“Twitchers” is the slang term for bird lovers who, binoculars at the ready, keep patient vigil, watching for the twitch of a twig or flutter of a leaf, the quick gleam of an eye in a thicket, for the mottle on a field to reveal a flock and lift up into the air. If looking for women in medieval records demands comparable training, alertness, sensitivity, and steadiness of purpose, then looking for the relations of power that connected them to one another demands even greater concentration, with a strong measure of detective induction. The contributors to this collection of eight intricate, hard-won essays draw out several figures from the silt of forgetting. However, while redressing the injustice of history, they are also setting out to define afresh the modes and forms of power that medieval women used by listening to the stories objects tell, auscultating the evidence of jewels, images, liturgical arrangements, and architectural plans.

Relations of Power is short but its span is immense, moving from circa 300 CE through to the Tudors, with a foray into seventeenth-century Spain. The authors aren’t concerned with the famous queens Mélisende of Jerusalem or Blanche of Castile, nor the brilliant nuns and scholars Hildegard of Bingen or Héloïse, nor the visionaries Hadewijch or Margery Kempe. Some of these heroines were already so renowned in my youth that they made it into a regular strip called Great Women of the World on the back page of the comic Girl, which my father would bring home for me from his bookshop in the 1950s. The scholars here are searching for more obscure subjects, to reveal instead “under-recognised female relationships and communities” and explore the material conditions and contacts of women’s lives. Sites of inquiry include early Islam, the English court of Edward I in the thirteenth century, and Castile in the mid-fourteenth to mid-fifteenth centuries, among others. (The essays don’t follow chronological order, and the book badly needs an index and a map.)

After the graphic heroics in Girl, it was the medievalist Eileen Power who, with a flair for reanimating the past in such books as Medieval English Nunneries (1922) and the posthumous collection of her lectures, Medieval Women (1975), conjured the texture of women’s lives for my generation.1 The Middle Ages seemed a lost moment of grace, self-expression, and autonomy for women, and in the decades since Power was writing, feminists have continued to be attracted to stories demonstrating female excellence in those times. Barbara Newman’s studies of Hildegard, starting with Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (1987), translated that scholar, composer, and mystic out of obscure archives and led the way to her appreciation by a general reading public.

But such valiant acts of redress were accompanied by a necessary recognition that to be born female meant putting up with deep structural inequality, from which modernity was to deliver the second sex. The magnificent exceptions can’t make up for, let alone make disappear, the multitude of women who were subjugated, silenced, and oppressed, as embodied in the legend of Patient Griselda, the unofficial patron saint of female suffering, who endures endless torments at the hands of her husband—false accusations, separation from her children, dispossession—and was upheld as a model of female conduct because, when told her maltreatment has simply been a test of her wifely devotion, she shows only humble gratitude. (The medieval writers who set the legend down on paper—Boccaccio, Petrarch, Chaucer—strike an ironical note, but Christine de Pizan in her Book of the City of Ladies seems to see Griselda as a straight allegory of female Christian virtue.)

In their introduction to Relations of Power, Emma O. Bérat and Rebecca Hardie explain that they and their contributors are followers of network theory, as formulated by Franco Moretti in his analysis of Hamlet and the Chinese novel The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber.2 Network theory is a child of the digital age: a quantitative approach to literary criticism that depends on computer modeling of exchanges and relationships in a text. Think flight paths across the globe: the busy hubs (Heathrow, O’Hare) show up on a map as dense clusters, with hundreds of arcs springing from them to the destinations they serve, thinning out toward less frequented places.

Likewise, network theory takes a novel or a play and plots the characters’ actions and encounters on a graph; in the jargon, each actor is known as a “node” or a “vertex,” while interactions with others are represented by “edges.” Computer algorithms applied to literature can, Moretti argues, make

the past just as visible as the present: that is one major change introduced by the use of networks. Then, they make visible specific “regions” within the plot as a whole: sub-systems, that share some significant property.

Over five charts breaking down the networks in Hamlet, Moretti reveals Claudius as the towering twin pole of the play, embedded in the thick cluster constituted by the court of Elsinore; by contrast, a character like Horatio, Hamlet’s friend and someone of crucial psychological importance to him, drops to the periphery of the graph.

