Seven Medieval Women to Inspire

It’s very difficult to choose only seven medieval women who inspire me, so this time, I focused on women who were writers or who influenced the written arts. I’m including links to biographies as well as to translations of their work, as learning more about them may challenge your ideas of what possibilities existed for women in the Middle Ages.

The Lais of Marie de FranceMarie de France (ca. 1160-1215) Marie de France was a poet whose work was known at the court of Henry II. We know very little about her personal life or history, but her work survives. Her best known work is The Lais of Marie de France, which is a collection of twelve poems (or lais). The stories are folk tales with romantic elements – I’ve always wondered if her own romantic history made her skeptical about love conquering all. She’s considered to be the first female French poet and to have been influential in the development of the medieval romance in the Middle Ages. It could certainly be argued that she also influenced the medieval romances of today. I have the Penguin classic translation of The Lais of Marie de France, illustrated at right, although there are others.

Vision, the music of Hildegarde von BingenHildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) Hildegarde was an abbess, philosopher, composer, and visionary. She’s an inspiration for the volume and diversity of her work. She experienced visions from childhood and was with an older woman and visionary, Jutta, from eight years of age. The pair were enclosed together at the monastery in Disibodenberg in 1112, and Jutta taught Hildegarde how to read and write in the subsequent years. After Jutta’s death in 1136, Hildegarde was elected by the other nuns to take leadership and chosen by the abbot to become prioress, but instead requested to move the nuns to Rupertsberg where they could have more independence. Although her request was declined, Hildegarde persisted and in 1150, she and the nuns did move to Rupertsberg. Her most significant works are considered to be her theological writings about her visions, most importantly Scivias. She also wrote in depth about the natural world in her work Physica, and compiled her knowledge of disease and treatment in Causae and Curae.

Hildegarde von Bingen's Cosmic TreeI find her music particularly beautiful (I listen to this version, illustrated at the top left) and am intrigued by her illuminations, often of how her visions revealed the structure of the cosmos. (On the right is her illustration of the Cosmic Tree.)

Another detail about Hildegarde that fascinates me is that she was a prolific letter-writer and correspondent. She wrote, it seems, to everyone of significance in the medieval world, and actively participated in both political and intellectual discussions. This sphere of influence is not exactly what we might expect from a cloistered nun, or even an abbess. She was amazing and this little note is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to her talents and accomplishments. There is a lot of content available about Hildegarde, including a movie and fictionalized accounts of her life, and her own writings, so just dive in. Here is a translation of Scivias, and one of Physica. Here’s a collection of essays about Hildegarde compiled and edited by Barbara Newman.

Julian of Norwich Revelations of Divine LoveJulian of Norwich (1342 – 1416) – Julian had sixteen visions after she had been ill around the age of thirty, the visions appearing to her after last rites had been administered. She wrote that looking upon the cross prompted the visions and, after she recovered, she wrote them down. She then became an anchoress, secluding herself from society and devoting her life to prayer and contemplation. Julian’s cell was part of the church in Norwich, England. Subsequently, she wrote a theological explanation for her visions: both the shorter and longer work are called Revelations of Divine Love. This volume is the first work in English known to have been written by a woman. I’ve read the edition shown here, which includes both the short and the long texts.

The Goodman of Paris, a translation of The Menagier de Paris by Eileen PowerThe wife of the Goodman of Paris – Around 1393, an affluent Parisian merchant wrote a book of advice for his new wife. She was apparently very young, or he was very particular (or a combination of both) as The Ménagier de Paris (translated as The Goodman of Paris) is a marvelous detailed guide of how to run a household in medieval Paris – and we have that inexperienced new wife to thank for this resource. The author died before completing the last section, but the volume includes instruction on everything from the wife’s moral and religious duties, to advice on hiring staff, instruction on running his household and recipes. The entire work is not available in translation, but this excellent volume by Eileen Power offers a wonderful selection of excerpts.

