Doctors, playwrights and feminists: meet 6 trailblazing medieval women
Everyone has heard of Joan of Arc or Eleanor of Aquitaine, but which other women were important during this 1,000-year period? As Susan Signe Morrison explains, evidence abounds concerning medieval women who were doctors, musicians, writers, theologians, explorer and scientists
First female playwright: Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (c935–c1000)
The 10th-century Saxon canoness Hrotsvit of Gandersheim called herself ‘the strong voice of Gandersheim’. She had many firsts to her credit: first medieval playwright; first female playwright; first female German poet and first female German historian.
Dedicating her works to various members of Emperor Otto’s family, Hrotsvit was highly educated in both the quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy) and the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic), as well as key writings by Christian theologians. Hrotsvit was also well-versed in Roman pagan authors, whose immoral comedies featured love affairs and women of suspect reputation, embodying the worst of misogynist beliefs. Hrotsvit took these well-plotted, but immoral, plays and turned them into morally admirable dramas featuring worthy women and weak men. Girls stood up to those who did not let them lead the lives they chose.
Hrotsvit put to vellum the first-known dramas since the classical period. Her plays extol females, from strong virgins to prostitute saints, willing to sacrifice themselves for God. What could have been happier for a devout medieval Christian than to end up in heaven? Her heroines include young girls, one as young as eight, who stand up defiantly under torture and humiliation from pagan Roman officials. One holy virgin tells the violent emperor, “I have called him a fool, I now call him a fool, and I shall call him a fool as long as I live.” Nothing frightens her.
Hrotsvit uses misogynistic stereotypes about women – that they are more physically weak than men, for example – to argue the very opposite. Hrotsvit even has two fallen women as her heroines, who exemplify the category of the ‘holy harlot’, as seen most famously in the life of St Mary of Egypt.
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Fighting crusader: Margaret of Beverley (c1150–c1214/15)
The 12th-century Margaret of Beverley, born in Jerusalem to her English pilgrim parents, returned to the Holy Land just as the great Muslim leader Saladin decided to reclaim Jerusalem from Christian control. Margaret lived in Jerusalem as the city came under siege by Saladin’s troops in September 1187. Mobbed with refugees from other defeated cities, Jerusalem was surrounded by enemy soldiers. No food or water could enter. Everyone living in this urban nightmare had to participate in its defence.
Forced to stay, Margaret willingly set to work. “[L]ike a fierce virago, I tried to play the role of a man,” her brother records her saying. She told how “During this siege, which lasted 15 days, I carried out all of the functions of a soldier that I could. I wore a breastplate like a man; I came and went on the ramparts, with a cauldron on my head for a helmet. Though a woman, I seemed a warrior, I threw the weapon; though filled with fear, I learned to conceal my weakness.”
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The heat was blistering. The soldiers inside had to battle continually to prevent their enemies from entering. Women helped by using weapons and machines such as catapults when not enough men were available, filling in ditches and providing food and drink. Once, when Margaret gave water to the men to drink, a catapult sent a millstone over the walls. It burst apart. A small piece of stone flew off and struck her, causing blood to gush out. Margaret carried the scar throughout her life.
About two weeks after the tumult had begun, the siege was over. Later enduring imprisonment, torture and humiliation, Margaret ultimately gained her freedom and returned to Europe, becoming a Cistercian lay-sister in a French nunnery.
Scandalous nun: Heloise d'Argenteuil (c1100–64)
By the time she was not yet 20, Heloise d'Argenteuil was renowned as the most educated woman in Europe. Peter Abelard, arguably the most brilliant philosopher of his time, had already caused an uproar among the intellectual classes. No diplomat, Peter alienated respectable older theologians, making enemies.
Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, a clergyman at the church of Notre-Dame on the Île-de-France in Paris, hired Peter, who gladly took on the role of tutor to this young girl. Peter later wrote how he intended to break his lifelong chastity with this student entrusted to him. Featuring a pregnant teenager and the older teacher who seduced her, this scandalous affair stemming from 1118 became the gossip of Paris.
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Soon after they met, Heloise and Peter exchanged amorous glances, looks that transformed into touches. As Peter openly confesses, “My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages.” They soon were enjoying carnal embraces. “[O]ur desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it”. Heloise’s uncle remained oblivious, until he caught the lovers together. Meanwhile, Heloise was thrilled to learn she was pregnant.
