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I'll be the first to admit that record offices aren't bulging at the walls with reliable, first-hand historical sources about women's roles in the sixth to the eleventh centuries. We have a few scribblings of a handful of men, who were chronicling the actions of a handful of other powerful men. Women were mentioned whenever these powerful men married, had children or if there was any scandal. Women's history is a relatively new field of study - it's not that these scribes were necessarily excluding writing down evidence about these women on purpose, they most likely just wrote down what was important to them at the time.
And this is what makes Annie Whitehead's book, Women of Power in Anglo Saxon England, so mind-bending. She has somehow managed to turn these scribbles, odd mentions in charters and patchy likenesses etched into metal - into real, living and breathing women. We can identify with their struggles. It's like over a thousand years melts away and we see these women, through the evidence, for the first time.
To start with, especially if you're not familiar with the time period, the chapters might at first seem like a tangle of AEthelthryths, AEthelswiths and AEthelflaeds, but persevere and you'll unlock some quite startling facts which will most probably have you reassessing everything you previously thought about the Anglo Saxon era.
Like AEbbe, who was actually a saint and was said to have been responsible for no less than 43 healing miracles. Or Hild, who was appointed a founding abbess at Whitby Abbey? There was also Osthryth, a Saxon queen who was 'barbarously murdered' by nobles, possibly because of her political plotting. You'll read about how valuable these royal women were on the marriage market and how they had a say in decisions within these marriages. There's a wife's dramatic escape from Coldingham and accusations of politically powerful wives murdering husbands.
They've left their mark in the archaeological record, too. They were wealthy, leaving behind jewels and money. They founded, lived in and supported religious houses and controlled their own households. They were literate and educated their children. There are also Dowager Queens and mothers in law that would give Margaret Beaufort a run for her money.
The author has certainly researched this topic extremely well. There's a reliance on both written and archaeological evidence - and I love that she has aimed to paint real, vivid pictures of these women from the scant surviving evidence that exists.
One criticism I've seen levelled at this book is that it can be vague, with a few paragraphs like 'this might indicate X, but also Y or Z. Or it might be something else entirely'. But I think that's more a criticism of the subject matter than the skill of the author. It's only right that the author - the expert here - should present the evidence to us and help us interpret it in all the ways possible. Similarly, there is a brief rundown of the saints mentioned in the book, but I would love to have seen a more concise mini-biography of each woman mentioned, just to refer to for those of us who can get tangled up in unfamiliar names (especially when many of them sound so similar).
So now that this book has made me think differently about royal and powerful women in Anglo Saxon England, now what?
I can see that these women were certainly not meek or downtrodden, as I once thought they might be. But what about the average folk? I'd love to see some context - or maybe another work - exploring the more general roles of women in Anglo Saxon England, so we can compare. I wonder if it's possible to see examples - although I appreciate the historical record is scarce - of women in everyday roles establishing livelihoods, control of estates or any other business. Reading this book has definitely made me think differently about the roles of Anglo Saxon women.
Brilliantly researched, well written and full of information. Definitely recommend.
Have you read this book? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.