Top 10 (Plus 1) Women of the European Middle Ages

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7.  Joan, Countess of Kent (1328–1385, English)

joancountessofkent

Known For:  Creating the brightest court and landing the biggest matrimonial catch

Sex Appeal:  High with her ideal of courtly love, fun to be around, and loving

Joan got really good press during her time because she was such a charmer and married to the most famous knight in Europe, Edward the Black Prince (see Top 10 Knights of the Middle Ages).  As the daughter and granddaughter of some of the most powerful men in England, Joan was brought up to know the ins and outs of royal intrigue and, as a bright and clever girl, she quickly caught on to how a woman could use her wiles to maintain her position at court and find allies outside it.  Other women had this talent too, of course, but Joan was heads above her rivals and contemporaries for the reason that she caught on to the game very early in life, and had a romantic-impetuous streak that propelled her to the forefront of the most desirable women/girls in England, or the rest of Europe for that matter.

All contemporary accounts say that she was strikingly beautiful, with perfect features, auburn hair that reached to her waist, and dark eyes, and was regarded as one of the most desirable women in the country.  The rituals of courtly love, whereby men wooed from a distance and spent their time writing poetry or fighting macho tournaments to impress the ladies instead of, say, actually sharing their company in a dark alcove somewhere was well embedded in elite culture by the 14th century, so Joan’s ability to play several games of love simultaneously without either getting her reputation ruined or her head lopped off stands as testimony to her superior social abilities. Kudos!

Joan married Thomas Holland, at 12, but without permission, and when he went a-crusadin’ she married an Earl, assuming that as with most crusaders Holland would not return for a good long time. Return he did, however, and a scandal erupted from which she emerged relatively unscathed, though famous, and got dispensation from the Pope of all people to stay with Holland.

Meanwhile, Joan inherited the Earldom of Kent in 1353 and, a few years later, Husband #1 died.  The timing could not have been better because the English, led by the Black Prince, had just scored their greatest victory over the French at Poitiers (1356) and the victor was in need of a wife.  With Holland’s body not yet cold in the ground, Joan married Edward and produced the future King Richard II.  She then proceeded not only to rule in English France, but also foster the most brilliant court, which in France is really saying something.  The French chronicler Froissart called her “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving.”  Fair maid indeed!

At the death of husband #3, Joan returned to England to support her son’s reign as the new King and, as the power behind the throne, helped him navigate the treacherous waters of social and political upheaval.  She helped Richard II overcome overweening barons and the Peasants’ Revolt.  His reign was successful until Joan died in 1385, after which things unraveled very quickly until he was at last overthrown in 1399, ending the Plantagenet dynasty.  This combination of political astuteness, cultural patronage, and unadulterated loveliness is enough to get Joan the #7 spot, but her second-tier fame and lack of long-term impact keeps here there.

6.  Guinevere (Welsh, English, French – depends on who’s writing)

guinevere

Known For:  Being the wife of King Arthur, lover of Sir Lancelot, ideal of the good but flawed queen

Sex Appeal:  High-born beauty, nasty and vulnerable side, ultimately untrustworthy

Guinevere is the only imaginary entry on this list, but she gets in because she is a composite of great medieval women: she has the piety of Margery Kempe and political power of Matilda, she is a muse like Beatrice and object of romantic-sexual devotion like Heloise, and she kept a magnificent court like Joan of Kent.  However, Guinevere is also the prototype of flawed and tragic women in Western literature and has the fame to prove it.  Unlike the other women listed earlier, she gets to be a Biblical allegory too, as writers cast her as Eve, allowing the serpent of lust to enter the Eden of Camelot.  On a more Earthly level, Guinevere is the wronged wife, and unlike so many female characters in the Western medieval literary canon her plight is utterly convincing, which is why despite actually having little to say or do in the King Arthur cycle, she is central to the story of the glory and the sorrow of the Round Table and the fate of misty Albion.

Taken within a strictly medieval context, Guinevere is neither saint nor sinner, but a regular noble woman of good breeding and a fine sense of duty. She also pretty much covers all of the ground of female characters of the Middle Ages – wife, lover, queen, nun, patron, noblewoman, and thus she can be seen as the most complete imaginary woman of the Middle Ages, even set against Chaucer’s infamous Wife of Bath.  Of course, there is no consistent portrayal of Guinevere in literature, particularly in the Middle Ages, and much depended on the level of misogyny in the respective writer.  Thus, over several hundred years of retelling this most famous tale we find examples of Guinevere having children, conspiring against Arthur, and being abducted by Mordred on account of her beauty and intelligence.

She is not just an archetype – she represents several archetypes.  The Arthurian romances were widely popular, from Wales to Germany to Sicily, and each culture remodeled the story.  She is the original damsel in distress, she brings down Camelot through unfaithfulness, she is the obsession of the king, and she is the object of lust of many knights.  Guinevere represents the ideal of courtly love with her numerous suitors.  She is also the repentant sinner because of her adultery, an attitude that suited the Church just fine, as well as the minds of many insecure men, and so becomes the ideal nun, sacrificing her happiness and status as an admission of guilt and acceptance of punishment.  Of course, it was pretty darn safe in the convent, and like Heloise she carries the torch for her first and only love right up until the end.