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The couple secretly wed. But Peter ignored Heloise after being tragically castrated by the henchmen of her vengeful uncle. In return, Heloise wrote brilliant, angry and passionate letters. Boldly proclaiming, “It would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called your whore,” she understands her passion to be authentically motivated; the true whores are those women who marry for position and money. Amazingly, scholars once refused to believe that a woman could have written such intelligent letters. Ultimately, Heloise became abbess at the Paraclete, a religious hermitage with daughter houses, six of which were set up under Heloise’s rule. She remained abbess until her death.
Audacious innovator: Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)
Female scientists were active in both practical and theoretical medicine. The most famous of all is Hildegard of Bingen, who transcends categorisation. Scientist, doctor of medicine, musician, philosopher, theologian, mystic – Hildegard is acclaimed as the most accomplished of medieval women. A resident of medieval Germany, she explained confounding theological notions such as that of the Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost). Standing up to male superiors in the church, she often succeeded in getting her desires, including founding a new convent.
Hildegard wrote about the human body, even using poetic language to describe reproduction from the woman's perspective. Her music, much performed today, reflects her view that humans create music in an attempt to recapture the cosmically harmonious paradise lost with the fall, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. In Hildegard’s Ordo virtutum, a liturgical drama in song, the devil fights with the soul’s virtues; only the devil has a speaking role.
Hildegard’s other writings include theological, cosmological and visionary works. “Let no man be so audacious as to add anything to this writing lest he be blotted out from the book of life,” she asserts. While many medieval women turned to the divine to find meaning in their interior lives, Hildegard also commented publicly on state and church politics. Creating voluminous letters to the pope and churchmen, she corresponded on issues of salvation and church organisation. Between 1158 and 1170 she also undertook four preaching tours – extraordinary in a time when women were expected to obey St Paul’s injunction to not teach or speak in the church.
Vocal feminist: Christine de Pizan (1364–c1430)
Feminist beliefs were espoused unashamedly by some trailblazing medieval women. The brilliant Christine de Pizan, for instance, was raised by an unconventional father who supported Christine’s desire to study and learn. Her arranged marriage at the age of 15 became a love match. When tragedy struck, cutting down both her father and husband in the prime of life, the 25-year-old Christine was suddenly left in charge of the extended household.
Christine had been left with no knowledge of how the financial accounts were arranged. She was even cheated by people claiming false debts. Initiating a feminist critique of marriage that still resounds today, she laments: “For it was the custom for married men not to talk about or declare the complete state of their affairs to their wives... it makes no sense unless women, instead of being ignorant, learn wise management of such matters.”
Christine had few options. “Now it was necessary for me to go to work, something which I, nurtured on the finer things of life, had not learned”. While initially she copied manuscripts as a scribe, she then became the first European professional female writer. Defying misogynist writers, calling anti-woman invective “hodgepodge, rubbish, and wasted words,” Christine boldly proclaimed to one anti-woman writer, “You have committed a great error without reason.”
In her masterpiece from 1404–5, The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine envisions an allegorical city populated only by women and ruled by the Virgin Mary. In this prose text, Christine asserts how women created all good culture, politics and science. Christine argued that women should be allowed to be what everyone should be given – the right to be human. Her final work extols a young maiden as embodying all that is fine about womanhood – none other than Joan of Arc.
Matchless matriarch: Margaret Paston (c1423–84)
With shades of Real Housewives of the Middle Ages, estate manager Margaret Paston protected her extended family's vast properties during the War of the Roses, a time of violence and disruption. As adept and well-versed in legal intricacies as her male lawyer counterparts who were away in London, she defended the homestead, bidding her husband to send weapons such as crossbows, axes and protective garments should enemies attack.
In addition to protecting her lands and informing her husband of crises, Margaret undertook the activities that any woman would have to do to support an estate or even modest farm: making bread and wine, brewing ale, smoking ham and bacon, and drying fruit for the winter months. She oversaw the care of pigs, poultry and cows. Needlecraft, such as embroidery, weaving, cloth making and mending, lay within a woman’s sphere. Given the Pastons’ estates and property, Margaret consulted with tenants, negotiated legal claims, and sought out (and gave) judicial advice.
Estate management also included selling products manufactured on the farm, such as foodstuffs, cloth and grain, as well as ordering supplies from larger cities in the area. Making and maintaining connections with powerful individuals who would support her during these political turbulent times, Margaret had to borrow jewellery when she finally met Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI.
Catherine Morland, Jane Austen's heroine in Northanger Abbey (1803), laments, “I read [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome….” Poor Catherine! If only she could come back today, when much medieval history focuses on gender and the everyday experiences of the vibrant, dynamic and unexpected lives of women from the medieval period.
Susan Signe Morrison is professor of English at Texas State University. Her award-winning historical novel, Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, tells the story of the Old English poem, Beowulf, from the woman's point of view.