This is the first in a series of posts in which I gleefully speculate about some of the women’s names found in the York Register of Freemen. To read my full research on these women, go here.
We shall start with the earliest female name I found in the Register:
Queneld, reign of Edward I. Occupation: serviens (apprentice). Note: serviens Roberti de Hedon; name cannot be definitively gendered.
Queneld… Oh, Queneld. I really want you to be a woman. Let’s start there. I looked up all the information I could readily find on medieval English naming conventions. I talked to every names herald I know (and perhaps surprisingly I think I know some pretty serious heralds). Some sources and people said Queneld was a female name. Some said Queneld was a male name. Some were certain. Some uncertain. I’m sure people will weigh in in the comments.
The way we choose to interpret this name has deep implications. If Queneld was a woman, she was the only woman in the Register who gained her freedom through apprenticeship. She would provide evidence that women could at least sometimes be apprentices, and that they could in some remote realm of possibility rise from apprentice to Mistress.
Of course, there’s another way to look at it: I think it’s easy to say that there being no other evidence of women as apprentices supports the claim that Queneld is a male name.
I think this is the problem with researching medieval women.
The information is so sparse and requires so much conjecture that whatever set of assumptions you start from will determine the conclusions you draw. This frustrated me so much in my research. I kept second-guessing myself — “Is that just my bias? Am I reading too much into it? What’s real, anyway?” It turned the research into a slog. Eventually, I came to a decision: I’ll be honest about where I made leaps and why, but when I have a chance to believe that women did things, I will; too many people do the opposite, and so I’m okay with evening the score a bit.
So back to Queneld. If she was a woman, she was unique, and thus is noteworthy. I can’t find Robertus de Hedon elsewhere in the Register, so we have no indication of what his occupation was. Another mystery to tack onto Queneld.
Here’s the story I’ve made up about her in my head, though: She was a hard worker. Her parents arranged her apprenticeship; maybe Robertus was a relative. She impressed him with her quick wit, and he was proud to stand up and speak for her before the Guild. She paid her fee and the registrar wrote her name down. That night she had chicken and spiced ale. She led a good life.
Or, whatever, some guy in York had kind of a weird name and was otherwise entirely unremarkable. I know that could also be the truth, I just choose the better story. Women are written out of too many stories, I’d rather write one in where she didn’t really exist than risk erasing one more.