Forgetting the Weakness of Her Sex and a Woman’s Softness: Historians of the Anglo-Norman World and their Female Subjects
By Kimberly Klimek
Ph. D. Dissertation, University of New Mexico, 2009
Abstract: The number of historians who wrote during the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries creates the unusual problem of too many sources. The sheer number of interesting and powerful women does the same. In order to narrow the topic of the presentation of women in texts from this period, I have chosen nine historians and six women to focus on.
The period from 950 to 1150 is a crucial period for the development of the scholastic method and therefore it gives us the most interesting, if not most confusing, period to work from. Additionally, this project focuses geographically on the Anglo-Norman world: England, Normandy, Blois, and the surrounding counties of influence. This work is further restricted to eight major historians, one historical compilation, and six women from this place and time.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle will form the basis for a study of monastic methods of the early period. Eadmer, Hugh of Fleury, and William of Jumièges will round out the monastic historians. William of Malmesbury, Orderic Vitalis, the author of the Gesta Stephani, and Robert of Torigny comprise the category of liminal historians. William of Poitiers, Henry of Huntingdon, and John of Salisbury will represent the scholastic historians. The Mercian lady Æthelflæd, the Norman Adela of Blois, the four Anglo-Norman queens, Matilda of Flanders, Matilda of Scotland, the Empress Matilda, and Matilda of Boulogne, will form the basis of the historical study.
Introduction: After Hugh of Fleury’s dedication to Adela, he begins his work with remarks on the positive nature of women’s rule. He suggests women can lead as well as men and that history shows both genders as equally noteworthy:
But the Scythians’ origins were no less illustrious than their empire, nor were they celebrated more for the excellent qualities of their men than for those of their women. The men, indeed, founded the Parthian and Bactrian [nations], which we are discussing, while the women founded the kingdoms of the Amazons. Thus it is unclear to anyone pondering the past deeds of men and women which gender among them is the more illustrious.
Even knowing that Hugh dedicated this work to Adela, a powerful lord and ruler in Blois, the presentation of women as illustrious leaders is still curious. Few medieval authors write of such political egalitarianism between the genders and this paragraph itself disappears with later redactions of Hugh’s text. If we compare these words to an early scholastic writer like Peter Abelard, who is often known for his egalitarian ideas on women’s spirituality, we see a distinct difference in the way women are presented. Abelard warns that the devil can “easily seduce a woman when her desire is for authority” and he warns against making a local noblewoman into an abbess, for her authority could easily lead to pride and presumptuousness.