Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Reinventing the past



The Latin legends, like the picture, prove the fact that we reinvent the past by viewing it through the lens of our own assumptions. The 19th century pictures of Lady G (and she was a popular topic) show her in a Coventry that never existed and certainly doesn't look anything like the settlement that would have been there in the 11th century.

For the ride to have occurred we need a town, a developed community, a market place and a charter of Liberties. While Leofric and Godiva probably did have a residence in the 1050s, the "town" was an agricultural community growing up around the religious foundation. (Two years ago, at a talk on Coventry's archeology, the pre conquest, post roman settlement was described as 'obscure".)Think West Stow with a church. While riding round something that looked like West Stow is easier to imagine the real reason why I'd bet a stack of currently devalued Australian Dollars she didn't do it, is that a free noble-woman in Anglo Saxon England possibly enjoyed legal and economic status that wouldn't be regained until the late 19th, early 20th century.

The flaw in the whole story, is that any taxes or tolls levelled on the people of Coventry, that weren't the King's, (and which couldn't be tampered with) went to Godgifu herself. She 'owned' the settlement at Coventry, not Leofric.

Unlike married women for the next eight hundred years, an Anglo-saxon wife could hold land in her own right. While not as rich as her husband, Godgifu was the wealthiest woman in England at the time of the Conquest.

Writing over a hundred years later, the first tellers of the tale simply couldn't imagine a world where married women held land independently of their husbands. Presumably neither could Tennyson, eight hundred years or so later...

Which raises the obvious question. Where did such a story originate?

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