Goodreads: Medieval Women
Throughout her career as a medieval historian, Eileen Power was engaged on a book about women in the Middle Ages. She did not live to write the book but some of the material she collected found its way into her popular lectures on medieval women. These lectures are now brought together, edited by M. M. Postan, and reveal the world in which women lived, were educated, worked, and worshipped. Power gives a vivid account of the worlds of the lady, the peasant, the townswoman, and the nun. The result is a historical yet intimate picture of a period gone by yet with resonances for today.
Although this book is old by academic standards (Power passed away in 1940, and her husband published these lectures 1975), Medieval Women still offers a useful and accessible overview of women in the Middle Ages. The book is divided into three chapters that succinctly cover the options women had during the Middle Ages—lady, peasant, or nun—and two more chapters that cover general ideas about women during the period and education for women. Readers may pick and choose which sections are most interesting to them, or read the book in order.
Though each lecture is relatively short (and nicely broken up with an assortment of reproductions of medieval artwork), Power concisely addresses the major points of each topic and refutes the most common myths. She explains, for example, that not as many women were educated by nuns as people might think, and that the ideas presented about women in medieval texts (primarily written by male nobles and clergy) may not accurately reflect how women acted or were perceived in everyday life—particularly by peasants who would not have access to those texts.
Once in a while Power’s arguments do seem dated. For instance, she praises the aim of chivalry to “raise up” women as people to be served or venerated, with the argument that at least this was better than the tendency to see women as sinful descendants of Eve. Today, many scholars argue that actually chivalry did little to expand roles for women. However, the book as a whole is generally accurate. M. M. Postman did some minor editing to account for new research done between Power’s death and the publication of her lectures. Also, the historical facts tend to hold, while Power’s interpretation of them is often what is outdated.
Medieval Women is a thoughtful, highly readable introduction to its topic. Readers already deeply familiar with the history and literature of the Middle Ages will probably not find a lot of that is new here. But readers looking to start learning about women of the Middle Ages will do well to start here.