When we think about (or ask students to think about) the role of women in the Middle Ages, the danger is thinking about a thousand years (give or take) of history as a monolith and the women within it as a single group acting in one mind according to their chromosomal makeup.
The reality is that rules and perceptions for and about women were always an evolving process, and the ways in which Anglo-Saxon women are presented in the years before the Norman Conquest was different from, say, what is written about women in the late eleventh century, the twelfth century and onwards.
It’s often casually repeated that women had more social freedom and were held in higher regard before the Norman Conquest and the introduction of a Norman chattel concept. This is a bit of a wild generalisation, and from my own research what I’ve found is that what really disempowered women in the public sphere was the rise of centralised male-run bureaucracy that took the informal powers away from abbesses and queens.
But I’m not writing here today to adjudicate on whether or not the Normans really did trash things for the medieval ladies, but rather to look at some striking representations of women in Old English poetry and ask what is going on.
My personal favourite woman in an Old English poem is Eve in the Old English translation of Genesis known as Genesis B. Gensis B is found in the Junius Manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11) alongside an Old English translation of the book of Exodus in which the Israelites in the desert (who in the original Bible imagine with glee a heaven in which there will be no more sea) refer to themselves repeatedly as sea-people, because the Anglo-Saxons were travellers and sea-people, and the poems Daniel and Christ and Satan.
It’s a religious manuscript, dealing with Biblical themes, and so what I had expected of it was an Eve who pretty much towed the party line. I expected women are bad and foolish and cause sin.
What actually happens in Genesis B is a lot more interesting than that: Eve is operating in good faith, trying to protect a foolish Adam and acting without sufficient information in an Eden with an absent and apathetic God. Eve’s powers of reason and deduction are repeatedly stressed by the poet, as are her nobility and wisdom.
Eve is described as ‘wilitesciene’ (white-shining), a quality associated with the Valkyries, mythical shieldmaidens of the Norse tradition who were brave warriors and wise counsellors . This is a role that she takes on when Satan, in disguise as the serpent, comes to her and tells her that he is God’s messenger and Adam is sorely in need of her advice because he has been ignoring God’s Word:
If you, however, wish,
willing wife, to obey my words, 560
you might then his good counsel, his advice consider.
Ponder in your breast that you might from both you two
ward off punishment, as I you instruct.
Eat this fruit! Then your eyes will become so light
that you might most widely over all the world 565
see afterwards, even the throne
of your Leader Himself, and have his devotion forthrightly.
Eve has no reason to disbelieve the messenger: she has never seen either angel or devil, and she knows that it is her place to persuade Adam of what is in his best interests.
The devil then offers eve a ‘tacen’ (a token, a piece of proof) to show that he is a genuine angel: he gives her, temporarily, the gift of sight through which she could see all of God’s shining creation.
At this point in the text, the poet tells us that Eve was deceived because of her ‘wacran hige’ (weaker mind). Many scholars have argued that this is proof that the text is misogynistic, because it says, right here, in black and white (or black and beige, I suppose, if you’re imagining a medieval manuscript) that Eve is less intelligent than Adam.
But Adam hasn’t featured in the text for fifty lines or so. Eve’s entire interaction has been with the Devil. Eve falls for the deception because she has a weaker mind than the Devil. The Devil has failed to persuade Adam, and so changes his strategy with Eve. Unlike in the Bible when the serpent simply entices them with the promise of knowledge, here the Devil tells Eve that God will be angry with Adam for refusing his orders, and persuades her that it is her duty to protect him. He offers Eve proof in the form of this shining token of divine sight. Eve has no concept of lying. Eve has no concept of good and evil. Eve acts reasonably based on the evidence that she has.
At the end of the poem, Adam blames Eve, and Eve replies:
“You may reproach me for it, my friend Adam,
with your words. Nevertheless, it cannot hurt worse
in your mind, the sorrowing, than it does me in my heart.”
Ah ha! You cry, look! The man is using his mind and the woman is using her heart! The woman here is silly and emotional after all.
Except that the heart was the Anglo-Saxon seat of reason: it is associated with knowledge, understanding and wisdom . Eve is distressed because she has been outwitted and deceived by one whom her God never equipped or prepared her to defend herself again.
Of course, Eve’s intelligence is still up for debate , but when I read this poem I don’t see a foolish and sinful woman led astray by weakness who persuades her mate through trickery and enticements to sin. I see a woman whose ability to reason is not impeded by her own intelligence but rather the information which has already been provided for her, one limited and restricted by the world around her, and by those who are beyond human understanding.
