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A Medieval Life

Judith Bennett

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Judith M. Bennett’s lifelong passion for the Middle Ages has served her well in writing A Medieval Life, a speculative biography of a woman who lived during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As a child, Bennett devoured historical novels at a rate that worried her parents. At the age of fifteen, she undertook her first independent research project, an inquiry into the real-life character of Richard III of England, after reading a pair of novels that held diametrically opposed views on the notoriously controversial king. Now, as a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Bennett devotes her academic career to her two primary areas of expertise, medieval history and women’s history, and most of her output sits at the junction of these two scholarly disciplines. In addition to A Medieval Life, Bennett has written several books and articles on the experiences of women in the Middle Ages, including Medieval Women in Modern Perspective (2000); Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World (1996); and Women in the Medieval English Countryside (1987).

Whereas Bennett’s love of the Middle Ages dates back to her adolescence, her intimate rapport with women’s history began in young adulthood. When Bennett was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, she had to come to terms with the discovery that she was homosexual, and she became politically active in the lively lesbian community there. This experience sensitized her to women’s issues, and soon, Bennett diversified her medieval studies to include women’s history. Thus, from a relatively young age, Bennett has been concerned with the status, roles, and representations of women throughout history, as well as the ways in which historians have portrayed them. Not only does Bennett’s academic output reflect this concern, but her commitment to teaching and public debate regarding gender, feminism, and sexuality also demonstrate her advocacy of women’s issues in both an academic context and a larger social one. As she once said in an interview, “women’s history . . . has to have its own internal coherence and integrity.” As an historian, Bennett has taken it upon herself to reveal the structural inequalities throughout history that have left women at a disadvantage, in the hope of seeing her work lead to widespread modern structural change that puts women on a more equal footing with men.

Bennett used these feminist concerns as guiding principles when writing A Medieval Life. Dissatisfied with the male-focused nature of history, Bennett set out to write A Medieval Life with an aim to reconceptualize the typical patriarchal view of society—that in which the central figure is inherently male. The subject of her biography, Cecilia Penifader, had an exceptionally well-documented life, and though she was by no means a perfectly typical medieval peasant, her life was in many ways representative of medieval society. Bennett’s biography of Cecilia gives form to the ways in which women fit into medieval society, the types of challenges they faced, and the joys and everyday activities they encountered. In addition, since Cecilia managed to prosper despite never having married, A Medieval Life shuns the commonly held notion that peasants, especially peasant women, had to marry in order to survive.

A Medieval Life is more than a feminist tract of medieval history. While Bennett does explore the female story in human history, she refuses to burden her objective historical analysis with a radical feminist viewpoint. Her evocation of peasant life is both sober and well-balanced, and her speculation of what Cecilia must have been thinking and feeling in reaction to certain historical and day-to-day events is remarkably well-disciplined. Ultimately, Bennett’s book is not merely about Cecilia but about medieval peasant life in general. After all, as Bennett notes in the introduction to A Medieval Life, peasants comprised 90 percent of the medieval population, yet they are consistently underrepresented both by historians and historical documents in favor of warring kings, crusading knights, imposing bishops, and haggling merchants. In outlining Cecilia’s life and rigorously describing the society around her, Bennett provides a case study from which we may discern what a typical life was like in the Middle Ages.

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