a credit card without a husband and couldn’t get birth control, period. While contraception was legalized in 1965, women could be legally raped by their husbands in the United States until 1993.

Publicity Director of Planned Parenthood Marcia Goldstein with signage prepared for display on New York buses in 1967 (photo by H. William Tetlow, Getty Images).

Solnit simply refers to the dates for the purposes of prefacing an anecdote about a man she knew who, during that time, “took a job on the other side of the country without informing his wife that she was moving or inviting her to participate in the decision.” She writes, “Her life was not hers to determine. It was his.”[2] Margery immediately came to mind.

During the medieval period and well beyond, women ceased to occupy a separate existence from their husbands when they married. A wife did not retain a will of her own; her will was legally subsumed by her husband’s. On this subject, I am well versed. But for some reason, Solnit’s exemplar resonated with me more acutely than Margery’s experience previously had. Certainly, the rather arduous experience of reading her Book had engendered more impatience than sympathy, but I had failed to really feel the extent of her suffering, and for that I felt deeply guilty.

I returned to the passage where Margery describes her sexual loathing and her subjection to repeated rape:

“And aftyr this tyme sche had nevyr desyr to komown fleschly wyth hyre husbonde, for the dette of matrimony was so abhominabyl to hir that sche had levar, hir thowt, etyn or drynkyn the wose, the mukke in the chanel, than to consentyn to any fleschly comownyng saf only for obedyens. And so sche seyd to hir husbond, ‘I may not deny yow my body, but the lofe of myn hert and myn affeccyon is drawyn fro alle erdly creaturys and sett only in God.’ He wold have hys wylle, and sche obeyd wyth greet wepyng and sorwyng for that sche mygth not levyn chast.”[3]

“And after this time, she never had the desire to have sex with her husband, for the debt of matrimony was so abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, eat or drink the ooze, the muck in the channel, than to consent to any fleshly commoning, except in obedience. And so she said to her husband, ‘I may not deny you my body, but the love of my heart and my affection is drawn from all earthly creatures and set only in God.’ He would have his will, and she obeyed with great weeping and sorrowing because she could not live chastely.”

I haven’t stopped thinking about those particular tears. Or my misgivings about her memoir.

Carving of a medieval woman on the end of a pew in King’s Lynn Minster, formerly known as St. Margaret’s Church, the parish church of Margery Kempe (photo courtesy of Laura Kalas, author of Margery Kempe’s Spiritual Medicine: Suffering, Transformation, and the Life-Course, published by D. S. Brewer, 2000).

With more than 500 years between us, it can be challenging at times to make tangible how extraordinarily different and difficult medieval women’s lives must have been – and yet, sexual violence remains so prominent a presence in our daily lives that content warnings appear in my syllabi.

I see Margery Kempe so much more clearly now, the medieval woman writer who is a singular survivor just like her Book. And I want my students to be prepared to see her as I do: individual and immortal.

Emily McLemore
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


[1] While it is obviously standard practice to refer to an individual by their surname, this practice also presumes that one’s surname represents the individual to whom it refers. Perhaps less obvious are the problems with identifying medieval women by their surnames when those very names are indicative of the subsuming of their identities by their husbands in conjunction with coverture, the legal doctrine that removed a woman’s rights and separate existence in marriage. Margery Kempe’s surname, for all intents and purposes, is tied to her erasure as a woman. I have chosen to refer to her as Margery to center her as an individual and retroactively counteract the masculine authority that governed her existence. 

[2] Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 59-60.

[3] The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lynn Staley (Kalamazoo: The Medieval Institute, 1996), 26.

Margaret Ebner on Twitter: Medieval Sanctity and Twenty-First Century Social Media

Catherine of Siena receiving the stigmata
Catherine of Siena, a model for Elisabeth Achler, receives the stigmata; Domenico Beccafumi, c. 1515

Even Elisabeth Achler’s hagiography admits she was faking it.

Franciscan tertiary Achler (1386-1420) fulfills all the stereotypical demands of late medieval women’s sanctity, although sometimes just barely. It is an extreme that gets her into trouble. During her three-year fast and her even more extreme twelve-year fast, she ate nothing but the Eucharist. Well, the Eucharist, and the food she stole from the kitchen and hid under her bed. [1]

The wobbly nature of Achler’s portrayed sanctity suggests her hagiographer is being somewhat honest, and in this case, honest to a conscious attempt to achieve living sainthood. Achler tried to live up to an ideal.

That is nothing unusual in any time or place, of course. But this case is particularly interesting as scholars question more and more the extent to which late medieval ascetic sanctity was historical versus rhetorical.

Nicholas von Flue was a wildly famous living saint whose cell became a pilgrimage site for peasants all the way up to scholars and bishops. Nicholas’ public reputation (and eventual hagiographic portrayal) represented him as a Desert Father come again. He was the most severe ascetic possible (not even eating the Eucharist!) and a hermit. His face was gaunt, his skin yellow or colorless, his hands ice cold; he lived in isolation to the point where he was known as the “Forest Brother.” [2]

Nicholas von Flüe portrait
Nicholas von Flüe, parish church in Sachseln, Obwalden, Switzerland, c. 1492

And no matter how many people saw him in person, it didn’t matter that his hands were warm, he looked healthy, and his cell was on a corner of the property where his wife and children lived.

