Trailblazing Women From Medieval History

By Susan Signe Morrison

Click on the image to find out more about A Medieval Woman's Companion
Click on the image to find out more about A Medieval Woman’s Companion

“Though I treated him worst, I loved him best.” These are the last known words of an eleventh-century Icelandic woman, Gudrun Osvifsdottir. Married four times, Gudrun helped plan her true love’s murder, only to later become Iceland’s first nun and anchoress, a hermit who lived alone in a cell. This seductive figure continues to entice readers today. Are there other such fearless female figures from the Middle Ages?

Although I’ve written scholarly tomes and historical fiction, I found my college undergraduates and Masters students wanted – and needed — a book that could provide material about medieval women’s lives and the cultures they lived in. Rather than a book for “just” a few scholars, I wanted to create something a general public could enjoy and learn from with an audience of many ages, including young adults.  Using primary historical documents, material artefacts, literary texts, and images, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages paints a rich and complex picture of medieval women’s lives.

While most of the chapters focus on one woman in her social, historical, and political context, A Medieval Woman’s Companion also explores the woman’s body and medical understandings of human corporeal workings to explain attitudes that prevailed towards women and their biology. One chapter on clothing shows how laws determined what individuals should wear. Beyond the famous example of Joan of Arc, female transvestites were known to exist, from those wishing to hear lectures at university to saints determined to lead holy lives in defiance of their parents’ wishes.

Women did not have to cross-dress in order to gain and attain power. The 11th century queen Emma of Normandy was consort, first to an Anglo-Saxon king and later to a Viking monarch on the English throne.  In later years she was regent of Wessex until her son could rule. While not all women were so politically successful, others leave tantalizing traces of their lives. Christine Carpenter was the anchoress of Shere in southern England.  Several documents attest to her enclosure in 1329. “Christine, daughter of William called the Carpenter of Shire” wishes to be granted permission to be “shut up in a narrow place in the churchyard adjoining the parish church of Shire” to “vow herself solemnly to continence and perpetual chastity.”  Yet, within three and a half years, she requests to be reenclosed since she has “left her cell inconstantly and returned to the world.” Although she could be excommunicated for having transgressed her vow, a letter bids that she be allowed to return, “lest by wandering any longer about the world she would be exposed to the bites of the rapacious world.”  This request is granted so that she may not be “torn to pieces by attacks of the Tempter.” Clearly church authorities were concerned with her sexual activities and moral disposition. Her fate is unknown.

The German Hildegard von Bingen was a medieval superstar. Visionary, medical doctor, astute politician, religious icon, innovative musician–Hildegard did it all. Her natural history book, Physica, includes a pharmacology, that is, recipes for curing certain ailments.  While they may sound unusual, even ludicrous, to us today, they were well-respected in the Middle Ages.  The magical powers of jewel therapy had a long respected history dating back to the Greeks. When Hildegard suggests holding a sapphire in the mouth for a brief period in the morning upon rising to help your intellectual powers, it may be worth trying — if you have a sapphire.  Just don’t swallow it!  If you know someone possessed by evil spirits, tying a bat around the neck may not be the best solution.  Yet certain suggestions are not much different than those today:  lead is known to be poisonous, just as Hildegard says.  The officials in Flint, Michigan should have listened to Hildegard’s medieval wisdom.

The fourteenth-century powerhouse St. Birgitta of Sweden writes that, “We shall all be saved…I heard wonderful sweet singing of many angels.” Designated a patron saint of Europe, this fourteenth-century mystic founded the Bridgettine nuns and monks who lived in joint communities. Married and the mother of eight, she went on pilgrimages to Spain, Rome, and the Holy Land.

The first professional woman writer, the early fifteenth-century Christine de Pizan, fought misogyny [hatred of women] in a famous public letter exchange. Later she writes The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she envisions an allegorical city built and populated only by women. She is not the only woman to boldly proclaim female virtue and rights in a time when gender was a fraught issue. A fifteenth-century conversa (Christian of Jewish heritage), nun, and first Spanish feminist, Teresa de Cartagena wrote of the trials that her deafness caused her.  Attacked by male writers, she defends women and their ability to write. “To me it seems offensive and clear that [men] offer me scathing insults.” She defies the ridiculous suggestion that women cannot be as intellectual as men.

screen shot of medival women's companion websiteA Medieval Woman’s Companion includes many images to show artifacts– like reliquaries, medical manuscript images of childbirth positions, and holy devotional objects– to enhance the reader’s insight into a period of rich, rewarding, and oftentimes risky experiences for medieval women. The accompanying website partially designed by college students offers lively and fun information about many medieval women. A curriculum guide is available free for download by teachers and educators at http://amedievalwomanscompanion.com. I hope readers will not only learn from this book, but become inspired as well by the amazing lives and writings of women from centuries ago.

Author Biography: Living in Austin, Texas, Susan Signe Morrison writes on topics lurking in the margins of history, ranging from recently uncovered diaries of a teenaged girl in World War II to medieval women pilgrims, excrement in the Middle Ages, and waste. Professor of English at Texas State University, she is committed to bringing the lives of women hidden in the shades of history to a wider audience. In addition to scholarly books, she recently published her first novel of historical fiction, Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, which tells the story of the Old English poem, Beowulf, from the woman’s point of view. She can be found at homefrontgirldiary.com, grendelsmotherthenovel.com, amedievalwomanscompanion.com, and susansignemorrison.com. She tweets @medievalwomen.

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