Women and Power, Part Two

NB: The research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

This is the second blog on the theme of women and power in the Middle Ages. Click here for Women and Power, Part One.

What follows is a brief historiographical overview of themes I engage with in my research on elite women in Scotland in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Now that you know more about me, I thought I would offer you a primer on the topic, as I will be engaging with the ideas presented here through a focussed discussion of primary sources from my doctoral work in the next few blog posts. I’ve included a reading list at the end with links to historians and works that have influenced by own thinking.

The ‘decline’ of women in the later Middle Ages

Since the 1970s, cycles of debate about women’s power and position within medieval society have grappled with issues of periodisation and the question of ‘decline’. The 1973 McNamara/Wemple thesis posited a decline in women’s access to participation in power structures in the eleventh century, echoing the arguments advanced a decade earlier in George Duby’s work on family structure, which was known as the ‘Duby thesis’. Both conceptualisations relied on a change in the organising of families around male lineage with a shift from horizontal to vertical family structures. This shift supposedly prioritised primogeniture inheritance to preserve the family’s wealth and position within elite society. One of the results of this theoretical shift was that the importance of women in family and in politics was downgraded.

The ‘decline’ of women was also linked to a supposed difference between public and private power. Women could exercise power through their position within the family, but they were not afforded access to ‘public’ spheres of power – namely government institutions and public offices. It was generally accepted that women could exercise power from within the elite household, as extensions of their gendered roles. However, women’s influence beyond the private sphere has been thought of as diminished as a result of increased importance of male lineages and bureaucratisation of medieval government.

Work of feminist scholars on elite women in the last thirty years has problematised the notions of ‘decline’ in status for women in positions of power after the year 1100. Most recently, the edited volume of Heather J. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400. Moving beyond the Exceptionalist Debate (2019) issued a call-to-arms to researchers of women’s and gender history to prove, once and for all, women who exercised power after the year 1100 were not ‘exceptional’, rather they were commonplace. The movement advocates for the inclusion of women into political narratives of medieval Europe.

While current scholarly thinking has advanced the political histories of female ‘lords’ and expanded definitions of female power to include the aspects of ‘soft’ power, such as influence, popularity, and attractive leadership, the notion of ‘decline’ has been harder to shake from medieval chronologies. Katherine J. Lewis has commented on a continued historiographical perspective that assumes women were placed outside the political structures of medieval governance by the later Middle Ages. Indeed, even the most recent cycle of the debate of women and power has merely shifted the ‘decline’ in female status to the fourteenth century.

 We need to question the ‘decline’ proposed by existing chronologies of the Middle Ages. These chronologies assume change, even if it occurred later than previously proposed by the Duby and McNamara/Wemple theses. Could the narrative of women’s history in the Middle Ages not be one of continuity? Judith Bennett’s notion of ‘patriarchal equilibrium’ becomes useful here. While the structures of power may have transformed during the Middle Ages, the status of women’s position within these structures might not have. While these spaces might have been ‘male’ in theory, were these spaces ‘male’ in practice?

There is exciting new work being done on women in the later Middle Ages and Early Modern period that problematises the assumptions made about women and their public selves. There is an ongoing reappraisal of the law of guardianship that rendered women ‘invisible’ during marriage. There are new gendered analyses of the law, which provide us with a more nuanced understanding of medieval legal systems as well as the gulf between law and practice. Additionally, there have been recent studies that have challenged the notion of ‘male’ space in castles and parliament. The Theresa Earenfight edited volume Royal and Elite Households in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: More than Just a Castle (2018) shows the myriad ways in which these spaces can be culturally understood. The late W. Mark Ormrod’s book Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England (2020) interrogated the ‘male’ space of medieval parliament and exposed the ways in which women appeared and made use of parliament in England.

When investigated, the notion of ‘decline’ and ‘exclusion’ of women in the later Middle Ages does not hold up. The evidence reveals a more nuanced historical reality than simple binaries. It suggests that the periodisation of women’s power in the Middle Ages ought to be eschewed completely, embracing the complexity and messiness of late medieval source material to further our understanding of women, power, and agency.

Reading List

Selected works on women, power, and patriarchy (this list is by no means exhaustive, but rather reflects works that have been key to my own research in addition to the works specifically named above).

Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia, PA, 2006).

Georges Duby, The Chivalrous Society, Cynthia Postan (trans.) (London, 1977).

Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, Arthur Goldhammer (trans.) (Chicago, IL, 1980).

Georges Duby, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, Jame Dunnett (trans.) (Chicago, IL, 1994).

