The Prime of Life? Embracing the Middle Age

I had a big birthday in September.

It passed without incident, in fact. I had a party. It was fun. I escaped the proverbial existential angst – there was no tattoo (although this is something still in consideration), no sports car purchase (I wish), no escape to a Tibetan monastery for a week of fasting, meditation, and life-reviewing (see previous parenthesis).

No. It was all very calm and easy. A Rite of Passage, perhaps, but a painless one, nonetheless.

I think that my lack of unease about getting older had a lot to do with everything I’d researched and read over the past few years about medieval women in the ‘prime’ of their lives. Twenty-first century women have a lot to learn, I think, from these models of female authority. It’s a huge misnomer that the Middle Ages was a time of barbarism and female-oppression (Hollywood has a lot to answer for, here). Of course, it all depended on the social station into which one was born, but women of the emerging merchant classes and beyond ran businesses, owned property, managed families and estates, and possessed a complex literacy and literariness that scholars are only starting to uncover.

As 2018 takes up the reins, and with it my first experience of apparent ‘middle age’ (whatever that is nowadays), I want to reflect on what that means, and why, in fact, on a personal level, I metamorphosed into my fifth decade with much less angst than I’d anticipated.

These days, society can be cynically ageist. Look at the Hollywood industry, for example. Once women hit middle age (or even earlier), they’re relegated to roles of mothers, grandmothers (often ‘batty’ old women), eccentrics, sometimes politicians (as long as they’re not the main players), jaded, ageing ‘career women’ (that’s their definition, don’t you know?), or difficult, arsey types who are high-octane players but pretty dislikeable.

Meryl Streep has recently been lauded for her role as Kay Graham in the movie ‘The Post’, the U.S.’s first female newspaper publisher, who was instrumental in exposing the government’s prior knowledge of the Vietnam conflict. Though this marks a landmark role for a female actor, one can’t help but notice the latent subtext that this is a *remarkable* story about a *remarkable* woman.

Medieval Studies, at least, has thankfully, has moved beyond that well-worn trope of #exemplarywomen towards, well, just #cooleverydaywomen.

Meryl Streep, 2017

Until this year (when someone was kind enough to give me an academic job), I’d been juggling a teaching career in a secondary school with a part-time PhD, followed by a short, postdoctoral phase. For sixteen years, I jumped around a classroom, negotiating with teenagers who wanted to learn / didn’t want to learn / really wanted to learn / really wanted to tell me to “**** off”, or variations thereof. Schools love young, dynamic, energetic teachers. Luckily, I didn’t reach the stage of ‘old’ and jaded, but I didn’t get the impression that older teachers were valued much – whatever their gender – unless they’d reached senior management levels, of course (which most teachers are too tired, overworked and stretched to do). So far, I sense that the Academy is more open minded in its attitude towards older colleagues. In fact, on the contrary, I think it might be one of the few places where age is synonymous with knowledge (wisdom?) and is therefore highly valued.

But twenty-first century life outside the Academy is all about youth – isn’t it? We’re flooded with adverts for anti-ageing preparations that could give some pungent medieval ointment recipes a run for their money.

To age, it seems, is an offence.

Youth culture dominates. Even the blog medium in which I’m writing is a product of the instant, public, transitory culture that makes us all feel pressurised to share, to be ‘part of’ the rapid, fleeting zeitgeist where you need to be in it to win it. No wonder half of the population is beset with anxiety. We’re in a strange, circular environ where the understanding of, and treatments for, mental health conditions are at their peak, yet the societal conditions that cause them are quietly denied.

Six hundred years ago, the French-Italian author Christine de Pisan wrote about ageing as an intellectual pursuit, characterised by the learning that she was able to undertake once she had become widowed, and the wisdom that accompanies a significant experience of life. In Le Livre de l’advision, she noted that

At the time when I had naturally arrived at an age that brings with it a certain degree of understanding, looking back at my past adventures and ahead to the end of things… I embarked on the path to which nature and the stars inclined me, that is, the love of learning.

