In the spirit of gender equality, I am following up my list of Top 10 (plus 1) Knights of the Middle Ages with the other side of the shilling. Although you wouldn’t know it from all the goofy movies and TV shows out there, European women in the Middle Ages (500-1500) made wide-ranging contributions to politics, religion, war, and the broader culture. Some were even involved in business, and I don’t mean selling dairy products from a stall at the village market. I cast my net into the chronicles of Western Christendom and trawled up ten genuine ladies of influence, both in their own time and subsequently, and one imaginary queen. Yes, to be fair and equal, I am putting up eleven individuals.
I set up my rating system on the basis of contribution, whether it be political, cultural or religious, fame, contemporary resonance, influence, and sexiness. All are subjective criteria to be sure, but the last one does not even pretend to objectivity – it’s based on what I like. Deal with it. Therefore, I include a ‘sex appeal’ rating, just to give a little spice to the proceedings, and let’s face it, that’s the first thing to come to mind when viewing their portraits. Or, to justify my reasoning from an academic point of view, sexual attraction was an important component of social interaction for women in the Middle Ages, so it cannot be ignored…blah, blah, blah. Enjoy!
10. Margery Kempe (1373–1438, English)
Known For: Bring one of the earliest women to write a secular, practical work
Sex Appeal: Money, brains, beauty, great in the sack…higher than high
The original bourgeois princess, Margery not only got to enjoy the wealth her family accumulated, traveling around the known world just to satisfy her wanderlust, she also found the time to marry and birth fourteen children. A few other women of her time also had the same advantages, but few of non-noble rank, and also Margery was the first to write about these trips from an intensely personal view.
The Book of Margery Kempe is a work considered to be the first autobiography in the English language, wherein she included the usual mystical musings of touched women of the age, as well as some juicy bits about her own torrid life – 14 children don’t make themselves, you know. The narrative of Kempe’s book begins just after her marriage, and relates the experience of her difficult first pregnancy. While delivering this child, she became gravely ill and feared for her life. She called for a priest to hear her confession, as she had a “secret sin” that had been weighing on her conscience for some time. The priest began to censure her before she could divulge this sin in its entirety, and then left. Nice guy.
Fearing eternal damnation, she fell into a delusional state, seeing devils flying around her. Considered a danger to herself and others, Marge was chained in a storeroom for six months until Jesus sat down at her bedside and asked her, “Daughter, why hast thou forsaken Me, and I forsook never thee?” She relates, at first, intending to become God’s servant, but admits she could not “leave her pride nor her pompous array.”
On the surface, this sounds a lot like a typical life of a saint, and such stories were amongst the most popular in medieval literature; however, on closer inspection, her portrayal of her own suffering is revolutionary. For one thing, Margery is neither a virgin nor does she forsake sex; for another, she has no intention of sequestering herself or devoting herself to a life of solitary contemplation; and finally, it is clear that she considers the priest as less than useless.
Since money makes the world go round, Margery found time to make the soundest of investments – alcohol, buying a brewery and all that goes with it. Her book was read and she became venerated by the Anglican Church, which covers her in the here and the hereafter. She met the English mystic Julian of Norwich in her private cell for a serious conversation about God and Life just between us women, and came away from the visit buttressed in the strength of her convictions. She led a full life, was respected in her own time, got the Church to like her, and lived to a ripe old age. Margery is all the more remarkable when one considers that this was a time not only of the Black Death and oppressive patriarchy, but also of the witch-hunting craze, to which many an independent woman fell victim. But Margery ranks only #10 because…well…how many of you have heard of her?
9. Matilda of Canossa (1046-1115, Italian)
Known For: Screwing over the Emperor and supporting free communes
Sex Appeal: Powerful and willful, but a little shy in love owing to an incestuous marriage. Would need extra attention
Matilda was known as the Grand Contessa, like a supervillain or an eccentric person, but she kicked enough imperial ass that to merit the title. Her vindictiveness and sense of independence altered the course of history in Italy at a crucial time in its political, financial and social development. Matilda was well raised in the up-and-coming industrial region of northern Italy, but she also had strong German roots, by virtue of regular conquest by the German Emperor, which tied her to high politics.
She cut her intrigue teeth on an incestuous marriage, whereby she wed her step-brother, whose father was not only the husband of Matilda’s mother, but a cousin as well. Kissing cousins were common in the Middle Ages, though that blood was way too close for comfort and left a bad taste in Matilda’s mouth, but it also gave her an education in manipulation. Nevertheless, being related to a host of major landowners during a time rife with disease, malnourishment and incessant warfare meant that she soon began to inherit a whole lot of fiefdom, and in those days land meant power. This becomes very important later on.
