Women, Memory and Ethnic Identity in the German and Norman Realms (c.900-1250)

The Leverhulme Trust, Study Abroad Studentship Postdoctoral Fellowship

For medieval authors ethnicity was a significant element in memorialising and maintaining group identities but this discourse was predominantly male-centric, often confining female members of an ethnic group to gendered stereotypes. Yet female heritage was of more consequence to medieval authors than has been recognised: female ancestors are often noticeably present in texts that memorialise family history and noblewomen had significant roles in commemorating and maintaining ethnic heritage as rulers, family members and elite patrons in their own right. This project explores the ethno-gendered aspects of historical, genealogical and hagiographical sources from the Anglo-Norman/Angevin and Holy Roman Empires, as examples of complex political and familial networks that intersected with various ruling families throughout medieval Europe. It analyses the ways in which female identity was constructed and expressed by medieval authors and their female patrons through the commemoration of familial history, female rulership, familial structures and marital change between the years 900-1250.

The first stage of this project seeks to assess the ways in which medieval authors presented the ethnic identity of female relatives. The importance of posterity and memory in the recording of family history has left us with numerous traces concerning the role of women as ancestors and family members. Female ancestors were important in the construction of individual identity and medieval authors regularly included them in genealogies and hagiographies. The way in which medieval authors used female ethnicity to comment on wider political contexts can also reveal much about the politics of representation in chronicles and annals. This study explores the role of female ancestors in genealogical, historical and hagiographical texts to develop our understanding of the role of female ethnicity in the memorialisation of kinship. Situating these texts within their socio-political context will be essential in revealing the complex ways in which authors used ethnicity to legitimise, criticise and comment on contemporary affairs. 

The second stage of this project focuses on the ways in which noblewomen expressed their own identities, whether in the context of heritage or through exogamous marriage as newcomers in foreign lands. Noblewomen were active in commissioning historical and hagiographical works that emphasised their heritage and identity, emphasising their legitimacy and demonstrating the agency with which noblewomen could actively express their ethnic heritage. Women were also undeniably involved in the practical elements of their group culture, such as law, language and custom. As landowners and members of court, evidence for the political and social lives of noblewomen also survives in sources such as letters and charters, which provide further clues regarding their expressions of identity. By reassessing the assumptions concerning male-centric source material and gendered biases on the agency of women as political actors and patrons, this research has the potential to uncover a wealth of evidence concerning female ethnicity.

This project will produce two articles on expressions of female ethnic identity in the central Middle Ages, one on individual expression of ethnicity by women, the other on the expression of female ethnicity of the past. By outlining the importance of women’s roles in constructing medieval ethnic identity and adopting an intersectional approach to medieval constructions of identity this project contributes to our broader understanding of medieval identities by exploring the place of women in ethnic narratives. This research is funded by The Leverhulme Trust’s Study Abroad Studentship.

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October 1, 2020 – September 30, 2022

Project leader:
Tom Chadwick

The Leverhulme Trust
Study Abroad Studentship