Whether Nicholas did or didn’t eat and whether he did or didn’t see his family are both beside the point. His sanctity was built on the rhetoric of imitating, or besting, the Desert Fathers.

But nothing better embodies the debate over historicity versus literary construction, or the ideal of women’s ascetic sanctity to which Achler aspired, than a group of books from Dominican women’s convents in fourteenth-century southern Germany. Here I want to focus on the first-person “autohagiography” of one nun, the so-called Revelations of Margaret Ebner. [3]

From external evidence, we know that Ebner was a historical person with a reputation for sanctity already in her own lifetime. There seemed no reason to doubt that the Revelations filled in the details from Ebner’s (necessarily biased and subjective) point of view. [4] The text recounts her spiritual life over the course of several decades: repetitive prayer, devotion to the Passion and the Christ-child, heavily somatic piety, sensations of sweetness, severe sickness. It is repetitive and simplistically written.

If you’re thinking this is the spirituality that was once accounted “hysterical,” you are absolutely correct. If you’re thinking this is the spirituality that scholars now recognize as distinctively feminine with very real social-theological significance, you are also correct.

But what if the Ebner of the Revelations is a hagiographic Nicholas von Flue? What if the literary portrayal of living sainthood is unconnected from the reality of a woman nevertheless renowned as holy?

So runs Susanna Bürkle’s argument for Revelations. Bürkle argues that a nun or nuns at Ebner’s convent constructed the I-narrator of the autohagiography as an exemplar of so-called women’s sanctity. [5]

Or, to speak in the idiom of the twenty-first century: the nuns curated a public version of Ebner that adhered to the demands of women’s sanctity.

It’s easy to draw parallels between blog posts with comments and manuscripts with glosses, between Tumblr and commonplace books. So how about late medieval women’s autohagiography and hagiography as Instagram and Facebook?

screenshot from TwitterWe’ve all seen the “I take 1000 selfies for every one I can post” Instagram admissions, and the smartphone videos where the gorgeous YouTube star turns this way and that to display how she can go from (ridiculously thin and good-looking) normal to supermodel quality with angles and makeup. These social media accounts have a rhetoric of their own. The “Feet in the foreground, beautiful scenery in the background” photo means ultimate relaxation. Twitter has its own grammar, often departing from “proper” English, that mashes up different vernaculars and changes from meme to meme.

And, as article after article reminds us, social media is brutal for self-esteem because we are convinced these accounts portray something of reality. No matter how much we are aware of constructing our own Facebook feeds and dividing up our Reddit alts, the ideal of others’ lives looks real. The occasional admission of failure or falseness is the modern humility topos, yes. It is also a guarantee of reality—a sign we can trust these people, who, after all, are honest about their dishonesty.

Whether or not an Instagram account is an accurate summary of the life behind it is irrelevant to us in these cases. All we can see, and all that the users mean to convey, is the ideal.

But as Elisabeth Achler’s desperate hoarding and bingeing reminds us, the construction of exemplarity in the Life of Catherine of Siena and the Vitae patrum, in Revelations and the Sister-books—on twenty-first century social media—has its costs.

Nicholas von Flue died at age 70. Margaret Ebner died at age 60.

Elisabeth Achler died at 34.

Cait Stevenson, PhD
University of Notre Dame

[1] The oldest recension of Achler’s hagiography, probably from an autograph by its author, was published by Karl Bihlmeyer, “Die schwäbische Mystikerin Elsbeth Achler von Reute († 1420) und die Überlieferung ihrer Vita,” in Festgabe Philipp Strauch zum 80. Geburtstag, ed. Ferdinand Joseph Schneider and George Basecke (Halle: Niemeyer, 1932), 88-109.

[2] Gabriela Signori examines the role of appearance in Nicholas von Flue’s hagiographies and reputation: “Nikolaus of Flüe (d. 1487): Physiognomies of a Late Medieval Ascetic,” Church History and Religious Culture 86, no. 1-4 (2006): 229-255.

[3] The standard edition is Philipp Strauch, Margaretha Ebner und Heinrich von Nördlingen: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik (Amsterdam: P. Schippers, 1966). Ebner’s text is the best-known among the Sister-books and related Dominican women’s texts because of its accessible English translation: Margaret Ebner: Major Works, trans. Leonard Patrick Hindsley, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1993).

[4] On the question of whether medieval visionary texts reveal something of the visionaries’ actual experiences: Peter Dinzelbacher, “Zur Interpretation erlebnismystischer Texte des Mittelalters,” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literature 117 (1988): 1-23.

[5] Bürkle’s argument for Ebner is part of a long line of work by primarily German scholars on the Sister-books. Piece by piece, they (including Bürkle herself, working on Engelthal) have built an argument for the 14th-century Dominican women’s texts as deliberate literary works, though they differ as to the purpose of these constructions and what information the Sister-books can still tell scholars. “Die ‘Offenbarungen’ der Margareta Ebner: Rhetorik der Weiblichkeit und der autobiographische Pakt,” in Weibliche Rede – Rhetorik der Weiblichkeit. Studien zum Verhältnis von Rhetorik und Geschlechterdifferenz, ed. Doerte Bischoff and Martina Wagner (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), 79-102.