Medieval Madams

Eleanor Janega on the overlooked lives of ordinary women

<em>Paradiesgärtlein (Garden of Paradise)</em>, painted c. 1410 by the Upper Rhenish Master (Wikimedia Commons)
Paradiesgärtlein (Garden of Paradise), painted c. 1410 by the Upper Rhenish Master (Wikimedia Commons)

The codices and manuscripts of the Middle Ages are littered with the acts of kings and the edicts of bishops, full of tales of knightly romance and monkish devotions. Read between the lines, though, and you’ll find the women who made the medieval world run: bookkeepers and brewers, weavers and wine merchants, serfs and sex workers. They never got credit for it, and even their first names are often obscured by those of their husbands and fathers, but their lives were much richer and more varied than we have been led to expect. Eleanor Janega, who teaches medieval and early modern history at the London School of Economics, devotes her new book, The Once and Future Sex, to these ordinary and extraordinary women. Her analysis of the ways in which their lives were circumscribed shows how radically gender norms have changed—though not always improved—since the so-called dark ages.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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