“The Correct Path to Heaven: Mothering & Motherhood in English Manuscript Art, c.970-1030”

‘The Correct Path to Heaven: Mothering & Motherhood in English Manuscript Art, c.970-1030’ in Peopling Insular Art: Practice, Performance, Perception (Proceedings of the Eighth International Insular Art Conference (Glasgow, 2017), eds. Cynthia Thickpenny, Katherine Forsyth, Jane Geddes, and Kate Matis. Oxbow Books: July 2020.


After a wait, the 2017 International Insular Art Conference proceedings have been published! My article (based on the conference paper) breaks down where and how we see mothers, motherhood, and mothering in Medieval English Manuscripts from 970 to 1030.

Conference Abstract: 

When looking at Insular art, it is occasionally hard to discern specific people, especially when we look for specific women. Looking at Anglo-Saxon England we know names throughout the period: Æthelthryth, Æthelflæd, Ælfthryth, Ælgifu, and Edith to name just a few. With few exceptions, these women fall into three, often overlapping, categories: saint, queen, and/or abbess. Scholars, such as Christine Fell, Pauline Stafford and Sarah Foot, have shown that written documents such as wills and charters demonstrate female agency throughout the period, albeit with phases of absence. Saints’ lives and vernacular literature further witness female concerns and provide evidence for the performance of femininity and the perception of women. Central to much of the surviving written evidence are ideas of motherhood.

What, then, does the art tell us? Late Anglo-Saxon England provides a particular moment in which manuscripts give insight into the ways in which motherhood was practiced, performed, and perceived. After a brief exploration of the types of female figures in contemporary manuscripts, it will become apparent the extant illustrations of women also highlight motherhood in various ways. By drawing on the Benedictional of Saint Æthelwold and the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, this paper will examine the ways in which women peopled Insular, specifically Anglo-Saxon, art. Despite the almost sixty years separating the manuscripts, it is evident that both feature a distinctly Anglo-Saxon focus on motherhood that can be spiritual or physical.