Why should we teach medieval women?

Thanks to PGCE students Dhwani Patel & Georgia Cairns for this blogpost. They model drawing upon the history community’s ‘hive mind’ to develop their own thinking about why we should teach about medieval women and to develop some first thoughts about a teaching sequence. In this instance they did this within the context of their PGCE, but the approach could equally be adopted, in adapted form, within departments or between members of local history teacher networks. Developing our own, clear rationale for why we are teaching particular topics is crucial. Dhwani and Georgia know that it is not enough to say we teach something because we always have, or because it is in the textbook, or because we have been told to teach it. Being able to explain and justify our curriculum choices is expected of all of us and this sort of project enables deep thinking and the chance to update our own knowledge.   

The project was inspired by a tweet by Corinne Goullée (@CorinneGoullee), an experienced history teacher and PGCE mentor, introducing a sequence on women in the middle ages. Dhwani and Georgia then took part in a taught session with Will Bailey-Watson (@mrwbw) and Charlotte Crouch (@charcrouch) from the University of Reading discussing the latest research, the most recent historiography, the sources available and opinions on how best to teach the topic.

Why should we study medieval women?

Having formulated an enquiry question: “Why should we study medieval women?” we sought to define what it was we actually wanted our pupils to learn? We drew on our PGCE session in our discussion and identified three key outcomes:

  1. Recognise that every medieval woman was a complex and multifaceted individual with sometimes contradictory desires, who experienced many different events and encounters during her lifetime;
  2. Explain that medieval women were involved in various aspects of society and that there was no ‘typical’ exemplar, just as there is no ‘typical’ woman today;
  3. Understand that a study of medieval women can reveal as much about medieval society as it can about women.

We hoped that inviting pupils to come up with and explain reasons why we should study medieval women would direct them towards successfully realizing these three outcomes, while at the same time encouraging each pupil to independently reflect on the purpose of their learning as they progress through the sequence. We also designed our enquiry to follow the development of the historiography on the topic. Since the emergence of pre-modern women as a distinct and vibrant field of academic study half a century ago, medieval historians (feminist or otherwise) have developed their thinking beyond the pioneering scholarship of the 1970s that endeavoured to uncover the lives of women in the past. The emphasis is now on producing textured analyses which explore the intersection between gender and aspects of medieval society (e.g. matrimony, education, commerce, or medicine). As observed by Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford and a historian of gender in early-modern Europe,

“… we started to realise that the challenge of women’s history was much bigger and much more ambitious. It wasn’t just about women’s history but about gender, relations between the sexes. Historians started to see that gender could be applied to all areas of history. It was much more than just women’s history.”

Through the enquiry question, we wanted to model this historiographical progression. While our first two outcomes as outlined above reflect the concerns of early scholars in the field, the third is informed by the works of contemporary medievalists that focus on the broader implications of gender in the pre-modern world.

Our assessment

Although conscious that the enquiry might represent a formidable undertaking at Year 7, we were nevertheless determined to maintain high expectations and convinced that our pupils would, as Michael Riley has argued, “gain much satisfaction from tackling a difficult question head on”. We therefore created an assessment that requires each pupil to demonstrate their achievement of the three outcomes by constructing a well evidenced, clearly explained, and fully justified written response to our enquiry question. In order to ensure accessibility and avoid the likelihood of pupils becoming overwhelmed by the scale of the task, however, we planned an ongoing two-part activity that each pupil would individually complete at the end of every lesson and subsequently refer to when embarking upon their assessment.

The aim of the first stage of this activity is to identify which aspects of medieval society are relevant to each of our five women. To guide pupils’ thinking and encourage them to organise their thoughts visually, we have provided a table charting the nine aspects that appear across the sequence (arranged from most private to most public). At the end of every lesson, the pupils must simply tick all the aspects that pertain to the life and experiences of the woman studied therein.

The second stage builds on this by asking pupils to select the three most apposite aspects of medieval society for the woman in question, and thereafter to supply the three strongest pieces of evidence for her involvement in each; to this end, pupils are forced to prioritize information and assess the relative merits of the evidence that is available to them. In addition to this, we have produced a supporting scaffold to assist pupils with assembling and presenting their knowledge in a format that will enable them to effectively show progress against the three outcomes.

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Which women should we include in our curriculum?

When introducing a fifth woman into our sequence, we deliberately didn’t select another of the canonical ‘Great Women’ of medieval history. Defined by Susanna Boyd as encompassing mostly queens and warriors, the disproportionate presence of these rarefied women in the curriculum does little to confront our established narratives because their experiences align with conventional – and more to the point, masculine – criteria for significance, such as wielding political power or displaying military prowess. That this should resonate especially in the Middle Ages is unsurprising, since noblewomen often shared more in common with their male counterparts than they did with women of lower social status; indeed, Heather Tanner, Laura Gathagan, and Lois Huneycutt have recently argued that “elite women in positions of authority in the central medieval period were expected, accepted, and routine”. However, this recognition was only granted due to the belief of contemporary commentators that individual aristocratic women were somehow capable of overcoming the natural limitations of their sex and acting, in the words of Bernard of Clairvaux to Melisende of Jerusalem (d. 1161), “as a man”.