Heloise (ca. 1100-1164) You’ve probably heard of Heloise in association with her lover, Abelard. You might know that Peter Abelard was a renowned scholar who seduced Heloise, secretly married her at her uncle’s insistence, then was later castrated. The pair were separated and each took monastic vows. Few people realize that Heloise was a scholar in her own right, who read and wrote in Latin, Hebrew and Greek, and was reputed for her insight. In fact, her reputation is why Abelard wanted to meet her. She became an abbess and continued her work, but the most famous and enduring works are the letters she exchanged later in life with Abelard. The Letters of Heloise and Abelard are available in several translations.

The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard by Constant J. MewsMore recently, a collection of earlier letters between a tutor and pupil have been attributed to Heloise and Abelard by some scholars and said to have been written after their separation and before Abelard’s castration. The attribution isn’t absolute, but the letters are fascinating, regardless of who wrote them. The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard includes both the original Latin text and an English translation on the facing page.

You can also read Abelard’s version of his life (and his experience with Heloise) in his Historia Calamitatum, which is also available in this English translation.

The Plays of Roswitha in EnglishHrotsvitha of Gandersheim (c. 935–after 973) was a 10th century writer, poet, and canoness of whom we know few personal details. It is believed that she retired to a nunnery later in life, and it is possible that she had married and had children before taking the veil. She was probably from the area around Gandersheim Abbey, which is located in Lower Saxony, now in the district of Northeim in Germany. Among her works are the recounting of eight legends, six plays (modeled upon the the work of Terence). Her plays and stories feature the lives of saints and are intended to educate. It’s not clear whether her plays were performed in her lifetime.

She is considered to be the first playwright in the west since the fall of Rome. The Plays of Roswitha is an English translation of her six plays.

Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) – Born in Venice and the daughter of a physician, Christine received an excellent education. She married and had three children but was widowed in her thirties. Her father also had died, so she began writing to support her young family. She first wrote romances, then commissioned works for royal patrons, then finally, her own treatises. She was also did illustrations for her works – this illustration shows her presenting her own work to Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France. The illustration is included in the work-in-question, which was a compilation of her work commissioned by the queen and delivered in 1414.

Christine de Pisan's work depicting herself presenting her work to Queen IsabeauThe Book of the City of Ladies by Christine PisanThe Book of the City of Ladies is probably Christine’s most famous work in our era. I love that she argues in this treatise that stereotypes about women (and their frailty, etc.) can only be perpetuated if women aren’t allowed to join the conversation.

I have this translation, but there are others. The cover illustration is one of Christine’s own illustrations.

One fun thing about compiling this blog post is that I found a newer biography, An Introduction to Christine de Pizan, and have ordered that myself, as well as that translation of Roswitha’s plays.

I like to read both the biographies of medieval woman and their work, when it exists, because it helps me to understand the possibilities for women in that era. Their lives weren’t necessarily as limited as we might believe, and they found ways to achieve their goals. I like to think that my fictional medieval heroines take some of their character traits from these real women.

Do any medieval women inspire you? If so, which ones?

Seven Medieval Maps

This is the first of a new series of blog posts, each highlighting one element of medieval history. I love maps and wanted to share some medieval maps with you today.

Medieval maps weren’t always intended to be used as guides for traveling—often they were meant to illustrate our relative place in the world. Maps that showed all of the world are called mappa mundi (maps of the world) although they don’t look familiar to us.

Isidore of Seville's T-O Map1. Isidore of Seville and T-O Map (ca. 636)
Isidore of Seville wrote an encyclopedic reference to the world in the 7th century called the Etymologiae (or Origines) in which he gathered and quoted classical sources as well as including his own observations. In this work, he included a map of the world, shown at right. East is at the top of his map, and this format became known as a T-O map (because the world is an O and the continents form a T inside it.) The idea was that everything originated in the east—the continents are assigned quadrants, which don’t show their exact locations or shapes. This reference was copied many times from the time of its completion into the Renaissance. There’s an online translation available here if you want to read some of the work.

Psalter mappa mundi from 1265, now in the British Library

2. The Psalter mappa mundi (ca. 1265), is so named because it was in a psalter. A psalter is a book of devotions including passages for prayer and contemplation, like the Psalms. These small books could be owned or commissioned by individuals and might have illustrations. This map is now in the collection of the British Library.