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Adapting this approach to historical events, not fictive plots, the medievalists in Relations of Power argue that the theory will bring out another structure beneath the patent dominance of men, delineating regions of female influence. As Caroline Levine comments in her book Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015), also of importance to the authors in Relations of Power, networks upend tired hierarchical thinking. She quotes Deleuze and Guattari’s enthusiasm, “Nothing is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial roots,” but she qualifies this rather vatic claim when she writes, “Politically, [networks] are neither consistently emancipatory—freeing us from a fixed or dominant order—nor always threatening—trouncing sovereignty or dissolving protective boundaries.”

I haven’t been much persuaded by quantitative methods myself because, as Moretti comments, they flatten time into space: if you generate a cluster by plotting the people who come and go in, say, William of Tyre’s chronicles of the crusader kingdom, you can show who interconnects with whom, but they will appear to be doing so all at once and all together. Teaching students nurtured on Google, it’s often worrying how weak their grasp of chronology is: the cybersphere may be geographically vast and marvelously interconnected, but it is happening in an eternal present.

Nor does network theory, in its current state of development, allow for considerations of character, motive, emotion, or forms of expression between subjects, not to speak of the texture of the writer’s language. A chart can trace links and junctions but not their sequence of occurrence, nor the reason for them, nor the temper of the occasion. However, Moretti doesn’t oversell his method: he concedes that his charts—which in the end he drew by hand, as he could not achieve what he wanted digitally—fail to show who kills whom in Hamlet, whether they intended to, or why. Nor can they express the words that Shakespeare or Cao Xueqin chose to tell their stories. Thoughts and feelings, soliloquies, and private conversation depend on writers’ literary inventiveness and fall outside the reach of historians, at least according to the principles of historiography today.

Nevertheless, the medievalists in Relations of Power have scored some success by applying the theory in order to reveal women’s busyness in the distant past. In the opening essay, “Female Networks and Exiled Bishops Between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages,” Julia Hillner and Máirín MacCarron analyze two “high-profile cases”: their first subject is Liberius, a fourth-century bishop of Rome, their second Wilfrid of York, who died in the early eighth century. In Liberius’s day, a controversy over the nature of Jesus was raging, with Arians rejecting that he was fully divine as well as fully human. That belief had been condemned as heresy, and when the emperor Constantius II issued a decree with Arian tendencies, Liberius refused to sign it. As a result he was exiled to Thrace in 355; another bishop, Felix, was ordained in his place in Rome.

After Liberius forswore his earlier stance and accepted Arianism, he managed to return to Rome, where he reclaimed his throne, effectively plunging the church into schism. In his own writings, no “female contacts” appear, we are told, but later reports in other sources, including the sixth-century Liber Pontificalis and the Passio Felicis (of uncertain date), increasingly testify to women making history, betraying the true faith by promoting and protecting Arian heretics, including Liberius. These schemers include Constantius’s wife, the empress Eusebia, and Constantia, supposedly the emperor’s sister. None of this female network around Liberius bears much close historical scrutiny, but it clearly betrays how the power of female patronage was widely understood and feared during the period when some of the chroniclers were writing and when Theodora, empress of Byzantium (to name only one female potentate), held sway.

The second bishop in question, Wilfrid of York, was similarly exiled and then wandered around the Christian and pagan worlds, before being reconciled to both the English church and the Anglo-Saxon court; in his case, as in Liberius’s, “elite women” pulling strings featured strongly. Each of the men’s stories also happens to be told by two chroniclers—Liberius’s after a longish interval of time, Wilfrid’s by near contemporaries—who present different accounts, thus giving interpreters rich opportunities for discussion. Hillner and MacCarron claim they are uncovering networked relations in order “to investigate and reveal forms of storytelling in specific texts”; they tap below the surface to find the hidden account buried there, of which medieval chroniclers may not have been consciously aware.

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In Wilfrid’s case, the Venerable Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (circa 731) tells one version of his story; Eddius Stephanus, known as Stephen, tells another in his Vita of Wilfrid, written soon after the latter’s death. Bede is generally perceived as downplaying women’s prominence by comparison with Stephen—in quantitative terms, the bias is solemnly calculated as 12.12 percent women in Bede (that is, out of 594 characters mentioned in his chronicle, 72 are female) by contrast with 14.97 percent in Stephen (25 women out of a full cast of 167). The latter also describes queens flexing their royal muscles to gang up against Wilfrid—a story Bede ignores. But computer algorithms, analyzing Bede, diagnose how his text reveals the nodal importance of queens Hild (or Hilda), Etheldreda, and Osthryth, as well as the founder abbess Ethelburga (or Ethelburh, or Ethelburg) of Barking.