Georges Duby, ‘Women and Power’ in Cultures of Power: Lordship, Status, and Process in Twelfth-Century Europe, Thomas N. Bisson (ed.) (Philadelphia, PA, 1995, 73-80.

Theodore Evergates (ed.), Aristocratic Women in Medieval France (Philadelphia, PA, 1999).

Barbara J. Harris, English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers (Oxford, 2002).

Susan M. Johns, Noblewomen, Aristocracy and Power in the Twelfth-Century Anglo-Norman Realm (Manchester, 2003).

Erin Jordan, Women, Power and Religious Patronage in the Middle Ages (Basingstoke, 2006).

Bronach Kane and Fiona Williamson (eds.), Women, Agency and the Law, 1300-1700 (London, 2013).

Katherine J. Lewis, ‘Women and Power’ in Historians on Gower, S. Rigby (ed.) (Woodbridge, 2019), 323-50.

Amy Livingstone, Out of Love for My Kin: Family Life in the Lands of the Loire, 1000-1200 (Ithaca, NY, 2010).

Kimberly LoPrete, Adela of Blois: Countess and Lord (c.1167-1137) (Dublin, 2007).

Jo Ann McNamara and Suzanne Wemple, ‘The Power of Women through the Family in Europe’ Feminist Studies 1:3/4 (1973), 126-41. (republished in Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.), Women and Power in the Middle Ages (Athens, GA, 1988), 83-101.

Jo Ann McNamara, ‘Women and Power through the Family Revisited’ in Gendering the Master Narrative, Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.) (London, 2003), 17-30.

Linda E. Mitchell, Portraits of Medieval Women: Family, Marriage, and Politics in England, 1225-1350 (London, 2003).

Linda E. Mitchell, Joan de Valence: The Life and Influence of a Thirteenth-Century Noblewoman (London, 2016).

Joel T. Rosenthal, The Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth Century England (Philadelphia, PA, 1991).

Dr Rebecca Mason (University of Glasgow) is doing really exciting work on married women in early modern Scotland.

Other work on marriage and laws of guardianship:

Katie Barclay, Love, Intimacy and Power: Marriage and Patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850 (Manchester, 2011).

Cordelia Beattie and Matthew Frank Stevens (eds.), Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe, 1200-1800 (Manchester, 2003).

Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent (eds.), Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland (Aldershot, 2008).

Charlotte Vainio, ‘Empowered Spouses: Matrimonial Legal Authority in Sweden, 1350-1442’ in Authorities in the Middle Ages: Influence, Legitimacy, and Power in Medieval Society, Sini Kangas, et al. (eds.) (Berlin, 2013), 285-306.

Heather J. Tanner, ‘Women’s Legal Capacity: Was the Thirteenth Century a Turning Point’ in Paradigm Shifts during the Global Middle Ages, Albrecht Classen (ed.) (Turnhout, 2019), 81-98.

I had surgery during a global pandemic

When I started this blog in October, dear Reader, I promised that it would be an academic cum personal blog. At the time of writing that first post, I was incredibly ill and underwent emergency surgery two weeks after it was published online. In fact, I posted my second post, ‘Women and Power, Part One‘, moments before getting in a taxi to go back to the hospital for MRI scans, more blood work, and more consultations with the surgeon. I should say, I do not endorse this sort of life/work balance and I only continued to keep the blog going in October with the fear of precarity as an ECR weighing down on me. If I could go back in time, I would have been gentler with myself and allowed myself the space and time to heal mentally and physically from my surgery without pressuring myself to keep up my academic persona. This was the motivation behind my hiatus during the festive period. Here, I want to reflect on the importance of listening to your body during the PhD and advocating for yourself and your health.

30 October 2020

I had an emergent laparoscopic cholecystectomy with bile duct exploration. What this means in non-medical speak is I had my gallbladder along with four gallstones from my bile duct removed by keyhole surgery. It was a success. However, I experienced minor complications, namely, inflammation of the cartilage around my rib cage, which kept me in hospital for two nights for pain management and is an issue I’m still coping with when I overexert myself. A good, if painful, lesson on listening to my body and resting when I need to. My surgery was the conclusion of months, if not years of pain, that was ignored and diminished by myself and my doctors as ‘PhD stress’.

A pre-surgery lewk. You’re welcome, internet.

