Leverhulme Trust project grant: 'Women, Conflict and Peace: Gendered Networks in Early Medieval Narratives'

The project was awarded a research project grant for £166,025 from the Leverhulme Trust and is titled 'Women, Conflict and Peace: Gendered Networks in Early Medieval Narratives (c. 330-735)'. It will analyse how early medieval history-writing fitted women and their networks into stories of conflict and peace-building, during a historical period that was marred by warfare, feud and religious conflict.

Formalisation of the network connections in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert (written c. 720). Square black n

Read in an analogous way, early medieval texts often seem to reduce women’s social role to either sowing conflict between or reconciling men. This is demonstrated, for example, by the use of the term ‘peaceweavers’ for royal women who marry outside their kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon poetry (freothuwebbe: Beowulf, line 1942). Historians have often followed such indicators to argue that the primary social expectation of early medieval women was to connect men.
Recent insights from social scientists invite us to ask whether early medieval society afforded women more expansive roles in community building. Even in present society, women are often given the task of conflict solving due to a problematic gendered understanding of their ‘normal’ role in society as conduits between men. This may mask alternative female contributions to community building, for example through female partnerships.

Queen Fredegonde seated on her Throne gives orders to two young Men of Terouanne to assassinate Sige

New developments in social network analysis and in literary studies provide an opportunity to approach such questions around the roles of early medieval women in a fresh way. Social network theory suggests that early medieval women, like all individuals, must have been capable of maintaining multiple and changing relationships. Literary scholars increasingly adopt the concept of ‘narrative networks’, which postulates that the study of how narrative texts construct social relationships provides deeper insights into the structural roles of characters. Applying these two theories to early medieval history-writing through the use of both qualitative textual analysis and quantitative network analysis will allow this project to better understand how early medieval authors envisaged and early medieval audiences understood women's functions in the development of their societies. For feasibility, the study will focus on samples from three early medieval forms of history-writing: Church histories, Chronicles and Hagiographies. The chronological scope will range from Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339), who laid the foundations of all three genres, to Bede the Venerable (d. 735).

The project will enhance the field of early medieval gender history by moving away from the study of individual women and their relationships with individual men, to a quantitative large-scale investigation of women's social roles as presented in different narratives, using digital methods that have never been employed to study early medieval gender. The project will also innovate on historical network analysis, which has usually focussed on the recovery of reasonably complete social networks. The project instead seeks to recover at what point women appear in early medieval narrative cycles, and who women were then connected to. Such ‘narrative networks’ will then be tested for plausibility through comparison with randomized networks. This approach has the potential to lay a new standard in historical network analysis appropriate for early medieval studies and the study of gender.

The project will run for 24 months, from September 2018 to August 2020. The project team consists of Prof Julia Hillner (PI, Sheffield), Dr Máirín MacCarron (Sheffield), Prof Ralph Kenna (Coventry) and Prof Sílvio Dahmen (Porto Alegre).

Tags: History, Leverhulme Trust, grant, research