In 1878 a pile of ancient bones was pulled from the ground at Birka, near Stockholm, and confidently identified as the remains of a 10th-century Norse warrior. After all, the skeleton, known as “Bj 581”, was going into the next life surrounded by every kind of death-dealing instrument: spears, axes, arrows and swords, and a couple of strapping war horses. You might have assumed Bj 581 would have one of those helmets with curly horns too, were it not for the fact that the “classic” Norse headgear was actually a stage prop invented for a production of Wagner’s Ring cycle just two years earlier, in 1876 Still, it seemed plausible to imagine that Bj 581 had once sported a wild red beard.
Then, over the last 10 years, murmurs of doubt started to surface. The skeleton’s pelvis was suspiciously wide, the bones of his forearm remarkably slender. In 2017, DNA was extracted from a tooth and the truth was finally out: not a Y chromosome in sight. The Birka warrior was female. At a stroke ideas about Norse women, and about women in medieval culture generally, were turned upside down. Out went the wimples and the prayer books, the mute looks and downcast eyes, and in came something altogether fiercer and more interesting. Indeed, no sooner had the news of Bj 581’s misgendering flashed around the world than its effects started to register in the popular culture. Suddenly Norse wonder-women were everywhere, from film franchises to lunch boxes.
These accounts of how discoveries in the 20th and 21st centuries have allowed for the rewriting of ancient women’s lives are easily the best part of Janina Ramirez’s survey of current scholarship. Even when hi-tech methods are not in evidence, the findings still tell us so much about how medieval women’s lives came to be misinterpreted or marginalized in the first place.
Take, for instance, the case of Colonel William Erdeswick Ignatius Butler-Bowdon, a man with a dynastically inflected surname and a handsome family seat in Derbyshire to match. In 1934, Butler-Bowdon went rummaging for some ping-pong balls to enliven a dullish houseparty. From the back of a crammed cupboard, he pulled out an incomparable treasure, The Book of Margery Kempe, since described as the earliest known English autobiographical text written by a woman or, quite possibly, by anyone at all. It had been in his family for years without anyone really noticing.
Margery Kempe was a merchant’s wife in early 15th-century Norfolk who was halfway through a comfortable life when she decided to give up her smart clothes and good table and marry Christ instead. Briskly informing her husband, with whom she had 14 children, that she would rather see him beheaded than have sex with him again, she set off on a series of highly idiosyncratic pilgrimages which took her as far as Jerusalem.
The jury is out on whether she was experiencing post-partum psychosis or spiritual ecstasy (she claimed that all 12 Apostles had turned up for her nuptials with Jesus) but there is no doubting the outrageous originality of her voice. The Evening Standard, which in 1934 was mostly preoccupied with Hitler’s unsanctioned expansions, found something oddly apt about the fact that Kempe had waited 600 years before revealing herself to the world from the back of someone’s junk cupboard, describing her as “certainly queer, even for a queer age.”
Queerness, in its broadest sense of a point of view or set of behaviors running at a slant to received ideas, remains the key to Femina. One of the great foundational assumptions of medieval studies has always been that dark age Europe was a place of pale freckled skins and tightly patrolled borders. Yet as Ramirez shows again and again, it was a far more various place than that. Returning to one of her favorite DNA stories, she reports how isotope analysis conducted on a female skeleton retrieved from a burial ground in the City of London revealed that the woman in question was Black and had spent her first years in early 14th-century Africa. Her diet there had been good, and her bones showed none of the signs of malnutrition that were a feature of the rickety English, Scots and Welsh bodies buried alongside her.
However, damage sustained to her skeleton as an adult suggested that her luck had not held. Rotator cuff disease and spinal degeneration told of a life spent in brutal manual labor, probably coerced. The conclusion must be that she had been trafficked to Britain along the same trade routes that delivered barrels of spices and bales of silk from the ports of the southern Mediterranean to the chilly north.
Here is a story of more ordinary female existence in the middle ages to balance against that of the ferocious Birka warrior or the eccentric Margery Kempe. While Ramirez’s clunky prose doesn’t always serve her particularly well, there is no disguising her excitement as she sets these revelatory scenes before us.