July 2017

I had my first gallstone attack while I was home in North Carolina visiting my family for a short ‘break’. I put ‘break’ in inverted commas here because even though I was away from my home university, I was still putting myself under extreme pressure to continue to work on my thesis as I entered my final years as a PhD researcher. At the time, I dismissed the pain as muscle spasms, since they were confined to my mid-back, right shoulder, and rib cage. As a varsity long-distance swimmer in high school, I had an old shoulder injury, which I assumed was the root of the cause of the pain exacerbated by the discomfort of international travel with heavy suitcases. Over the next few years, I had a few more attacks, which I easily dismissed as stress-induced indigestion, assuming the obvious cause of my physical symptoms was the PhD. I would continue to blame my physical symptoms of illness as ‘PhD stress’ well into 2020 when I was working toward my thesis submission.

March 2020

I began to have gallbladder attacks 3-4 times a week. I convinced myself that it was merely a correlation between these episodes, the stress of submission and the stress of submission during a global pandemic. I assumed that the symptoms would disappear as soon as I hit send on my email to college with my thesis enclosed.

Dear Reader, they did not.

April 2020

I had an attack every night after I submitted and by the Thursday I finally deemed myself ill enough to phone my GP. Maybe it’s an ulcer. Maybe it’s acid reflux. The GP was quick to dismiss these symptoms, suggesting they were probably caused by my stress levels (and weight – still unimpressed about being fat-shamed in 2020!) and she prescribed an acid reducer and told me not to call back unless the symptoms had not improved. The symptoms didn’t improve. I called back in two weeks time and was assured that acid reflux symptoms could be ‘quite painful’ while she ordered more tests. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the next few months, but needless to say, the tests were inconclusive, I started to feel marginally better and I assumed that we had gotten to the root of the problem.

25 September 2020

I was done with the PhD. Doctored. My stress levels were relatively minimal. I was back at work in the restaurant I work at part-time. I had been offered teaching for the autumn semester. Life was pretty good all things considered. That night in September, my partner made one of his signature pasta dishes (meatballs and mushrooms), full of creamy, cheesy, goodness. What came next was the longest and worst gallstone attack of my life. It lasted 18 hours and it was still 2 days more before I started to feel anything approaching ‘normal’. As I no longer had a PhD to blame my symptoms on and it happened immediately following a fatty meal, the cause was more obvious. More tests were ordered. My blood work came back slightly abnormal. I was still too young to cause much worry about complications from gallstone disease, so I attended an ultrasound scan. The radiologist confirmed I had gallstones. I had another attack that day, likely caused by the agitation of my gallbladder during the scan. Having finally had an attack during business hours, the GP was able to see me and quickly decided I needed to go to hospital. I spent the next week in and out of the hospital for more tests and finally the MRI scan, which confirmed that I had four gallstones in my bile duct, which made my case emergent as I was at risk of the duct rupturing, causing serious complications. I was incredibly lucky that within five weeks of my major gallbladder attack (likely when the stones moved into the duct) that I was having surgery to remove it.

Dear Reader, the irony is not lost on me that while I was starting a blog titled ‘An Errant Academic’ errant gallstones had simultaneously gone for a wander and were wreaking havoc on my health and my body.

Two of the four unexpected body modifications of 2020. Here’s to 2021 seeing a return to more fun body mods, like a new tattoo or piercing.

This health crisis taught me a few things.

  1. It is frustrating that initially I had to continually advocate for myself to my GP in April when my symptoms became increasingly unmanageable. I hope that telling a woman she is probably just fat and stressed will no longer be an appropriate ‘diagnosis’ someday.
  2. I dismissed my own symptoms and wrote them off as ‘PhD stress’. ‘PhD stress’ and its physical manifestations should never be normalised. Maybe it’s not entirely healthy to blame all physical discomfort as ‘just’ the PhD. Maybe, more importantly, the fact that the PhD can take such priority and exact such a toll on physical and well-being ought to be interrogated.
  3. The NHS is a beautiful, wonderful thing. As an American, I had several friends from the US reach out to express their sympathies that in an already difficult year I had to face unexpected medical costs. I was happy to tell them that I hadn’t gone into debt by getting sick. Something that is far too common in the American healthcare system.

I am incredibly lucky that I was able to have surgery during a global pandemic, as weird as it sounds. It saved my life. Now to listen to my body more in the future and honour it by not allowing the expectations of my academic persona to overtake my mental and physical well-being.

