“She was so bent on reading,” writes the anonymous biographer of the Abbess of Bischofsheim, “that she never laid aside her book except to pray or to strengthen her slight frame with food and sleep.” This eighth-century abbess, an Englishwoman named Leoba, is thought to have been taught Latin by another woman, Eadburg, Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet, Kent; the poetry that resulted is some of the earliest literary work by a named Englishwoman in existence.
Was this the Eadburg whose name has just been found etched 15 times into an eighth-century manuscript? Possibly – though there are at least eight other Eadburgs known to have lived in the area then. Unearthed by researchers at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and ratified using photographic technology previously unavailable, the faint scrawls on the Latin copy of a 1,300-year-old Acts of the Apostles are exciting evidence of women’s presence in the literature of the period.
Women did write in Anglo-Saxon England. One of the earliest surviving literary works by a known English writer was a treatise written by Aldhelm, the abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Sherborne, in the late seventh century. He addressed “De Virginitate” to a group of Essex nuns on the issue of virginity in response to their letters. While the abbot’s work is preserved, the women’s work has been lost. Posterity did not value them. Our view of early medieval women is conditioned, inevitably, by what men thought of them. Which is what makes the latest find potentially so interesting.
The Viking raids, the Norman conquest and the Reformation destroyed much of the evidence there might have been of medieval English women’s intellectual life; records are especially lacking from the eighth to the 11th centuries. Absence of evidence cannot necessarily be equated with absence of achievement, however. Nuns came from a wide variety of backgrounds, from queens to the middle classes. Fifty-odd religious houses of the eighth century were mixed (women-only establishments came a bit later) and often headed by women.
Many surviving volumes are thought to have been produced in collaboration with the women they are addressed to. Women also commissioned texts, becoming patrons of literary culture well before the publication, in the 1400s, of Julian of Norwich’s enduringly beautiful Revelations of Divine Love, the earliest surviving example of a book in the English language written by a named woman. It is increasingly argued, in fact, that women were central to the emergence of an English literary tradition.
Learning was inextricable from religion, but religion was a mixed blessing for women. In Mary, as the historian Marina Warner has noted, the Catholic and Orthodox churches raised a single woman up only to underline to all others that they would never be good enough. In this context, it’s striking that the positioning of Eadburg’s name, and a few drawings, suggests deliberate commentary on an author – Saint Paul – who decreed that women should be silent in church. Nunneries closed women off from the world, yet paradoxically gave them the possibility of independent intellectual lives. The presence of Eadburg’s name in the Acts of the Apostles brings those lives a little closer to the light.