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‘One Who Does Not Need The Help Of A Man’: Women In Medieval Letter Collections

Church_of_Fontevraud_Abbey_Eleanor_of_Aquitaine_effigy

Letter writing was an important part of the transformation that notable medieval scholar Charles Homer Haskins describes as the ‘Twelfth Century Renaissance’.[1] This, among other changes, was a time of great intellectual progression in Western Europe. The ars dictaminis, or ‘art of dictating a letter’, was laid out in manuals to be studied, which included collections of letters written by famous scholars. 

Peter of Blois and Hildebert of Lavardin, both French ecclesiastics, wrote extensive letters during the eleventh and twelfth centuries that were admired by many long after their time. Their collections are complicated historical sources as they were heavily and carefully edited, often with a view to how they would be perceived by future audiences. While this must be taken into account when approaching these sources, they can also provide interesting insight into the contemporary views and aims of the writers. In this blog, I explore how the letter collections of the two famous writers help us to gain a better understanding of their attitudes towards women. In doing so, what stands out to me is the restriction placed on the letter writers’ abilities to communicate their views.  

Hildebert of Lavardin’s letter collection is recognised as one of the most important and influential manuscript collections of the Middle Ages. Indeed, Peter of Blois acknowledges that Hildebert’s work had a huge influence on him, having been made to memorise it during his own education. Hildebert’s collection portrays its author as a spiritual guide, advising people on matters ranging from their conversion to Christianity to the death of their loved ones.

He had many friendly relationships with powerful women, such as Matilda, the wife of Henry I, and Adela, Countess of Blois. Hildebert advised Matilda about death and mortality as well as the importance of marriage, virginity and motherhood, concepts traditionally associated with femininity. To Adela, he wrote three or four letters consisting of polite praise and requests, for example when he asked her for the chasuble, or liturgical vestment, she had promised him. Advising her on her regency in the absence of her husband, he wrote that she ‘does not need the help of a man’ to rule. He emphasised the power she had and advised her to show clemency to the realm. Additionally, when she decided to enter into a religious order, he wrote to praise her and to advise her on the virtues necessary to succeed there. 

It is worth noting that religion often acted as a leveller in gender relations as monks and nuns were treated equally, without the social hierarchy that prevented women from rising in lay circles. Adela’s decision therefore removed a level of paternal guidance from Hildebert’s letters and after her decision he advised her on qualities that he, as a deeply religious man, was also striving to adopt. 

Nevertheless, Hildebert’s letters do not come across as particularly personal. The letters all have a familiar tone, even though he often wrote to people he could not have personally known. This tone was used regardless of the people he was writing to and the relationship, or lack thereof, that he had with them. Due to this, his real feelings may have never been preserved, demonstrating the restrictions to expressing personal opinions that letter writing entails: the personal voice has been stifled by the rise of a formulaic approach to writing in which the author’s own motivations and their calculation of how to speak to the target audience interplay. 

Peter of Blois was also well-known for his collection of letters. Based on biblical teachings, he wrote on the importance of women choosing their own paths in life. In his correspondence with the archdeacon of Poitiers he criticised the latter for forcing his niece into a cloister and openly supported her decision to choose her own future. When the niece finally did become a nun, Peter wrote to her directly, congratulated her and advised her that it was a wise choice. He also wrote to his own sister and encouraged her in her life as a nun. He treated her with respect and motivated her to take responsibility for her own choices. Similarly to Hildebert, Peter’s writing concerning women is filled with paternal advice and he treats members of religious orders with great respect. 

Probably the most widely read of Peter’s letters today is his open correspondence with Eleanor of Aquitaine, attempting to stop her during her revolt against her husband, Henry II. Here, he took a completely different approach and made no pretence of equality between Eleanor and Henry. The famous medievalist Eileen Power, writing on the somewhat paradoxical view of women in the Middle Ages, states that women were constantly moving ‘between a pit and a pedestal’, with their status remaining confused.[2] Women gaining power were seen as dangerous, and powerful women were therefore in need of constant restraint. Power writes that women sometimes experienced a form of equality in this way, since, for example, Eleanor’s choice had the potential to destroy a powerful kingdom. This is reflected in the letter, where Peter often quoted scripture and warned of the doom of the kingdom in order to implore Eleanor to return to her husband. 