Christine sees her progress towards learning and understanding as a natural path; a route that is already mapped-out for her as available for a woman at a certain age and life stage. Certainly, such a route was not without challenge, since Christine wrote during a time when ancient medical and philosophical ideas about older women and their poisonous bodies still permeated medieval culture, the literature and art from which often portrayed such women as dried-up, suspicious hags. Indeed, this extract from pseudo-Albertus Magnus’fourteenth-century De Secretis mulierum views old women, beyond middle age, as virtually murderous, but in fact all women (the poor ones being the worst), are surrounded by infected air by way of their menstruation:

It should be noted that old women who still have their monthly flow, and some who do not menstruate, poison the eyes of children lying in their cradles by their glance, as Albert says in his book On Menses.This is caused in menstruating women by the flow itself, for the humours first infect the eyes, then the eyes infect the air, which infects the child. This is the opinion of the philosopher in the book On Sleep and Waking. What happens in women who do not menstruate is that the retention of the menses results in an abundance of evil humours, and old women no longer have enough natural heat to digest such matter. This is especially true of poor women who are nourished by coarse food, which contributes to the poisonous matter. Therefore non menstruating women are even more seriously infected, because the menstrual flow has a purgative function.

According to St. Paul in the Epistle to Timothy, women are forbidden from teaching or preaching. In Timothy, he states, ‘I suffer not a woman to teach’. These Pauline views were evident throughout late medieval culture, including in the writings of Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-74), Henry of Ghent (d. 1293), and in the thirteenth-century handbook for anchoresses, the Ancrene Wisse. Aquinas even questioned explicitly ‘whether the grace of speech, wisdom, and knowledge pertains to women’ (I can hardly believe what I’m typing). As Alastair Minnis has shown, restrictions on female preaching actually increased during the thirteenth-century, after the Second Lateran Council of 1139, when ecclesiastical ordination was narrowed in concept and the privileges of women reduced. While Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was able to conduct several public preaching tours, by the late Middle Ages, female didacticism in the public sphere was prohibited.

Infuriatingly, such doctrine still resonates, and is often taken in its very literal sense, today. Though the Right Reverend Libby Lane was ordained Bishop of Stockport in 2015, there was fervent opposition in the Church of England. Just this month, Sarah Mullally, then Bishop of Crediton, was appointed to the third-most senior role in the Church of England: Bishop of London. Some commentators suggest that this could finally pave the way for a female Archbishop of Canterbury. But still, some members of the Church remain trenchant in their views that women should not teach.

Yet the Bible says different things about older women. In Titus, Paul considers older women qualified enough to instruct others, albeit in a domestic, not public, context:

That the aged men be sober, chaste, prudent, sound in faith, in love, in patience. The aged women, in like manner, in holy attire, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teaching well: That they may teach the young women to be wise, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet, chaste, sober, having a care of the house, gentle, obedient to their husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

Yet, us women oughtn’t to get too excited, here. Though these biblical tenets suggest that mature women hold a valuable didacticism, the older woman is only permitted to teach feminine and domestic virtues in a domestic setting, but not – apparently, to teach in the formal sense or to suppose authority over men.

Well. Goodness knows what I’ve spent half of my life doing, then. I thought I’d been teaching (and reasonably successfully, at that)…

Thankfully, scholarship has started to illuminate a category of premodern women that Anneke Mulder-Bakker terms ‘Wise Old Women’ (or what she fabulously calls the WOWs).

Women teaching, authorising, managing, writing and instructing, is nothing new.

These women flourish in their prime, exploding the pejorative constructions of the old hag, or vetula, that populate so many medieval medical and religious texts.