Some might argue that #6 is high for a fictional character that was so malleable, but I argue that her immense fame and cultural impact more that make up for all that.  Guinevere stays where she is.

5.  Saint Catherine of Siena (1347–1380, Italian)

saintcatherine

Known For:  Mortification of the flesh and talking back to kings

Sex Appeal:  Almost none, except for the fiery temper

Catherine was a saint with immense political clout, perhaps even more than the Popes of the time, which is all the more impressive for her gender and origins.  She is the quintessential female medieval saint in that she starved herself, had visions of Christ, joined a strict order of nuns, and wrote spiritual texts.

Catherine had an inauspicious beginning.  She was born on the eve of the Black Death, began having visions at age five or six, vowed chastity at seven, and was almost forced into marrying the husband of her dead older sister at sixteen.  Creepy family, but not uncommon.  For the record, her family worked in the cloth-dryer trade in Siena, a prosperous proto-industrial and financial center in Tuscany that took advantage of the political revolution wrought by Matilda of Canossa.

Catherine joined the Dominican Order as a Tertiary, which allowed her to live at home instead of in a convent.  Catherine’s big year was 1366, when she entered into a ‘mystical marriage’ with Jesus after a vision and a bout of stigmata.  This was about as good as it got for a medieval female saint – holes in the hands ala The Crucifixion and a quasi-sexual bond with the Lord incarnate.

These events led her out of her parental home and into the world of charity when, because of her piety and intense devotion, she acquired a band of followers.  No doubt she was a bit of chatterbox, because she was hauled up before the Dominican tribunal in Florence to explain herself after it was reported that she was mouthing off around the countryside advocating clerical reforms and preaching yet another crusade.  Such ‘man-talk’ was none of her business, of course, and she was let of with a warning, but this proves that Catherine was unrestrained even by the loosest conventions regarding the place of women.

Naturally, the warning had little effect, and Catherine continued not only preaching in the same vein as before, she began writing to Pope Gregory in Avignon and to the great princes of Italy to stop fighting already and instead get on with the business of being true Christians and kill the infidel.  One would expect that most of the upper crust would regard her as a crank, but Cathy was erudite and unrelenting, and she had a lot of people behind her.  In many ways, she was in the right place at the right time, because this was a period of political fragmentation in Italy and the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy, whereby the Pope had to live in France instead of Rome because the Dolce Vita there was just too intense.  That and all the political killings.  Indeed, the daughter of Siena took it upon herself to visit the Pope and tell him to get his ass back in the bosom of St. Peter and properly do things in his domain already.  Gregory complied and, amidst great pomp and bloodshed, the Pope returned to his original throne after a 70-year absence.  That is what it means to have a man wrapped around your finger.

More than 300 of Cathy’s letters survive, including those to Popes, Kings, infamous mercenary John Hawkwood, Queen of Naples, Visconti family of Milan, and numerous religious figures.  Her major work is The Dialogue of Divine Providence, a dialogue between a soul who ‘rises up’ to God and God himself.  Then she starved herself to death.  Because she was so loved as a politically active and socially aware holy woman, a fight broke out over her body until, in bits and pieces, she was returned to the city of her birth.

Today, she is a joint-patron saint of Italy. Catherine rises to the #5 position by brute force of personality (she scares me) although her contributions to politics, theology and sainthood as well as her current fame justify her place.

4.  Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 or 1124–1204, French)

eleanorofaquitaine

Known For:  Independence and plotting against her husband, the King of England

Sex Appeal:  Wealth, charm, and an independent streak a mile wide

This is a really obvious one, so I apologize in advance, but I make her #4, so I’m already taking my apology back.  Eleanor was high-born, of course, but got super lucky when she inherited a duchy and a county in the best part of France, which was also the best part of Europe at the time.  That was rare and sweet enough, but it didn’t take long for the dogs to come sniffing around, being single and all, and she was snapped up by the King of France.  Nice.

However, Louis VII was a bit immature for her and so she agitated for a divorce on the grounds of kissing cousins (well, that and she couldn’t come up with a male heir, which was part of the reason for her existence) and, since they had buckets of money, they had the Pope annul the marriage.  Evidence that this was pure malarkey, and that Eleanor was a woman of independent and fiery spirit, is found in her second marriage: to another cousin, this time the future king of England, Henry II.

