The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation
Who tells your story? These four words are unfathomable to us as we live out our lives, yet as a historian, I have to face these four words every day with a healthy sense of scepticism. I am a first-generation student from a small town in Mississippi; what authority do I have to write the story of Isolde Pantulf, a thirteenth-century English noblewoman who seemingly feared nothing? I propose that sometimes people have a way of finding you when you're needed. Through studying the movements of Isolde as she negotiated and purchased rights for herself and others, I began to see a world which felt oddly familiar.
In 1997 the world was introduced to Buffy Summers on their television screens. She was meant to be the embodiment of how society viewed young women. In short, she was the beautiful girl who died first in every horror film, except this time, something was different; this time, the blonde girl fought back. Eventually, Marti Noxon took control from showrunner Joss Whedon for the final two seasons. Noxon’s leadership inspired the line, 'every girl who can have the power, will have the power', which changed the lore of Buffy forever. It was no longer a show about an 'exceptional' girl, it was a show about any girl who had the potential to be a slayer. Years later, this concept would appear again as I read medieval sources relating to the life of a woman and her inability to leave the world in the same condition she found it.
Isolde Pantulf (1170-1223) is Buffy Summers. She was not exceptional, but she refused to be discounted. Throughout her life, she gained over forty properties, fostered children, litigated against men and won, and built up her own wealth. She refused to be defined by the words of others. No narrative sources survive relating to her life. I've followed a string of financial and legal records to piece together her movements and possible motivations. The more I read the Pipe and Fine Rolls, the more I realised there were others like her. Medieval women did not have to exist in extremity. As I sat in my apartment with cards scattered across the floor with a string connecting them (think murder board but much less sophisticated) I felt one thought surging through my whole body like a shot of lightning: the same visceral response I had to Buffy as a child was akin to the one I feel with Isolde now. Both women don't always get to tell their own story, but they always controlled the narrative.
The meekness I felt at the beginning of the research process was exactly why I was the right person for this project. Isolde helped me find my voice. Studying her fearlessness, or at least the perception of it, instilled in me a sense of responsibility to her. In a world of Cinderella's and Xena's, be a Buffy; be an Isolde. Feminism takes many forms. Although she wouldn't have called herself a feminist, Isolde used every privilege to equal the legal playing field between herself and prominent men across England and Ireland. While we may never know why she made a choice, we can know how she carried out her decisions.
It is precisely the distinction of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ that keeps me coming back to her story. We are all the sum of many moving parts which make up our identity. It is a constantly moving and morphing paradox of decisions carried out in our actions. It is a performance that is constantly changing. I am qualified to tell her story because I understand I, too, am a walking paradox of power and meekness. Too often, we feel to be a 'good feminist' we must be always strong, always sure. Isolde has taught me to find solace in insecurity. Her constant litigation has revealed a world much like that of my childhood hero Buffy Summers. She was not always right. She understood the world was messy. Ultimately, I've learned the same lesson from two women, one real, one fictional: when walking down a dark alley, I don't fear the dark, the darkness fears me. Both women represent a realistic view of feminism in action.
Words are incapable of expressing a lived experience, but I believe it is my duty to bring lives like Isolde's into the light. We've always been here.
Those like us tell our stories. Those who need us tell our stories.
Dawn Seymour Klos
Dawn Seymour Klos is a PhD candidate under the supervision of Professor Seán Duffy. Her thesis The Black Widow of Breedon: Isolde Pantulf’s Life and Identity in England and Ireland, 1170-1230 explores women’s rights and identity construction of individuals under English Common Law. In 2018 she founded Trinity HistoryCon, a conference and comic-con celebrating the nexus of history and popular media. She is a member of the Friends of Medieval Dublin which allows her to share her love of the Middle Ages with the public.
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