Matilda got her first real taste of politics by helping in the elections of several Popes, who were her neighbors in Tuscany, thus tying her fate to that of the papal side during the Investiture Controversy, which is a fancy phrase for the 11th century contest over ultimate power in Europe – Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church or the Holy Roman Emperor. The details don’t matter here.
Then Matilda got lucky. In a move unusual for the age, she found someone to tutor her in the military arts, as well as horseback riding and serious reading. She then ditched her lame husband and became an independent agent. And not a moment too soon, because by 1077 the dispute between the Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII blew up, and the Emperor was forced to do penance for his recalcitrance by standing barefoot in the snow before the castle where the pope was staying. That castle was Canossa, the ancestral home of Matilda and a refuge for the Popes when things would get too hot in Rome. The prestige factor of hosting God’s representative on Earth during such a critical moment, making Canossa the center of European politics, elevated Matilda as a real player in the eyes of her contemporaries.
Now famous, Matilda went on the offensive by going to war with the most powerful king in Western Christendom. She won and, not content to let bygones be bygones, she granted to communal cities in her realm, which was pretty much all of northern Italy, the right to self-government, and then willed the lot to the Pope. Matilda sits at only #9 on this list because while she reached the top in politics, she could boast of few other lasting achievements.
8. Héloïse d’Argenteuil (1101-1164, French)
Known For: A love affair with the scholar Peter Abelard
Sex Appeal: Stratospheric if her letters are genuine
I now give you a double dose of literary loves. While being a woman was hardly an enviable status during the Middle Ages on the whole, Heloise doubly suffered on account of it because not only did she have to constantly fight against the patriarchal strictures that limited her life options, she also loved too well and too openly. She had the original student-professor love affair that by all accounts was as much based on sex as it was on intellectual admiration, which was not something that even then should be widely advertised. She was bright, outgoing, sexy, and not afraid to speak her mind, and that got her into a lot of trouble with her minder, her uncle, who naturally suspected her. I mean, who wants their niece corrupted by some sleazy academic, especially Abelard, who was already famous for being narcissistic and stroppy. Nevertheless, there are dark corridors and secluded closets between classrooms, and the relationship was consummated in the most vulgar fashion. The uncle found out and cut off the good professor’s unmentionables, an assault he miraculously survived, but perhaps only as a reminder of his corruption and humiliation.
And that is not even the hottest part of the affair. Post-castration, Heloise got herself to a nunnery and eventually worked her way up to abbess, but she never lost that loving feeling, and established with Abelard one of the most famous and heartfelt correspondences of the Middle Ages. But these were not just love letters. There were investigations into the nature of love, personal relationships with God and other religious questions. Even thus ruined socially, Heloise was such an alpha woman (She-wolf?) that she remained proud and defiant to the end of her days, challenging her erstwhile lover to nut up and not be a wishy-washy asshole.
Of course, he was anyway, and remained aloof and evasive. Also, Heloise has the distinction of eternally resting near Jim Morrison in Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, although next to the half-eunuch Abelard.
8b. Beatrice di Folco Portinari (1266–1290, Italian)
Known For: Being a muse and lover
Sex Appeal: Romantic fantasy par excellence
One of the first women to be placed on a literary pedestal not to have given birth to the Savior, been martyred for her faith or otherwise behaved in some holy way, Beatrice was the romantic inspiration of the great late medieval-early Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri. They never consummated anything, apparently, but B was a genuine daughter of the bourgeoisie, whose fleeting appearances on the streets of Florence was enough to bestill the beating hearts of young impressionable poets, starting the trend of secular muses that continues to this day. Remember Matilda? Well, this was a part of her legacy of granting more freedom to the independent and secular-minded industrial cities of northern Italy.
La Vita Nuova, a collection of love poems, was Dante’s way of paying romantic homage to the lady of his dreams. Either that or it was a cheap excuse to write some pretty sick verse and blame cupid if he got caught. Ultimately, Dante used his agitated hormones to develop the sonnet as the principal form of poetry amongst the budding literary classes, and was taken up by the 14th century cultural giants Petrarch and Boccaccio, and a couple of centuries later Shakespeare. Plus, Beatrice died tragically in the bloom of her youth at age 24. Dante’s love for B was one of the final flourishings of medieval courtly love, meaning that he was all show and no go, ultimately, preferring to sit behind a desk with a quill in one hand and *ahem* in the other. B wins the ultimate literary prize when Dante appoints her the guide to Heaven in the esteemed Divine Comedy – one of the most famous and influential works to come out of the late Middle Ages.