Dear Men: just because you don’t know about it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Sincerely, me.

The first year I was at the Leeds IMC I didn’t take an excursion, and regretted it deeply. So now I make a point of picking an excursion – usually based on timing, because I don’t have strong preferences in medieval site visits: it’s all pretty, gimme gimme!

Kirkstall Abbey cloister from the south-west corner

This year, I went to Kirkstall Abbey! It was grey and rainy and I didn’t have weather-appropriate clothes because I’d just come from Geneva in a heatwave and miscalculated. The Abbey itself: super pretty, super interesting, especially as I’d been to Rievaulx and Bylands last time I was at the IMC. I’m still devoutly Team Romanesque, and this was some fine Anglo-Norman Romanesque with English Gothic add-ons. My photos (a bit disapppointing b/c of the bad light) are all here.

But here’s a thing that’s bugging me. It bugged me at the time but I had more interesting things to think about, like the IMC dance, and where to acquire scones.

The foundations of the Kirkstall Abbey guesthouse

We were taken around the site by Stuart Harrison of Rylands Archaeological Service, who was a pretty logical choice, given he’d worked on the site at various points and had done the site plans that are on display as you go around. He explained the site more thoroughly than the signage, with plenty of links to Fountains and Rievaulx which might have been baffling if you’d never been to either, but which I found helpful. He also had  some really interesting stuff to say about the history of conservation and restoration on the site, which I would be able to reproduce more effectively if only I could recall or find out the name of the chap who was in charge of restorations in the late 1890s. Apparently he was distinctive and something of a pioneer.

None of that is the thing that is bothering me. When we got to the remains of the guesthouse, outside the abbey proper but within the grounds, Harrison was describing the layout and the probable use in hosting important men and their retinues as well as lesser travellers. Even poorer folk would camp outside the walls to receive basic sustenance.

(Note: this is not a verbatim record of the conversation, obviously)

Says I: What about women?

Says he: Oh they can’t come inside the grounds.

Says I: Oh, huh. Is there a separate guesthouse outside the walls for women, then?

Says he: Nope

Says I: …. But where did women travellers stay? Say, noblewomen going between their estates?

Says he: There was one incident where an abbot was reprimanded for hosting the Queen: if they couldn’t do it for the queen, then lesser women certainly not.

Says I: Huh. Well where did they stay? They would’ve had to have mixed-sex retinues – were nuns allowed to host mix-sex groups?

Says he: Well, women just didn’t travel much in this period, and if they did they were probably with their husbands.

Says I: Which would be a mixed-sex group: where would that group stay?

Somewhere in there someone brought up pilgrim hostels and it was concluded, for reasons that were unclear to me, that that was different to monasteries somehow. Talking with other tour members we concluded I should ask someone who works on Cistercian nunneries, for maximum comparability – so now I know what to ask Elizabeth Freeman when/if I next see her. No one in the group, which included a number of historians of Cistercians (mostly men, one young woman postgrad), knew anything much about Cistercian nuns.

Why on earth did Harrison think “women didn’t travel much” was a sensible answer? Especially given he knew that story about the Queen (which Queen, I forget)? I asked where the Queen stayed when she wasn’t getting abbots into trouble, and he did not know. I saw fit to ask #medievaltwitter today and got back not precisely answers but useful keywords for further research in about twenty seconds. Lucy Allen voted for our hypothetical noblewoman staying with nuns, citing various prohibitions in De Periculoso about who not to host in your nunnery as evidence people were being hosted in said nunneries. Makes sense, although further inspection tells me that De Periculoso is late 13th c, and we were by that point in the Kirkstall tour talking about the 14th century. De Periculoso, wikipeida also suggests, was applied in very different ways across Europe. So now I know when I find a historian of Cisterican nuns that I need to ask her how De Periculoso affected guesthouses and travel in England. Various people, notably RealMargery, pointed me in the direction of studies on Margery Kempe for reliable info on how female pilgrims got around. I haven’t actually left the cafe since that discussion, so I haven’t yet read said cites, but now I have them. (Chaucer’s Nuns & WoB travel in a mixed group and stay in inns – but I have trouble imagining noblewomen doing so. Perhaps that’s my failure of imagination?)

Note: #medievaltwitter did not try to tell me that women didn’t travel much in the Middle Ages. Geez. I was witness to another conversation at Leeds, and I can’t remember who it was, where the other parties pointed out that men don’t study nunneries. There are plenty of women working on the history of monasticism, but apparently the history of nuns is pretty much left to women. And, as we saw at Kirkstall, a specialist in Cistercian monks may know nothing whatsover about nuns, while a specialist in Cistercian nuns (probably a woman) will have to know all about the male monastic order as well. Harrison’s hardly the first person to jump from “I’ve never thought of this” to “it didn’t happen.” I’ve done it myself. A couple of years ago I confidently asserted that the thing about demons being the spawn of angels and humans was a late 13th c notion, because I couldn’t think of any examples earlier, and a bunch of students with brains proceeded to cite a whole stack of counter examples going back to the 10th c. Including ones I knew but had forgotten. It happens. It happens a whole damn lot less if you think for a second before bullshitting, and if you get comfortable with saying “I dunno, let’s go ask the internet!”

A nice window in the refectory of Kirkstall Abbey, seen by no women until the dissolution. In theory. I think I recall reading that 15th/16th c monasteries, with few or no laybrothers, hired laundresses & serving women  like normal people.

What I really have a problem with is the fact that so much about women – not even traditional “women’s history” domestic stuff, often literally EVERYTHING INVOLVING A WOMAN EVER – is in a category of “optional knowledge” for male historians, and for historians of men (although women historians of men fall into this trap less often, IME). Because when things are optional knowledge, but you’re an Expert in Stuff, it is so easy to assume that the reason you don’t know about [optional knowledge] is that it just didn’t happen. This also happens to whole categories of people who aren’t women: I’ve seen it a lot (probably even committed it) when it comes to talking about non-Christian populations in medieval Europe. I gather the assumption that there were no Jewish people at all ever in England after the Expulsion is a particularly annoying case. Another would be: assuming the White Australian Policy (Aus immigration law 1901 onwards) was actually 100% effective and there were zero non-white people (aside from Indigenous Australians, who are in a different chapter of the textbook) in Australia between 1901 and 1945. Then you get the case where the Expert on Stuff does actually know about the target population, but deems them boring. For instance: the much-beloved Crusade specialist who, on his retirement, gave me all his books about women for the price of me tolerating a 20 minute rant on how women did nothing interesting in the Crusade period. Meanwhile I stood there thinking well I remember there were women in your lectures and I thought they were interesting! (He knew I did; that’s why he gave me the books!) But at least he didn’t try to tell me that women weren’t involved in the Crusades.

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