Philobiblon: The oldest writing in a woman's hand

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The oldest writing in a woman's hand

I dragged myself out of bed early enough yesterday to finally make another British Museum gallery talk, this on "multicultural Roman Britain", which debunked more than a few historical myths and was absolutely fascinating. More on the broader themes later today if I get time.

But I wanted to devote a post of its own to a wonderful piece that gets no special attention in the gallery but which does, I'd suggest, deserve it.

It is one of the Vindolanda tablets, the hoard of letters found in the fort of that name on Hadrian's Wall that preserves the details of the everyday life of the garrison and their wives.

(Do check out the above link by the way - it is a model of archeaology on the web.)

One is a letter from Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brochus, the Vindolanda fort commander, to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the commander of a neighbouring fort. Most of the invitation to the birthday party is written by the garrison scribe, no doubt to Claudia's dictation - his hand can be identified from other examples - but there's a three-line personal note on the end in which Claudia adds a personal touch:

I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

(Sister seems to have been a term of endearment, rather than an expression of a family relationship.)

The gallery talk speaker, Sam Moorhead, suggested that this is the oldest surviving writing known to be in a woman's hand -- it is dated to between AD97 and 103 -- which sounds about right to me. Can anyone think of an earlier example?


Anonymous Sharon said...

The Vindolanda tablets got the viewers' vote in C4's Big Roman Dig's top ten artefacts poll last month, by some distance. I think their plug particularly focused on Claudia's invitation. (I didn't vote, but if I had, that's what I would've voted for too.)

8/11/2005 05:55:00 pm  
Blogger melinama said...

That gave me goosebumps.

8/12/2005 11:45:00 am  
Blogger Frank said...

I can't really say whether this is true or not, but I would expect that at least a little of the papyrus demotic correspondence from ancient Egypt is from a woman's hand. I may be wrong, though.

8/12/2005 04:26:00 pm  
Blogger Nathanael said...

Given the relationship between scholarship and scribal arts in Mesopotamia, I would think that works by Enheduana would be the earliest works written by a woman, if surviving texts can be dated to her era.

8/12/2005 05:07:00 pm  
Anonymous Brett Holman said...

It's amazing how something so commonplace as a birthday invitation can seemingly transport you across the centuries. One of my favourite examples of this, other than the Vindolanda letters, are the drawings of a small boy named Onfim, from 12th century Novgorod. They look like something I could have drawn at his age. Goosebumps is right!

8/12/2005 05:39:00 pm  
Blogger Michael McNeil said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/15/2005 04:10:00 am  
Blogger Michael McNeil said...

The portion quoted doesn't reveal the date of the birthday the recipient, Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the garrison commander, is being invited to. Here's a more complete quotation (from a different source/translation, as I don't feel like looking it up in the given reference):

"Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings. I send you a warm invitation to come to us of September 11th, for my birthday celebrations, to make the day more enjoyable by your presence. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius greets you and your sons. I will expect you, sister. Farewell sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and greetings."

Thus, Claudia Severa's birthday was September 11! Now we know why the 9-11 terrorists chose that particular day to strike — those misogynist jihadists intended to inverse commemorate and put down the dawn (to history anyway) of those uppity, literate women! (Just joking, but only somewhat.)

Source: The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome.

8/15/2005 04:11:00 am  

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