Alice Wescott loses her family in England’s first plague outbreak of 1348 – 1350. No community or family would have been left unscathed during those years and many of the religious orders lost their members. It seemed fitting to place a widow of the plague into a monastery which had lost nuns in the plague. When Alice arrives at St Hugh’s, the monastery needs her help as much as she needs its sanctuary.
In medieval England hospitals were run by the religious orders. Hospitals in those days not only treated the sick but also provided shelter for the poor and vulnerable too. Travellers could request to stay at a hospital and some foundlings spent their formative years in hospitals, raised by nuns.
Wealthy widows could live in the precinct of a religious house in return for payment. Margaret Beauchamp, widow of the Earl of Warwick, took up residence at the Minoresses without Aldgate in the late fourteenth century. Other medieval widows chose to work in the houses of religious orders and some of these subsequently took the veil themselves.
Double monasteries – those which housed nuns and monks – were declining in popularity by the middle ages. However the English Gilbertine Order lasted until the reformation. Founded by Gilbert of Sempringham in the twelfth century, the order housed both nuns and canons. Scandal ensued at Watton Priory in Yorkshire when a nun, known afterwards as the Nun of Watton, apparently became pregnant by one of the lay brothers. It is related that the nuns castrated him and the nun’s pregnancy subsequently ended. Depending on which account you read, the nuns meted out a more gruesome punishment than that which you can google if you’re feeling brave enough. Alice and Jon’s flirtations are genteel in comparison.
‘Medieval women were classified according to their sexual status… virgins, wives or widows,’ writes Henrietta Leyser in her book Medieval Women. As a widow, Alice Wescott would have had more freedom than many women of her time, and because she trained in her husband’s trade of glove making she had the option to continue with this work after his death. Her husband had been a free man and as his widow she is a free woman: this freedom is significant in the fourteenth century. Had Alice been a peasant (known then as a villein), married, or living with her parents then her lord, husband or family would have had the authority to control her.
It is difficult to know what medieval women thought about the male-dominated society they lived in, many may have accepted it was the way life was supposed to be – as God decreed. But even if most women did accept the misogyny in society at that time, it does not mean they didn’t feel frustrated at it or disadvantaged by it.
I have included the Jane Austen quote from Persuasion on the title page of Runaway Girl because it reminds us that history has been mainly documented by men:- ‘…the pen has been in their hands.’ I wanted to write about strong female characters in the middle ages because they must have existed, we just don’t know their stories. While writing this book I wanted to imagine what their stories may have been.
Sexual offences were treated as serious crimes in the middle ages but conviction rates were low because it proved difficult to produce evidence of rape or find witnesses. A high-profile individual with influence could escape conviction easily when it was his word against his victim’s. Sadly this resonates with events today and when writing this book I was mindful of the high profile sexual predators we are now familiar with and who, for many years, got away with their crimes while hiding in plain sight.
While researching Runaway Girl I used a number of sources too numerous to list here. However the following books have been of particular help: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, Medieval Women by Henrietta Leyser, Medieval London by Timothy Baker, Growing up in Medieval London by Barbara A Hanawalt and The Great Mortality by John Kelly.