Illustration from a French manuscript probably commissioned for the ­Cistercian nunnery of Notre-Dame-la-Royale

British Library

Illustration from a French manuscript probably commissioned for the ­Cistercian nunnery of Notre-Dame-la-Royale at ­Maubuisson, founded by Blanche of ­Castile, late thirteenth century

Plotting the network of their relations reveals that these women enjoyed “betweenness centrality,” network jargon for connectivity between subjects who appear in multiple instances of intervention, mediation, and peacemaking. Etheldreda, who ranked thirty-first when considered on her own according to number of mentions, jumps up to fourteenth place when her position in the network of relations around Wilfrid is represented in a graph. The writers claim that this reveals her influence at a deeper level than Stephen’s dramatic storytelling and greater proportion of female characters. It turns out that Bede does record the crucial part women played: computers of the third millennium have outed him as a quasi-feminist.

This densely argued essay inspires admiration for its tenacity and detail, but even as it charts power dynamics, it stays with accepted loci of female influence: the abbey, the palace, or, in other words, dynastic marriage, the strategic social alliance. With all the will in the world, it proves tough using network theory to shift the existing sense that relations of power occupied conventional aristocratic spaces. The approach also encourages affectless dryness, which primary sources such as first-person narratives or poems or testimony wonderfully dissolve: I missed hearing the voices of women, the vivid personal accents of tearful Margery Kempe who “started out of her bed and said: ‘Alas, that ever I did sin! It is full merry in Heaven,’” or Joan of Arc during her trial, holding up under relentless questioning and telling her judges that Saint Michael spoke better French than they, or Julian of Norwich with her stoic challenge to despair, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Among the few female-associated written records called on as evidence in Relations of Power is a diploma dated June 13, 1071, granting land and property to the see of Túy in Galicia, Spain; it is sealed with the personal device of Urraca Fernández, daughter of King Fernando and Queen Sancha of León-Castilla. Urraca was a consecrated virgin, as was the custom for a princess of that royal house, Lucy K. Pick informs us in her essay “Networking Power and Gender at Court: An Eleventh-Century Diploma and ‘Las Meninas.’” One consequence of renouncing marriage was that an heiress retained control of her property and, indeed, could accrue more. Pick also homes in on Urraca’s elder sister, Elvira, and taking her as the vertex of a dense cluster, plots the convergence of multiple edges representing her contacts and the alliances formed around her along matrilineal lines, with Elvira at the center like a dark star. (However, Pick rendering the title domina as “lord” seems to me overdetermined, as it ignores the feminine ending.)

Pick then takes a long leap to discuss Las Meninas, Velázquez’s celebrated mise en abyme, and refreshes this court portrait convincingly when she focuses on how the Infanta Margarita, bathed in light, stands at the center of the composition. Pick quotes numerous condescending comments about the “little girl” and “the adorable little infanta” from art historians who have missed, she argues, the social significance of this female child in the nexus of power around Philip II:

This is not merely a courtly group; it is a female-dominated group all of whose members, apart from Velázquez himself, belong to the households of the queen and the infanta. This is not, however, to say that it is a private, purely domestic group. It is the “other half,” so often-overlooked by scholars, that enabled male-headed dynastic monarchy to continue.

Although Pick’s contribution is vigorous and insightful, does this perception amount to more than saying “cherchez la femme”? Yet this is a view that used to be scorned as misogynist in itself and, oddly, still surfaces in contemporary politics. (The widespread dislike of Carrie Johnson, Boris Johnson’s new wife, reverberates with these ancient suspicions, well-founded though criticism of her may otherwise be.)

In the period covered by Relations of Power, the church proves to be hospitable to women ambitious to manage their own estates, but at the cost of surrendering the right to movement, sex, marriage, and children. Stephanie Hollis, in another tightly interwoven chapter, turns to dream visions as powerful instruments of policy. She explores the pun in the book’s title and argues that relating stories matters in the acquisition of authority. She invokes the hagiographer Goscelin, who describes in his Recital of a Vision (circa 1094) how Alfgifu, abbess of Barking, confirmed her sacred authority through a dream in which the founder of the abbey, Ethelburga, appeared to her and leaned her head on Alfgifu’s breast like a child with her mother. The maternal metaphor resonates with widespread Marian imagery in medieval piety. (In the twelfth century Saint Bernard in a vision sees the Virgin offer him her breast milk.)

