- Susan Groag Bell’s “Medieval Women Book Owners” After 35 Years
I first discovered Susan Groag Bell’s article, “Medieval Women Book Owners,” as a graduate student in the mid-1990s.1 Although I had not yet settled on a dissertation topic, I was broadly interested in women’s education and religious life and wanted to know what medieval women knew, which (for me) meant trying to determine what they read. At the time, historians viewed medieval intellectual life as presumptively “male.”2 That was about to change—books like Joan M. Ferrante’s study, To the Glory of her Sex: Women’s Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts (1997); June Hall McCash’s edited collection, The Cultural Patronage of Medieval Women (1996); and Lesley Smith’s and Jane H. M. Taylor’s edited volume, Women and the Book (1996) would soon be published.3 Women writers were already better known thanks to Peter Dronke’s important survey of Women Writers of the Middle Ages, which appeared in 1984, and Marcelle Thiébaux’s 1987 anthology of medieval women’s writings.4 Preceding all of these, however, was Bell’s article, which first appeared in 1982 in the feminist journal Signs. Her work was path-breaking, connecting medieval laywomen with reading and learning, and with the material context in which women engaged with texts: the manuscript.
What strikes me now as I reread the article is the extent to which scholarship in the past thirty-five years has been guided by the roadmap that Bell presented. As Bell argued, noble women played an important role in medieval society in promoting cultural change, a function of what she claimed was their “special relationship to books.”5 Although the idea that women had a “special relationship to books” was without precedent when Bell was writing, the article was not polemical. Bell did not argue that women had been empowered to engage with books in ways that men did; nor did she suggest that women’s literate practices were a form of resistance to male power. She instead highlighted women’s involvement with books within the context of their existing and socially determined roles as mothers, wives, and vernacular readers. By focusing on the circumstances of women’s lives, Bell showed how women—as women—promoted cultural change. Bell’s women book owners were not exceptional—there was no sense that they merited discussion because they acted or achieved in a public, male sphere, or as women who managed to “transcend” their sex.6 While Bell certainly mentioned individual women collectors and owners, her study [End Page 208] was grounded in a careful tabulation of some 242 women across 700 years whom medieval sources described as having owned books.7
In addition to showing that individual women could own books, Bell demonstrated that book ownership was consistent with the domestic roles of noble women. She noted how mothers used books to educate their children—a role bolstered by the many images of St. Anne teaching the Virgin, a topic subsequently taken up by the historians Pamela Sheingorn and Michael Clancy and the literary scholar Wendy Scase.8 Several mothers commissioned books for their children, as Bell showed, providing one measure by which scholars might track women’s “cultural contribution.” A further way was through their patronage and reading of Books of Hours, a genre that Bell noted was especially important to women. Although she did not question the prevailing assumption in the early 1980s that “the general ecclesiastical attitude to women was at best negative if not actively hostile,” as the historian Brenda M. Bolton declared, Bell did look for—and find—abundant evidence for women’s devotional practice in their books.9 As she showed, laywomen who owned books typically owned devotional texts and most often Books of Hours, which could be customized, both in terms of texts and imagery. The study of women and Books of Hours has grown exponentially in recent years. Many, if not most, of the resulting works draw on themes that Bell first suggested: the ownership of books within the family, the customization of the manuscript, and the gendered iconography found within...