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.
Marie 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.
Hildegarde 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.
I 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 (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 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.
More 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.
Hrotsvitha 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.
The 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?