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Beware of the Bee: Lollard women and the Fifteenth-Century heresy trials in the Diocese of Norwich, England

Edmonds, Kristy (2013) Beware of the Bee: Lollard women and the Fifteenth-Century heresy trials in the Diocese of Norwich, England. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis considers the roles and nature of the participation of women in the Lollard movement of early fifteenth-century England. It examines the experiences, religious beliefs and textual practices of two fifteenth-century lay-women caught up in Bishop Alnwick’s 1428–1431 campaign of prosecutions in the diocese of Norwich.

The historiography of fifteenth-century England and Lollard dissent has, in the most part, failed to consider the involvement of ordinary Lollard women in a comprehensive or meaningful way. For those scholars that have taken an interest, the contributions of ordinary women tend to be regarded as ‘lesser’, ‘secondary’ or ‘marginal’ in comparison to those of their male counterparts. For historians, indicators of the subordinate status and peripheral role played by women derived from their physical and intellectual ties to the home and to feminine and familial-based roles, as well as from their poor literacy and education levels. This study shows that, far from being a source of marginality, inferiority and limitation, ordinary women’s roles in and relationships to feminine and familial and household-based spaces and activities were both an important source of theological meaning and identity, and the means by which Lollard women performed important roles within the movement. This study also challenges ideas about female illiteracy as a sign of women’s relegation to the periphery of Lollard activity.

The primary sources for this thesis are the 1977 publication of documents relating to the trials, translated and edited by Norman P. Tanner, and John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs, which also provides an account of some of the proceedings. These sources provide a body of material in which the words, beliefs and actions of these Norwich Lollard women and their community, while mediated, may be accessed. Applying techniques of close textual analysis to the primary sources reveals important aspects of the practices and beliefs of the Lollard women. These sources also provide evidence of a level of anxiety and interest held by the Norwich community and its Orthodox Church leaders, which shaped the textual and religious activities of the women.

This study argues that the nature of the religious participation and textual practices of the two women analysed was intensely experientially based and that it derived meaning and understanding from the everyday, ordinary feminine and familial spaces and roles that the women occupied in the community. The implication of their religious beliefs and activities is that they reveal individuals intimately, directly and personally engaged with Christ and the Bible; deriving and shaping the meaning of both based on their own experiences and understandings of the world. The danger for Orthodox Christianity and Church leaders was that in this independent relationship with Christ and the Bible, the Church no longer had an intermediary role to play.

This thesis contends that the two fifteenth-century female subjects discussed here were not marginal or insignificant. Rather, they made meaningful and valuable contributions to the Lollard movement and to their own religious experiences, and are subjects worthy of greater and more considered historical focus.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Arts
Supervisor: Brash, Helen
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