Next week is Spring Break and I haven’t decided if I’m going to get away or get reading a large stack of bedside books. A lot of said books are about later medieval/early modern trade and agriculture in preparation for my new project on saffron, but many are about women’s history over a succession of periods so I thought I’d share some titles for this Women’s History Month. As you will see, there is no rhyme or reason or unifying theme around these titles other than women: all sorts of women in a succession of chronological contexts. I’m always interested in English women of the medieval and early modern eras, lately I’ve become quite interested in the entrepreneurial Salem women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I find rich and/or powerful women of all eras endlessly fascinating. It was not always this way: I almost didn’t get the position I currently hold now because I protested the name of a course which my interviewers wanted me to take on: “Herstory in History.” I proclaimed, with all the confidence of a twenty-something, that that was a ridiculous title for a course as women were PEOPLE and all history is about PEOPLE. But the past decades have taught me that a feminine focus in enlightening: it’s another gaze, another perspective, another open window on the past. I still don’t teach a course exclusively on women’s history but I certainly have incorporated a lot of women’s stories into my courses, because of books like these.
So I’ve read all of the books above and am recommending them to you for the following reasons. Judith Herrin is a wonderful historian whose Formation of Christendom got me through the first few years of teaching medieval history. While I teach mostly western medieval history, knowledge of the Byzantine Empire is pretty essential to understanding everything in this era, and Herrin’s book is really substantive and ambitious (and also very academic). Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: the Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth is a more accessible book which presents contextual biographies of four powerful medieval queens: I’m showcasing the Folio edition published in 2017 but there are more affordable options. Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer and Brewsters is a classic examination of women’s work in late medieval England which I consult regularly, and Monuments and Maidens and The Pocket. A Hidden History of Women’s Lives are two very creative books which examine longer eras from cultural and economic perspectives.
Vast uncharted territory above, but all these books have been recommended to me by colleagues and friends, beginning with Malcolm Gaskill’s The Ruin of Witches, a very welcome microhistory of a non-Salem American witch trial. Salem has become so boring: let’s look west to Springfield, Massachusetts! While not strictly women’s history, I don’t really think any history is strictly women’s history. I’m interested in Material Lives, To Her Credit, The Ties that Buy because I keep encountering entrepreneurial Salem women in that later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for whom I want to create more context and They Were Her Property appears to be an absolutely groundbreaking work. Jumping up about a century to the late nineteenth century and beyond, The Man Who Hated Women examines anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock’s campaigns against pretty much every everything and The Season and Double Lives looks at a broad spectrum of British women’s experiences in the twentieth century. And so we have progressed (chronologically) from empresses to socialites and “superwomen”!