I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman

In Britney Spears’ 2009 concert tour, ‘Circus’, the pop star opened her act within a gilded cage, dressed as a ringmaster, performing several songs from this cage while acrobats and dancers performed around her. Her 2009 tour was the first tour she had undertaken in five years and it was part of a concerted effort to rehabilitate her image and celebrity following her public breakdown of 2007. The events leading up to her breakdown in 2007 and her subsequent hospitalisation, including a 51/50 involuntary hold, would lead to her psychiatrists diagnosing her as ‘gravely disabled’, meaning that she was considered a danger to herself and others. Significantly, having a ‘grave disability’ is also a legal status. Her father, Jamie Spears exploited this diagnosis, and pursued a conservatorship of Britney’s estate. While this arrangement was considered temporary at the time, the status of ‘grave disability’ stripped Britney of her personal agency, as she was not even entitled to her own legal representation whilst under the care of her father. She has been, in effect, under the control of her father and her managers since 2008, with the court upholding the terms of her conservatorship as recently as this year. Given the wider context of Britney’s personal life and legal status, as well as the creative influence she had had throughout her career, we might read her performance and the spectacle of the cage as a visual commentary on her lack of agency in 2009.

Britney performs ‘You Want a Piece of Me?’ (© Wikimedia Commons)

As a child of the ‘90s, I grew up with Britney Spears. Her first album, …Baby One More Time was the first cassette I bought with my allowance (I know, I’m really aging myself here). Britney Spears was a pop star that resonated with so many young women because of her perceived confidence, agency, and autonomy in her early work. This was especially fascinating as a young person growing up in the southern United States, just like Britney (a Louisiana native) where the sexual mores and expectations were decidedly chaste. The fallout of her mental health crisis of 2007 did not immediately strike me as troubling. I took in the salacious gossip around Britney’s public divorce, and then public breakdown without questioning the narrative that was being put forward or what any of that might have to do with feminism (I was a teenager). However, the ongoing legal struggle she has had with overturning her conservatorship and the #FreeBritney movement, present an interesting intersection with my research into medieval women’s agency and legal capacity.

Modern law regarding conservatorship, at least in the United States, is not all that dissimilar to laws of wardship that we see in the Middle Ages. The law of wardship in Scotland, as prescribed in Regiam Majestatem, aligned more or less with English Common Law in how guardianship and wardship was to be handled. A minor’s estates and property were placed into the custody of their guardian until they reached a legal age of majority. This differed based on sex. For elite men, this was linked to their ability to perform military service, and they were able to inherit their property at twenty-one. For elite women, their age of majority was lower (fourteen) and tied to an age deemed legally acceptable to marry. The legal expectation was that their guardians would keep their inheritance safe and were expected to restore the inheritance to their ward. For elite women, the laws of wardship had further coercive possibilities, as their guardian controlled who they could marry, and if they were sexually incontinent, they risked losing their inheritance. Thus, wardship was twofold. There was guardianship of the person and guardianship of their estates. This could be controlled by one person, or multiple people, and I emphasise it here to underscore the limitations that wardship imposed on an individual’s personal agency and access to resources. It is perhaps not surprising that these relationships were exploited.

The conservatorship of Britney Spears functions basically along the same lines, although some of the moralising aspects of medieval wardship have been dropped from discussions of her father’s control over her estates. Jamie Spears makes the decisions regarding his daughter’s recording schedule, album release, and performances. He pays himself a salary out of her financial estate to cover the ‘cost’ of his administration of it. What was intended to be a temporary fix, while Britney received professional help, is now a twelve-year-long engagement with no end in sight. This is particularly troubling given the fact that Britney and her father have always had a strained relationship. And we might look to her early career for examples of her attempts to gain autonomy from her father. For instance, she bought her mother a new house in her hometown following the success of her first album with the expectation that this would give her mother the freedom she needed to leave Jamie.

The conservatorship of Britney Spears presents us with an important contemporary example of the ways in which patriarchal legal systems work against women. Because a judge ruled in her father’s favour after she was deemed ‘gravely disabled’, Britney Spears has not had an independent legal status for twelve years. It has affected her ability to use legal representation independently from her father. The celebrity of Britney and the high profile of her case is likely to set legal precedent and influence rulings in cases like this in the future. The title of this post, ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman’ comes from her first studio album, and the first cassette I bought, …Baby One More Time. It implies a liminality, an existence in between two categories, and may have commented on Britney’s sexualisation while still a teenager. It also hints at her current liminality within her current conservatorship, in which her free will and autonomy is seriously curtailed. We might also think about the liminality of women more generally in legal systems, both historical and contemporary and the ways in which these systems, written by and for men, benefit men at the expense of female agency and autonomy. The Equality Act (originally conceived of in 1974 and currently a bill in the US Congress) continues to be debated and remains contested even though passage of it would provide more concrete prohibitions on discrimination that would benefit a number of marginalised groups that are not currently protected by law. Britney’s case shows us the importance of feminist interpretations of the law and the worrying continuities between women’s historical legal capacity and the way in which current legal systems can be exploited to continue to disempower women. It lays bare the insufficiencies of patriarchal legal structures that continue to leave women, and others, in the margins.


