THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

09 December 2018

Women and books in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Whenever I talk to members of the public who have visited the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, one of the most common reactions is, ‘I didn’t expect there to be so much about women!’ As Claire Breay recently discussed on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, more evidence survives about early medieval women than many people realise. Our exhibition includes a prayerbook connected to the wife of Alfred the Great; chronicle accounts of the victories of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the oldest substantial woman’s will that survives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; the first surviving political tract written for (and about) a woman in England; and one of the fabulously jewelled gospel-books of Judith of Flanders.   

Morgan Library  MS M 708  upper cover
The jewelled cover of one of Judith’s gospel-books, made in Northern Europe in the 2nd half of the 11th century: New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover

The majority of the population in Anglo-Saxon England — including the majority of women — probably couldn’t read or write. That said, women made up a sizeable proportion of the part of the population that was literate. In Anglo-Saxon times, literacy was highest among monks, nuns, priests and other clergy, who had committed to a religious life. Religious women, such as abbesses, were at the forefront of several literary developments. Additionally, we have evidence that some lay noblewomen owned books.

Literacy among nuns and women religious

Female religious in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were probably able to read. Regardless of which rule of life they followed, reading scriptures and saints’ Lives was essential at most monasteries. There is also direct evidence of book ownership among female religious. For example, four out of the six  surviving early English prayerbooks use female forms and may have been written by or for women. Of the two originally made for men, one (Ælfwine’s prayerbook) was subsequently used and modified at the Nunnaminster, Winchester. 

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Aldhelm addresses Abbess Hildelith and others, from a copy of his De Virginitate made in southern England c. 1000: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 13r

In the early part of the period, religious houses led by women, including Whitby, Hartlepool, Ely and Barking were major intellectual centres. Hilda, abbess of Whitby, was the patron of the first English poet whose name we know, Caedmon. Meanwhile, Aldhelm’s De Virginitate, one of the most advanced works ever produced in Anglo-Latin, was dedicated to a group of women: Hildelith, abbess of Barking, Justina, Cuthburh, Osburh, Aldegethe, Scholastica, Eadburh, Byrngithe, Eulalia and Thecla.

Literacy among lay noblewomen

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms also includes evidence of noblewomen owning or commissioning books. The Book of Nunnaminster may have been owned by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, before it was given to the Nunnaminster. According to Asser, Alfred’s mother owned a finely illuminated book of English poetry, while Queens Emma and Edith both commissioned texts in the 11th century.

Add_ms_33241_f001v
Opening of ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’, depicting the author presenting his work to Emma while her sons Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut look on: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

It wasn’t just queens who had access to books and writing. The exhibition also displays Wynflaed’s will, the earliest substantial will of an Englishwoman. One third of all surviving Anglo-Saxon wills are in the name of women. This will shows Wynflaed using writing to conduct her affairs and it also reveals that she owned books. Wynflaed herself was a widow associated with a religious house, but she gave her books to her (apparently) lay daughter rather than to the nuns.

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Will of Wynflæd, copied out in England in the late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Perhaps the most spectacular example of female book-ownership is one of the Judith Gospels, generously on loan from the Morgan Library in New York, with its fabulous silver-gilt cover with jewels. Four of these de luxe books owned by Judith of Flanders survive. Judith’s Gospels are incredibly unusual for having survived with their jewelled covers intact. However, Judith was not unusual in 11th-century Britain in being a noblewoman with an interest in books. Books also survive that belonged to Margaret of Scotland and Edward the Confessor’s sister, Godgifu.

Female scribes and artists

Just as there were women readers, there were also female scribes. We know the name of at least one female scribe from the Anglo-Saxon period: Eadburh, abbess of Minster-in-Thanet. Around 735, St Boniface wrote to her, noting that she had sent him books and asking her to copy the epistles of Paul in golden letters for him. Another correspondent, Lull, sent her a silver stylus ('graphium argenteum').  

Harley_ms_2965_f016v
End of excerpts from Matthew’s Gospel and beginning of excerpts from John’s Gospel, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

At least one manuscript in the exhibition has traditionally been attributed to female scribes: the Book of Nunnaminster, a 9th-century Mercian prayerbook possibly owned by Ealhswith. Some of its text uses certain female forms. Later, someone added a record of the lands which Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, gave to the Nunnaminster, as well as a prayer that uses female forms.

You can learn more in our article Women in Anglo-Saxon England. All these manuscripts can be seen in our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, which is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

Alison Hudson

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