Amsterdam University Press

Ask Me Anything on Medieval Women, Material Culture, and Power

On July 17 2020, I participated in an ‘Ask Me Anything’ organized by Reddit’s Ask Historians to discuss my book Medieval Women, Material Culture, and Power: Matilda Plantagenet and Her Sisters.
(Modified) Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

The questions I received were diverse, tough and fun to answer. And it gave me some insight into the kind of responses the title of my book and its blurb triggered. Here, I want to share two issues.

First, I received a couple of questions on women’s wills and patterns of inheritance. Were bequeathed objects considered as gendered in the sense that some were typically male objects, while others were deemed as female? Indeed, some objects seem to have been gendered. The German law book ‘Sachsenspiegel’ (early thirteenth century, but based on an earlier oral tradition) mentions that shears were inherited by daughters, whereas swords were passed on to sons, indicating that women were seen as caretakers within households, whereas men were considered protectors. Yet these objects may have prompted other responses as well. Recent research more attuned to the sensory and emotive qualities of artefacts has shown that items such as shears and swords also embodied shared experiences, familial affection, and the memory of (grand)parents. In my book, I present the Psalter of Henry the Lion and Matilda as the kind of object that mothers were likely to bequeath to their daughters. I suggest - but cannot prove - that Matilda gave it to her daughter Richenza-Matilda upon her return to Germany, leaving her daughter behind at the court of Henry II. Matilda’s daughter may have treasured this personal book, which contained an image of her parents, as a peg for memory. However, not all artefacts were gendered or followed gendered patterns of inheritance, which should caution us to think in binary categories of male/female and masculine/feminine.

Secondly, one of the participants was curious to hear more about my thoughts on medieval historian’s engagement with material culture. In fact, this is an important theme since historians tend to rely on the written rather than material record. With my book, I hope to inspire medieval historians to take artefacts more seriously by being attentive to objects and materials (e.g. gold and beeswax) mentioned and represented in chronicles, charters, law books and other legislative texts. When and where are artefacts mentioned, is there a specific context, is anything revealed about their connections with people, how are they represented? These are the kind of questions that help us to understand why objects mattered to humans. Ideally, historians should include surviving items (including the seemingly mundane) and approach them as actual primary sources: do they confirm or contradict the written record, do alternative stories emerge? Of course, this also means that historians should talk with art historians and archaeologists so that they become aware of current trends and approaches and develop an affinity with 'things'.

Interested in power, women’s wills, and recommended readings on women and material culture? Visit Ask Historian’s Ask Me Anything on Medieval Women and Material Culture. Medievalists regularly present their research there, one of them is the archaeologist Karen Dempsey, who recommended Ask Historians to me.

Buy or download Medieval Women, Material Culture, and Power

Medieval Women, Material Culture, and Power: Matilda Plantagenet and her Sisters by Jitske Jasperse is now available (pre-)order in paperback, hardback or an Open Access eBook.

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020