All discussion of Scots law and the Regiam Majestatem reference Thomas M. Cooper (ed.), Regiam Majestatem and Quoniam Attachiamenta (Edinburgh: 1947).

‘Britney Spears loses court bid to remove father’s control over estate’

Bianca Betancourt, ‘Why Longtime Britney Spears Fans are Demanding to #FreeBritney’

Barbara Ellen, ‘Whips with Everything’

Constance Grady, ‘Why Britney Spears’s fans are convinced she’s being held captive’

Scottish Feminist Judgments Project

Wondery’s Even the Rich Podcast, #FreeBritney four-part series

I’m a SurVIVA, Part Two

Recommended listening: Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’

Last week, I covered prepping for the virtual viva in ‘I’m a SurViva, Part One’. I recommend reading that before reading about my experience of the viva on the day.

The Virtual Viva

The virtual setting for the viva is markedly different from the in-person setting. This is not a negative, it’s nice to be in your own home, rather than having to go into university and sit in florescent lighting in an uncomfortable chair. The examiners are also in their own homes. It makes the process feel more personal than it would on campus. Procedurally, I was allowed someone in the room with me for support, so my partner sat off camera near me, which was a nice way to feel a bit calmer through the process. You are also allowed to have a supervisor sit in with their camera and mic muted. While it may seem weird to have a ‘ghost’ in the room, since they aren’t participating, I find I have a hard time remembering everything when I’m in high stress situations, so I liked having someone there to take notes and observe to help me through the post mortem of the viva afterward.

One of the biggest advantages of the remote viva was that I only had to look professional from the waist up. I wore a nice blazer and my loosest and least professional (but most comfortable) jeans. I kept the light soft in the room, and made sure to burn a candle an hour before so the room smelled lovely (aromatherapy is a way I cope with my anxiety). All of this being said, it is harder to mentally get into the remote viva, since it’s just online, rather than in-person, so take deep breaths once you’re in the ‘room’ and allow yourself a moment or two to mentally arrive.

The biggest take away from my remote viva is that it’s okay for there to be silences during the viva. It means you’re thinking about the question! As a person with an anxious brain, I often speak too soon in an effort to avoid silence, but I consciously tried to let myself think before I answered each question. I would bullet point various ideas I had on my notepad, which allowed me to order my response. If you don’t understand a question, it’s okay to ask for your examiner to re-phrase of re-frame it. The chair should tell you at the beginning, but you’re allowed to ask for breaks. I also found that the remote setting made it easier for me to take deep, clearing breaths after each question/response without it being noticeable.

My anxious brain didn’t even entertain this as a possibility, but you should also prepare for your examiners to like your work and be excited to ask you questions about it out of interest!

The excitement is palpable. The newly minted Dr Davis.


The remoteness of an online examination can feel anti-climactic after you sign off from the meeting. To combat this, I had booked a supervision meeting for right after my viva so we could debrief and discuss the viva together. Afterward, my partner and I had a small celebration planned; Seamus had put a bottle of fizz in the fridge to celebrate the moment. We then celebrated that weekend with his parents with more fizz and bagging another Munro (although we didn’t mix the two)! Whatever you enjoy doing that can help mark the occasion, do it. It’s a big accomplishment, even if you achieved it without getting out of your pyjama bottoms.

We walked from Glenn Muick to Lochnagar and back again. Couldn’t think of a better way to shake off the metaphysical weight of the PhD.

I’m a SurVIVA, Part One

Recommended listening: Destiny Child’s ‘Survivor’

This blog post’s beginnings were in a series of emails I sent to friends preparing for their viva in the time of Covid-19, with everything from submissions to vivas being moved online. My submission date for my viva was 20 April 2020, which I thought would be plenty of time to proofread, double-check references, and finesse the arguments within each of my chapters. By early March, I started to worry that the rising rates of Covid-19 infections in the UK would mean that the university, archives, and libraries might shut before my submission date. The few weeks in March before everything did indeed shut was a ‘controlled frenzy’ of activity, making sure I had everything I needed to finish my thesis from home. In the end, I didn’t fully pull it off. There are still images of seal casts in one of my chapters where I hoped to have images of the original impressions, but the archives cancelled my image requests and done is better than perfect.

Hearing the whoosh of my email submission as it went through.

