Conference discussion summary

The conference organisers would like to thank all of our speakers and attendees for three stimulating and informative days! On our final day, we finished with a round-table session to try to draw out and unify the wealth of ideas that were drawn out over our papers and discussion; the following is a summary of this discussion.

We began with Sarah Greer highlighting four major topics of interest that had struck her across the sessions.

The first was the problem of defining the roles and relationships that women occupied in this period. What does it mean when women assume – or are given – titles such as consors regniduxrectrix or imperator? How are familial titles utilised – why are women called genetrix in one instance and mater in another? And what problems do we face in our own modern use of titles to categorise and define the roles and relationships that medieval women held; do our own preconceptions prevent us from gaining a clear view of the flexibility or fluidity of power that women wielded in this period?

The second was broadly related to economics; across the various papers, we saw instances of women with different levels of access to wealth, to the ability to produce goods, and to managing property. Many women appeared in economic transactions for others, acting as intercessors to negotiate the transfer of wealth and land; others were actors in these transactions, determining how their land would be used, commissioning products, and setting up building programmes.

The third was on the subject of collaboration and collective power, a theme brought up explicitly over the conference on a number of occasions. We discussed how and when women collaborated with each other, and the various methods of trying to uncover these relationships; but we also saw many examples of men and women collaborating as well, working together to achieve mutual goals.

The fourth was on the question of problems; what happens when things go wrong? When and why are some women criticised on the basis of their sex for their use of power, where others escape gendered attacks? What options were open for women to try to shore up their power against threats or dissenting opinions to their rulership positions? Can we see women working collectively on these occasions, trying to mobilise networks of relationships to secure their positions?

In our general discussion following on from these introductory remarks, we highlighted some further themes and questions:

Space: the concept of enclosure and restriction of space is particularly relevant for monastic women in this period; both in terms of preventing women from leaving communities, but also for preventing people from the outside world entering into female institutions. How flexible and permeable were these boundaries? We considered the abbess, with a foot in the world of the cloister and a foot in the world outside her monastery, and asked if she was a liminal figure, not quite fitting into either sphere and yet part of both. We also discussed whether queens, founder figures and close female patrons might also fit within this liminal category for monastic institutions, blurring the lines between the monastic community and the secular world.

We also discussed larger ideas of space and the movement from the world of the Carolingian empire to the increasing localisation of power; how did these changing geographical boundaries affect women’s access to power?

Holiness: there was a striking lack of discussion around saintliness as a form of power for the women we considered. When does personal holiness give you power? Are there female equivalents to male holy rulers? When do abbesses become saints? We see some queens in Germany become saints, while at the same time there is a total lack of saintly queens in France – was this down to the personality of the individual woman, or perhaps to her level of success in her office?

Education: we considered how the various women we discussed learned the different elements of their roles; were they given dedicated training in how to become successful rulers? Was this provided by their families before they transitioned into adulthood, or did they learn on the job? To try to answer this, we could see if there are patterns of behaviour which are distinctive which we can trace across time and place; are there ‘schools’ of different ways of wielding power amongst medieval women?

Family and genealogy: the various familial relationships between women in the ruling families of medieval Europe were notable. Yet, in some cases we cannot trace the genealogy of women – if this is the case, then what are the implications for discussions of familial identity and the role of women in preserving familial memory? We also see women named in some areas and eras but not in others – comparing the levels of naming of individual women in similar categories of document (charters, for example) may be an interesting subject for future research.

Role models: we discussed at length the personal relationships between different women, but what about those who took inspiration from women who they didn’t know personally? Were some women visible, or well-remembered and regarded enough to become models of behaviour for other women in similar positions? What kind of pressure was there on powerful women to act as exemplars for others in their society? Do we see women having male role models, or men having female role models?

Resistance: following on from Theresa Earenfight’s plenary paper on the various categories of power, we discussed whether resistance could be classed as a form of power. Women serving as hostages, or being involved in the care of hostages was a repeated theme – they had access to a particular form of power and influence in these relationships.

Class: we spent most of the conference talking about women in the upper echelons of society; but if power can be drawn from a variety of different sources and relationships, then what about those women who were not royal or elite? How did women work together across all levels of society to create influence and enact change?

We would be very interested to hear others’ thoughts on these topics, or to contribute other themes which we have not covered here – let us know what you think in the comments!