Book Corner: Femina by Janina Ramirez

The middle ages are seen as a bloodthirsty time of Vikings, saints and kings: a patriarchal society which oppressed and excluded women. But when we dig a little deeper into the truth, we can see that the ‘dark’ ages were anything but.

Oxford and BBC historian Janina Ramirez has uncovered countless influential women’s names struck out of historical records, with the word FEMINA annotated beside them. As gatekeepers of the past ordered books to be burnt, artworks to be destroyed, and new versions of myths, legends and historical documents to be produced, our view of history has been manipulated.

Only now, through a careful examination of the artefacts, writings and possessions they left behind, are the influential and multifaceted lives of women emerging. Femina goes beyond the official records to uncover the true impact of women like Jadwiga, the only female King in Europe, Margery Kempe, who exploited her image and story to ensure her notoriety, and the Loftus Princess, whose existence gives us clues about the beginnings of Christianity in England. See the medieval world with fresh eyes and discover why these remarkable women were removed from our collective memories.

When I wrote Heroines of the Medieval World five years ago, I said at the time that it was a book that needed to be written – I just wasn’t sure if I was the person to write it. If I had been asked who should write it, one of the top names on my list would have been Janina Ramirez. So I was not surprised when I discovered that Janina had written a book on medieval women, Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It.

I admit I was a little worried that Femina would make my Heroines obsolete or redundant, but I probably shouldn’t have been. After all, every writer has their own style and approach and every book – even if on the same topic – is written differently. And while the two books do overlap in places, we do not always reach the same conclusion and they really would complement each other on a book shelf (hint, hint!).

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It looks at some of the most remarkable women of the medieval period, including two women you will be familiar with if you have read Heroines of the Medieval World, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and Jadwiga, ‘King’ of Poland. And the chapter on Jadwiga is particularly illuminating as Dr Ramirez applies her background in Art History to the symbolism and significance of Jadwiga’s reign, both on a political and spiritual level.

Janina Ramirez also provides great insight in to Emma of Normandy, who I looked at in detail for my own book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest. Study is even made of Ӕlfgyva, the mysterious woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, though Janina and I come to very different conclusions – and I would dearly love to have a face-to-face conversation with her to thrash out our theories. That would be fun!

Hild moved from Hartlepool to the site known then as Strenaeshalch and now as Whitby, in AD 657. Here she was granted land to build a double monastery where both men and women could learn the scriptures and dedicate themselves to a monastic life. And engraved stone slab commemorates her successor as abbess, Ælfflæd, and the use of the Latin script and alphabet supports Bede’s suggestion that Whitby was a centre of learning and literacy. But like at Hartlepool, finds from Hild’s abbacy include many luxuries such as decorative hairpins, golden book covers and even a comb with a runic inscription. Runes were the alphabet of the pre-Christian English, but the inscription is clearly Christian: My God. May God Almighty help Cy …’ Again, we find an object which links the Germanic warrior world to the new Christina one. Like Hild herself it straddles ideologies and a time of transition.

Hild was at the top of the tree in terms of influence in seventh-century Northumbria. Bede states that ‘even kings and princes sought and received her counsel’, and she acted as mentor to the daughter of Oswui, King of the Northumbrians from 642-670. What’s more, it was under her rule, in the monastery she founded herself, that the leaders of the English church gathered for the famous Synod of Whitby in AD 664. With Hild in charge of proceedings, the good and the great, representatives of Rome and Ireland, argued which traditions the Northumbrian church should follow. The result went the way of Rome. The variety and uniqueness of Celtic monasteries was lost to the rigour and routine of the Benedictine Rule, and monasticism in the north was transformed forever. For a woman to be involved in such high-level synodal processes is something extraordinary even today. It is also significant that five men who trained under Hild were all made bishops; if there were king-makers in the medieval world, then she was the bishop-maker. Whitby was the training ground for a new, Roman Christian, learned and respected English church. From Hild’s northern headland, educated men and women would stretch out the length and breadth of the country, assuming the very highest positions within churches and monasteries, including the archbishop of York. Hild’s influence would permeate the fabric of Christianity in this part of the world and its effects were felt down the centuries.

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It is a fabulous study of a number of medieval women – and medieval woman in general. Dr Ramirez manages to combine what it was like to be a woman in medieval times, including their rights and the dangers they faced, such as childbirth, with the histories of particular women – and not always women you would expect to see in history book. The most fascinating chapter is that which is devoted to the Cathars, a religious sect much misunderstood and persecuted to extinction by the church. Janina Ramirez highlights not only their suffering and personal testimonies, but also the strength and respect that women held within the community. It truly is illuminating.

From warrior Viking women, to the successes of Æthelflæd and the excessive crying of Margery Kempe, Janina Ramirez shines a light on the lives and experiences of a huge variety of medieval women. Archaeological discoveries, religious artefacts and medieval artwork are used to describe and illuminate the world in which these women lived and died.

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It is an engaging, entertaining read, with Janina Ramirez’s unique and wonderful take on medieval history. Introducing her vast knowledge of Art History into the mix adds vibrancy to the individual stories and brings these incredible women to life. Dr Ramirez is fabulous writer and communicator and takes the reader on an incredible journey of discovery through the medieval world. Her enthusiasm and fascination for the topic shines through on every page.

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It by Janina Ramirez is truly a pleasure to read.

About the author:

Dr Janina Ramirez is a Sunday Times bestselling author, an Oxford lecturer, BBC broadcaster and researcher. She has presented and written over 30 hours of BBC history documentaries and series on TV and radio, and written five books for children and adults.

My books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US, and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon, and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, and Book Depository.


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©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly