This is a fascinating book about the lives of women in early English society, from around the 6th century until the Battle of Hastings. It asserts that they played a vital and varied role. You may say at this point ‘Well obviously. Women always do. It’s not like they were sitting on their Dark Age arses for 1000 years’, but Herbert’s point is that they were doing much more than you might expect – not just putting Egbert’s pants through the mangle. Broadly speaking, men and women had demarcated but equally important roles, the female role of ‘peace-weaving’ – weaving societies together through their marriage to rival families and other social duties – being highly esteemed. Yet it was not unusual for women to stray into what we would consider male territory such as war (hence the ‘shield-maidens’), leadership and property ownership.
There is a lot of really interesting material here. Herbert finds clues in varied sources such as early English language, legal records, maxims, bawdy riddles, and even place names to uncover more about the lives of these women. I enjoyed the stories, particular favourites being the first Englishwoman recorded in history (but remaining nameless) leading an army into battle when she was dumped by her betrothed in the mid 6th century, the female missionaries who travelled to the continent to support their Germanic kinsfolk against the Saracens in the mid 7th-8th centuries, and King Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (good rap name) spearheading the ‘English Re-conquest’ of Danelaw territories alongside her brother in the 910s. Like Herbert, I lamented that these stories are not more widely known and that even where we know the women’s stories, we often do not know their names.
I had a couple of issues though. Firstly, ‘peace-weavers’ seems a rather romantic term for ‘be forced to marry some bloke you may neither know nor like, because your dad has had a bit of a set-to with him and needs to make up. And by marry I mean to undertake The Intercourse, endure the pain of childbirth, and not be able to spend your life with that other man you really proper fancy’. It’s like my dad saying ‘Bron I know you love this Jason bloke but I’ve had a fall out with Ray the Glazier, can you marry his son Barry so that we can all be friends again?’ (My dad’s friends in the trade all have nicknames. There is actually one affectionately called ‘Psycho’.) I appreciate the term refers to the wider ‘peace-weaving’ women were doing, such as the epic diplomatic hosting skills of Queen Wealtheow depicted in Beowulf, but this jarred a bit. Secondly, this is mostly about high-status women, which is expected given the limitations of source material but a shame nonetheless. I’d love to know more about the lost ordinary women from history, and what they were thinking about when they put Egbert’s pants through the mangle. ‘Oh dear these pants are in a sorry state, Egbert really must go easy on that mead next Friday’ perhaps.
Overall though, a great read. I will leave you with an early English maxim:
‘A lady, a virgin, must visit her lover by stealth, if she does not want to achieve a public and formal proposal of marriage.’
In other words, you don’t have to refuse a love affair before marriage, you just have to keep it on the down-low. Don’t hate the player hate the game, eh?