Young Women in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Young Women in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

By P.J.P. Goldberg

Paper given at the International Medieval Congress (2005)

Introduction: I need hardly inform this audience that The New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is an impressive research tool, especially in its on-line version. Virtually all of the research for the paper that follows was done without my leaving my desk. At the touch of a button I was able to call up all 159 entries relating to women ‘active’ within the period 1250-1500. Had I asked for women ‘alive’ within the same period, my sample would have increased by some 60 names. On the other hand, had I searched for men ‘active’ within the same era, I would have been provided with a far more impressive sample of 3059 names. Women thus constitute less than five per cent of the total biographical entries for the period. This is in line with a broader pre-modern pattern, the equivalent percentages for the periods 1000-1250 and 1500-1750 being 5.1 and 6.0 per cent respectively. Only in the modern era do these proportions rise. For 1750-2000 as a whole the proportion doubles to 12.4 per cent, but for the twentieth century it is three times as much at 18.0 per cent.

In fact the proportion cited for 1250-1500 is significantly inflated for many of the names generated by searching the ‘active’ category are not represented by individual biographical entries. A number are listed only as wives within their husbands’ entries and several more have brief biographical notices within family entries. Twenty-four women are noticed in collective entries for women in trade and industry for the cities of York and London – the equivalent entries for Bristol, Norwich or Coventry have yet to be written. Similarly, nine women are grouped within a collective entry on medieval women medical practitioners and a further four as Lollard women. These are logical strategies for increasing women’s representation within the dictionary, but they do not generate actual biographies. Consequently our sample of 159 names was further reduced to 80 for the purposes of this paper. Of these only some 35 included anything approaching details of the subject’s childhood. From a database of over 60,000 names, this is surely a very exiguous result, about which fortunately I am allotted only some twenty minutes to speak.

My purpose is not to undermine the very real achievements of this massive collective enterprise of scholarship, but rather to explore some methodological problems. It is a commonplace that comparatively few people even in the later medieval era were documented other than as names in court records, tax registers or the like. The clergy, because literate, tend to be rather better recorded, as are the greater aristocracy. Our sample of course includes no clergy, but there are a small number of religious. It does, however, comprise no less than 54 countesses and 26 duchesses. These then are hardly entries primarily dictated by merit, but rather by accident of birth. Most of the women who feature do so not so much as women, but as daughters, wives and mothers. They were the daughters of powerful men. They were married to powerful men. They gave birth to men who in turn were born to power.

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