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Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: A Social History, by Elizabeth Norton

May 26, 2017

Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: A Social History, by Elizabeth Norton. Pegasus Books, July 4, 2017. (First Published in England by Head of Zeus, Oct 6, 2016.)

3 stars

A detailed account of the daily lives and material culture of diverse women in England in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, well-researched and written for non-academic readers.

Elizabeth Norton was born and raised in England. She studied history and archeology at Oxford and earned a M.A. degree in European Archeology.  In addition to being involved in Medieval archeological excavations, she has written over a dozen books about Tudor and Medieval history.  Frequently she has focused on English queens. She has also worked in television and other media. At present she is pursuing a Ph.D. at Oxford.

Although her research is careful and trustworthy, Norton has not focused her career in academia but in historical writing for the general public.  This book on Tudor women is fully and carefully footnoted.  Her history, however, is not structured as a narrative, and she does not engage in theory and analysis about the descriptions she includes.  In fact, she supplies surprisingly little context about the social, religious, and political upheavals of the Tudor period, the shifting religious and economic demands of  a particularly turbulent era.  Norton’s details are fun and often make her historical characters human, but I sometimes found my interest wandering without a stronger conceptual or chronological framework.  At times I felt the this book grew out of the clusters of stories that Norton had discovered in her narratives about English royal women.  Perhaps the stories she tells are not so much “hidden” as those that historians have ignored as insignificantly.

Any feminist would be pleased to see such a clear focus on women, but  the result is somewhat fragmented.  Norton has deliberately chosen to write the composite history of the women of the era.  Unlike some who claim to write composite history, she has made a major effort to include women of all classes and lifestyles.  Royal and aristocratic women predominate, because they are the ones who wrote and were written about.  They are also the ones with the most striking stories.  But Norton also gives us the maids and prostitutes, women merchants and those accused of being witches and heretics.  It is often unclear why the author chose to put the women’s stories under the headings she has chosen, especially when the narratives include several women at different stages of their lives.  The problem of structure is made worse by the non-chronological treatment of the Tudor queens and of religion.

Despite my reservations about this book, I recommend it to readers who cherish the concrete details of women’s lives in the past.

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