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Foreign dangers: Activities, responsibilities and the problem of women abroad
By Cristina La Rocca
Paper given at the 2014 International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds
Introduction: Dear participants of the 2014 International Medieval Congress, first of all I would like to thank Sarah Hamilton and Antonio Sennis for having invited me on behalf of Early Medieval Europe to present this paper for the second edition of the Early Medieval Europe lecture. It is a real pleasure to be with you this evening and to have the opportunity to present what I consider a very important issue in dealing with the subject of Empires: the problematic position of women, and their contradictory witnesses not only in representations in early medieval sources but also those deriving from their gendered roles as they have been imagined by both early medieval writers and by modern historians and archaeologists of the Early middle Ages. In my paper I also would like to concentrate my attention on evidence from Italy, showing – I hope – that it was from Italy and from people who moved from or to Italy that the idea of the possibilities or the dangers of women abroad found a special and interesting definition and context of elaboration.
Probably in 1066 Peter Damian wrote a very long letter to an otherwise unknown Bianca comitissa, probably living near Milan, who was a young widow about to enter a monastery, leaving her only child at home. In the letter Bianca was instructed not only on the appropriate behaviour in her ‘new house’ with her new groom, Christ, but also on the emotions and passion which would inspire her new conjugal life. One of the most important points of difference with her past would certainly have been the contrast between a life full of delicious food and ornaments and her new severe life as a nun: the passage from secular to regular life was presented as very risky because of the continuous memories of her preceding life experience. Bianca had to be admonished against the evil temptations of taking too much care of her body and Peter was continuously repeating that after her death “the flesh that now is nourished by dainty food will in a little while be swarming with worms (…) it will emit an overwhelmingly fetid and putrefying odour proportionate to the gentle sweetness on which it was reared”.