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Writing a History of Women's Writing from 700 to 1500

McAvoy, LH and Watt, D (2011) Writing a History of Women's Writing from 700 to 1500 In: The History of British Women's Writing, 700-1500. Palgrave Macmillan, Great Britain, pp. 1-30. ISBN 0230235107

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How can a history of British women’s writing be written? Such a project must necessarily be collaborative if it is to attempt to be comprehensive, but even then any claim to comprehensiveness has to be qualified: paradoxically the more expansive the history, the more partial it will be. The challenges of writing such a history are perhaps even greater for scholars working in the early periods because we are forced to confront and to rethink many deeply ingrained assumptions about women’s writing. This introductory essay focuses on a period of literary history that is often marginalized in accounts of women’s writing in English: the Middle Ages. It is a widely accepted view that there are only two women writers in English in the period before 1500, and therefore there is little to be said for an age (or ages) when women writers were so much an exception. Furthermore, the two medieval English women writers whose names are widely known, Julian of Norwich (1342/3-after 1416) and Margery Kempe (c.1373-after 1439), did not think of themselves as writers or authors. Nor were they responsible for literature as it is thought of today—they did not compose poetry, or romances, or fiction of any sort. Even these two ‘named’ women writers do not comfortably fit established evolutionary models of women’s literary history over the longue durée, with their emphases on the spread of literacy, the bias towards print culture, and the emergence of the woman poet, and ultimately of the professional author of drama or fiction. Yet the difficulty of locating how the medieval period fits in to literary history is not unique to women’s writing: medieval understandings of authorship, literature, and national identity, and the contexts and processes of writing and textual circulation were quite distinct from later periods and therefore deemed problematic more generally. This essay explores some of these issues and reflects on the difficulties we face writing a history of early women's writing.

Item Type: Book Section
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > School of Literature and Languages > English
Authors :
McAvoy, LH
Watt, D
Editors :
McAvoy, LH
Watt, D
Date : 16 December 2011
Uncontrolled Keywords : Literary Criticism
Related URLs :
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 01 Nov 2013 16:36
Last Modified : 28 Mar 2017 14:08

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