Peter’s other letters to women include advice and encouragement on many different matters. His letter to Eleanor is not an accurate portrayal of his feelings towards women in general, however, but a demonstration of how outside motivations can impact what a person is able to write. Peter’s patron, the Archbishop of Rouen, instructed him to write on these issues, probably on separate instructions from Henry II himself. Therefore, the letter should be seen as part of a long tradition of fearing women in positions of authority. His promotion of gender equality on the one hand and preaching on the required subservience of women on the other at first seems confusing but can be understood as the actions of a man who needed to impress his masters. Peter later took up a position under Eleanor, and removed this particular letter from his collection, demonstrating the impact of patronage on the letter collections that survive today.[3]

There were many day-to-day issues limiting medieval men from portraying their true feelings towards women in their writing. Factors such as patronage, politics and social norms often seem to have limited these men in their ability to treat women as equals. The collections discussed here have, in some ways, still succeeded in demonstrating how these men saw women. Much like today, an individual’s personal views were overshadowed, not only by the opinions prevalent at the time but also by their desire to maintain their own social status. 

Rachael Haslam is a final-year History student at the University of Sheffield, looking to embark on an MA in Medieval History. She is particularly interested in twelfth century gender and intellectual history. This blog is based on a project supervised by Dr Danica Summerlin.

Cover image: Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the church of Fontevraud Abbey. Photograph by Adam Bishop, 2011. Image licensed under Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Further reading:

Cherewatuk, K., and Wiethaus, U., (eds.), Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre (Philadelphia, 1993)

Duby, G., Women of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1997)

Ferrante, J., ‘Medieval Women’s Latin Letters’, Epistolae,  https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/home

Haskins, C. H., The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1971)

Hayward, P., ‘Seminar III: Letters and Letter Collections’, Medieval Primary Sourceshttps://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/haywardp/hist424/seminars/03.htm

Markowski, M. (ed.), ‘Peter of Blois: Letter 154 to Queen Eleanor, 1173’, Internet History Sourcebooks Projecthttps://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/eleanor.asp

Power, E., Medieval Women (Cambridge, 1978)


[1] C. H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1971)

[2] E. Power, Medieval Women (Cambridge, 1978)

[3] It is possible that Eleanor herself implored him to remove it. However, it is more likely that Peter took it out as a courtesy to the person he worked for. Either way, his removal of it demonstrates that he did not feel strongly about the views it presented towards women. 

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Where do we find evidence of everyday lives from the past? Using social surveys in historical research

Greenhalgh Figure 2

Survey research is now a vital part of policymaking, news reporting, and general knowledge. Yet researchers did not always know what we might call the basic facts about people’s lives. Historical social surveys aimed to fill this gap. Survey directors published the most influential accounts of the populations they studied, but social survey data were produced by everyday people and entire teams of researchers who worked alongside more famous figures. This means that their archives can be read to uncover a wide range of experiences and accounts of daily life in the past.

Social surveys date to the final decades of the nineteenth century, when researchers invited everyday people to participate in research projects about their neighbourhoods and communities for the first time. By going directly to their subjects for information (which was produced through observation, interviews, and questionnaires), social survey researchers endorsed and highlighted the experiences and opinions of everyday people.

Researchers such as Charles Booth (1840-1916) and W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) pioneered methods of door-to-door research that made personal interactions part of the research process and helped to spread new ideas about social science. In their published forms, social surveys embedded statistical findings in detailed descriptions of the history, geography, society, and culture of the populations they studied. By the 1970s, however, strengthening commitment to evidence-based policy coexisted with criticisms of positivist social science that would eventually weaken its authority. At the same time, new patterns of work made house-to-house surveys difficult and moved survey research into the print, telephone, and online forms that you might encounter today.

Historic social surveys compel the attention of historians because they contain rare and revealing archival discoveries about the lives and attitudes of everyday people in the past.