I’m aware that there are a plethora of blog posts on preparing for the viva and what to expect, but with the announcement of Lockdown 2.0, the virtual viva may be here to stay for the foreseeable future. This post and it’s sequel intend to give some helpful advice on what to expect in an online viva and offer some helpful tips on how to prepare for it. And let’s be honest, I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to make a terrible pun in the title and reference Destiny’s Child.

Preparing for the Virtual Viva

I started thinking about my thesis again two weeks before the date of my viva. The break from my thesis and doctoral work was intentional. After the ‘controlled frenzy’ of the run up to submission at the start of lockdown, I was completely burned out. In addition, I had developed what I thought was stress-induced acid reflux and I was more sick than well by 20 April (it turns out I had gallstones and was very ill, but that’s for another blog post). Because I associated being ill with coping with the stress of submitting during a global pandemic, I decided to take a break from my academic work and recover. I’m glad I took a break. The viva is only the next step in the process, it’s not an end point of the PhD, and allowing myself time to regroup after submission meant that I was happier returning to my work to prep for the viva.

Two weeks out, I broke up my thesis into manageable chunks to closely read through each day. This worked out to a chapter a day. I broke it up in this way because it allowed me to go through each chapter more carefully without getting the panic of imposter syndrome by reading through it all at once. It also allowed me to identify places in the thesis where I might have elaborated on an argument more and to actually write in the margins or on a piece of notebook paper what I would say. This helped me build up my confidence around contentious points. I also made a colour-coded key for my thesis so that I could identify for myself different themes that ran through the thesis as well as the overall argument.

My heavily annotated copy of my thesis, along with post-it note key.
Thesis with argumentative additions.

7 days before my viva, I met with my supervisors. I chose to meet with them 7 days out specifically so I could bring questions that I had from my week of reviewing and preparing. They flagged 3 questions that were likely to be asked in the viva. These questions are broadly applicable:

  1.  Where does your work feature in current historiography? In your own words, what is the state of your field in 2020?
  2. This question specifically related to my methodology for seals, but broadly be prepared to talk through your methodologies and why you did your research the way you did.
  3. What is your thesis’s contribution to knowledge?

I actually answered these questions on notebook paper. I wrote them out at my kitchen table, without looking at my thesis. It was much an exercise to prove to myself I knew my material as much as it was a preparatory exercise for the viva. One of the most useful things I read online about vivas is that they are open-note exams. You are expected to bring your thesis and notes with you, so I made sure I had answers to these questions written down in case I panicked in the viva I had something tangible to look at to help me refocus and ground myself back into the examination.

I re-read my introduction and conclusion the day before my viva and spent the rest of the day doing things that made me feel good. For me this is herbal tea, meditation, my yoga practice, and reading. Full disclosure, I still had a panic attack the night before and barely slept. While I don’t recommend having a panic attack, I will say it’s okay to be nervous. It’s natural to feel anxious about the viva, but it’s also important to remember that your examiners want you to succeed too.

Here ends part one, dear Reader. The next blog post will cover the virtual viva experience and how we celebrated even with Covid restrictions.

Women and Power, Part One

NB: The research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

Power has long been a theme in the study of women’s and gender histories of the Middle Ages, owing to its development out of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. It has been returned to cyclically in the 1980s, the 1990s, the early 2000s, and is a current thread of research, which partly owes to the political climate of the early twenty-first century and the rise of far-right groups in the US and the UK. Investigations into women’s power have resonance in the age of the #MeToo movement and the Trump administration, particularly with his Supreme Court nominees, which have raised alarm over whether Roe v. Wade could be overturned. The current cultural and political climate has reignited debates about women’s consent, women’s autonomy over their bodies, and women’s place in politics both in the present day and the historical past.

In her 2017 (revised edition 2018) publication of two lectures given in 2014 and 2017 respectively, Mary Beard queried the continued cultural mentalities that make it difficult to uncover or recognize women’s power, be it in the context of contemporary geo-politics in the ancient world. She asked

How have we learned to look at those women who exercised power, or who try to? What are the cultural underpinnings of misogyny in politics or the workplace, and its forms (what kind of misogyny, aimed at what or whom, using what words or images and with what effects?) How and why do the conventional definitions of ‘power’ (or for that matter of ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ and ‘authority’) that we carry round in our heads exclude women? (p. 52).

