Over the past 6 weeks, I have researched the topic ‘women and the book’ from 900-1600. This research has led me to investigate the role of women and book usage across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This blog will discuss what I found in Europe and how scholarship in this field can progress forward. Overall, this blog will argue that a more interconnected understanding women’s book usage is needed, which demonstrates the commonalities between the experiences of women and books in the medieval period.
In my analysis of European women, I focussed upon how women have been understood in the historiography outside the Anglo-Burgundian axis across England, France and Germany. To do this, I analysed Muslim and Jewish women in Europe and how these women used books in the different parts of Europe they lived him. Naturally this took me to the Iberian Peninsula, which had high Muslim and Jewish populations in the medieval period. In analysing the Umayyad Caliphate and the various Sultanates that emerged in the later medieval era, I found that Muslim women, as examined by K. Shamsie, occupied an important role within the libraries of the Sultan in collecting texts, analysing them and copying them to increase their availability. I found that Jewish women living in this region, as analysed by J.A. Harris, also used books within the domestic sphere reading the Haggadah genre within the home. Moreover, the role of women as teachers also became prominent in educating children on the texts they studied and religious texts which were considered important for spirituality.
After researching Iberia, I analysed women’s book usage on the peripheries of Europe in Ireland, Scandinavia and Turkey. In Ireland, the image of the reading woman on tombs was a powerful image with this put on the tombs of elite women throughout the medieval period as demonstrated by T. Martin. Therefore, the relationship women had with books was socially powerful, which went beyond the reading of text. Within the Scandinavian context, I analysed the figure of Dorothea of Brandenburg and how she, through her political power, established the University of Copenhagen in the fifteenth century. This research by K. Hundahl and L. Kjær, highlighted the intricate relationships between knowledge, books and political power. In Turkey during the Ottoman Empire, in the sixteenth century I analysed the poetess Mihri Hatun and how, from her elite background, she could write poetry which got the recognition of Sultan Bayezid II despite other male poets heavily criticising her work. Consequently, this research discussed in a study by S. Faroqhi details the challenges women faced in publicising their work and how they overcame these obstacles. Given this, I am sceptical that it can be argued that women had the same, widespread relationships with books that men did. This is due to the many restraints, highlighted in the examples I came across, that men enforced upon women.
My research within Europe has demonstrated not only the variety of ways women used books beyond central and Western Europe, but also the diversity of the women using these books at Europe’s peripheries. Such an understanding is also emphasised beyond Europe, into the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Therefore, the research of women’s book usage requires a more interconnected and interdisciplinary approach, looking at the commonalities between practices rather than taking a nationalistic perspective. Such an analysis would consequently understand this subject within a cross continental approach, breaking down the boundaries enforced upon the past by historians.