The Onion and the Dough
My other Old English surprise, and I suppose also my favourite (I can have two favourites if I want) are the women in the Exeter Book Riddles .
The Onion riddle goes like this:
|I’m a wonderful thing, a joy to women,
to neighbors useful. I injure no one
who lives in a village save only my slayer.
I stand up high and steep over the bed;
underneath I’m shaggy. Sometimes ventures
a young and handsome peasant’s daughter,
a maiden proud, to lay hold on me.
She seizes me, red, plunders my head,
fixes on me fast, feels straightway
what meeting me means when she thus approaches,
a curly-haired woman. Wet is that eye.
|10||Ic eom wunderlicu wiht wifum on hyhte
neahbuendū nyt nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra nymþe bonan anum
staþol min is steapheah stonde ic on bedde
neoþan ruh nathwær neþeð · hwilum
ful cyrtenu · ceorles dohtor
modwlonc meowle ꝥ heo on mec gripeð
ræseð mec on reodne reafað min heafod
fegeð mec on fæsten feleþ sona
mines gemotes seþe mec nearwað
wif wundēn locc wæt bið þæt eage.
Of course, there’s nothing this could be other than an onion, right?
What’s interesting about this poem is that the enjoyment the woman clearly takes in her beloved ‘onion’. It is ‘a joy’ to her – she just loves some onion! And she’s not criticised for loving the onion – she’s ‘handsome’, she’s ‘proud’, she’s the active party in her interaction with this delicious onion. She ‘seizes’ it, ‘plunders’ it and probably makes a really delicious casserole out of it.
I’d be hard pressed, actually, in some of the contemporary novels I’ve read lately, to find such a depiction of a woman enjoying some lovely “onion” without shame, judgement or some kind of uncomfortable power dynamic that leaves her degraded. But these Old English riddles show women enjoying some “onion” of their own volition, with great joy and enthusiasm and without shame, negative consequences or censure.
And this isn’t just an anomaly.
Take a look at the dough riddle:
|I have heard of something wax in a corner,
swell and pop, lift up the covers.
A proud-minded woman seized with her hands
that boneless thing, a prince’s daughter;
covered with her dress the swelling thing.
|Ic on wincle gefrægn weax nathwæt
þindan ⁊ þunian þecene hebban
on þæt banlease bryd grapode
hygewlonc hondum hrægle þeahte
þrindende þing þeodnes dohtor.
That’s right! Enthusiastic dinner preparation isn’t just for handsome peasant-women (proud and lovely though they might be) a prince’s daughter can also joyfully ‘seize’ some rising dough and stuff it under her dress to prove (apparently this is a fairly standard practice? Anyone who knows how to bake, weigh in).
Riddles only work if everyone is working from the same ‘script’ – that is to say, they play on our common understanding of (and our potential for misunderstanding) the world around us.
It wasn’t surprising or shocking or negative, then, for Anglo-Saxon women to be enthusiastic partners in onion-chopping or dough-making or – indeed – sex.
Of course, there is a great variety of representations of women in Old English poetry, and I wish I had time and space to go through all of it – Grendel’s mother in Beowulf, the Old English female saints including my personal favourite Juliana who wrestles with the devil, and the elegiac women of The Wife’s Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer, but I wanted to share in this post two examples that, for me, typify the most surprising things I found in my study of Old English poetry and the women within it.
I think we do the Middle Ages a disservice when we assume that it was an entirely sexist monolith, one in which women never tried or never got to express themselves. Women’s liberation has come a long way, but it didn’t get there because for thousands of years all these downtrodden women never said hey, I can imagine something different, something better. Women are intelligent, like men, women want things, like onions, just as much as men might want to share their onions.
 See Helen Damico, ‘The Valkyrie Reflex in Old English Literature’, in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature ed. by Damico and Olsen (Indiana, Bloomington, 1990).
 See Leslie Lockett, Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in The Vernacular and Latin Traditions (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011)
 See Alain Renoir, ‘Eve’s I.Q. Rating: Two Sexist Views of Genesis B’, in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature ed. by Damico and Olsen (Indiana, Bloomington, 1990).
The Onion and the Dough
 See Edith Whitehurst Williams, ‘What’s So New about the Sexual Revolution? Some Comments on Anglo-Saxon Attitudes Toward Sexuality in Women Based on four Exeter Book Riddles’ in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature ed. by Damico and Olsen (Indiana, Bloomington, 1990).