The Female Scribe III

About a month ago I wrote another section outlining my female scribe research where I ended with the following observation:

To wrap this up, my findings on the town of Douai along with my speculation that the Lancelot scribe could have been a nun could lead to an investigation into what being a nun at the time, and in that region meant. This is a rather large leap that will require quite a bit more research, but in looking at what it meant to be a woman in the Middle Ages I found a reference to Aethelberht’s laws. I won’t go into too much detail here since this post is already running far longer than I intended, but I promise another one soon which will better address my connection between the significance of these laws, being a nun, and the ramifications of partaking in scribal endeavors. However, briefly, the laws are concerned with defining a woman’s worth, and notably “maegpbot sy swa friges mannes” (a maiden’s worth is equal to that of a man), and a “friwif” is, as her name indicates, independent for one reason or another. A nun would fall under either of these conditions, either a maiden from the start, or released from relations with men at a later time. In the hierarchy of worth, according to Aethelberht, these would be the highest ranked women. Basically I want to explore how (or if) perceiving themselves according to this value system would imbue these women with the necessary assurance to commit words to paper (or parchment, or vellum) in a mode uncharacteristic of women in different stations or spheres.

Since then I have looked further into what it meant to be a “friwif” or “maegpbot.” First, this is a complete tangent that has far digressed from the scope of my research, but I think it is important to understand the environment in which females operated in order to better understand their motivations for the words they chose on paper. For example (briefly returning to the Lancelot scribe), she maintained anonymity the length of the manuscript only to identify herself as female at the end as she asked for the reader to pray for the scribe while using the feminine pronoun. This was not an accident – the difference between the male and female pronouns in gendered languages is a very deliberate and conscious difference. In fact the male endings are typically the default and female forms are the difference in which extra characters must be added. While she did not identify herself by name as other females have done, she clearly used that one phrase, “ce li ki lescrist” as an identifier (and I will get back to this shortly).


(The first page of the only manuscript copy of Aethelberht’s Law, Textus Roffensis)

However, what I found interesting in regards to Aethelberht’s Laws, is their focus on the physical. Arguably this is the same construction under which gender is created, and within the laws we can see how males and females in Anglo-Saxon times (without arguing that this same arrangement didn’t extend into the modern period) were emphatically characterized as “mund” (property) and their “wergeld” (man-price) denoted their position in society. While Aethelberht may be considered the first Christian king within Britain, his stance was less concerned with the soul as with the physicality of the body, and the ways in which the body could be categorized, starting with the distinction between men and women. Without reiterating my aforementioned conclusion, I looked at the ways in which a nun would be considered a “maegpbot” or “friwif,” and what the implications would be.

What I have managed to find (with limited resources so far, and in need of a trip to the library), was that nuns during this time period were often considered genderless. However, in their genderlessness they were able to receive many of the same freedoms males enjoyed – consequently they were offered many of the same opportunities for scholarship that were often relegated to men. A large part which concerns me most has to do with the types of materials they were given and/or allowed to copy. In fact, Anglo-Saxon nuns were given a high number of important works to copy not only for patrons, but also for themselves and their abbesses. While currently this is going to be a short post due to the need for more research, I am curious to find out to what extent these works were amended to suit the needs of these female commissioned works. So, were the traditional texts manipulated in any way for female readers?

One source I did find convinces me that they were. De Laudibus Virginitate (circa 705) is commented on by Michelle Brown who notes that “its complex literary style gives an indication of the standards of learning expected … of abbess Hildeligh and the nuns of Barking, to whom it was addressed.”

Further, Bede wrote that Anglo-Saxon princesses often frequented convents to pursue or continue their education before marriage, suggesting that convents served at the milieu of female education for both religious and lay women – with the implication that these locales were the locus of book production for a variety of texts. In other words, “simple” women would not have been allowed such breadth of activity, meaning that these women were highly regarded intellectually.

Lastly, I looked at the works of M.B. Parkes for whom I have an unbelievable amount of respect and somehow find a way to finagle into every research project. I won’t go into too much of the history since it is not completely relevant to this project, but King Alfred’s daughter, AEthelgifu was abbess at the convent of Nummaminster of St. Mary’s in Winchester. Parkes identified a series of manuscripts associated with Nummaminster as having been copied by female scribes including the Book of Nummaminster, the Trinity Isdore, the Parker Manuscript of Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the Junius Psalter. The first of these, according to Parkes, preserves the forms of confession and absolution associated with female grammatical forms. However, what I found most interesting is that these books were not simply produced for in-house usage, but rather for wider circulation, fit for the general literate pubic.

Honestly, I am not entirely sure how any of this is going to help me with what I originally set out to do (for those of you who have not been following my blog, it is to decipher the meaning – if any – behind the female scribe of one of the first Lancelot MSS), but I have had a lot of fun with all the research and while I am not completely convinced that I will reach any sort of conclusion about the Lancelot manuscript, I am sure I will find tons of interesting information along the way and will fully enjoy the process. I hope you do too!


Brown, Michelle. P. Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

Haines-Eitzen, Kim. “‘Girls Trained in Beautiful Writing’ : Female Scribes in Roman Antiquity and Early Christianity.

Johnson, Aaron, et. al. (eds). Eusebius of Caesarea: Traditions and Innovations (Hellenic Studies Series).

McKitterick, Rosamond.  ”‘Nuns’ Scriptoria in England and Francia in the Eighth Century.” 

Parkes, M.B. “A Fragment of an Early Tenth-Century Manuscript and Its Significance.”

Robinson, P. R.  “A Twelfth-Century Scriptrix from Nunnaminster.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.