Finding women between the lines

One of the pleasures of blogging is that it gives you a space to tie up a few loose ends that you’ve been unable to find space for in more formal research. My doctoral thesis wasn’t really about gender all that much, and yet gender did and does come into my research, usually via the feminisation (or, occasionally, masculinsation) of prayer texts. Every now and again, in Anglo-Saxon prayer collections, we find evidence that a female reader has been using the book, saying the prayers, and making her mark upon the manuscript. Most of these prayer collections are in Latin, which is so heavily gendered a language that it is difficult to speak about oneself without making reference to one’s gender. So it’s not unusual to read a prayer in which the writer speaks of himself as a ‘peccator miser’ (a pitiable [male] sinner), but a woman has later come along and added feminine grammatical glosses between the words or between the lines. Some good examples of this can be found in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvii + xxvi), the manuscript which I discussed in a recent post. Here and there, throughout the manuscript, are collections of prayers, and in some places, a female user has altered the manuscript for her own use:

London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvii, Folio 68
London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvi, Folio 68r

‘Hasten to me, I ask, all saints of God, to whose protection I flee, pitiable and a sinner’. The female reader has inserted ‘trix’ over ‘peccator’, forming the female ‘peccatrix’; she has also added an ‘a’ to the end of ‘miser’. This is by no means unusual for this manuscript. It’s an example of how, even after a text had been written, later readers were not merely using it but reflecting on it, adding to it, and making it their own; and of how female readers were not expected to hide themselves behind masculine grammar, but instead announced their own presence.

Another way to add to a manuscript is through the addition of new texts. Folios 74 and 75 of Ælfwine’s Prayerbook are just a single sheet of parchment inserted into the manuscript, with a depiction of the Trinity on the verso of 75, leaving three blank pages for later scribes and artists to do something with. And in the twelfth century, somebody did exactly that, adding a prayer to fol. 74r. Rather interestingly, it’s a prayer to a guardian angel, something that I have not come across elsewhere:

Credo quod sis angelus sanctus, a Deo omnipotente ad custodiam mei deputatus … humiliter inploro, ut me miseram fragilem atque indignam semper et ubique in hac uita custodias.

Titus D. xxvii, fol. 74r, quoted from Günzel‘s edition

(I believe that you are a holy angel, assigned by Almighty God for my guardianship … I ask humbly that you may guard me, pitiable, frail and unworthy, always and everywhere in this life.)

The adjectives used to describe the speaker are all feminine. Unlike the earlier example, these are not interlinear glosses. This text makes use of an otherwise empty folio of the manuscript, and was in a female voice from the beginning.

Another one of my interests is in Anglo-Saxon medicine. One of the most fascinating texts in this field is a medical collection headed ‘Lacnunga’ (‘Remedies’) on folios 130r-193v of London, British Library Harley 585. Although the rest of the manuscript is full of medical texts too, those are translations of Latin manuals on the use of plants and animals in healing; they are more organised, and stay on the point more. Lacnunga, on the other hand, is more eclectic: its advice ranges from ‘mix these herbs with water, let the patient drink the water; he will soon be well’ to complex cures involving religious rites, Old English poetry, and Irish incantations that had been corrupted beyond the point of comprehensibility. (I’ll write about this text in full another time.)

A small number of these remedies are specifically for women: for one who suddenly becomes dumb, who cannot conceive a child, or carry one to term; but today I’m looking for a woman who is only mentioned implicitly.

London, British Library Harley 585 fol. 186r

Wið gedrif nim snægl 7 afeorma hine 7 nim þæt clæne fam mengc wið wifes meolc syle þicgan him bið sel.

(Against fever: take a snail and clean it and take the clean foam; mix with a woman’s milk; give it to [the patient] to eat; it will be better with him.)

Presumably breast milk was selected for its life-giving and nurturing properties; the associations of snails, in this context, are a little more obscure, although it turns out that snail slime does in fact have all kinds of health benefits (see #2 here: who says that reading isn’t relevant to my work?) Of course, we know very little about the context of Anglo-Saxon medicine. We don’t even know how much these remedies were actually used in practical healing. But this one gives rise to any number of questions. Was this remedy itself used by a mother for her infant, or was it intended for adults? Who is this lactating woman whose participation was necessary in order to heal the feverish person? How did she feel about the remedy? And how does one even ask that kind of favour?

The three Old English Leechbooks, a group of medical compendia gathered together into London, British Library Royal 12. D xvii, also contain a few remedies for women’s medical problems, including a cure for heavy periods which I will discuss in a later post. However, the index of Leechbook II reveals that there would originally have been forty-one remedies for gynaecological problems in that book alone. Leechbook II takes a markedly more rationalistic view of medicine than the other two books – it has, for example, a description of what the liver looks like and how it works – so it would have been interesting to get this book’s particular view on women’s medicine. Unfortunately, the manuscript has since been damaged, and these folios were lost. Otherwise, they might have given us all sorts of interesting insights into what was happening in women’s lives in the tenth century.

Which other women between the lines are there out there?

6 Comments Add yours

  1. dawnlizjones says:

    Fascinating. Women make themselves known. It’s interesting to see into the lives of these ancients through my narrow 21st century lens.


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