With one hot passion meeting another hot passion, they quickly produced eight children, including five boys, two of whom became kings of England and famous to boot – Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland.  Of course, passion has a dark side as well, and when Eleanor wanted to share in the ruling and do what ever she damn well pleased, she became so estranged from Henry that she helped her sons foment war against their father – several times – even after he had locked her up in the tallest tower of the biggest castle…

Eleanor was very well educated, and not just for a woman.  Plus, she could ride and hunt and hawk as well as any knight and kept a vibrant court, sponsoring the best and sexiest artists in the land.  She was the maker of fashion, and inheriting the biggest chunk of land in the most prestigious corner of Europe gave her the cash and prestige to carry through her projects.  She also had the proverbial testicular fortitude to accompany her first husband on campaign to the distant Second Crusade in the Eastern Mediterranean, where she was captured but able to extricate herself and a bunch of friends.  Her daughter Matilda married future Holy Roman Emperor Henry the Lion of Saxony (a lot of Leos here).  After her second husband’s death, she served as regent for Richard the Lionheart, who was her favorite son anyway, and helped her lesser son John rule until her death, after which it all went pear-shaped for him.

And she was a knight magnet; medieval knights were attracted to glory like fleas to the Bubonic Plague.  Eleanor did England’s military reputation a favor by ransoming the greatest knight of all time, William Marshall, before he became the William Marshall (see Top 10 Knights of the Middle Ages).  On her way from home from picking a bride for her son in Castile, was accompanied by the greatest French knight of the time, Mercadier.  What helped her was that Eleanor was universally proclaimed as perpulchra, which means “more than beautiful”, or in current parlance “super hot”.  When she was around 30, Bernard de Ventadour, a big-time troubadour, called Eleanor “gracious, lovely, the embodiment of charm,” extolling her “lovely eyes and noble countenance”.

Eleanor made an impact in the area of court manners.  In The Art of Courtly Love, Andreas Capellanus (Andrew the Chaplain) refers to Eleanor’s court of Poitiers.  He claims that several women, including Eleanor and her daughter Marie de Champagne, would sit and listen to the quarrels of lovers at court and serve as a jury to the questions that revolved around romantic love.


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15 Comments

  1. Look, this could have been quite interesting, but I found the the author’s need to include comment on the sex appeal of these long dead women an act of pathetic objectification. Why is it even relevant? How can it be judged? Sexist, misogynistic, purile and of no historical value whatsoever. That’s made me really angry.

    • Yeah, very male-gazey. I notice the article on male knights doesn’t mention their sex appeal. They’re assuming only guys read the site.

  2. Peter Boucher on

    # 4 Eleanor Of Aquitaine was amazingly put on film with the movie “The Lion In Winter” (1968) starring Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor, Peter O’ Toole and a young Sir Anthony Hopkins. Katherine won the Oscar for best actress for that movie.

  3. Couple more:

    Jeanne de Clisson: After King Philip of France unfairly executed her husband, she sold off his lands to buy warships which were painted black with red sails and started destroying the King’s fleets

    Madame de Montfort: John de Montfort’s wife who took over the war effort after his capture, led out her hometown’s army during Siege of Hennebont, got the townswomen to pour tar from the ramparts onto the waiting army, later sneaked her soldiers out of the back door to wipe out the invading army from behind

  4. Well Done and Very informational! Thank you for enlightening the readership of all 10 of these independent brilliant women of the European Middle Ages. I think that there are many people who have not heard of many of these assertive women. It is indeed very difficult to categorize them since each one brings inspiration to today’s women of all walks of life. The writing style of “current parlance” is easy to read, to enjoy and to understand.

  5. Thanks a lot for your interesting blog. I agree with your list entirely.

    I have been fond of Christine de Pisan for quite a while reading a lot about her life. In “Le livre de la Cite des Dames”, she mentions Anastaise praising her skills as an “enlumineresse or illuminator” .

    I advise you the reading of the ebook “Anastaise, the Sharpened medieval Quill” by Alice Warwick.
    The historical fiction deals with the “querelle du roman de la rose” and the ideas of Christine de Pisan and her role in the Court of King Charles VI.

    http://www.amazon.com/Anastaise-Sharpened-Medieval-Quill-ebook/dp/B009W4FT4M/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1351151911&sr=8-1&keywords=Anastaise%2C+the+Sharpened+Medieval+Quill

    I love the painting of Beata Beatrix (painting 8b). It was painted in the XIXth century by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The latter was inspired by the love of the poet Dante Alighieri for his Beatrice.

    This period of the middle-ages inspired Gothic literature as you can find out in Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis and the book: “The mysteries of the castle of Ightham” by Alice Warwick whose reference is :

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00BVBE4QI?ref_=

  6. Kailey Hanbourough on

    This website is a great help, but with very old fashioned and offensive views. All I see is unpolished and misogynic views on the sex appeal of successful women in medieval times. Firstly, these women are dead and therefor it is not relevant or appropriate for one of the first sections you see to be about the sex appeal of each person. You should be treating these women with respect, and the fact that you don’t include the sex appeal category with your article about knights makes me sick. The information is great, and I can acknowledge you are trying to include humour but the way you make jokes on these women’s love lives and the way they look is uncalled for and frankly disgusting.

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