7 Dec 2023

Philippa Gregory: telling the stories of women missing from history

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 7 December 2023

For centuries, the experiences of women have been overlooked in history books exclusively written, edited and published by men, says best-selling British writer Phillipa Gregory.

“[Recorded history] has not really looked at women's lives, which often are full of events, often full of heroism, often [lived to] full effect. Their lives make a huge difference to the national story but they're just not recorded.”

While researching Anne Boleyn's lesser-known sister Mary for her 2011 novel The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory had the idea of writing a book that celebrated the invisible women at the centre of history.

 Normal Women is a culmination of her life's work.

Philippa Gregory Photo:

In the medieval period, women’s lives went unrecorded, Gregory tells Nine to Noon.

“All of the chronicles, the early, early records are written by clerks - educated men who are trained as priests and mostly living in monasteries.

“[These men] literally are kind of sheltered from women, they don't see women in their everyday lives.

“The early chronicles of the medieval world simply don't mention women except as wives or mothers to more important male leaders. They only mentioned male leaders. There's no common person's history at all.”

Women do appear in some later medieval chronicles when they're either breaking the law or offending a literate man, she says.

“And then he might record the fact that there was a food riot in his area and that he had to deal with it. [Or record that women were] breaking down fences or hedges for enclosure or where areas were being drained and the women didn't want the land drained or disrupted.”

Although it was crafted by women, the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry depicting William the Conqueror's 1066 conquest of England, features only five female figures, Gregory says.

“One of them is a queen mourning, one of them is a woman probably being assaulted by somebody, we don't know what he's doing. He's just touching her face, and she's neither consenting or refusing.

“And then there are three other women, probably common women, one fleeing a burning house and two fleeing sexual assault or coping with sexual assault.”

The Norman conquerors brought to England the idea that women ought to be ‘femme covert’, ie without legal status, she says.

“Women had, under the Norman laws, no legal rights, they had no position, they didn't even have a name in the world, they were under their husband, they were femme covert, they were covered by their husband’s status, name and position, and any man could attack them.

“And he only had to pay compensation to their husband or father if he did so.”

Although the Norman legal structure excluded women as legal entities, Gregory says, it also allowed them certain freedoms.

“Women take advantage of that almost immediately. They do riot, and they do break fences and they do invade the new Norman forests. And there is no mechanism in the law to prosecute them because they don't exist legally.

“So basically, they get away until about 1750. They get away literally with breaking all sorts of ordinary laws, the only thing they'll be pulled into court for is actually murder, and particularly husband murder, which of course, overthrows the entire order of how everything's supposed to be done.”

Two rebellious women played a leading role in the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Gregory says.

“This massive revolt is normally said to be run by [rebel leader] Wat Tyler, but actually before he musters his army he goes to Canterbury Castle and he releases two prior women rioters. They're held in handcuffs, manacles and leg chains because they're considered so dangerous.

“Wat Tyler goes into the castle, rescues them, frees them, and only when they're free does he muster his rebel army and march on London.”

The two newly freed women rode to London sitting on either side of Tyler, she says.

“It's they who go to John of Gaunt’s, Savoy Palace, the Tower of London and various big, big, big palaces around London, and literally strip them, burn them to the ground.

“There's an incredible amount of very, very, very bloody violence initiated by these women. And after the revolt is over they pay the price, they are executed alongside the male rioters.”

Why are the actions of women like this not reflected in the history books? Their behaviour wasn't to the taste of Victorian historians, Gregory says.

“I think they simply read these constant accounts of active women with agency and will and determination and success and violence. And they just go 'no, no, that simply can't be the case'.

“They just don't include them in the history books. And since most of modern history books are drawn from secondary sources, not the primary sources, especially when they're in old English, or old Latin or old French or not very penetrable to the modern historians, we go to the secondary sources, we go to the translations.

“And we think we've got a picture of what was happening, but we haven't. We've got a picture of what the Victorians thought women were like in that period and what they were likely to be doing.”

A more empowered picture of womanhood emerged in the work of 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

“Chaucer’s women are very active, sexy, economically successful, bawdy, determined women. Perfectly capable of holding their own in a fight, perfectly capable of finding a lover if they want him, attacking him if they don't, you don't get any of that in Victorian medievalism.

“In Victorian medievalism they're all Lady of Shallot, locked indoors, dying for love.”

The true history of women is one of inventiveness and resilience, Gregory says.

“What's been so interesting to me is to find that, yes, of course, there are horrendous stories of cruelty to women and abuse of women, and of the oppression of women, ever since the Norman invasion, and indeed before - legal and instituted deliberately by men.

“But at the same time, there is this constant push-back from women in which as soon as a right is taken away from them, you find they’re somewhere else making ground.”