Their mixture of information about researchers and subjects equips historians to interpret social survey archives in different ways. For example, social historians read questionnaires, budgets, and statistics to understand the lives of the people who participated in research projects, including working people, older people, and migrant communities. Historians of science take a different approach in order to examine how and why survey directors selected particular topics and methods. Such decisions have shaped public perceptions of issues such as poverty until today.

I read the archival records of the University of Melbourne Social Survey (1941–1943) in order to showcase the contributions of everyday people and low-paid, contract workers to social science and the historical record.

The University of Melbourne Social Survey was a massive—and not entirely successful—undertaking. The project cost close to £3,000. It employed dozens of interviewers and coders over a period of 20 months. The survey was designed to record information about one in 30 homes across Melbourne. To this end, interviewers visited just over 7,600 households.

The survey’s overall findings, however, were never published. Three short articles appeared in the journal of the Economic Society of Australia.  The only monograph described data collected from several hundred families living in the industrial suburbs of Footscray and Williamstown.

Instead, the vision of comprehensive, objective social knowledge about Melbourne was best realised in the survey forms that were collected door-to-door from thousands of participants (and are archived at the University of Melbourne). These were the work of 35 low-paid, contract workers, who were almost entirely women.

The University of Melbourne contract interviewers earned 2 shillings and 6 pence for each completed questionnaire, on a piecework basis and with no job security. The major challenges of their work included travelling long distances across the city only to encounter empty houses and uncooperative inhabitants.

Interviewers had to convince people that survey research was worthwhile and that researchers were trustworthy. A suspicious woman living in Mordialloc, for example, peered through a crack in her door to demand ‘who are you anyway? Who sent you?’ Unfortunately for the interviewer, she slammed the door shut without waiting for a reply.

Agnes Young rode the train 30 kilometres from the centre of Melbourne to seaside Chelsea in September 1941. She switched to a bicycle to cover the long distances between houses that she was required to visit on the outskirts. Young joked that she would have been better off riding a horse. One foggy morning she was lost in the bush until two children helped her to find her way. Over two days, Young reached 23 houses but completed only 15 survey forms. If she wanted to earn more, she would have to repeat the long journey another time.

Pat Counihan single-handedly completed over 2,000 questionnaires. She worked hard to finish an average of eight surveys per day and pocket £5 each week. This income was an improvement on what she had earned as a teacher. The money supported her husband, the artist Noel Counihan. Survey work also provided Counihan with opportunities to document exploitation of tenants and workers.

The organisers of the University of Melbourne survey left a number of the survey’s most difficult or sensitive inquiries about the state of people’s homes and the reliability of their answers to the back of the survey sheet, and to the discretion of interviewers. In response, Counihan described the poor conditions of houses across Melbourne. She detailed their broken windows, leaking ceilings, and verandas used as children’s bedrooms. Counihan was alert to the diverse causes of human suffering and she noted troubles ranging from mental breakdowns to neglected gardens, with medical problems sounding a constant note of pain and expense.

Across dozens of the most shocking records, Counihan repeated the phrase ‘the landlord will do nothing’. With this understated observation, Counihan made her survey forms testify to the common hardships she encountered across the city, the terrible treatment of tenants during a housing crisis, and the unfairness of people’s lives.

The Melbourne survey’s rich archive underlines the significance of popular participation in survey research and the intellectual contributions of its interviewers. Examining the research process of a survey like this one connects the intellectual history of social science to wider transformations in education, employment, and the role of expert knowledge in everyday life. When people participated in social surveys, they witnessed some of these changes first-hand. Fortunately for those of us who seek to understand the history of everyday life, many people them took the opportunity to speak back to experts and shape the historical record.

Charlotte Greenhalgh is Lecturer in History at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. This is an extract from her chapter in Reading Primary Sources. The Interpretation of Texts in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History (London: Routledge, 2020). The book can be ordered with a 20% discount by entering the discount code FLR40 at the checkout.

Image: One of over 7,000 completed survey forms. Survey 44, 23 July 1942, box 13, 1973.002, Wilfred Prest collection, University of Melbourne Archives, Melbourne (UMA).

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