I loved this article in the newspaper the other day, ‘Women’s writing began much earlier than supposed’, in which writing by a female authors in England was discovered to be dated back to the seventh century. Or at least, academic and author of Women, Writing and Religion in England and Beyond, 650–1100 Diane Watt has concluded that certain anonymous texts indicate female authorship. The authors in question were nuns, living a life of austerity and observance in the Anglo-Saxon period.
It would be too easy to glamourise what must have been a plain existence, but I have held a long fascination with these women, the abbesses in particular, imagining them to be tough and independent, at least within the limited confines of the day. Imagined that joining, certainly leading, a nunnery to have been one of the few ways for women to become and to remain educated, to be a leader in society. And I have long though what intriguing subjects they’d make for a novel.
There is Leboa, for example, who travelled to Germany on a mission in 748, became the delegate of Archbishop Boniface, and the abbess of a convent in Tauberbischofsheim in Germany, known for her wisdom and learned teaching. And Æthelburga, a princess of Kent and Queen of Northumbria by way of marriage to King Edwin, who after her husband’s death founded one of the first Benedictine nunneries in England, at Lyminge in Kent, which she led until her death in 647. Then Osgyth, who absconded from a forced dynastic marriage with the King of Essex to establish a convent at Chich in Essex and become its first abbess, later martyred by losing her head during a raid by bandits on the abbey in 700.
There was Cuthburga, who separated from her husband King Aldfrith of Northumbria, then rose through the ranks to become the first abbess of Wimborne, making the convent famed as a training ground for learned and active women until her death in 725. And also Saint Mildrith (c. 660-733), who featured in a hagiography of Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, the “Vita Mildrethae” (the “Mildrith legend”) which depicted her life as abbess of Minster-in-Thanet in Kent, an abbey founded by her own mother, Domne Eafe.
Of particular interest is Etheldreda (or Æthelthryth), twice married yet preserving her chastity, who on separation from her second husband, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria (what was it about those Northumbrian kings that made women so eager to leave them?) returned to Ely in her native East Anglia, founding an abbey there in 673. It was a ‘double monastery’, featuring one building for nuns and one for monks, and Etheldred was abbess of both monastic houses. Her life story depicts her as a fearless defender of the Abbey against marauders, but also someone who was sought out for her wise counsel. Unlike some of her sisters, Aelfflaed never needed to renounce her status as daughter of Northumbrian King Oswiu. Raised by Hild, herself the abbess of Whitby in Yorkshire, another ‘double monastery, and groomed to take over from her, Ælfflæd commissioned the hagiography Life of Gregory after St Gregory the Great, became a teacher, and assumed sole rule at Whitby until her death in 714.
And there were many others.
We can see that most of these women came from wealthy backgrounds, princesses and noblewomen with lives of relative comfort and the recipients of education at a time when only a small portion of the population was literate. Women, according to a law-code issued by King Æthelberht of Kent (550-616), of ‘the foremost noble rank’ – foremost in a list of eight female ranks from nobility to ‘grinding slaves’. Yet for all their advantages, they must have been remarkable.
And where the days of their counterparts would have been taken up by the running of a household, the sisters would have had a different routine. Life was based around prayers and work. Whilst some nuns may have travelled, others would not have left the abbey walls. Yet this choice of existence gave an opportunity for learning. Reading and writing were a central part of daily routine. In fact, as the above article notes, women were the patrons of the earliest discovered poetry written in English and of some of the most complex poems to be composed in Latin, and nuns were required to memorise and recite texts and to read Scripture.
We cannot idealise the era. It was a time of slavery and hardship for many in society. Yet it was a long and winding path from this to modern times. Anglo-Saxon women enjoyed more legal rights than they had in the Victorian era at least eight hundred years later. Rights that included owning and selling land in a woman’s own name, to defend herself in court, to own livestock – and to end a marriage whilst retaining half the household goods and custody of children.
Over the centuries, what further great work might we have seen in English literature by women if that path of history had been different?
Alison Flood ‘Women’s writing began much earlier than supposed, finds academic’ in The Guardian, 07 November 2019.
Whitby Abbey by Kirsten Drew from Unsplash
‘Ancient text’ by Mark Rasmuson on Unsplash