Our cultural vocabulary and mentality excludes women from notions of power. As Beard went on to argue ‘we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man’ (p. 54). Indeed, one of the difficulties we have in assessing powerful women in the Middle Ages comes down to issues of terminology. Viriliter, has long been a particularly difficult term to parse. With its meaning ranging from ‘manly’ to ‘courageous’ the question continues to be asked, are these women transgressing their gender when described as such, or is simply an issue of classification? We might also trace the difficulties in categorizing powerful women in current scholarship. Indeed, we refer to it as ‘female lordship’ rather than ‘ladyship’ to convey an equivalency between the power exercised by medieval men and women. While arguments have been made that terminology of elite power and designations, such as domina and dominus carried the same legitimacy in the medieval mind, the fact of the matter is, much of the study of women and power has attempted to show that women exercised power like men, because men are assumed powerful, but for women we have to prove it. Beard’s analysis posited a longue durée of women and power. As one reviewer, Rebecca Mead, suggested, Beard proved ‘#MeToo has been #ThemToo for millenia’.

Medieval #girlboss and ‘manly’ woman Black Agnes defending her castle (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

There are, certainly, worrying continuities between the past and present for women in politics. ‘Lock her up’ became a chant of supporters of Donald Trump during the 2016 American Presidential Campaign, who deemed Hilary Clinton a ‘traitor’ worthy of imprisonment. In September 2018, it was announced that the State Board of Education in Texas had voted to remove several historical figures from its curriculum in order to ‘streamline’ its material for public school education. Among these individuals was Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller. The patriarchal erasure of powerful women is persistent. Also worrying is the patriarchal political apparatus insisting that we should accept the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg because she too is a woman. Personally, I cannot read an article about ACB without thinking of Judith Bennett’s 2006 arguments about ‘colluders of patriarchy’ in History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. We are allowed to be discerning in who we choose as our #feministicons or #girlbosses  and we certainly don’t have to accept what Trump and the GOP present to us as female empowerment.

There have been some positives (if that’s the right word) too. The phenomenon of the ‘glass cliff’, a theory that suggests women only assume leadership positions in business or politics at times of crisis, has also undermined women’s power until recently. The Covid-19 crisis has showcased the capabilities of women in leadership positions, with the responses to the pandemic led by Jacinda Ardern and other women showing a better handling of the crisis than the hyper-masculine governments of Westminister or the White House. The notion of the ‘glass cliff’ arose as a way of justifying not putting women in positions of power by setting them up to fail, so to speak, by inheriting a company or country when it was already in distress. However, the global pandemic has shown what most women already know to be true: not only are we good in a crisis, a woman’s approach to handling difficult circumstances can be better than that of the toxically masculine alternatives. I can’t help but hope that the change that we are yearning for as a global community in 2020 brings about more women in positions of power to shape a different future for us.

The intention of this blog post, and the next few to follow, is to provide you, dear Reader, with a sample of what you might come to expect with this blog. I intend to do a multi-part series on women and power, drawing on the work I did during my PhD on the topic to explore themes on consent, vulnerability, and resilience. This discussion is merely a primer for the current debates that shaped and influenced my work on late medieval Scotland as well as my contribution to the field of women’s and gender history.

All references to Mary Beard come from Women and Power: A Manifesto (London, 2017).

Reading list

Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford, 2017).

Judith Bennett, History Matters: History and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia, PA, 2006).

Rebecca Mead, ‘The Millennia of #MeToo in Mary Beard’s “Women & Power”’ The New Yorker, 26 December 2017 [http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-millennia-of-metoo-in-mary-beards-women-and-power].

David A. Graham, ‘“Lock Her Up”: How Hilary Hatred is Unifying Republicans’ The Atlantic 20 July 2016 [http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/lock-her-up-hillary-clinton/492173].

Doug Stanglin, ‘Texas board votes to drop Hillary Clinton, Helen Keller from history curriculum’ USA Today, 15 Sept 2018, [https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/09/15/texas-board-drops-hillary-clinton-mandated-history-curriculum/1316956002/].

Charlotte Brook, ‘When Women Take Charge’ Harper’s Bazaar, September 2020.

Not all who wander are lost

‘That savage forest dense and difficult’

This blog has taken some time coming to fruition. I started thinking about it as I came to the end of my PhD during the Covid-19 crisis watching as academic job after academic job, heritage job after heritage job was postponed or disappeared from various job posting sites in a response to economic changes. I felt like Dante’s voyager-narrator:

     When I had journeyed half our life’s way,

     I found myself within a shadowed forest,

     for I had lost the path that does not stray (Inferno, Canto I, ll.1-3).

The career that I had envisioned for myself post-viva had disappeared from view and I felt dizzy from being knocked off course. The ground had shifted underneath and the way that had seemed clear was now not visible.

