‘This is an alternative history of women – how they found and lost liberty – set in the cold cluster of islands between the Atlantic and the North Sea. For See All This, Alice Albinia explored female power and female potential. She reaches deep into the matriarchal past to ask how radical we might be, if given the chance.’ writes Alice Albinia at the beginning of her essay, written exclusively for the winter issue of See All This. Over the past seven years, Albinia has travelled along the edges of Britain to explore ancient, mediaeval and modern myths about women who ruled the islands off the coast of the UK.
text ALICE ALBINIA
photography ANKE RIESENKAMP
In ancient India, stories were told of a faraway land in the northern mountains where women ruled. In ancient Europe, these female holy lands were situated on islands away from the mainland — the ancient Greeks write about this, as do the Romans, and subsequently British island dwellers themselves. In place of later medieval convents or beguinages, ancient and medieval writers from across Europe gave independent women islands where they were free to control the weather, predict the future and live without men, or with them but in complete equality.
I realised this when I began researching my forthcoming book about Britain, The Britannias. After a certain point I became depressed and shocked by the number of male stories and histories I was reading and digesting. But I knew from my research into the early history of India that female counter-currents always exist, if you can only find them. Women always tell stories; men always have mothers; tales of female leadership and freedom will always out. This is what I discovered in the story of Britain: a continuous thread of female emancipation that weaves its way, undeterred, through the most egregiously male-fixated of ages.
From at least the time of Strabo, writing in around 7 BC, Britain was othered as a frozen land beyond the outer ocean — a place so barbaric that its women were chosen as leaders and its small islands were centres of goddess cults or inhabited by prophetesses who controlled the weather.
Ancient Greek writers, colonial-era Romans, mediaeval Irish poets, Renaissance dramatists, Restoration travel writers: all in turn were tantalised by the intoxicating idea of islands (especially remote northern ones) ruled by women — witches, goddesses or prophetesses who controlled the weather. This could be why English is the only Indo-European language in which the word for a female ruler (queen, from Old English cwen) is not derived from the male word (king) and why it was in Britain, in more recent times, that women first got the vote (on the Isle of Man, in 1881).
Read Alice Albinia’s full story in See All This #28.
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