Alfgifu’s experience is an intense subjective epiphany, Hollis agrees, but her approach remains resolutely functionalist: by means of the heavenly sanction of her dream visions, Alfgifu was asserting her own status as heir to a proud lineage. They allowed her to argue for the sainthood of Ethelburga and two of her other predecessors as abbess, Hildelith (who died circa 716) and Wulfhild (who died after 996). The abbesses were duly canonized and their remains brought to Barking (“translated,” in the ecclesiastical terminology), increasing the aura and not incidentally the wealth of the abbey as a sanctuary and a site of pilgrimage. A similar dream origin occurs in the foundation of Walsingham, where in 1061, according to legend, Richeldis de Faverches, a noblewoman, was commanded in a vision of the Virgin Mary to build her a shrine in the form of the house in Nazareth where the holy family had lived.

Barking had been founded for Ethelburga by her brother, and she presided over its magnificent estate in her own right. Legend has it that she had been briefly married to Edwin of Northumbria, and he had converted to Christianity at their union, but this may be muddling her with another Ethelburga. The parentage of Saint Edith of Wilton (who died in 984), another royal nun, follows similar lines, as her father, King Edgar the Peaceful, had abducted her mother, Wulfthryth, from the abbey at Wilton, in spite of her wish to take vows, and thereafter did penance for his sin; Wulfthryth went back into the cloister and became abbess, taking their daughter, Edith, to live at Wilton with her. Mother and daughter loved fine clothes and their community was dressed in gold and white robes, in the same high style as the nuns and the choir of Hildegard of Bingen in her abbey at Rupertsberg.

Hollis is less focused on these colorful aspects of her protagonists’ personalities than on their autonomy and determined resistance to the ecclesiastic and state hierarchy when it threatened the nuns’ independence and coveted their revenues. In the long term the nuns’ resolve was in vain: these great abbeys were stripped and razed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536–1541; only a curfew tower remains of Barking, the ruins of St. Mary’s Church at Wilton, and a single soaring gothic arch of the medieval priory at Walsingham, once the wealthiest pilgrimage site in England.

The consolidation of male power underlies the rise of the centralized royal state, especially when, as Henry VIII decided, ecclesiastic power was invested in the monarch as head of the church and defender of the faith. Interestingly, Moretti suggests that at the close of both Macbeth and Hamlet we can see, with Duncan and Fortinbras embodying strong, legitimate kingship, the coming of “something like the nascent European state system.” Shakespeare, living in the aftermath of the Dissolution, was familiar with “bare ruin’d choirs,” and dramatized in play after play the character of royal power, its reach and its limits. It is not irrelevant that Claudius gains the throne of Denmark by marrying the widowed queen, cutting Hamlet, her son the prince, and, in a patrilineal structure, the heir, out of the succession. This trace of matriarchy wasn’t simply a residue of an older social order but a zone of contest where some individuals, like the great abbesses, fought to stay in charge—and live as they wished.

A strong thread through these essays consists of nonscribal evidence—an exchange of rings, the stamp of a seal, the composition of a funerary monument, a clutch of ornamental pins. In her essay “Herstory: Exploring the Material Life of Gundrada de Warenne,” Karen Dempsey picks up the traces of a Flemish-born noblewoman who moved to East Anglia. Gundrada was long thought to have been an illegitimate daughter of William the Conqueror and Queen Matilda; though we are told that historians no longer believe this, Matilda gave Gundrada a manor house in Cambridgeshire, evidence of some sort of close tie—“perhaps that of a lady-in-waiting, a role that can sometimes be akin to that of a surrogate daughter.” (Old Queen Matilda, incidentally, makes an unforgettable appearance in Lauren Groff’s recent novel Matrix,3 where Groff imagines a painful encounter between her heroine, the writer Marie de France, and the queen who, in this fierce poetic re-visioning of history, is her step-grandmother, a shrunken, malignant, capricious matriarch, closer to the wicked fairy Carabosse than a fairy queen.)