Glencoe Lochan Trail, Glencoe, Scotland

This feeling is not unique to me, nor is it entirely new. The academic job market for post-PhD and early career researchers has become increasingly competitive and challenging for those in the arts and humanities. However, the emergence of Covid-19 and the subsequent crisis has created an entirely new and arguably bleaker field for those of us emerging from the PhD searching for work. I feel similarly to an errant knight, having completed his training, set free into the world, yearning to prove my mettle and gain my fame as best I can.

Errant here, I hope, will show its full range of meaning each week as I find my way as an early career researcher. My penchant for etymology started in my undergraduate with a Latin tutor that enjoyed testing (torturing) us with the tertiary and quaternary (and so on) definitions of verbs. Errant is derived from the Latin errare, which translates primarily as ‘to wander’, much like our knight above. Other definitions include ‘to go astray’, ‘to make a mistake; err’, and ‘to vacillate’. Each of these definitions relate to my PhD and my academic journey thus far and I will take each of them in turn.

To go astray

My PhD doctoral project was never linear in its progression, despite my best efforts to impose a linearity to it. However, the more my research progressed, the more I realized that my efforts as a researcher had to meander because the pursuit of over-looked and under-valued histories are often not waymarked in the archives or easily seen at first glance. The development of my academic work occurred as I wandered and some of my best ideas came when I leaned into the complexity and inter-connectedness of my source material. Academic wandering is increasingly hard to do with the pressures of academic progression, the push to finish in three or four years, and the notion that if you don’t publish you certainly will perish.

To make a mistake; to err

When I first started studying Latin, this was the definition that came most readily to mind. Even now when I see the word errare my mind jumps to the English ‘error’ as its spelling resembles the Latin so closely. To make a mistake is something that I feared at the start of my postgraduate work. The thought of getting historical interpretation wrong even two years ago could induce an instant panic attack and and a cold sweat. This mostly tied into the imposter syndrome I dealt with throughout my PhD. Every year before my progression meeting, I would worry that one of my supervisors had found me out and that the meeting would be my exposure for fraud. This, I now know, was all in my head, but the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ certainly marred the development and confidence of my PhD thesis in its early drafts.

And I did get it wrong sometimes too. Not every early interpretation of my findings was the best fit. Getting it wrong is an important part of the process. It allows you to embrace the complexity, or what I like to call the messiness, of medieval primary source material. I used to associate making a mistake with failure. But it’s not. Making a mistake is just an opportunity to return to the source material and re-think, to fall back and re-group.

To vacillate

I love to vacillate in my work. This perhaps ties into my fear of making a mistake. I would feel much more comfortable wavering between different opinions or interpretations rather than settling on one that is rejected by my peers. I don’t think all vacillation is bad. There are times when there is too little surviving evidence to offer decisive conclusions. Here, a tentative offering of suggested interpretations seems better to me. This seems especially necessary in histories offering alternative chronologies, i.e. women’s and gender history and others, where the evidence is patchier and the conclusions don’t necessarily fit within ‘master narratives’.

Allt na Calliche trail, Invergarry Scotland

‘The road goes ever on and on’

I am aware that beginning a blog with the opening lines from Dante’s Inferno might convey despair or a general hopelessness on my part. However, it was not my intention. Dante’s Divine Comedy, like other medieval works is a journey. The emphasis is on the evolution of the voyager-narrator. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were stories told to pass the time on the way to Canterbury, not what happened once they got there. As I evolve from PhD student to early career researcher in these uncertain and unprecedented times, it would behoove me to continue to reflect on the fact that the journey is far more important than the destination.

A very excited Rach post-viva, August 2020

I ought to draw this rambling prologue to a close and offer you, dear reader, a programme for what is to come. I intend for this to be an academic(ish) blog. What I mean is that it will be a reflective and meditative space for me to explore ideas that relate to my research and a space for me to continue with my writing now that I’m not being kept to the deadlines of the PhD writing up process. It is an academic cum personal blog. My past historical practice and current work has been subjective and reflexive and I intend to continue my practice in this way. Expect to see posts reflecting on grief, loss, mental health, as well as politically charged issues like the #metoo Movement. As it is personal, references to the Lord of the Rings and other literature, like Dante and Milton, will abound as they hold a special place in my heart and are often what I turn to for comfort. I will close here with Milton:

Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;

The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way (Book XII, ll. 645-50).

And so I emerge, newly doctored from the PhD programme, wandering slowly toward the career meant for me.


 All references to Dante are taken from Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Allen Mandelbaum (trans). (London, 1995).

Reference to Milton comes from John Milton, Paradise Lost (London, 2003).