The secular women's seals present the historian with unique opportunities to study the portrayal of female identity in twelfth-century England. Seals were visual representations of power, and they conveyed notions of authority and legitimacy. Women's seals have been particularly poorly served. They also identified women's power in the context of land tenure, lordship, social status and the female life cycle. Additionally, they signified both gender and status in different ways. The representational forms of noblewomen's seals symbolised noblewomen's cultural identities and served to endorse gendered norms of women's role in lordship. The use of seals by twelfth-century noblewomen reinforces the argument that noblewomen had important roles to play within the construct of lordship in the specific context of land transfers.
The fourteenth-century alliterative narrative The Siege of Jerusalemhas recently begun to generate the kind of interest associated with more canonical Middle English works. Scholarly studies have emerged to fill the lacunae of response and readings, and a new edition is forthcoming. This chapter argues that this new attention to Jerusalem is well deserved and long overdue, inhibited more by scholarly distaste for the poem's perceived relentless and violent anti-Judaism, than by any intrinsic lack of literary or cultural value. The argument concerning the poem is predicated on a recuperative reading in another sense of the word. It suggests that the virulent anti-Judaism from which scholars recoil is neither as unambiguous nor singular as is commonly claimed.
According to Sir Degrevant, an early fifteenth-century romance with a lively plot and remarkable density of description, what women want is a handsome, valiant, wealthy and noble lover, triumph over fierce paternal opposition, a splendid wardrobe, and a fabulous room of their own. Degrevant is written in the sixteen-line tail-rhyme stanza often characteristic of popular romances, and, although it has no identifiable main source or close analogues, it also incorporates a number of conventional thematic and verbal formulas. It argues that the term landowning class tends to occlude women's social and cultural activities. In the getting and maintaining of wealth and power, a particularly demanding task in the political and economic upheavals of the fifteenth century, the making of marriages was a way of brokering alliances and providing for the orderly transfer of wealth.
The romance of Sir Percyvell of Gales was probably composed in the north of England early in the fourteenth century but obviously enjoyed widespread popularity in medieval England. This chapter notes that the Percyvell-poet is a master of the proairetic code: he is clear about where the story is going, and makes sure that we are clear about it too. In the fourteenth century, however, Percyvell owed most of its popularity not to being read, but to being told and re-told, possibly from memory. The discussion of the poet's reshaping of his source is in two sections. The first deals with the Percyvell-poet's ‘unscrambling’ of Chretien's plot, and considers how this affects the mood of the story. The second deals with the poet's happy ending and asks what makes it, in all senses of the word, fulfilling.
Le Bone Florence of Rome and bourgeois self-making
The earliest surviving representation of an English bourgeois family at prayer appears in a fifteenth-century book of hours, now known as the Bolton Hours, made for members of a York mercantile family. The family's whole prayer, cast as it is in that form of the future that imperatives bring into being opens up a space for narrative. The family is represented around the issue of sexual conduct and good name of its female members. There was more than one late-medieval discourse of virginity. On the one hand, virginity was represented as a sacred vocation that was placed highest in the triad virginity-widowhood-marriage. This way of categorizing female sexuality had been a commonplace of Christian thought since the fourth century.
Sir Gowther is a 700-line narrative probably originating about 1400 in the North Midlands. It is conspicuous for that surface crankiness and drastic speed which are often found in medieval English verse romances. The peculiarity of Sir Gowther is that it focuses key anxieties of society's dominant group at such a pitch as to project a kind of worst-case threat to dynastic stability. The questions that loom dramatically in this narrative concern the state of society as well as the state of the soul. It begins with warnings about the power of the devil. It then introduces a society wedding between a Duke and a bride who seem to have stereotypical credentials for producing noble heirs.
The importance of witnessing as a measure of consent to a transaction is particularly difficult to verify, since the references to consent in charters are inconsistent. The historiography of witnessing turns on two axes within broader debates about the nature of charter evidence. There is important evidence to suggest that when husbands and wives acted as joint witnesses they did so as conjoint lords. The presented examples of noblewomen who conjointly witnessed charters with their husbands show conjoint action of husband and wife in their capacity as superior lords for their tenants in their seigneurial court. The ranking of witnesses is an indication of the interaction of gender and status. Women participated as witnesses in land transfers as wives, widows and as part of family groups. By the end of the twelfth century, witnessing had spread through society so that women of all ranks of landholder participated as witnesses.
This chapter explores the female patronage of St. Mary's, Clerkenwell by the Munteni family in the second half of the twelfth century, and reveals how land tenure and kin connections could underpin active female patronage over two generations. It also examines the interactions of the female life cycle and social status upon the participation of wives and widows in land transfers. A discussion on female lesser nobility is presented, including the examples of noblewomen who exerted power more formally, perhaps as public office holders. The evidence shows how the roles of lesser noblewomen could resemble those of women of higher status. Women's power to grant land in the context of religious patronage gave them a public role which was considerably magnified if the woman was an heiress or a widow. There is evidence that women could hold public office if they had a claim through patrilineal hereditary right.
Considering the role of nonreading through the lens of digitally-inspired object-oriented theory that focuses on assemblages and relations within networks, this chapter argues that, when letters or books are more valuable for nonreading, their meanings, and the ways in which readers participate with them, change. This change affects books even in moments of reading, for it highlights their ever-present potential to act and be used in ways contrary to how writers might want them to work. Analyzing the role of nonreading through its literary instantiations in scenes like that from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, and in manuscripts where readers draw or inscribe their names, encompasses acts of participation that resist and critique modes of participatory reading like those studied in previous chapters. In this way, nonreading could shift books into alternative networks, and highlights how medieval readers could take charge and make books and reading work for themselves.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and John Lydgate’s Troy Book
This chapter begins with an exploration of an overlook aspect of the widespread medieval humility topos, used by Chaucer, Lydgate, and other late medieval writers. Far from simply expressing humility, the topos is often also used to invite readers to correct the text, thus laying the groundwork for a discourse of participatory reading in late medieval England. This chapter argues that emendation invitations represent an act of participatory reading demonstrating affinities with today’s crowd-sourced editing practices, and shows how Chaucer, Lydgate, Thomas Norton and William Caxton, alongside other writers, turned to the emendation invitation in ways that sheds light on how they anticipated and attempted to control their readers and their readers’ participatory reading practices.