A long history: women in Scottish religion

My name is Ashley Thompson and I’m a current volunteer at GWL. When I’m not volunteering, I’m a history student whose passion is gender history, focussing on expressions of femininity and masculinity in medieval and early modern Britain.

A stained-glass depiction of Saint Margaret of Scotland where she is depicted with a halo and surrounded by angels.
Image taken from historic-uk.com

The GWL plays host to many wee gems, detailing women’s thoughts on and experiences of so many matters, from politics to education, art to religion. The collection of documents relating to the Women’s Church Resource Group (1989-1996) is one such gem. Containing journals, drawings, leaflets and much more, this collection details the work of a group set up in Glasgow to analyse the position of women in the Catholic church. The passionate outpourings from these women, determined to carve out new spaces for women in religion, are testament to the long legacy of women in Scotland being involved in the Catholic church. Mary Cullen’s exhortation for the church to understand ‘that the Spirit does not speak exclusively through the usual hierarchical channels, but also through your women’ speaks to the many women throughout Scotland’s history who have dedicated time and energy to pious endeavours, in a variety of ways, shaping the direction of the church and ultimately the way in which many people throughout Scotland’s history have engaged with worship.

Saint Margaret of Scotland (d.1093) was one such woman. A princess of the English throne born in exile in Hungary, Margaret’s politically insecure position in a family that was a threat to William the Conqueror pushed her – however bizarrely it seems – into the welcoming arms of King Malcolm III of Scotland. Following Cullen’s call to reclaim women’s heritage, Margaret of Scotland is an excellent example of a strong woman using her position to enact change in a religious group which offered very few opportunities for women to officially wield power. Margaret not only had eight children – who all survived to adulthood (a rare feat in the medieval period) – and took her duty to instruct them seriously, but, more significantly, was involved in influencing the Scottish church. She also set an example to many with her generous and pious behaviour. She used her privileged position to help those in need, giving away food from her wedding banquet to the poor, and encouraging her husband – an apparently rough, macho type – to be charitable and generous to those less fortunate than themselves.

As she had been brought up in Europe and then migrated to Scotland, Margaret brought a new perspective to the Scottish court, as well as different cultural ideas. This embodies the long-held links that Scotland has with other parts of the world and shows that our wee country has been a welcoming place for others for thousands of years. Although scholars debate the extent that Margaret did influence the church in Scotland, she definitely did attempt to bring the Scottish church in line with wider Western European practices. The position she had as queen, and as the mother to the future king, meant that she will have wielded a huge amount of influence, especially for causes she was passionate about. Indeed, she is said to have had a ‘civilising’ influence on her husband, paying ransoms for slaves he took whilst pillaging, and encouraging foreign trade with Scotland, increasing royal prestige.

A depiction of King David I of Scotland - he is sitting in a throne holding a sword in his right hand and an orb in his left.
Image taken from thefamouspeople.com.

A lot of work on Margaret focusses on her being a mother and how her children went on to die in battle, rule kingdoms and marry into royal families. Whilst I’m not denying that the achievements of her progeny are many – and if she had lived longer I’m sure she would have been proud – I do think it’s important to not focus on motherhood as her defining feature, especially as there is no detail, just ‘she was a mother’. Wilma E. Robb in a 1991 issue of Open House (part of the Women’s Church Resource Group) lamented that although the Virgin Mary is upheld as a mother, there is no mention of the messiness of giving birth and raising a child. She wrote that there is a disconnect between Mary and mothers, making ‘her remote’. The journey of joy and fear, excitement and messiness that Wilma describes as being motherhood is also missing from accounts of Margaret. Now, this is obviously in part due to the time in which Margaret lived – the only ones keeping a record of things were monks and holy men who were unlikely to be acquainted with the realities of birth and child-rearing (and probably did not want to be!). But I think if we are going to write about Margaret being a mother – and a pious one at that – we should make an effort to reclaim some of the detail and the messiness, especially if we are trying to relate to a medieval figure that many women will have not heard about. Eight children is eight times that messy journey; I can’t even imagine what that would have been like for her! Motherhood is an amazing experience, simultaneously unique and universal – I think by focussing on the reality, as Wilma points out, we can relate to Margaret and see the commonalities that we share. Margaret also lived an extraordinary life in her own right and we should be sensitive to that too.

The contents page from an issue of 'Open House' from the GWL archives.
Women’s Church Resource Group, GWL archives, image taken by Ashley Thompson.

It can be hard to see the direct impact of medieval women in ‘official’ matters taking place around them – especially when it comes to the church. As Mary Cullen wrote, the church will accept one or two ‘independent women and think itself inclusive’ but hasn’t changed overall to allow women in as active agents. As a gender historian, I think Mary’s comments about the Catholic Church in the 1990s applies to much of Western history. However, as many scholars have done (like Judith BennetKimberly LoPrete and Rebecca Slitt), a valid and important approach is to look at ‘unofficial’ means of power and authority, such as a wife influencing her husband, or shaping her children’s views. Reading between the lines is the best approach when researching medieval women, and is a feminist approach too, as we are making an effort to not confine our subjects – or ourselves – within traditional, patriarchal power structures. Margaret definitely influenced Scottish religion, encouraging others to be more pious and setting an example in how she believed others should be treated. Just because she didn’t exercise power in traditional ways doesn’t mean she didn’t help guide and shape others.

Perusing the archives of the GWL doesn’t just open up your eyes to that specific slice of history, but also inspires you to reach out to other historical women who fought the same fight, or experienced similar things. I think Mary Cullen would have admired Margaret and that Wilma E. Robb would have related a lot to Margaret’s journey as a mother. I consider myself privileged to be privy to these women’s voices and I hope that through writing this blog I have shared those voices a little more widely.

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