In the Middle Ages, society held to a simple view of woman. She was a feeble thing, the weaker vessel. Her dreadful archetype was Eve. So what could be expected of Eve's daughters but simplemindedness and moral instability? This gloomy picture was reinforced by a physiological science which described not only their lack of strength but also their impurity and the coldness of their "humour", which made all women constantly lustful for the warmth of men's bodies. Given these premises, there could be nothing more natural than the invention of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Eve's opposite. The epitome of an idealised womanhood, Mary objectified medieval society's wish for a female sex which would be virtuous, biddable, unthreatening.
Such is the misogynistic package of prejudices which has been projected upon medieval society by latter-day generations. Not that the account of medieval attitudes towards women is wholly false. On the contrary, it is all true. But it is only a part of the real, complex picture. Henrietta Leyser is not given to extensive theoretical argument, but an effect of her intelligent, subtle and wide-ranging book is to make just this qualification. She plausibly urges that truth was perceived to lie, not with any single position, but in the interaction of them all.
Take the Virgin Mary herself. Her cult was exceptionally strong in medieval England, but her image was far from being confined to the blandpiety of received assumptions. Leyser cites Anglo-Saxon texts in which Mary virtually initiates the process of the Annunciation, and she recalls later miracle stories in which the Virgin set a dramatic example of intervention and leadership.
Leyser purveys no illusions about the disadvantages of women in medieval society. She shows a healthy scepticism about fashionable but unsubstantiated theories that women may have enjoyed a golden age, either in the late pre-Conquest period or in the 15th century. Yet she is surely right to draw attention to the informal spheres in which women could be influential: in local gossip at the washing fountain, in unofficial processes of dispute settlement, in the sometimes controversial harbouring of strangers, in the provision of charity.
Leyser's general account of female spirituality in the Middle Ages - perhaps the most impressive part of the book - contains an important argument about the high regard in which medieval society held the visions of religious women. Women did not have a monopoly on visions, but they certainly dominated the field, and whereas this has often been seen as the appropriation by the subordinate sex of an inferior, surrogate power, Leyser convincingly shows that men both respected and were prepared to act upon religious insights regarded as specific to certain women. Not all men viewed these in such a positive light; but here, as much as in any area of female influence, the jibbering indignation of misogynist critics is itself testimony to the wider context in which a variety of holy women were perceived as having a profound knowledge of life's important questions.
Henrietta Leyser modestly insists that her book relies upon the primary research of others. Yet she brings to the subject an original voice, distinguished by its ability to capture the diversity and nuance of medieval views. In the Middle Ages, women were seen neither as wholly "good" nor "bad". Instead, then as now, there took place continual debates about the respective qualities and roles of both sexes.
Gervase Rosser is fellow and tutor in history, St Catherine's College, Oxford.
Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500
Author - Henrietta Leyser
ISBN - 0 297 81604 7
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 337