Gundrada’s life is known only in fragments, but at the age of seventeen she married William de Warenne, also Flemish, who had fought in the Battle of Hastings and was richly rewarded by the new Norman king with lands in his English dominion. Gundrada’s trail is picked up at Castle Acre near Kings Lynn, “one of the largest earthwork castles in England,” some of it still visible. Around 1077 Gundrada founded the first Cluniac priory in the country, at Lewes in Sussex, on the site of a shrine to Saint Pancras, an obscure Roman convert who was martyred at the age of fourteen and has now become, since the Eurostar crossed the Channel, the de facto genius loci of London. Gundrada signed its charter with an X—literacy for laywomen was still rare.

Dempsey speculates that the gift to the monks may have been “a form of penance by Gundrada on behalf of her brother” Gerbod, who “accidentally killed his liege lord…in battle,” subsequently fled to Rome, and then took sanctuary in Cluny—the priory at Lewes might have been founded to secure his reprieve. Dempsey keeps patiently sifting through the scraps of evidence, relying on wistful-sounding hypotheses. “It is possible that Gundrada aspired to capture aspects of Matilda’s domestic arrangements for herself at Castle Acre,” she writes. She notes that a church in Norfolk is built of stone from Caen in Normandy and speculates that Gundrada might have chosen this building material to proclaim a link with Norman territory across the Channel.

Dempsey’s excitement also simmers on the page as she examines the clutch of two dozen “castellated” bone pins found in the excavations at Castle Acre, imagining the connective power of these small ornaments. Possibly “sewn together with gold thread through the hair,” they may have proclaimed their wearer’s status as a chatelaine. If exchanged as gifts, these “castles in her hair” could be considered as “intermediaries”:

The pins may speak to ongoing connections between elite families both pre- and post-Conquest; they might even suggest a network of shared material culture of women that sought to bridge the divisions that must have been present in eleventh-century society.

The hairpins (if they were hairpins—they could be pegs, for example, in a game like cribbage) may or may not have been worn by Gundrada. But as many of the subjects of the collection play a similar part—as go-betweens, peacemakers, etc.—the idea of “intermediaries” recurs; it mirrors the role the Virgin Mary fills in medieval doctrine and devotion, as the Queen of Heaven in the celestial court standing by the side of her son, a vertex where many edges converge, pleading for mercy, as in the closing words of the ancient prayer, the Hail Mary: “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

Eschatological relations of power in heaven above reproduce arrangements on earth down below among the privileged and wellborn: the exaltation of Mary at Chartres redounded to the glory of French queens—Blanche of Castile and her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine. The scholars’ efforts to bring women into view in the Middle Ages reveal that they did hold positions of power and wield means of influence from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor times, but when trust in the intercession of the saints was denounced by Luther and the Protestant reformers in England, it followed that the intercessionary powers of women also became suspect. Henry VIII’s split from Rome in 1534 and his assault on church power (including abolishing the law of sanctuary) severed women’s networks and cast a shadow on the legitimacy of female influence.

The turn against the cult of the Virgin and the destruction of shrines of beloved medieval saints like Margaret of Antioch (patroness of childbirth) and Catherine of Alexandria (of young girls, students, and philosophers), of abbeys like Barking and Wilton and fabulously rich and popular shrines like Walsingham, gave impetus to a heavy undertow of misogyny in later culture in Britain. It can be felt in Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example, and in his early poem Venus and Adonis, where the poet is torn between the spiritual compass bearings of his youth and the new landscape of Protestantism. (Ted Hughes explores this erasure of female power in his monumental, erratic study Shakespeare and the Goddess of Supreme Being.)

But Relations of Power keeps closely focused on its chosen topics, watching for the twitch of an abbess’s habit or the trace of a signature, to reveal that someone who is female is there, up to something. The editors do not attempt a panoptic perspective; their essays yearn to make women in the past seen and heard, but their methods are stern and their revelations scanty and often wishful. Writers and poets are nourished by the close-up historical scholarship on display in Relations of Power—as the work of Toni Morrison, Hilary Mantel, and Lauren Groff shows—but this collection made me recognize more than ever the riches made possible by the fictive imagination’s freedom, and remember the enfleshed intensity of those ripe, richly tapestried and stirring psychological dramas of the Middle Ages by novelists such as Anya Seton, Geoffrey Trease, and Rosemary Sutcliff, which like many girls of my age at the time, I read under the bedclothes.