The Joys and Pitfalls of Researching Women’s History


A couple of years ago, out of the blue, an old friend put out a message she was looking for someone to co-write with her on her blog. The blog specialized in women’s history. Having been a history major in college and keeping history as a hobby most of my life, I was really intrigued. For many years, the books I read were histories and biographies, for the most part about women and written by women. I told my friend I was interested in writing with her and she set me up to get started.

At the time, I had just read two biographies of Emma of Normandy, the tenth century medieval queen whose first marriage was to the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelred the Unready, and secondly, she married Cnut, England’s Danish king. An enterprising woman for sure! One of the biographies was based on what scanty historical facts are available on her. The other was close to the facts but had fictionalized elements to it which were easily recognizable. There was enough information to write an article about her which was very well received on the blog. I had really found my stride and was on my way for a journey in writing and researching history.

The next queen I tackled was the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine. Plenty of great books exist on her with more than adequate biographical information. Since she lived in the twelfth century, there is a lot more written historical sources on her and we can easily flesh out her life. This was also true with the next set of articles I wrote on the wives of King Henry VIII of England. When I was a teenager, there was a program on television called “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” which I credit with awakening my passion for history. After the show, I read everything I could get my hands on about Henry, his wives and his children. There has always been plenty of information on this era of English history.

During a trip to England in 2008, we visited Edinburgh Castle and found a small chapel there named for Saint Margaret. Reading a brochure about the place I discovered she was an eleventh century medieval Scottish queen. I had never heard of her and my curiosity got the best of me. Interestingly, I learned her daughter Edith (later called Matilda) had commissioned a biography of her and it was written by Turgot, the bishop of St. Andrews. While this biography is mostly a hagiography, it does contain interesting information about her life. There were two other biographies on her and with all this information combined, a nice article on her could be worked out.

This led me to Saint Margaret’s daughter Matilda and her granddaughter Empress Matilda. Excellent biographies of both women written by women historians are available. But when I went to look for books about Matilda of Boulogne, another granddaughter of Saint Margaret and wife of King Stephen of England, I ran into some trouble. There really is no biography of her. Lisa Hilton has written a great book about the medieval queens of England, giving short recaps of their stories. It was also possible to glean a little information from the internet. But I was beginning to see that sometimes sources on some of these women were really scarce.

A lot of times there just isn’t enough information about medieval women to write an entire book. History through the centuries has been written by men, for men. The written sources are meant to record men’s exploits in politics and war. If a woman is mentioned at all, it’s because she is considered evil or a saint or it’s in relation to her marriage as a political alliance and about the birth of her male children who were the heirs to their fathers. Daughters get little mention unless they marry a king. And we can definitely rule out written sources on ordinary women throughout history. They just don’t exist. This makes a book like the autobiography of the medieval mystic Margery Kempe a precious rarity or the “Revelations of Divine Love” by the theologian and anchoress Julian of Norwich astounding.

When I’m researching a woman, of course my first preference is to read primary or secondary sources about her, especially a biography. These can be in print or online. Biographies of the woman’s husband can often be useful but I’ve had mixed experiences with this. Many times the woman isn’t listed in the index at all although if you read the book you will find she is mentioned. If a biography of the woman herself isn’t available, I will go to sources like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A subscription to this source is well worth the money and some libraries have sources like this available for free. The authors give their primary sources at the end of each article which is a great place to start. I’ve also had very good luck with Google Books. When you put in a search term there, it will bring up all the pages of books available that mention your subject. And some of these books can be over one hundred years old.

One of the most frustrating things about doing research on a non-English woman is the lack of sources in English. I once found a reference to a very significant woman while reading a biography of a medieval English queen. This woman was from the area known as Brabant (now part of the Netherlands) and she is a direct ancestress of the Dukes of Burgundy. What the author told us about her gave me a titillating glimpse of her. However, the biography I was reading was a reprint of a book from the early twentieth century and the publisher didn’t print the index or the bibliography used by the author, assuming the author even gave us one. I spent about a whole year looking for references on this woman and could find only the bare facts like her year of birth and death, her husband and her children. I scoured the online chronicles of Froissart and found short references to her. I finally got in touch with someone from Europe who told me there were writings on her but they were in Dutch. So I struck out and had to put her on the back burner. I’m not giving up on her just yet!

All of this leads me to my final thought. Some enterprising historian needs to write biographies in English on some of these women. It would take an intrepid and enterprising historian to go to different parts of the world to get the whole story. I have found a few of these women in my research and it’s an idea that’s on the back burner for me. And I haven’t given up on this yet either!

17 thoughts on “The Joys and Pitfalls of Researching Women’s History

  1. Susan, there are two books I find very interesting for the “common” lives of women in our time period. Have you read anything by Regine Pernoud? She got me into the Middle Ages. “Women in the Days of the Cathedrals”, and “Let’s Be Done with the Middles Ages” are great sources.
    Another book, written by an American, Madeleine Pelner Cosman “Women at Work in Medieval Europe”. Gave me ammunition to start defeating the pre-conceived idea of the Middle Ages as the night of a thousand years.
    So these are not biographies, but they contain much info.


  2. I’m so glad I found your blog. It’s fascinating!
    I see you’ve already had similar offers but I thought I’d add mine anyway: I’m Dutch and I love history. I wouldn’t mind trying to help you out translating sources in my native language.


  3. I think this sounds like a life’s work, Susan, but one which would prove endlessly fascinating! These women seem to be calling out for someone – perhaps yourself! – to tell their stories!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Susan, my husband and I have good friends in the Netherlands who are also fluent in English. While I would imagine you might get help with your Dutch references from some of the Dutch scholars on Twitter, if not, then we might be able to help.


    • Thanks so much Janis for your offer! At your suggestion, I have put out a call on Twitter for help. It something comes up I’ll let you know.


  5. I had no idea there was so much ‘on-line’ research available. My busy life needs no more distractions, but I wanted you to know that a very close friend of mine is Dutch. She is an amazing photographer and we share a love of history, etc. If you could find a copy of one or so of those articles and e-mail it to me, perhaps she would be kind enough to translate it. Just a thought. Kalli


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