Alternatively, but with equal potential to distort the historical record, there has perhaps been a tendency for medieval teaching to insufficiently embed religious women such as Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe within the wider tradition of female mysticism that flourished in the later Middle Ages, and consequently to overstate their singularity. (The more interesting question, then, is what opportunities could lay piety offer medieval women that institutionalized forms of collective worship did not?) Taking all these considerations into account, we wanted to progress our thinking beyond a focus on the exceptional and instead draw attention to more representative women, whose varied lives and experiences could reveal the nuances inherent in medieval society. Aside from an overarching desire to remain true to the scholarship, our broader rationale for doing so was three-fold: to show that all medieval women, irrespective of social status, are deserving of study; to emphasise that success and personal fulfilment for women in the Middle Ages were not necessarily determined by their ability to exercise power but could manifest themselves in myriad ways, whether in a public or a private capacity; and finally, to demonstrate that it is impossible to understand the medieval world without understanding the women who inhabited it. We hoped that these principles of diversity and inclusion would serve to empower and enthuse all our pupils, regardless of their gender.

Héloïse d’Argenteuil (c. 1090-1164)

Héloïse d’Argenteuil was born in Paris in the late eleventh century. Although little is known of her background, it has been suggested that her maternal uncle Fulbert may have belonged to the minor nobility of Champagne. From an early age, Héloïse showed much promise as an eloquent writer and outstanding scholar; internal and external evidence both attest to her subsequent mastery at all three levels of the medieval curriculum, which began with the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), progressed through the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music), and reached its pinnacle with the liberal arts par excellence of philosophy and theology. Despite these accomplishments, it is for her illicit love affair with her tutor, the eminent philosopher and theologian Pierre Abélard, that Héloïse is best known. Their disastrous union culminated in the birth of an illegitimate child, Héloïse’s reluctant withdrawal to the convent of Argenteuil, and Abélard’s eventual initiation into the monastic community of Saint-Denis following his shocking castration at the behest of Fulbert. After some time had passed, correspondence began between the two former lovers.

Through her richly-textured letters, Héloïse emerges as a self-assured, articulate, and intelligent woman who was unafraid to express her opinions, however controversial they may have seemed at the time. We had no doubt that our pupils could find her as fascinating and inspiring as we did. Although producing a remote resource, we felt that retaining the structure of a familiar classroom lesson (a starter, two main activities, and a conclusion) would enable us to effectively yet unobtrusively direct the pupils’ learning while allowing them ample opportunity to independently engage with the four stages of our enquiry: Who was Héloïse d’Argenteuil? What do we know about her life? What do Héloïse’s thoughts and experiences reveal about medieval society? How should she be portrayed?


To pique pupils’ curiosity, our resource begins with an image of Héloïse in her religious habit (shown left). Taken from a late fourteenth-century manuscript of Le Roman de la Rose, a medieval French poem about romantic love, the image is here presented alongside a set of questions to invite pupils to make inferences and thereby gain an initial impression of what sort of woman Héloïse might have been. We were aware that Héloïse is all too often represented as little more than an accessory to Abélard, and this was our attempt at redressing the balance; by detaching this particular image of Héloïse from a larger illustration depicting her in conversation with Abélard (which is reproduced in its entirety and problematized later in the resource), we could introduce her to our pupils as an individual in her own right. The next task was a guided reading exercise centred around a narrative account of Héloïse’s life, which we had abridged and supplemented with a glossary of subject-specific terminology to render it suitable for Year 7 pupils working independently.

Once the pupils had acquired a sufficiently secure knowledge of the context, we wanted them to have the freedom to explore Héloïse’s letters for themselves. Although in translation and necessarily adapted for ease of comprehension, it is only through these writings that they are able to dispense with the male lens that so frequently shapes our perception of the medieval world and access Héloïse’s thoughts and experiences as she herself perceived them. The third task, then, requires pupils to study a series of short extracts from Héloïse’s letters and explain what they reveal about her attitudes specifically and about medieval society generally; to offer further support, we provided descriptive titles for each extract that we thought would assist pupils in identifying the salient implications thereof. Finally, our resource concludes with the unedited manuscript illustration from which the initial image of Héloïse was derived (see top of page), accompanied by the following questions: What period of Héloïse’s life does this image depict? Why might she have been represented in this way? Can you see any problems with this depiction of Héloïse? How do you think she should be portrayed? We hoped that revealing the full picture at this stage would encourage pupils to critique traditional representations of Héloïse; suggest possible reasons why these were prevalent; and independently construct a more appropriate, three-dimensional portrayal based on what they had learnt during their remote ‘lesson’.

Our final reflections

Although unexpected (and indeed, unprecedented), this opportunity to collaboratively engage in such detailed planning and curriculum thinking during our training year has enabled us to continually revisit, rethink, and refine our work in a way that time constraints had previously precluded. We hope to continue relfecting and discussing as we progress into our teaching careers. To realise the goal of a truly inclusive curriculum, we mustn’t view the history of medieval women as ancillary and must instead seek to gender our master narratives. For instance, an adapted version of our lesson on Héloïse that more deliberately situates her experiences within the intellectual and cultural life of Paris could fruitfully inform an enquiry that asks pupils, “Did everyone experience a ‘twelfth-century Renaissance’?”

Next we are aiming to develop a series of lessons together on socially, geographically, and chronologically diverse medieval women whose lives and experiences reveal themes that resonate throughout the Middle Ages (e.g. the development of political bureaucracy, economic change, or the heterogeneity of lay piety). We, of course, look forward to revisiting all our planning in light of pupil feedback.

We hope that reading about curriculum thinking embedded in the history teaching community is useful. If you would like to share some of your curriculum thinking, please get in touch via enquiries@history.org.uk or via @histassoc. 



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