Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420-1530

Article excerpt

Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420-1530. By Shannon McSheffrey. [Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1995. Pp. xiii, 253. $38.95 cloth; $18.95 paperback.)

Shannon McSheffrey's detailed study of eight Lollard communities in southeast and south central England (1420-1530) examines the interplay of gender, social status, familial linkages, and literacy to counter the idea that medieval heretical communities were more attractive to women than was orthodox religiosity. In arguing that Lollardy was not notably attractive to or supportive of women, McSheffrey keeps an eye on comparative findings relating to early modern and modern religious groups and on recent debates regarding literacy levels and patriarchy.

The evidence is drawn from bishops' registers, court books, and wills, with a judicious use of Foxe where original records are missing. Only occasionally does this study draw support from the literature of Lollardy. The narrative analysis rests on a matrix of names of persecuted Lollards listed in the appendix, which Mc Sheffrey has sorted by gender, relationship to other Lollards, and literacy (defined as reading in English).

McSheffrey's primary finding is that women composed a relatively small percentage of recorded Lollards (28%), that they did not assume public teaching roles, were not in leadership positions, were more likely than men to have family connections with other Lollards, and were therefore more likely to have been attracted to Lollardy for familial rather than ideological reasons.They also had far lower literacy rates than men (3% as opposed to 19%). McSheffrey details one significant exception to this picture-a group of female Lollards in Coventry who met together and looked to the leadership of one Alice Rowley, a woman of higher social status who seems to have been able, uniquely, to cross gender lines and provide leadership to the male Lollards from more modest social levels.

Despite the strengths of this study, McSheffrey's work raises questions. She argues that men controlled the movement at the public, conventicle level, and that women listened, learned, and sometimes taught only in informal, private circumstances. …