Women’s use of religious literature in late medieval England
By Anne Marie Dutton
PhD thesis, University of York, 1995
Abstract: Little scholarly attention has been directed to the subject of women’s activities as readers, listeners, and owners of the religious literature circulating in late medieval England. This dissertation examines women’s access to and use of such literature from c. 1350 to c. 1500. My main sources are wills and probate inventories (both of which sometimes mention books), and extant manuscripts and incunabula known to have been owned or used by women. I argue that the female audience of religious literature was composed primarily of women religious and laywomen from the nobility and gentry, and, in the fifteenth century, from the mercantile elite. Such women formed networks that facilitated the exchange and sharing of books. Middle English treatises of spiritual guidance addressed to women construct celibate readers, thereby ignoring married women, and thus, to a large extent, laywomen. These writings also attempt to limit women’s critical responses to the text. A study of the corpus of religious literature actually in women’s hands reveals not only that laywomen and female religious participated in a common literary devotional culture, but also that this culture went beyond what was written or recommended for them. I present two case studies of women book owners – a laywoman, Anne Harling (c. 1426-1498) and a nun, Sibilla de Felton, abbess of Barking from 1394 until her death in 1419. These two women, despite their different life-styles, shared religious and secular concerns, and I argue that both used the religious literature in their hands not only for spiritual benefit but also for political advantage.
“Read assiduously; learn many things. Let sleep come upon thee book in hand.” Thus wrote St Jerome to the virgin Eustochium in 384. It would seem that over one thousand years later, certain women (not just consecrated virgins) were following Jerome’s advice. They were reading, or listening, and it is to be hoped that they were learning many things. This thesis explores women’s access to and use of the religious literature circulating in England from c. 1350 to c. 1500. Throughout the Middle Ages and indeed beyond, moralists emphasized the spiritual and moral benefits that women were to obtain from reading. The view of The Knight of la Tour-Landry, whose book of advice for his daughters was twice translated into Middle English in the fifteenth century, is particularly apposite:
eueri woman it is the beter that canne rede and haue knowinge of the lawe of God, and forto haue be lerned to haue vertu and science to withstonde the perilles of the sowle, and forto use and excerse the werkys of thaire sauement, for that is thinge aproued and necessarie to alle women.