Back in Peterborough after her visit to examine Longthorpe Tower several years ago, Janina brings her new book, Femina, which will form the basis for a fascinating talk at ARU – a new history of the Middle Ages, through the women who were written out of it... Felicity Evans talks to her.
Hello, Janina! It’s been a while since we last talked to you, and welcomed you to Peterborough. How are you?
Really good! It’s my first proper week back, and once the kids returned to school I had to hit the ground running.
That provides an excellent springboard into our conversation… Your recent book, Femina, published in July 2022, delves into the lives of women and women’s work that has been erased from history. Talking about getting the kids back to school makes me think of the divide between the work that women are expected to do and the work they want to do. Do you feel your personal experience of this had influence on Femina?
I think I even say it in Femina – it’s like… maybe I just don’t know! I feel like Femina is the book that synthesises all the things I’ve been doing organically into an actual approach, into something that I can, sort of, put down in front of other readers and go: ‘Look, this is what I’ve been doing and thinking all these years. I just didn’t have the terms for it. I didn’t have the words!’ I know I read lots – and many memories stick in my mind about how I got to this point. One of the early ones is my first teaching gig in York (University of York), teaching art history students and I was doing art theory with them – I said to them, ‘Right, this week we’re doing gender in art theory, we’re doing feminist art history’. This was in 2002 or 2003, and one girl said, ‘Why do we have to do that? We don’t need feminism any more. We’ve got equality. That is so boring!’
Yes, as far as they were concerned, at that point, it was irrelevant. It was done! And obviously since then so much has happened. #MeToo is huge, for so many people. I remember when those headlines were starting to filter through, I was filming in Portugal at the time. I was on a crew with four men and a female researcher, and when we finished filming we were having a drink in a bar in town, and these guys – and they were lovely, gentle, sensitive, nice young men – all went, ‘But is this really happening? Is this really how women feel?’ And myself and this female researcher, we looked at each other and the more we talked to them, the more we realised all of this had been happening to us, we just never articulated it and we certainly hadn’t articulated it to the men around us. And the men were absolutely shocked, but I think we were shocked the more we talked to them about it.
How do these things inform your approach to history?
When I wrote about Julian of Norwich, I thought about interiority and I thought about identity. I thought about the feminine voice. When I wrote my novels, I was putting a female protagonist, four of them, into Viking society. When I make my programmes, I’m always challenging my producers and my directors to say, ‘Well, what about everyone else at the time? What questions aren’t we asking?’ I’ve got this event coming up with Marian Turner, Professor of Old English at Oxford, who’s just written a brilliant book on the Wife of Bath. It’s so interesting, because we both wrote our books in isolation, not knowing what the other was writing, and the points of overlap are staggering. She has taken a fictional character, that a man (Geoffrey Chaucer) invented, and used her as a window to show the kind of open- mindedness of the Middle Ages, the time in which Chaucer was actually writing; so it’s not just about these remarkable women it’s about the societies that enabled them to flourish, and gave them agency.
Tell us a bit more about the evolution of women’s work and their social standing over this time period…
I concluded that the issues that have affected women in the last century, the things we’re still battling against now, were the result of the Reformation and the 18th and 19th century, not the mediaeval period – religious supremacy filtered through male supremacy. The mediaeval period, and by extension Catholicism, were superstitious, flamboyant, full of ‘unnecessary’ things like pilgrimages and paintings, but what’s interesting is that women had a space where they could perform, and could be heard. The life of Marjorie Kemp shows how much a woman could achieve within her community and within the framework of Catholicism, for example. But then, Martin Luther coined the phrase, ‘A woman’s place is in the home’, the Reformation shut down male and female monasteries but male monastics were allowed to go into the priesthood and remain religious, while women’s options were closed down. Yet these monasteries were vibrant places of learning, education and opportunity, places where women weren’t having to go into an arranged marriage, where they weren’t having to risk their bodies in childbirth, and risk rape, where they could have a sense of safety and security surrounded by female companions, where they could indulge their interests, whether art, music, science – they could just be, in this space.
It sounds like the book is challenging some big, established ideas.
