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Medieval Women, Archives, and “Rabbit Holes”

By Dr. Linda Mitchell

 In November I will be spending a couple weeks in London (my graduate students are thrilled to be relieved of attending class just before Thanksgiving Break!) in order to squeeze in research at The National Archives of the UK and The British Library at a time when the usual tempests of the summer academic pilgrimage to UK archives has quieted.  Let me say that conducting archival research is one of the “guilty pleasures” of academia.  I consider it an addiction from which I never want to be cured.  There is nothing like having a box-load of dirty, dusty, 800-year old documents dumped before you onto your work station to send you, like Alice, down the rabbit hole of Time: a journey into the past that is as profoundly experiential for historians and other archival researchers as peering through a satellite at distant galaxies is for an astronomer.

I never know quite what I will find when I spend time in the archives.  The medieval records in London, at various venues, are the most complete and plentiful series of medieval documents in the world, with the possible exception of the Vatican Archives.  Nevertheless, historians until very recently could often be found condescendingly intoning that “women are invisible in the archives—it is impossible to conduct reasonable research on medieval women.”  These kinds of naysayers had placed the blinders over their eyes deliberately: there are not simply “women” in the archives, there are scores, hundreds, thousands of women in the archives of medieval Britain.  They appear in every conceivable kind of source, in every circumstance.  And not just noblewomen and queens (although they are certainly easier to find): peasants and urban women, nuns and brewsters (women who brew beer), prostitutes and artisans are there, in quantity.  One scarcely can look at a single membrane of a thirteenth-century plea roll (transcriptions of civil and criminal litigation in the courts of law) without falling over a dozen of them or more.

In my last sojourn at the National Archives of the UK, I spent a great deal of time reading through the “account register” of a noblewoman, Joan de Valence, about whom I am writing a book.  This particular series of account entries dated from an important transitional time in her life: the two years immediately after the death of her husband, William de Valence.  Other historians have looked at her accounts, but not in order to find out particular things about Joan herself.  I was seeking Joan: what kinds of food she served at her table, how many paupers she fed every day as her charitable obligation, who visited her and whom she visited.  And in the dry entries of the account register, written down diligently by her steward, I didn’t just find that material, I found glimmerings of Joan and her relationships—including strong suggestions that her estate officials and servants were both fond and protective of their “lady.”  And down the rabbit hole I fell.  To Joan’s manor house in Kent, where she stayed after the funeral, receiving visitors and returning visits in a manner not unlike the Bennett girls in Pride and Prejudice.  To Joan’s castle on the Welsh border, where a good friend—and prioress of a nearby priory—left the confines of her cloister to stay at the castle for weeks on end.  To numerous visitations of Joan’s son, Aymer, who spent a few days with her every other week or so, unless he was away “on the king’s business.”  To Joan’s delight at the announcement by a herald that she had a new grandchild—she tipped him very well indeed for bringing her the glad tidings!  If the information were not enough, I had only to finger the parchment—sheepskins nearly 800 years old—and read the tiny cramped handwriting of the estate’s steward and his references to “my lady of Wexford” and “my lady’s son,” or even “my lady’s son-in-law” (who stopped in for a quick visit on his way to London) to be transported back in time.

The reason I initially got hooked on medieval history, and medieval women in particular, was because of the tactile sensation I experienced at the age of 12 seeing the Tower of London for the first time—or even more immediately, walking among the ruins of Tintern Abbey or Chepstow Castle when I was older.  But the reason I stayed hooked on medieval history was because of the whispers from the archives: the voices of women and men revealed in the manuscripts.  And it is probably why I will never tire of my job—the whispers keep drawing me back.