Roaring, Writing, Ruling, Rebelling: Women and Their Medieval Manuscripts | An Evening Lecture with Dr Mary Wellesley

The legacies of medieval women have been influential throughout and beyond the period itself. From movements of suffrage in the 20th century to today’s discoveries of hidden narratives, there is a tangible effort to recover the agency of extraordinary women who crossed disciplinary boundaries, documenting their lives as musicians, linguists, artists, theologians, scientists, political advisors and patrons, whilst remaining present in their ordinary occupational and social roles. In each echelon, we can find moments that speak through time to us directly and it was a great pleasure to revisit those moments with Dr Mary Wellesley.

Having studied English Language and Literature at Lincoln College, Oxford, Dr Wellesley then went on to gain a PhD from University College, London in 2017. She is now an Associate Fellow of the Institute of Historical Research and an Associate Member of Oxford University’s English Faculty. Her book, Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers was published in the UK and the US in 2021. It was chosen as one of the history books of the year by the Sunday Times and BBC History Magazine.

Throughout the evening, Dr Wellesley defeated the misconception that medieval manuscripts were all made by monks and proved there were female authors and artists in Britain before the 15th century, sometimes even working on these documents collaboratively. Moving through and beyond elaborately illustrated manuscripts, Dr Wellesley carefully drew our attention to the literature of individual authors. From Marie de France’s Anglo-Norman Lais on courtly love and mythology, to the complex and fascinating Welsh verses of Gwerful Mechain, to Latin ciphers written by the Saxon nun, Hugeburc, through this series of whimsical and wonderful accounts, the ingenuity and innovation of women throughout the Middle Ages was gradually uncovered.

Questions were also asked about the accuracy of later translations of these texts, centering particularly on the book of Margery Kempe. Subsequent publications of Kempe’s narrative (Add. MS 61823) had misconstrued the outspoken and passionate account that poured from the original manuscript into a much quieter and submissive one. Despite this, new and compelling research, such as Dr Wellesley’s, is working towards excavating the original voices of these women.

During the evening, were also delighted to have been joined by Books on the Hill, an independent bookshop situated opposite the Cathedral on Holywell Hill. In this tranquil space, you will find shelves teeming with a tremendous collection of reads, including signed copies of Hidden Hands. To find out more, please visit their webpage via the link below. 

Books on the Hill


~ Isabelle Lepore, Acting Adult Learning Officer