Herstory

Dr Marta de Zuniga in Conversation with Dr Janina Ramirez

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MdZ: Janina, your new bestselling book Femina is receiving ravishing reviews and changes the way that we will, from now on, look at the Middle Ages. When and why did women of the Middle Ages become the centre of your research?

JR: I had never intended to be a medievalist. My first love was Tudor history, which I fell for when walking through Hampton Court Palace. I was very young and taking a group of Polish friends on a tour. As I walked across a particular threshold between the kitchen and hallway, I saw how it was worn down by the passage of tens of thousands of feet across the centuries. I knew then I was fascinated by the past. But I found History a very dry subject. I think, ultimately, I was looking for people like me but only found war-mongers and men of power. Literature then took over as my primary passion, since I felt I could connect with individual voices from the past. When I went to university I encountered Old English poetry for the first time and then my path was clear – I wanted to build up an understanding of a little-studied area in history – the early medieval period – by pulling together evidence from all sorts of disciplines, including art, archaeology, music, architecture, theology and literature. Women have all but disappeared from traditional historical texts, but they can be discovered by combining evidence from a range of disciplines. I am fascinated by those ignored throughout history, and by putting the frame on the biggest sector – 50% of the population – I’m hoping to find others in the process and change what we look for in the past.

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It (2022)

MdZ: Both your academic work and your TV programmes are interdisciplinary. You skilfully connect detailed analysis of precious artworks, unknown historical facts, modern research methods like the DNA analysis with current debates and questions important to the contemporary reader. What is your secret behind successfully generating so much interest and enthusiasm for stories that seemingly don’t relate to our daily life and concerns?

JR: History ultimately feeds into everything we do. Even seemingly scientific studies, technology and computing, have a history and we are all a part of it. Understanding where we have come from allows us to understand where we are now and work towards a future we want. When I understood that, I realised that history as a subject can connect with everyone, everywhere, as long as you relate what is relevant from the past to now. Attitudes towards gender, sexuality, class, disability and race are pressing issues for so many today, but we need to look backwards to make sense of where we are now. It may not be that every story or discovery I enthuse about will captivate an audience. But someone, somewhere, will see a relevance in it and it could make a difference. That’s why I give as much energy to every project I do, whether it’s discovering lost cities 10000 years old, or looking at women’s suffrage across the last 100 years. The principle is the same – to excite and inspire people to dig more deeply in how we got to where we are.

MdZ: Fewer people know that you’ve also published a book for children about 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, which is inspired by the British Museum’s exhibition. Being an academic, art historian, public intellectual and a mum yourself, why do you think it’s important to talk about the various incarnations of feminine power with children?

JR: I have been asked by academic colleagues why I ‘waste my time’ writing for children when I have a serious career writing history for adults. My answer is that if I don’t inspire younger readers to fall in love with studying the past then I will have an empty classroom in a decade or two! I am a big advocate for life-long learning and believe a spark can be ignited at any age which can carry a passion for a subject through life. If I can sow seeds in young minds of the joys studying Viking warrior women or the mysteries of African water spirits, then they could, like me, discover the pleasure of pursuing their interests and looking at the world in different ways. My other argument is that, if I can’t explain a theory or a piece of historical information in a way that would interest a 9-year-old child, then I shouldn’t be teaching adults. Clear communication is the key to education. In terms of feminine power, I am only now starting to realise the subconscious shackles that still bind women to feeling like the ‘second sex’. I don’t want that for my son or my daughter. I want them to reach for a world where equality could one day be a reality.

MdZ: One chapter of Femina is devoted to leaders and kings and among them to Queen Jadwiga of Poland, or Hedwig, as she is known in the English-speaking world. Could you tell us why you’ve found her story so significant?

JR: I made it a condition with my publishers that I could include Polish material in my book, as I am of Polish heritage myself. I knew of Jadwiga as so many Poles do – as a saintly, almost other-worldly figure who feeds notions of Polish identity. But I also knew that, by exploring the archaeology of her Kraków, the objects she owned and commissioned, and the texts concerning her, I could develop an understanding of the real woman behind the legend. Plus, I wanted readers across the world to know that Poland had a female king!

MdZ: I know that the Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak and yourself are currently working on a film series called ‘Waldy and Nina’s adventures in Poland’. What are the things about Polish culture that you think the British public still haven’t and would enjoy discovering?

JR: I can only think of how much they will discover! Almost too much to cram into a series. There are so many people with Polish connections in the UK, and yet there is virtually no programming that connects directly with us. To explore the medieval ruins beneath the Rynek (Kraków Old Town), the Hanseatic trade links of Gdańsk, the art of Jan Matejko, the craftwork of the mountains, the music of the courts and the history of this most significant part of central Europe – who wouldn’t want to watch?

Dr Janina Ramirez is a cultural historian, broadcaster and author based at the University of Oxford with a passion for communicating ideas about the past. As a lecturer and course director, Janina wants to share ideas, information and inspiration with every student and the general public through the wide reach of television, radio, publications and new media. Janina’s research began with a degree in English Literature at Oxford, followed by an MA and PhD at the Centre for Medieval Studies in York on the art, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England. She is the author of Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It (2022).

Dr Marta de Zuniga is Director of the Polish Cultural Institute in London. She studied in Warsaw, Munich, Moscow and London and lectured at the Department of Journalism and Political Science at University of Warsaw. During her five years as Director of the PCI, Marta’s work has focussed on developing partnerships and projects that highlight close cultural links between Poland and the UK.