England’s earliest significant female writer
The Marie in the Margins project highlights the stories of unconventional people striving to be true to self in Dame Marie’s writing circa 1160-1180. England’s earliest known female adventure writer, also known as Marie de France, writes of female writers, women who love, women who love the wrong people, women who don’t love, men who have never shown any interest in love, youths experiencing bullying including homophobia and LGBTQ+ community members.
Project partner, Historian Dr Emily Joan Ward, gives children images to look at in her #ImaginedAbbey experience. “Who can you see?”, she asked. Children point out horses, shields, spinning wheels. Women, the subject of the images, are often not seen. The dominant 1066-themed narrative of military history involving a few powerful noblemen and their armies encourages children, along with other aspects of their curriculum, not to see women. The UK population does not see its earliest significant English female writer. There are other women writers of Dame Marie’s time and before who are known about too. More of Dame Marie’s writing has survived than her contemporaries and I judge it to be remarkable in its innovation.
Dame Marie’s vivid adventure stories were innovations of an earlier oral story tradition. Dame Marie became a best seller of her era, crafting a new style to write her stories down. They were written in the French of England, Dame Marie’s every day language and a language now termed Old French. Her stories tackle inaccurate gender portrayal that still pervades today. If you walk into the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, the twelfth-century imagery of women is of madonnas nursing newborn babies-women at the heart of the domestic home. Working women on the margins, are absent. St Jerome is engrossed in work in his study area, not an abbess. In Dame Marie’s stories, women write. They adventure. Some triumph. Some perish. Such is the lot of independent thinkers.