Women are present as authors, readers, and makers of manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. The earliest known account of Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem was written by a 4th-century woman, Egeria, in the form of a letter addressed to women she called her sorores, or ‘sisters’, at home in Europe. In the 10th century, the German nun Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim created comedic plays adapted from ancient Latin sources for the entertainment of her monastic community. And yet, despite an abundance of evidence concerning the contributions of women to theology, literature, and art, stereotypical impressions of medieval life continue to focus on their marginalization instead. This section of the exhibition counters such misconceptions, fostered by a history of misogyny, by offering a more nuanced view of women in medieval book culture.
Scholarship in recent decades has filled many gaps in our understanding of gender and experience in the Middle Ages, but such work has sadly been hampered by the destruction of some of the most significant manuscripts made by and for medieval women. Chief among these are Scivias and the Hortus Deliciarum, two books of extraordinary significance that disappeared during catastrophic wars and are only known through archival documents and published facsimiles. The physical erasure of these works mirrors the realities of absence and loss in both medieval sources and modern reception. Pitt’s facsimiles are valuable tools towards recovering the rich lives of medieval women; the examples below communicate stories of women not only as passive recipients of knowledge but also as active creators in their own right, their agency enhanced by vivid illuminations that have kept their legacies alive across the centuries.