Academic Discovers That Women Wrote Much Earlier Than Supposed

The latest discovery in women’s writing has shown that women started writing much earlier than previously thought and the earliest writing was by a nun who is now named as the first woman ever to write a full-length prose work in English; she even hid her name in the text. Furthermore, this research has also brought to light the marginalization of medieval women’s writing in history and that contrary to popular belief women’s writing was a thriving much before historians thought this to be true. 

Men rewrote the written works of women and credited it to themselves

According to history books, the first piece of writing by a woman was dated in the latter half of the middle ages, in the 12th century with writer Marie de France and in the14th-century Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. However, Diane Watt, professor of Medieval Literature at the University of Surrey most recent book,  Women, Writing and Religion in England and Beyond, 650-1100 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), argues that women were actually actively involved in the emerging English literary tradition and much of the anonymous texts that we know of today were probably written by women and how men rewrote the written works of women and credited it to themselves. “There was a vibrant literary culture that women were involved in, in a whole range of ways, before the Norman conquest. There’s a big Latin tradition preceding that which isn’t considered, partly because it’s in Latin and partly because the picture hasn’t been put together. People might notice isolated cases of women’s writing, but the evidence hasn’t been put together,” said Watt. 

What we know of medieval literature today and the field is slow to embrace change

The problem is that since much of these texts are in Latin, it’s not something that the everyday person could just pick up and read, however, the works of early female writers like Leoba, an English missionary and abbess of Tauberbischofsheim in Franconia and Hugeburc, an English nun who joined the Benedictine monastery of Heidenheim have shown that women were writing poetry much earlier than supposed. The texts also reveal the interests of women which suggest that the author is a woman. Watt added, “Bede came along and took these sources and incorporated them … It’s not deliberate censorship, but you have a major writer like Bede coming along, and he becomes the definitive text, and the earlier ones become redundant.” According to her, what we know of medieval literature today and the field is slow to embrace change, but it is vital to acknowledge that women to had the literary prowess to compose their own works, but couldn’t put their name to it, unfortunately. However, this does not mean that women writers never exited when male writers did.

Image credit:, The Public Medievalist

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