Early Women of the OED: 690-1100CE
I recently became interested in researching some of the earliest women cited or mentioned in the OED. Only a few individuals, such as members of royal families or famous scholars like the Venerable Bede, are known about in detail at this time, when English first existed as a written language.
During this period, long before the invention of the printing press, most people could not read or write. Even people who could write often employed scribes to write for them. For example, (although he wrote in a much later period than the women described here), there are no surviving manuscripts written by Chaucer in his own hand – all the extant manuscripts of Chaucer’s works were written or copied by one or more scribes. This makes it difficult to identify specific authors of texts from the early Middle Ages. Much writing from this period comes to us anonymously, in copies probably made much later than the lives of the authors.
It is now thought that some texts that have come down to us through history, with anonymous authors, were actually written by women. Furthermore, Diane Watt (in Women, Writing and Religion in England and Beyond, 650–1100, 2019) suggests that male authors including monks (like Bede) may have, in some cases, retold or ‘overwritten’ accounts which had originally been female-authored.
Here are four of the earliest women cited or mentioned in the OED:
As far as we can tell, the earliest woman cited in the OED was Cuthswith, the seventh-century abbess of Inkberrow Monastery, near Worcester. She is quoted in the OED at the entry for abbotess, n.:
The quotation in Old English translates into modern English as ‘A book of Cuthswith the Abbess’, (abbatissan is the genitive singular form). The quotation is an inscription in a fifth-century Italian manuscript of St Jerome, which is now housed in the University of Würzburg library.
It is thought that Cuthswith inscribed her name and occupation in the manuscript to show that it belonged to her. This is evidence that she was willing and able to read and write in English, which was rare for women of this period. During the 7th to 8th centuries, Latin was the language associated with writing, book learning, and religious knowledge in British monasteries and nunneries. There was no written English standard at the time, and very little written English survives from the period.
Cuthswith is mentioned in two charters which were preserved at Worcester until the seventeenth century. She established an independent monastery in what is now Worcestershire, around 693-699 CE, when she was granted fifteen hides of land. Her monastery was so successful that she was able to purchase another five hides of land in 704-709 CE.
Cuthswith’s wealth allowed her to buy the expensive Italian manuscript of St. Jerome’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. This is likely to have been a work of advanced bible study for her. Some of the works of St. Jerome contained guidance on how women of the church should live their lives, and interestingly some scholars do not see his writings as particularly liberating for women. According to Theresa Tinkle (in Chaucer Review vol. 44, 2010) some of Jerome’s work: ‘erases women’s leadership..[and] reduces women’s role in religion to sexual restraint.’
Abbesses’ of the very early Middle Ages often led a mixed community of monks and nuns, in what was known as a ‘double monastery’. The abbesses of these early double monasteries tended to be princesses or widowed queens, or other members of powerful families, and heading a double monastery would have been an important role. There’s no direct evidence that the monastery led by Cuthswith was a double one, however Patrick Sims-Williams (Religion and Literature in Western England 600-800, 1990) states that double monasteries were a ‘custom’ in England at this time, and that where there is detailed evidence about these institutions, they usually turn out to be communities of this type.
Æðelgifu was a wealthy noblewoman and widow who wrote her own will – or had it scribed – in the second half of the tenth century. Julia Crick (Charters of St Albans, 2007) describes her will as ‘a document of exceptional importance for the social and economic history of tenth-century England’.
In the will, Æðelgifu arranged for the disposal of twelve estates in what are now the English Midlands and some property in London, and the release, by law, of about seventy domestic and agricultural workers from bonded service. The will also gives a fascinating description of her clothes and possessions. Her directions for her blue kirtle are cited in the OED entry for blue, n. & adj:
‘My blue kirtle is to be given to Beornwynn’. Beornwynn is a woman’s name: ‘beorn’ means man or warrior and ‘wynn’ means joy. She also has three purple kirtles, which she leaves to Lufetat, Ælfgifu, and Godwif.
There are nine further quotations from Æðelgifu’s will cited in OED entries, at , swineland, sister, beget, fuller, miller, day, and youngest. In the latter, she orders the emancipation of her servant and his sons:
‘…Mann, her goldsmith is to be freed, and his eldest son and the youngest.‘
At the entry swineland, the OED includes this quotation:
‘I leave to Leofsige…that land at Tewin, for use as swine land.‘ Twingum is thought to be Tewin in Hertfordshire.
The Two Wynflæds (WIN-fled)
Wynflæd of the Demesne
Wynflæd was a 10th century noblewoman who was known to be part of Queen Ælfthryth’s inner circle. Queen Ælfthryth’ was the third wife of King Edgar the Peaceable, the only woman known to have been referred to as a forespeca — a spokesperson or mediator.
Wynflæd successfully sued a man called Leofwine between 990 and 992CE. Andrew Rabin (in Anglo-Saxon Women before the Law, OEN, 2008) tells us that more than half of the witnesses she calls to attest to her ownership of the disputed estate are women. These women include Abbess Eadgifu of Winchester and Abbess Leofrun of Reading. He writes: ‘It is significant that, although documents of this sort typically omit the names of female participants, [these] texts..explicitly identify all the women associated with each dispute.’
Wynflæd’s lawsuit is cited at again (adv, prep & conj.):
‘Aelfric gave Wynflæd that land at Hagbourne & at Bradfield, again [in return for] which land at Datchet.’ Hagbourne is now in Oxfordshire, and Bradfield and Datchet are now in Berkshire.
The sense of ‘again’ here is ‘set against’, meaning – ‘in exchange for’, or ‘in return for’.
The lawsuit is also cited at his (pron.1):
‘She said that she could not [swear] for her part nor he for his [part].’ Translation from A. J. Robertson in Anglo-Saxon charters.
Wynflæd with the Wardrobe
Wynflæd was a wealthy widow who lived sometime before the late 10th or early 11th century. Her will is one of the earliest which survives in the name of a woman alone. It gives details of her bequests and mentions two children, a daughter and a son.
She ‘bequeaths to Eadgyfe (probably her granddaughter – her son’s daughter) her best dun (brown) coloured tunic & her better cloak’.
Here at wired adj. she leaves Eadgyfe a ‘preon’. Professor Dorothy Whitelock (in Anglo-Saxons Wills, 1930) translates ‘preon’ as a piece of jewellery, probably a brooch for fastening a cloak:
‘She bequeaths.. Eadgyfe…her old filigree (wired) brooch, which is worth six mancuses’.
Other items bequeathed in Wynflæd’s will are ‘wooden cups decorated with dots’ and her ‘red tent’, which she may have used for travelling around the estates and lands that she owned.
As well as clothes and jewellery she also leaves several women servants to her granddaughter, including the seamstress(es) who may have made the clothes. She also leaves a range of livestock, including wild and tamed horses.
At halirift n. in OED Wynflæd grants ‘..to Ceolthryth her best holy veil and her best headband’.
I’ve enjoyed researching the lives of women from this period who are mentioned in the OED. It’s been fascinating to hear these voices from the past, giving us rich detail about their lives.
If you are interested in significant and/or literate women from this era, there are other relevant source texts in the OED, including the Will of Ælfflæd, the Charter of Eanwene, and the Legend of (and other texts concerning) St. Frideswide (Frideswith). Hild(a) of Whitby is mentioned in quotations.
Suggestions for further reading:
Women, Writing and Religion in England and Beyond, 650–1100, Diane Watt, 2019.
Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia, Margaret Schaus, 2006.
The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.