We’ve had our past told to us in a way that we have been told is true, and we’ve allowed that to define us in the present – I don’t want that, I want the truth at the core of history to allow people to make their own judgments, and then hopefully move forward to a different type of future. So yeah, it’s a small book, it’s a history book – but underneath it is a real hope, a real belief that if you give people a different version, there’s a different truth.
How do you find people react to you as someone who is both an academic and a broadcaster?
It has been both a blessing and a curse, really. I have had, ‘Well, you’re just a Famous Person Off The Telly – you’re not a serious academic’, which is heartbreaking because I’ve never stopped working as an academic, I’ve never stopped publishing academic pieces, I teach, I peer review. I know what the standard is and I know mine is on par. But there have also been questions about, for example, why have I written for children? My reply is always, ‘Well, I’ve got a classroom of 18- to 21-year-olds who are passionate about the past – if I can’t get them at ages three to seven or eight, I’m gonna have an empty classroom in a decade! I’m investing in future knowledge, as well as writing for children – and children are very intelligent and discerning. There’s a degree of snobbery that says, ‘Don’t waste your time, write the right thing, do the right thing, tick the right boxes’. And I haven’t always done that!
What about your university colleagues?
When I wrote Femina, I reached out to loads of academic colleagues across Oxford, and the response was amazing. It’s been really well received across the board. I am a Twitter user, too, and over the years I have seen these ‘Twitter spats’ blow up in the academic or writer space, so I was writing this book so carefully! I checked everything over and over again, and I gave so many references – like, this is my source if you want to read it. I was careful to make sure I wasn’t taking anyone’s work as my own or missing a point, then getting picked up on it.
It sounds as though all the different strands of your life are dovetailing pretty well.
Yeah, definitely! I’ve got a great support network, great parents, and my husband 50:50s on everything. My mum actually came along when I was filming a series on the Hundred Years War – she brought my daughter because I was breastfeeding, and it was the first time the production company had ever done anything like it, but I was determined: I’m gonna make this series and I’m gonna have to have my mum with me – and my daughter, I’m not leaving her! The producers moved heaven and earth to help make it happen, so I could tend to her when I needed.
My friend, Alice Roberts, had her daughter two years after that, and she said the same thing: I want to have my baby with me – she will come with me and I will have her on set. So yes, we’re documentary makers, but we need our babies with us!
What have you got coming up next?
Well, I’ll be in Peterborough – of course!
But also, I absolutely can’t believe my luck at how exciting things are. Femina is coming out all across the world, and I’m going out to the US to promote it. It’s already out in Holland and France, but it’s coming out in Spain, Belgium and Italy. And so I’m going to each of these places for promotion, which is so exciting. On top of that, I’m making a series in Poland, and I’m also going to be hopefully doing quite a big new series of Raiders of the Lost Past, which will have some very exotic places attached to it. I’m also releasing my earlier book, The Private Lives of Saints, which is very exciting as well.
Femina: A new history of the middle ages, through the women written out of it, with Dr Janina Ramirez
Monday, 13 February,
ARU Peterborough campus, University House, Bishop’s Road, Peterborough
For tickets, visit peterboroughcivicsociety.org.uk
Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It
The Middle Ages are often perceived as being a bloodthirsty time of warriors, saints and kings: a patriarchal society that oppressed and excluded women. By digging beneath the surface and delving into the truth of our past, BBC historian Dr Janina Ramirez reveals that the ‘dark’ ages were actually anything but.
Male gatekeepers of the past deliberately wrote women out of history. Their books were burned, their artworks destroyed, and new versions of myths and legends that should have featured them were produced. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the fact that some library catalogues had the label ‘FEMINA’ scribbled alongside texts known to be written by a woman, marking them as less worthy of preservation.
Based on five years of original research and startling discoveries, sweeping across 1,000 years, each chapter of ‘Femina’ explores a different iconic historical figure. By re-examining extraordinary women like Hildegard of Bingen, casting a new light on over-written females like Aethelflaed and King Jadwiga, and using recent discoveries to find lost individuals like the Loftus Princess and the Birka Warrior Woman, the medieval world takes on a different complexion. Freed from their places as wives and consorts, a vivid and evocative picture of their lives emerges, uncovering the incredible impacts they had on society.