You can see that this is another T-O map, although it’s more detailed. The red dot in the middle of this map is Jerusalem, the center of the world in the medieval mindset. East is again at the top of the map, where Jesus and the angels are shown presiding over God’s creation – Jesus has his hand raised in blessing. Europe is in the bottom left quadrant, just as in Isidore’s map. You can see a full-size version of this map on the website of the British Library, right here.

The Anglo-Saxon Cotton Map in the British Library3. The Anglo-Saxon Cotton World Map (ca. 1040)
This map is named for the Cotton Library, of which it was a part. It is now in the collection of the British Library.

This map keeps the east at the top but doesn’t have Jerusalem at the exact center. Britain, in the lower left corner, is larger and more detailed, probably because the map was created in Britain.

There’s a wonderful online utility available here where you can scale the map to see the detail better.

Matthew of Paris' map of Britain ca 1260 in the British Library4. Matthew of Paris’ Map of England (13th c)
Matthew of Paris was a chronicler in Henry II’s court, who provides a wonderful record of life in 13th century England. While Matthew’s map looks more familiar to us, with north at the top, it’s based on older documents called itineraries. These were more like guides than maps, listing places to stop and often distances in succession when traveling from one location to another. Matthew’s map documents the journey from Dover to Newcastle.

This map is now in the British Library and they have a page about it on their website, here.

An itinerary by Matthew of Paris, 13th century, in the British LibraryHere’s an itinerary from Matthew, so you can see the difference. This documents the journey from London to Dover. An itinerary was useful when the route was traveled regularly—by a king’s court or an archbishop’s court, for example. These authorities traveled their respective realm or diocese at regular intervals to hold courts locally. You can read more about itineraries and maps in this article on the British Library website.

There’s also a book which includes translations of Matthew’s writings along with his illustrations called The Illustrated Chronicles of Matthew Paris by Richard Vaughan. It contains only about a sixth of Matthew’s chronicles, but provides a glimpse of 13th century life all the same.

The Gough Map ca. 13705. The Gough Map (ca. 1370)
Another wonderful map, this one is late medieval and focuses on Britain rather than the known world. (It’s named for the collector who bequeathed it to the Bodleian Library in the 19th century.) This map is significant because it breaks with both the theological presentations of the earth and the notion of an itinerary and begins to document the reality of the land. East is still at the top.

The other wonderful thing about this map is the interactive website that lets you explore it more closely.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi ca 13006. The Hereford Mappa Mundi (ca. 1300)
This world map is the largest medieval map that survives. It’s roughly 62 by 52″ and drawn on a single sheet of vellum. The map is named for Hereford Cathedral in England, where it is part of their collection. It is a T-O map, so you’ll find Jerusalem in the center and England in the lower left corner at the perimeter. Eden is around the edges. 🙂

There’s an online resource here where you can examine the map in closer detail.

The Crusader's Map of Jerusalem 13th c7. A 12th Crusader’s Map of Jerusalem
After the Christians conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and the Latin Kingdoms were established, the city of Jerusalem itself became the subject of many maps. Here’s one that draws on the established pattern of T-O maps, again with east at the top. Jerusalem is depicted as a circle with a wall around its perimeter, and various churches are documented inside (and outside) its walls. A knight, possibly a Templar, is pursuing an opponent across the bottom of the map.

You can see a larger version of this map here.

The Crusader's Bride, #1 of the Champions of St. Euphemia series of medieval romances by Claire DelacroixI researched medieval maps and city plans while writing my Champions of St. Euphemia series, in which a party of Templar knights (and former Templars) journeys from Jerusalem to Paris. Their leader, Gaston, is leaving the Templars to return to his home estate and takes a pilgrim as his bride before the party leaves the Holy City. He also agrees to deliver a secret treasure to the Temple in Paris, one that he soon learns someone in his party is willing to kill to possess.

That series begins in Jerusalem with The Crusader’s Bride.