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Holistic Research into the story of buildings, objects and people in the high medieval period of Ireland, Britain and France from a gendered perspective

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HeRstory (Holistic Research into the story of buildings, objects and people in the high medieval period of Ireland, Britain and France from a gendered perspective)

Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2019-09-30

In archaeology, the story of the past is largely told through the experiences of men. Explorations either implicit or explicit of the wide spectrum of gendered identities and ideologies that must have existed in the past are too few. This is not surprising, many inequalities based on sex / sexual preference / sexual identity still persist in our world today. Modern discrimination based on sex, gender or sexual orientation and lack of research on gender in the past are intrinsically linked. Our ways of being in the present inform how we see and interpret the past. In turn, the stories we create to understand the past reveals much of how we see ourselves in our world today. It is no surprise that a patriarchal society in which white men are privileged identifies a past based on a supremacy of males in highly stratified cultures. My project, HERSTORY takes an holistic approach to the study of medieval castles in NW Europe. Through analysis of buildings, objects and the historical record of case-study sites, it reveals how this material culture constructed, reinforced and renegotiated gendered roles in medieval society. Essentially this means telling the story of medieval people, especially women, through the things that they used and cared about, within the spaces they inhabited, through the lens of what we know of the medieval past. This project challenges current male-orientated views of the medieval world, so typical of castle-studies, which have largely excluded the everyday experiences and lives of women. The outcomes of this research will deepen our knowledge of gender identities in medieval Europe.

Unfortunately, gendered bias is still prevalent in our world today, understanding gender, and specifically women, in the past may offer a mirror contemporary inequalities. This will provide an avenue through which people can begin to question further these imbalances: prompting people to ask are these owing to unequal societies or a result of scholarship that only concentrates on men? As Caroline Criado Perez (2019) has noted that male seems to be a default category in research. Women, and other gendered identities are now and were the medieval period part of the fabric of society, our research must endeavour to acknowledge and embrace this.

The overall objectives of this project were to share new gendered understanding of medieval castles. Through many talks, short videos, published academic papers as well as collaborations with heritage professionals I feel I have achieved my goals. I highlighted how things - used by people - can shed new light on gender.
Over the course of HeRSTORY, I have endeavoured to gather information from various sources in order to give a fuller picture of castle life. I have visited museums and castle sites as well as collecting necessary data from excavation reports as well as gathering together appropriate contemporary historical and literary material. Using this diverse information I devised an interdisciplinary methodology whereby the lived experience of women is foregrounded outside of their relationship with men. Women are not depicted as as 'wives, mothers or daughters' but as complex individuals with their own agency. I highlighted how material culture is revealing of the the gendered identities of medieval men and women. I published the results of my project in six different academic journals. One of which tackles key issues such as gender imbalance in archaeology and how this affects the construction of knowledge. Its deep critical analysis of castle studies and medieval archaeology provides a base for all future studies in these areas. A second article 'Sowing seeds of feminist thought' became a feminist archaeological theory-in-practice: it showcased how we can examine female agency outside of women’s relationship with men and beyond traditional male narratives of power, status, or warfare. This highlight women's real and imagined role in gardens and demonstrated how we might understand the daily life of elite ladies through studies of relict plants (those potentially surviving from the medieval past) at castles.

In order to impact the perception of gender at medieval castles I organised a collaborative workshop: ‘Include/Challenge/Change: Gendered Interpretations of Medieval Castles’ for 25 heritage professionals (English Heritage, Cadw, and Historic Environment Scotland) who attended and presented. The outcomes and feedback from this day formed a multi-authored article (with me as lead). In addition to this I shared project findings and results at 18 conferences, symposiums or workshops (see technical report for full list). Highlights include a Keynote Paper for the Society of Medieval Archaeology conference ‘Archaeology, Feminist Practice and Medieval Castles’ in November 2018, University of Reading. Other international papers took me to Berlin and Sweden: 'Revealing our blindspots: thing-based archaeology at medieval castles', workshop on Rethinking visibility / invisibility of medieval objects at Humboldt University and ‘Gender Archaeology and Medieval Residences’ at Lund University. Altogether, these papers were all concerned with how we can foreground gender in research and tell stories of people in the past through the things that they used, made, loved and cared about.

At the beginning of my Fellowship I created a basic project webpage, available here: I also created a project specific Twitter account @womenandcastles (220 followers) and maintained my personal Twitter profiles (@karrycrow (1150 followers). I wrote a blog on my research which was shared by the University of Reading. Available at: Views 100+. As part of my concern to reach a wider, more diverse, audience I took part in an ‘Ask Historians’ thread on Reddit. My subject was medieval castles and women. This was very popular, 4,100 people voted and asked 261 questions. Available at: It. Collaborating with Caroline Teng (graphic artist), I have created a graphic novella ‘Medieval Women: archaeological tales of the unexpected’ which tells the daily-life story of five socially diverse medieval women. This indicates my creative capabilities and commitment to reaching multiple audiences.
I have moved conversations within the discipline of castle-studies forward so that they include gender. But also, I highlighted wider but related issues of gender inequality and imbalances in archaeology and archaeological publishing (Dempsey 2019). I organised a workshop on gender and heritage for professionals to discuss the problems of a lack of gendered interpretations at castle sites. This resulted in a co-authored paper that has been viewed almost 1000 times. Excitingly, post project I have been asked to contribute to a gendered interpretation of a medieval castle in Scotland by Historic Environment Scotland (HES). This is the first time such a study will be completed or even commissioned. HES have also created an in-house 'style-sheet' on what a good gendered interpetaiton includes based on the outcomes from our collaborative workshop. This will hopefully have a great impact on how people see and understand daily life in castles.
Castle Acre
Caerlaverock Castle
Herstory Lecture in Lund
Roscrea Castle, Co. Tipperary.
Workshop in action
Workshop Fieldtrip
Herstory Lecture
Chepstow Castle
Chateau de Caen, Normandy