Women in buildings

This is the first in a series of posts here where I reflect on the role/experience of minority groups in and around medieval buildings. I’ve always been interested in the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people around buildings, but a recent workshop on medieval buildings at TCD reminded me that ‘minority’ groups (particularly women) are seriously neglected in the public representations of buildings. Therefore, I’d like to use this space to begin to explore these ideas a bit further and to increase the public coverage and awareness of these issues. I shall start here by discussing women in buildings.

There has been a considerable amount of work on women in medieval society and there have been many publications on the matter, but they are still not fully represented in our public interpretations of buildings. The work of Karen Dempsey at Reading, through her project ‘HERSTORY ‘, has made a significant contribution to this field and highlighted many failings in the presentation of monuments in state care. Some other work on medieval women can be found in the further reading section below. So, why, despite all this research, do we not see women as central characters in the stories of buildings? Is it because castle studies have been dominated by white men? or is it because there is too often a focus on the military aspects of castles, where women are not considered to be involved?

I think we have to start with our view of medieval castles. The traditional view, and that ‘marketed’ by the likes of English Heritage, is that they were built for war. The reimagined images of castles are full of men in mail-coats with weapons, ready for a war or a siege. However, only a small proportion of castles ever saw active duty in the Middle Ages and much of the damage visible today occurred during the Civil War. So, what happened in castles when they weren’t under siege? Castles served many administrative functions for the local community, much like manor houses in the countryside. Places like Richmond, Caernarfon, and Carrickfergus had a direct relationship between the town and the castle, frequently with the castle adjacent to the market place. The castle was the location for courts and other such activities.

But more importantly than this, the castle was a home. The lord, his family, and his retinue may have only been in residence for a few weeks of the year, but the castle was a permanent home to the constable, his family, and the servants/workers who maintained the castle. There would always have been cooks, bakers, brewers, stable hands, blacksmiths, and others, as well as their families. Thus, for most of the year, there was a large collection of people within the castle who were not involved in military activities.

We can see the role of women in the running of many estates. The most famous example is probably the Paston family of Norfolk. The letters of the family show how Margret Paston was involved in the management of the estate and took over all responsibilities when her husband went to war in France. It is also important to note how many letters she wrote, suggesting that she was just as literate as the educated members of her family. This can also be seen at Mote, Iden; the accounts show Agnes Scott, the lady of the manor, took many decisions about the management of the estate while her husband was in Calais. At Goodrich Castle, there are letters surviving from Béatrice de Valence detailing her decisions about the castle (thanks to Karen Dempsey for highlighting this in her workshop presentation). English Heritage recently updated their interpretation of the ‘story’ of the castle and choose to depict Béatrice de Valence holding an ewer instead of a letter. This shows English Heritage making a clear choice to downplay the role of women in the life of the castle, despite going to some effort to include them in the castle’s story.

I’m also reminded of the work of Rachel Delman that I saw her present at Leeds IMC last year. She looked at the importance of gardens and closets and their association with women. Women’s lodgings are often thought of as private spaces and placed out of sight. Many women’s chambers overlook the privy garden, thus providing a pleasant view. However, Margret Beaufort’s chambers in her foundation of Christ’s College, Cambridge, were above the Master’s lodging, attached to the chapel and visible to all who entered. The fact that they also overlooked the privy garden suggests that chambers could have been given a view while also being visible to the outsider. This is important because it shows that women consciously placed themselves in visible locations within buildings and choose to display their power in buildings they founded or controlled.

Current research shows that women were visible and had important roles in the life of buildings. But the presentation of these buildings to the public does not reflect these stories. So what can we do to change this? Is it possible to rewrite the publicly presented stories? Yes is the short answer, but it will require some work. We, as researchers, need to push the stories we uncover to the public through various media outlets, either mainstream, historical (such as History Today) or more academic (such as The Conversation). The recent story of the discovery of lapis lazuli in the mouth of a nun (showing she was trusted with this valuable material to illuminate manuscripts) made national and international headlines. This shows what could be possible with some creativity and media know-how. Once these stories are shared widely enough, maybe then organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust will begin to change how they present women within their buildings.


Further Reading

Davis, N., The Paston Letters, Oxford World Classics

Fleming, P., Family and Household in Medieval England, Palgrave

Gardiner, M. & Whittick, C., Accounts and Records of the Manor of Mote in Iden, Sussex Record Society

Gilchrist, R., Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course, Boydell

Leyser, H., Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Morrison, S.S., A Medieval Woman’s Companion, Oxbow Books

Woolgar, C.M. (ed.), The Elite Household in England, 1100–1500, Shaun Tyas Press



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