The long read: Medieval Women, Modern Readers

by Fran Allfrey, LAHP-AHRC PhD candidate, and Beth Whalley, Rick Trainor Scholarship and Canal & River Trust PhD candidate.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was ‘Press for Progress’. The campaign focused on the reality that gender parity – which the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report projects as being over 200 years away – cannot happen without organised and inclusive collective action. The theme got us thinking about the ways that our own discipline, medieval studies, intersects with feminist activism, and the ways that medievalists might be able to participate meaningfully in these conversations. And so, on the 28th March, supported by LAHP and King’s Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, we held a two-part event to celebrate medieval women and women in medieval studies.

Part 1: The Wikithon

The first part of our event was a ‘Medieval Women, Modern Readers’ Wikithon, which aimed to improve references to scholarly work by women and non-binary people in articles related to medieval studies, and to create and improve pages for women and non-binary medieval scholars and artists who study or remake medieval texts, objects, or themes.

There is a substantial gender imbalance in the Wikipedia community. In the worldwide Wikipedia Editor Survey of 2011, an incredible 91% of respondents were male. It is an oft-cited statistic, and one which has motivated efforts to counteract systemic bias from the likes of the Wikipedia Gender Gap Task Force and the WikiWomen’s User Group. Yet contributions by and about women are still woefully lacking: the Wikimedia Foundation’s target to raise women’s contributions to 25% by 2015 remains unmet.

Wikithon in progress at Senate House.

Within the context of Medieval Studies, the problem is exacerbated by the discipline’s historical marginalisation of feminist approaches. A 2014 article by medievalist and King’s English Department alumna Kathryn Maude, for example, explores how the pressures produced by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), especially on female early career academics, can result in the publication of less radical medieval feminist scholarship. Less published work means less citable material, and less citable material means fewer opportunities to reference important feminist work within Wikipedia articles.

That said, there is plenty of published work out there which hasn’t yet been written into Wikipedia. And, our foray into medieval feminist Wikipedia editing is by no means the first: the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship held a Feminist Wikipedia Write-in at the International Congress for Medieval Studies in 2014; medieval medicine historian Monica H Green organised a Wikithon at Leeds International Congress in 2015; while the Swansea University College of Arts & Humanities project held two Medieval Women Edit-a-thons in 2015 (and they joined our Edit-a-Thon remotely!).

We could not turn down the opportunity to hold a Wikithon in London, to build on the strong institutional medieval scholarly communities in the capital and continue the vital work of the global medieval feminist community.

We are grateful to the organisers of previous meetups for sharing their tips, for having Wikipedia pages that we could source code from, for writing blogs to inspire us, and for encouragement via emails and retweets.

First Wikipedia edits, done (demonstrated by King’s English undergraduate Miranda.

We were extremely lucky that a number of experienced Wikipedia users joined us on the day, including: the co-founders of the Women’s Classical Committee Wikipedia group, Claire Millington and Emma Bridges; Hannah, Stuart, and John from Wikimedia; and Andrew, a dedicated Wikipedia editor. They helped our participants, most of whom were complete beginners, to make their first edits confidently, and offered fantastic advice from the technological (using Wikipedia ‘code’) to the regulatory (helping us understand Wikipedia’s ‘community standards’).

Taking just one piece of advice from our Wikipedia experts on creating citable references for women…

If we took just one piece of advice from our Wikipedia experts, it’s that an excellent way to create citable references for women (medieval or modern) that do not have many sources describing their works or life is to post essays on university departmental blogs [ed’s note: of course, King’s English is always seeking contributions]. John also made a video to document the Wikithon, reminding us that creating records is important for helping future would-be editors get started (please do reach out to us if you’d like help setting up your own Wikithon; while we are by no means experts, we can help connect you to people who are).

Our 16 participants edited 22 different articles, and created two brand new articles, including: List of artistic depictions of Beowulf; Caroline Walker Bynum; Julian of Norwich; Elizabeth Paston; and Lellia Cracco Ruggini. Three hours is not much time to make a dent in Wikipedia’s nearly six million articles, though, so we have set up a MedievalWiki project page to maintain the momentum and encourage future work, as there’s still plenty more to do! Here, you’ll find a list of articles that we have identified as needing work, and a list of ‘women in red’: notable women without Wikipedia pages. We intend to maintain this page as a permanent fixture on Wikipedia, where anybody can make suggestions for further improvements and record their editing progress. Type WP:MedievalWiki in the Wikipedia search bar to explore and make your own edits.

Part 2: Press for Progress: Feminism + Medieval Studies Roundtable

We held our ‘Press for Progress’ roundtable discussion in response to several triggers; not only the IWD theme but also as a reflection on the conferences and journal special issues in 2018 that seek to ‘reevaluate’ feminism in the discipline today. We were joined by members of the public and staff and students from universities across the country, including a few scholars from America and Europe whose trip to London happily coincided with the evening’s event.

Alicia Spencer-Hall introduces the Roundtable.

We invited our panellists to speak with a deliberately broad brief so that they might respond with a wide variety of ideas, frustrations, inspirational actions and provocations. Our panel didn’t know what was going to be said, and we programmed the speakers in alphabetical order.

