Through examination of artefacts, writings, and possessions, this reappraisal of medieval femininity presents countless cases of influential women such as Jadwiga, the only female King in Europe, whose names were struck from history.
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 ... Queerness, in its broadest sense of a point of view or set of behaviours running at a slant to received ideas, remains the key to Femina ... 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.
This desire to categorise women as good or bad, and the detrimental impact it has had on our understanding of the past, is at the heart of this engaging new history of the Middle Ages. Janina Ramirez believes that medieval women have too often been silenced by modern historians and their contemporaries ... One of Femina’s greatest strengths is that it is not just a collection of medieval heroines... but also a readable and wide-ranging account of the Middle Ages — with the women put back in — that forces us to look at familiar stories in new ways ... Ramirez, an Oxford lecturer in art history, is also very good on the material culture of the period.
Ramirez is a gifted storyteller, taking readers across Europe and to the Middle East in her quest for female agency. She does not dwell on the obvious candidates – Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Empress Matilda – with whom readers are probably already familiar ... Strikingly, none of [Femina's] nine chapters is explicitly devoted to roles that women typically occupied – to mystics, abbesses, mothers, wives or widows. They feature in the chapters themselves, to be sure, but rebranded, with titles that are masculine or genderless ... Of course it’s worth showing that women contributed to the world as men did. But many medieval women, especially noble ones, exercised power precisely through roles that can now seem feminine ... Femina is otherwise refreshingly nuanced. Ramirez is honest about the fact that her approach is 'no less biased' than that of her predecessors ... Perhaps it is inevitable that a book of such broad scope will at times frustrate specialists. The closer Ramirez came to my own area of study, the more I found to quibble with ... These are arguably small errors, but they suggest an overall hastiness. They also make one wonder about the accuracy of other material.