Book Review: MEDIEVAL WOMEN by Henrietta Leyser

Genre: Non-fiction history
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 3 stars
Series: no


Book cover for MEDIEVAL WOMEN: title

Medieval Women looks at a thousand years of English history, as it affected – and was made by – women.

Henrietta Leyser considers the problems and attitudes fundamental to every woman of the time: medieval views on sex, marriage and motherhood; the world of work and the experience of widowhood for peasant, townswoman and aristocrat. The intellectual and spiritual worlds of women are also explored.

Based on an abundance of research from the last twenty-five years, Medieval Women describes the diversity and vitality of English women’s lives in the Middle Ages. 

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


MEDIEVAL WOMEN is certainly an overview book rather than a details book. Drawing on the previous decades’ scholarship, Henrietta Leyser summarises findings in one place rather than asking the reader to trawl through academic papers themselves (this book was published before the internet was as widespread and accessible as it is today)

As such, this is one of the older research book I’ve read, and it shows mostly in the type setting. It’s that semi-blurry thick block text with any quoted text in a smaller font that is a bit tricky to read at times. Being a bit older, it’s been interesting to now read a book that has been listed in several other books’ bibliographies.

The downside to that is that I’ve read books drawing on these conclusions before, so there was nothing shatteringly new. However, I liked the heavy focus on women and religion – particularly monasticism and anchoresses. It neatly tied in to some of the religious mysticism from the time I’ve been reading (like Julian of Norwich) and the extra context of the wider community helped understand where Julian’s visions fitted in.

MEDIEVAL WOMEN starts off considering the Anglo-Saxon women through the lens of the spheres of evidence. It was a really effective grouping, building up the layers. It started with the burial mounds and goods, then progressed through religious and secular history, law, and finally literature. For me, the Anglo-Saxon section was the most interesting as it was the newest information and this approach was different to other books.

The book then looked at 1066 before going onto women of the 12-15th centuries, separated into three sections – family, work, and religion.

I really liked that the end of this book is comprised of primary source extracts. These are a collection of medieval literature, religious tracts, medicine books, and laws. It was so nice to read the (modern translations of) the texts referred to myself, to see the context of quoted passages within the book. There’s lots that can be gained from primary sources that can’t be conveyed in the recounting and quoting found in history books. I’ve not seen such a thing before, and I wish more books did that.


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