The late-medieval businesswoman and religious visionary, Margery Kempe, was herself prevented from writing her experiences too soon by divine revelation. Her book tells us that ‘sche was comawndyd in hir sowle þat sche schuld not wrytyn so soone’. It was another twenty years or more, later, when Christ ‘comawnded hyr & chargyd hir þat sche xuld don wryten hyr felyngys & reuelacyons & þe forme of her leuyng þat hys goodnesse myth be knowyn to alle þe world’, when Kempe employed the services of her first amanuensis (largely thought to be her eldest son). The first draft of Book I of The Book of Margery Kempe therefore, was produced during her early sixties, and revised by a priest (probably her confessor Robert Spryngolde) in 1436. But despite this divine authorisation there was indignant opposition – sometimes at life-threatening levels – to Margery Kempe’s exhortations, and she narrowly missed being burned at the stake on more than one occasion.

In 1417, when Kempe was aged 44, she engaged in an infamous conversation with the Archbishop of York at Cawood, who demanded that she agreed that she would swear to teach no more: ‘Þow schalt sweryn þat þu xalt techyn ne chalengyn þe pepil in my diocyse’. Her refusal is pointed and tenacious, and she uses semantic differentials to justify continuing to speak of God. When she is accused of defying Paul’s edict, she responds, ‘I preche not, ser, I come in no pulpytt. I vse but comownycacyon & good wordys, & þat wil I do whil I leue’. In measured retaliation, then, Margery Kempe denounces the very terms of her indictment, removing the spatial enclosure of the pulpit from the minds of her accusers and replacing it with the innocent ‘good wordys’ that, by their very nature, cannot be reasonably contested.

While Kempe’s religiosity is orthodox, her operation outside the usual margins of the convent or the anchorhold and her very affective, unruly form of piety, caused suspicion amongst her peers and clerics. Nowhere is this sceptical reception more vivid than during the aftermath of her arrest for Lollardy at the Humber, in the same year. After her release, she returned to Lynn via Ely, and suffered more community-driven hatred: she suffered ‘meche despite, meche reprefe, many a scorne, many a slawndyr, many a banning, & many a cursyng’. At the close of the chapter, however, comes the description of a man so incensed by Kempe’s reputation as a speaker of God and potential heretic, that he threatened to throw a bowl of water over her: ‘wyth wil & wyth purpose kest a bolful of watyr on hir heuyd comyng in þe strete’.

This mature woman, speaking out, is threatened with the very literal act of being washed away.

Luckily, Margery Kempe was not one to be dismissed so easily. With dignified smugness, she retorts, ‘God make ȝow a good man’. As she then processes past the throngs of locals who stand in voyeuristic judgement of her claim to be a conduit for God’s words, she achieves characteristic oneupmanship, making use of the reproof that she has become accustomed to through an immediate subversion of the assault into an opportunity to edify the man whose threats are rendered farcical.

Kempe battles through her lifetime the tension between divine authority, for which she has God’s mystical assurance, and the social license to speak, which is evidently much more difficult to muster. Indeed, the educated, theological-sophisticate, Julian of Norwich, who Margery knew, and met, is careful to clarify in her Revelations that she does not teach, but instead transmits the divine gifts that have been bestowed upon her with divine authority.

Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker sees experientia as a central source of learning for medieval woman: an acquired wisdom based upon knowing, as opposed to the scholarly knowledge of books. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath can, of course, tell us much about the value of female experience in her proto-feminist drive for a parity of authority.

But where does this leave us – now?

We have female bishops. We have our second female Prime Minister (for what that’s worth). We have Jane Austen on our bank notes.

But when will we get beyond this *great women* fallacy? The misnomer that if a select few women are *notable*, this will reassure the troops that all is well, that women’s voices are heard.

I don’t mind being a woman in her “prime”. It’s a term that’s been used backhandedly; pejoratively even, but I think we should reclaim it. Heck, who else will do that for us? Experientia, as the inimitable Wife of Bath knew only too well, is a pretty good start. You can’t buy it, you can’t fake it.

Middle Age.

It’s the new thing.

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