Over thirty anonymous Middle English lyrics featuring women speakers have been affirmed as probable ‘women’s literary production[s]’ by scholars such as Alexandra Barratt, Linne Mooney, and Sarah McNamer. Of these lyrics, a majority are short, first-person secular love poems in the courtly style. For about fifteen lyrics (all surviving in the Findern Manuscript), external manuscript evidence clearly supports the poems’ identification as probably female-authored. In other cases, though, lyrics have been admitted into the canon of medieval women’s writing based primarily on internal evidence, and in particular on the evidence that the women speakers in those poems are represented ‘as female without irony or detachment’ or overt dramatization. My paper discusses a group of 14th-century Middle English lyrics featuring female speakers which survive (in some cases, uniquely) in Ms. Rawl. C813, a 16th-century commonplace book which belonged to Humphrey Welles (a Londoner with attachments to the Tudor court). From this group of anonymous ME lyrics, four have been anthologized in recent years as ‘women’s writing’. My paper (informed by my study of the manuscript) reads these poems against/with the other poems in the manuscript featuring women speakers – i.e., those not yet admitted into the emerging canon of late medieval English women’s writing. Putting these poems into dialogue and reading them within their manuscript context, I offer a different narrative of ‘women’s writing’ than the one which is a product of an ‘annotated’ reading of this manuscript. Specifically, I explore the tensions between the representations of courtly and mercantile voices in the epistles, ballads, and laments constituting the group of poems considered likely to have been written by women, and the representations of bawdy and peasant voices in the carols and pastorals constituting the group of poems ‘left out’ of anthologies of women’s writing because (presumably) those voices have been read as ‘ironic,’ ‘detached,’ and/or ‘overdramatized’. Ultimately, through a reading of these poems and their manuscript, my paper offers a response to the scholarship which has affirmed and rejected performances of gendered authorship like those found in Ms. Rawl. C813 in the process of ‘canon formation’ and interrogates the assumptions and practices which lead to contemporary scholarly (re)constructions of ‘medieval women writers.’
Paper-b: In the project of recovering medieval women’s literature, how can we avoid marginalising those women and texts we seek to endorse? One solution, demonstrated in this paper, is to develop a reception history of one text, in this instance The Assembly of Ladies, an anonymous 15th-century English poem, rather than attempt to examine a group of women writers or texts by or for women. Such a study avoids generalising about a women’s literary tradition, and succeeds in bringing to the fore a poem that has remained part of literary canons for more than 500 years.
Paper-c: The paper utilizes women servants’ testaments from East-central Scotland from 1560 to 1600, which may be considered to be women servants’ voices, since testaments in Scotland often note that the documents were scribed according to “her awin mouth speakand” to assess the issues of networks, wages, familial and employer connections, money lending, kinship, and criminal networks that impacted and resulted from middle and lower status women regarding their service and their legal and non-legal activity in Scotland.
The paper also employs poems from some servants from England and Scotland to assess whether female servants in England and Scotland encountered the same difficulties; the paper suggests that they did in some respects, but did not in other respects, notably: in wages, in pregnancy accusations, poverty, and where family connexions are concerned.
The paper argues that wages for servants in Scotland were probably better than might have been previously assumed, that the connections between master and servant may have been better than thought; and that familial ties between servants and families may have been stronger than previous evidence suggests (see Margaret Sanderson A Kindly Place, 2006.).