Top 10 books about women written outside of history | history books


Hhow we “make” history changes. For centuries, historians have looked for the few, the privileged, the “winners”. But as millions tune in to A House Through Time and Who Do You Think You Are?, these social and alternative histories (including women’s histories) that had been pushed aside breathe new life into the way we we engage with the past. We can’t be what we can’t see, and many of us look for aspects of ourselves in what has gone before. History becomes a richer subject now that people who were ignored or written off are reinstated. It’s not just about dates and data – a historian can be a detective looking for human stories from the past.

Historians have found their work on documents and artifacts. But they also search for people from the past through the words, rituals, songs, artworks, buildings and music they left behind. Finding lost women requires a different set of tools and techniques. Today, we can all access archives, have our DNA examined, trace our genealogies and conduct global searches with the click of a mouse. Breakthroughs in archaeology, with the help of technology and science, bring us a rich and complete cast of people who lived before us. Women have always made up half of the world’s population. Framing them can allow us to think differently about the past.

In writing Femina, I wanted to show a version of the medieval world as rich and diverse as our present, full of fascinating characters that defy assumptions. Not just mothers and wives, these medieval women were spies, writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and warriors – all words commonly associated with men. My approach sets the frame on lost women to expose wider societies and attract others who have also been overlooked. Here are 10 books that pushed the boundaries of history as a discipline and put women back in the spotlight:

1. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
This book has done more for women’s history than almost any other. Rather than continuing to fetishize the murderer, Hallie presents the stories of the victims. By immersing readers in the social conditions experienced by women, the five have contexts other than being labeled “prostitutes.” This book also affected the true crime genre, where more writers focus on victims rather than perpetrators.

2. River Kings: Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads by Cat Jarman
Archeology has always sought the many rather than the few, so it is the natural companion to more inclusive historical approaches. It’s easy to assume that everyone in the Middle Ages, especially women, lived and died near their local parish church. But many have traveled great distances and engaged with cultures thousands of miles away, as this book reveals.

3. Medieval Women: Village Life in the Middle Ages by Ann Baer
When asked which historical person they would have been, the majority of people choose a ruler or wealthy person. However, most of us would have lived a life more like that of the protagonist of this book – Marion. By following a poor woman for a year, the reader gets insight into larger issues, including natural disasters and the plague. Yet it’s the almost accidental moments that provide real insights into daily life in medieval times.

4. The Voices of Nîmes: women, sex and marriage in Reform Languedoc by Suzannah Lipscomb
For anyone tracking down the elusive female voice in history, it’s unfortunate that so much is written on, rather than giving their own accounts. By looting the archives of the consistories – or “moral courts” – of the Huguenot church in Languedoc between 1561 and 1615, this book puts together the pieces of the puzzle and reveals how medieval women understood friendship, spirituality and female power.

Suffragist Kitty Marion was arrested for heckling David Lloyd George in 1912. Photography: Museum of London

5. Death in Ten Minutes: The Forgotten Life of Radical Suffragette Kitty Marion by Fern Riddell
The death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby in 1913 has become familiar. She was a fascinating woman who fought for equal rights, but it was Death in Ten Minutes that really showed me just how radical the actions of the early suffragettes were. This book reveals the dangerous acts women have taken in desperate attempts to win the vote. By looting Kitty’s diaries, Riddell placed this woman at the center of his own narrative.

6. Medieval Women: Social History of Women in England 450-1500 by Henrietta Leyser
Now is the time for the social historian. We want to know who walked where we walk, what they went through and how they made history. This book is unprecedented in its scope – spanning centuries and including all manner of evidence, from poetry to private filings. Leyser deals with individually notable women, such as Alice de la Pole and Julian of Norwich, but uses them to explore broader issues that have affected women’s lives, such as trade, work, and education.

7. The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse
When I was young, historical fiction was the main way for me to connect with the stories of women from the past, and Mosse is at the forefront of the genre. I love all of her books, but this one is the most powerful for me because of the way she positions her protagonist Constantia in a complex and believable Sussex village over a century ago. You can see, smell, touch and taste the past. The backdrop to taxidermy is also fascinating, as it is an art form that attempts to capture time and preserve the afterlife.

8. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture by Mary Carruthers
Today we tend to consider ourselves intellectually advanced due to the great developments in science and technology. But this book shows how brilliant the minds of the medieval world could be. Through techniques of rumination and meditation, practiced by both men and women, the memories of those who lived a millennium ago have retained vast amounts of information in a way that our modern minds cannot because we are so dependent on writing.

9. Valkyrie: Women of the Viking World by Jóhanna Katrín Friõiksdóttir
We would not attempt to describe what it is like to be alive today based solely on news reports. We would personalize and fill our account with music, movies, food, fashion and more. That’s what an interdisciplinary historian tries to do: bring an era to life by combining all types of evidence. Valkyrie includes Old Norse poetry alongside archaeological finds and painted runestones to show how varied and fascinating the experiences of women in the Viking world were.

10. Margery Kempe’s book (edited by Barry Windeat)
The last word must go to a real woman in the story. This book is a fortuitous survivor, a medieval manuscript buried in a cupboard and rediscovered in the 1930s. crazy woman”. Yet, within its pages, a remarkable person emerges. Margery tells us about the problems with medieval package holidays, caring for her sick husband and her burning desire for sex. The text is over 600 years old, but when you read it, you feel like Margery is alive and sitting next to you.

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages through Women written by Janina Ramirez is published by WH Allen. To help the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.


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