Names matter. Of course this is a trite sort of thing to write, given that many scholars have written reams on the spiritual, psychological, cultural, economic and political value of names. In my own field Jane Bliss’s Naming and Namelessness in Medieval Romance (2008) springs immediately to mind. In my own book, I spend some time talking about heroes without names, and how finding a father and finding a name are both complementary pieces in that patriarchal puzzle of fashioning identity in late medieval narratives. I also write, more briefly, about daughters without names and how their identities are subsumed into their fathers’ desires, often at great cost.
Today, however, I’m thinking about mothers. I tweeted yesterday about my frustration that my local health visitor service and baby clinic seem to have a policy that staff address the mothers of babies as “Mum”, even though the names of these women are freely available (indeed, even on the slips of paper we use to check the babies in to the clinic!). Now, the baby clinic is, as the name suggests, primarily set up to check on the health of infants, and it’s an important resource. But health visitors are also meant to be checking on the mental and physical welfare of new mothers, and judging by the response I got to my tweet yesterday, many mothers feel being addressed by someone other than their child as “Mum” or “Mommy” is depersonalising and vaguely patronising. It certainly makes me feel less inclined to confide in a health visitor if I had any problems; if someone can’t be bothered to learn my name – or even read it off a slip of paper – why would I tell them if, for instance, I was worried about postnatal depression, or any of the sensitive and sometimes embarrassing physical problems I might have post-childbirth?
This is quite a minor issue on the face of it; but I know that many women, both in and out of the workplace, find the struggle to balance their multiple identities challenging. It is a curiously painful thing to feel as if one’s name does not matter. And I have many outlets for my identity in my work and social life, so this pain is a passing annoyance. For many women it must be a heart-wound. And it makes me even more sympathetic to the women who are buried in medieval records – both “historical” and “literary”, though those of you who know my work know I’m sceptical of such distinctions – as “wife of”, “daughter of”, “mother of”.
I would like to write more about this, but my daughter’s naps are fleeting things, and I have lots to do. Still, my journey into motherhood has made me more committed to uncovering women’s experiences in the middle ages, and so I’m glad that this summer I’ll be speaking at the Medieval Women Revisited conference in York, and very glad that this is supported by Palacky University in the Czech Republic, since our central European colleagues often go unheard in English-speaking environments. And I hope I will also soon have a CFP to share for an exciting venture titled “Women at Sea”, which will offer boundless opportunities to explore female identity. After all, no woman is an island – but she may contain oceans.