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From the first Germanic settlement of England in the 5th century until the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, Anglo-Saxon society underwent dramatic social, economic and political change. Women as a whole were affected by these developments, but it is also clear that queens, abbesses and other intellectuals could be the instruments of change.
Anglo-Saxon women were the owners of jewellery and bejewelled gospel-books, and they were the patrons of the earliest known poetry written in English and some of the most complex poems composed in Latin. At various times, women were the subjects of epic literature in the case of Judithpart of the Beowulf -manuscriptof narrative s in the case of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and, in one instance, a political biography.
Even women from the lowest ranks of society, such as slaves, came into contact from time to time with written culture. Beowulf is an Old English epic poem which survives in a single precious manuscript. Usage terms Public Domain in most countries, other than the UK. At the same time, the surviving evidence throws little light on the lives of most Anglo-Saxon women, such as how old they were when they died, or which diseases they experienced.
Women of lower status are often particularly hard to find in the fragmentary sources.
The first known English speakers, who lived in southern Britain from the 5th century onwards, came from a pagan Germanic culture. Most of our evidence for this period comes from archaeological discoveries, among which are the graves of a of wealthy women. Other female graves sometimes contained ornate necklaces, sets of keys, combs and brooches.
Analysis of early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries shows that different groups of women had very different levels of wealth and life expectancies, and that these varied between regions and over time. The runes on this urn provide one of the very earliest pieces of evidence for the English language British Museum, BEPThe Anglo-Saxon kingdoms converted to Christianity in the late 6th and 7th centuries, beginning with the mission of Augustine d. Many other women throughout the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms helped promote Christianity and influence social and cultural change. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People was created in Usage terms Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
The conversion to Christianity of elite members of Anglo-Saxon society brought about massive social change. Christianity was associated with the spread of new writing technologies and the knowledge of Latin. For example, the monastery at Whitby was governed in its early years by Hild Hilda d. Hild acted as an advisor to several princes and she helped to train no less than five bishops.
This is similar to the ranks recorded for men, with the exception that women alone were divided by marital status: unmarried women or maidens, widows and married women.
A woman was not entitled to receive compensation for any injuries done to her: any such compensation would instead be paid to her husband, father, guardian or slave owner. Women are also under-represented in Domesday Book, which focuses on landowners who were mostly men and male workers. Great Domesday the largest volume of the Domesday survey mentions only named women, as opposed to 16, individual men.
The Anglo-Saxon women we know most about are, unsurprisingly, those at the highest levels of society. Queens did not always wield ificant power at this period. In his biography of King Alfred, Asser d. It is unclear to whom Asser was referring, but there is at least one example of a powerful queen from the kingdom of Mercia.
The only surviving coinage issued in the name of an Anglo-Saxon queen is that of Cynethryth, the wife of King Offa of Mercia — After her husband died, she led armies against Welsh and Viking forces, and fortified major centres throughout the Midlands, including Tamworth, Warwick and Stafford, eventually extending her authority as far as York.
One of the most prominent figures in 11th-century English politics was Emma of Normandy d. After the Danish conquest of Englandshe provided crucial advice to Cnut as he tried to establish his authority over his new territory. A record of the names of members and friends of monasteries or convents — the belief being that these names would also appear in the heavenly book opened on the Day of Judgement British Library, Stowe MSf. Other Anglo-Saxon queens and princesses played an important dynastic function. Two of them had been offered in marriage to Otto, the future king of Germany — and emperor.
Otto chose Edith Eadgyth d. Royal women were important in establishing diplomatic links through marriage and family networks. All of the powerful women described above were extraordinary — but they were also out of the ordinary.
Due to the fragmentary nature of the surviving sources, we know little about the lives of the majority of the female population. Technological advances are enabling us to recover more information about women from the lower levels of Anglo-Saxon society, particularly slaves. Slaves were occasionally granted their freedom, and sometimes this was recorded in writing. The freeing of slaves was often recorded in the margins of gospel-books, such as the Bodmin Gospels, made in Cornwall.
These records — known as manumissions — were often erased by later owners of the manuscripts, but in the case of the Bodmin Gospels, multispectral imaging has been able to reveal parts of the erased text. These include a record of a woman called Guenenguith, a slave who belonged to Bishop Comoere of Cornwall d. Guenenguith and her son, Morcefres, were freed on the altar of St Petroc at some point during the 10th century. This newly-revealed text is our only evidence for their existence.