The fact that contributions discussed similar topics was not mere serendipity: it became clear as the evening progressed how concerns overlap with one another, and how questions of feminist practice can speak across and trouble the institutional hierarchies established between ECRs and professors.

The roundtable began by thinking through how, so many years since feminist approaches were adopted in medieval studies, working on women can still be a feminist act, as we seek to justify the historiographic importance of scholars who have been neglected. Helen Brookman discussed her work on the reception history of female scholars whose own histories have not been written or have been neglected by modern critics, including Anna Gurney, the first modern English translator of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Anglo-Saxon scholar Elizabeth Elstob.

Questions that we are sure would chime with scholars across disciplines are how we interest not only our students, but wider audiences in the difficult, the nuanced, or the every-day stories of our research.

Hetta Howes discussed the feminist imperative to share work beyond university classrooms, but described some difficulties that can accompany journalistic demands for stories with broad appeal that are entertaining and exciting: where do we get to tell the ‘boring’ stories?

Clare Lees introduced us to the Anglo-Saxon cemetery uncovered at Bamburgh which is the resting place of people from across what we would now call England, Scotland, Scandinavia, Southern Europe and North Africa. She encouraged us to think about the skeletons within medieval studies as a discipline, and to remember that both the period we study and the people doing the studying have always been more diverse than some narratives circulating within and without academia would suggest.

Press for Progress: Feminism + Medieval Studies Roundtable.

Roberta Magnani and Liz Herbert McAvoy spoke together about their collaborative teaching practices. Their explanation as to how and why they co-teach (including staging discussions where they disagree and debate ideas), and their insistence on the importance of reading medieval texts alongside contemporary theoretical texts (Sara Ahmed alongside female mystics) prompted everyone in the room to think about why teaching medieval literature matters beyond accumulating credit for students.

The reality of classrooms where even when the majority of students are women, many of whom will not recognise that feminism is for them, or know how to approach medieval texts using feminist or queer frameworks, was discussed by Jenny Neville. She called on students and teachers to resist complacent attitudes towards the past, avoid contemporary arrogance (‘our society has progressed so far beyond the medieval period’), and to find the ways that the strangeness of medieval texts can provoke questions that disrupt and disturb our understandings of past and present society.

Elizabeth Robertson invited us to reflect on the ‘Middle’-ness of the medieval period, how the name of our subject of study is a reminder of flexibility, diversity, and indeterminacy. She spoke of the position of the teacher as always being ‘in the middle’, coaxing students to think across and through each other’s ideas, and of the difficulty in keeping involved with conversations important to the discipline when so much takes place online, at a very fast pace. How do we make important conversations accessible to those who need to participate?

Medievalists and feminists getting into positions of management at universities…?

The presentations ended with Diane Watt’s thoughts on why medievalists and feminists should get into positions of management at universities, and the reasons why they might turn down such positions. She asked us all to think about our complicity in systems which we know damage students and colleagues – particularly women, people of colour, LGBTQIA people, and disabled people, and especially people who are affected by intersectional discrimination – and how far we can resist them while still working within them. She spoke about the importance of senior feminists to lobby on behalf of precarious colleagues, to improve provision for decent contracts and pay, flexible working and care of dependents.

One small way that we can begin to redress imbalances in recognition of scholarship is to start counting our citations. Watt asked us,  ‘why does every article on sexuality have to begin with Foucault?’, and implored us to consider who else we could be citing, and where else – outside of England and America – we can look for voices important to our disciplines.

Questions and comments from the audience revealed a concern about the ‘fetishisation’ of the Middle Ages, and how we can work to change narratives of the past that support white supremacy and heteronormativity; how interested members of the public can reach research when so much is locked away behind academic press pay-walls; how the personal is structural, and how feminist medievalists should insist on the rejection of ‘Medieval Studies’ being lazily defined as ‘male’, when we know that so much of the discipline has been formed by women.

The question of how to distance ourselves from certain aspects of a discipline that we will not stand for, while celebrating all of the good work being done is one that needs to be returned to again and again. Most importantly, we need to address how we can communicate more often, in ways that are accessible to everyone, as we seek to reshape our discipline and share scholarship.

We look forward to seeing which ideas are echoed across the forthcoming special issues of journals and conference panels. While it would be impossible to recount more of the discussion and the conversations that continued after the roundtable, we collected feedback notecards at the end of the event that speak of feeling a deep sense of community. This was so affirming, especially in the middle of a difficult term of strike action, disarming messages from the ‘Office for Students’, and with ongoing questions about the future of Higher Education at large on our minds.

We are currently considering the ways in which we might maintain this community feeling at a local level, and we want to shout out to communities that are working hard to have such conversations across continents, all the time, online, in journals, and at conferences: The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, Babel, Medievalists of Color, and In the Middle.


‘Medieval Women, Modern Readers’, Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon and Rountable were supported by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, whose sponsorship made both events possible, and the Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, King’s College London.

If you’d like to get in touch with us about organising a MedievalWiki event, you can tweet @beth_whalley and @francheskyia, or email clams[at]kcl.ac.uk.

Featured image: Christine De Pizan lecturing men. British Library, Harley 4431, f.259v.


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Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.


 

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