Multispectral image of some erased manumissions from the Bodmin Gospels, including the record of Guenenguith and Morcefres being freed British Library, Additional MSf. Even for powerful women in Anglo-Saxon society, we do not know much about many aspects of their lives. For instance, we know relatively little about childbirth in early medieval England. There is evidence that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were on occasion made for or owned by women, including nuns and noblewomen.
For example, five of the six surviving prayer books from Anglo-Saxon England had female owners. One of these, known as the Book of Nunnaminster, probably belonged to Ealhswith d. Perhaps the most spectacular examples of books owned by an Anglo-Saxon woman are the four gospel-books made for Judith of Flanders d. These books give us a glimpse of how luxurious the libraries of Anglo-Saxon noblewomen could be. Judith of Flanders is known to have owned a series of spectacular gospel-books with gilded illumination and jewelled covers New York, Morgan Library, MSupper cover.
Women in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms occasionally had texts written specifically for them, or were the writers themselves. For example, Bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne d. Meanwhile, abbesses such as Hild of Whitby addressed letters to contacts throughout Europe, which also serves to show the networks of communication between England and lands overseas.
Wills and other documents provide evidence for female literacy in Anglo-Saxon England. One-third of all the surviving wills from this period were made on behalf of women. At the same time, women do not appear equally in all surviving forms of Anglo-Saxon writing. For instance, the witness lists of charters are usually dominated by the names of men, even when the property in question was being given to a woman. Inscriptions on jewellery and similar items are another important source for female written culture in Anglo-Saxon England.
The gold and garnet brooch found at Harford Farm in Norfolk was made for a woman who lived in the early 7th century, at a time when the English were beginning to convert to Christianity. This brooch was inscribed with writing in runes; its gold and garnet decoration resembles items found in Kent, Francia and the Low Countries, and it shows connections between members of the upper levels of society who lived in the regions surrounding the North Sea.
This brooch was found in a grave at Harford Farm cemetery, near Norwich, Norfolk, where it had been buried with its wealthy female owner towards the end of the 7th century Norwich Castle Museum, Its decoration also bears witness to changes that had taken place in East Anglia in the intervening centuries. The animals incised on the front of the brooch resemble motifs found in Scandinavian art, since that region had been invaded by Viking forces and had experienced Scandinavian settlement in the 9th century.
Also on this brooch is foliage which resembles manuscripts made in Wessex, reflecting the fact that by the 10th century, East Anglia had come under the dominion of the West Saxon kings, now rulers of all England. Her doctoral research at the University of Oxford focused on the English Benedictine reform movement in the 10th century. Choose Yes please to open the survey in a new browser window or tab, and then complete it when you are ready.
Women in Anglo-Saxon England. Article written by: Alison Hudson. Learn about the changing roles of women in Anglo-Saxon England, including status, slavery and powerful female leaders.
Beowulf Beowulf is an Old English epic poem which survives in a single precious manuscript. View images from this item From paganism to Christianity The first known English speakers, who lived in southern Britain from the 5th century onwards, came from a pagan Germanic culture.
Anglo-Saxon queens The Anglo-Saxon women we know most about are, unsurprisingly, those at the highest levels of society. Queen Emma, wife of two kings One of the most prominent figures in 11th-century English politics was Emma of Normandy d. New Minster Liber vitae A record of the names of members and friends of monasteries or convents — the belief being that these names would also appear in the heavenly book opened on the Day of Judgement British Library, Stowe MSf.
Female slaves All of the powerful women described above were extraordinary — but they were also out of the ordinary. Bodmin manumissions Multispectral image of some erased manumissions from the Bodmin Gospels, including the record of Guenenguith and Morcefres being freed British Library, Additional MSf. Books owned by women There is evidence that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were on occasion made for or owned by women, including nuns and noblewomen. Judith of Flanders Gospels Judith of Flanders is known to have owned a series of spectacular gospel-books with gilded illumination and jewelled covers New York, Morgan Library, MSupper cover View images from this item 1.
Usage terms Copyright status unknown. Female readers and writers Women in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms occasionally had texts written specifically for them, or were the writers themselves. Wills and other documents Wills and other documents provide evidence for female literacy in Anglo-Saxon England. Material culture Inscriptions on jewellery and similar items are another important source for female written culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Harford Farm brooch This brooch was found in a grave at Harford Farm cemetery, near Norwich, Norfolk, where it had been buried with its wealthy female owner towards the end of the 7th century Norwich Castle Museum,Looking to text a good Norman female
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