Top 10 Famous Women of the European Middle Ages

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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)

Image result for margery kempe

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)

Matilda of Canossa

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)

Fichier:Heloise World Noted Women.jpg

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)

Marie Spartali Stillman - Beatrice (1895)

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.

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

James I of Scotland with his consort Joan Beaufort, queen of Scotland. He has the coat of arms of Scotland on his tabard and is holding a sword and scepter, while she has the coat of arms of England on her clothing, and is holding a scepter and thistle.

James I of Scotland with his consort Joan Beaufort, queen of Scotland. He has the coat of arms of Scotland on his tabard and is holding a sword and scepter, while she has the coat of arms of England on her clothing, and is holding a scepter and thistle.

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)

Guinevereford
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)

Lesser Poland St. Catherine of Siena

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)

Church of Fontevraud Abbey Eleanor of Aquitaine effigy
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.

3.  Julian of Norwich (1342–1416, English)

Statue of Dame Julian

Known For:  Being really mystical

Sex Appeal:  Not so much unless you like the ethereal type

Julie lived a long time but, despite that, not much is known about her personal life.  That is all very useful for one of England’s greatest mystics, allowing for all sorts of myth-making anecdotes to be constructed on her behalf, and this uncertainty helped her get in good with a whole range of churches after her death.

Like Catherine of Siena and Margery Kempe, it was a bunch of visions of Jesus that got her on the road to deep religion.  This was in 1373 and she not only wrote them all down, Julie also applied her acumen and analyzed them, creating the basis for her mystic theology.  In other words, she wasn’t just a charismatic religious visionary who gathered followers by speaking well and ruffling feathers, again like Catherine of Siena, but comprehensively worked them out on her own in written form.  She was relatively well-known in her own day, but the power of her words resonated down through the centuries, unlike those of so many other mystics.

Julian was one of the first women in England to publish in English, just ahead of Margery Kempe.  Her sultry-sounding Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, which explains her theology, is optimistic, unlike most religious works back then.  In a time of Black Death and rampant mortality, Flagellants and brooding images of hellish torment, Julian wrote of God’s love in terms of joy and compassion rather than rigid law and unyielding duty.

In other words, it was personal – not institutional, an idea that challenged the class hierarchy that informed medieval society.  She believed in mercy over punishment, and that the mystery of God’s love stood at the pinnacle of faith; this notion greatly challenged the reliability of the established church.  Her theology was unique in three aspects: her view of sin, her belief that God is all love and no wrath, and her view of Christ as mother.  According to Julian, God is both our mother and our father.  Can we say proto-feminism? The idea here is that because God is the Creator, He is like our mother.  Interesting.

All this was not done in a cold, dank cell in the Norfolk Broads, but with the editorial assistance of some of the better religious minds of the day in England and on the continent.  She has her own feast day in May, or on the day she was “shown” her mystical revelations.  However, Julie got away with these contrary if not radical ideas because of her position as an anchoress of a respected convent.  Also, the church had bigger fish to fry at the time, such as suppressing a greater threat in one John Wycliffe and the Great Schism.  Seriously, how many Popes did these people need?

Another ground-breaking idea that she developed over the ensuing twenty years from that fateful night was that sin is necessary, as it brings self-knowledge.  Sin does not stem from the inherently corrupt and evil nature of man.  Julie was not a dualist.  Pain is the pain of the Passion of the Christ.  It’s all about the learning process, not aspirations for divine forgiveness, since that would come anyway and imply that sins are wrong.  No, sin is like a bad exam result – deal with it and move on.  “God is nearer to us than our own soul” and “in falling and rising we are ever preciously kept in one love”.  She laid special stress on the “homeliness” and “courtesy” of God’s dealings with us, “for love maketh might and wisdom full meek to us.” All you need is love, man.

2. Joan of Arc (1412-1431, French)

Known For:  Inspiring the fractious French to finally get rid of the English already

Sex Appeal:  Oh, a bit dicey here, since she’s underage and all, even by the standards of the time

Joan of Arc was a teenager from Nowhereatall, France who was at the right place at the right time to become a martyr and heroine of France, but at the wrong place at the wrong time to live a quiet life or even to become a venerated mystic (see Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich).  What set her apart from other teenage visionaries of the Middle Ages was that instead of the usual ‘getting in touch with the divine’ sort of message, Joannie claimed that God of all People instructed her to expel the English from France, which is pretty Old Testament, not to mention a national specific and rather secular message to issue from on high.

Of course, most of France was content to see the English off, but Joan was so adamant about her divine mission that at the tender age of seventeen she was able to convince the French (Please-I-Want-To-Be) King Charles VII that she could attain a military victory over England.  With nothing to lose, Charles sent her to lead his army at the siege of Orleans (note that he did not go himself), which was a key city for the recovery of English France, and so she slapped on some amour and won the day.

That was the high point of her career, while still alive.  Joan and her forces beat up on a few other English armies, but she was captured, tried and burned at the stake as a witch.  Then, she was rehabilitated and made a patron saint of France.

Joan was also a bit of transgender renegade, cutting her hair short, putting on trousers, leading an army, all that good stuff.  This was a big deal back then, since long locks, wide skirts and domestic servitude were key identifiers of womanly status.  No doubt young girls played ‘knights and cutpurses’ deep in the forests, far from the prying eyes of their parents, but for a young woman of no means to play soldier amidst a clutch of real men-at-arms was something unique.  Very few sainted ladies of the Middle Ages ever went that far when eschewing their gender.  Margery might have done accounts and Catherine pasted herself with mud, but they never denied their sex.  Even in prison, Joan only condescended to put on a dress because there was nothing else to wear.

Of all the medieval ladies on this list, Little Joannie has sparked the imaginations of more men and women than all the others combined.  She appears in Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tchaikovsky, even Mark Twain, not to mention a boat load of books and movies.  Her visions were curiously specific, and included an audience of male and female saints standing in her father’s field, who told her to get the dauphin (first heir to the throne) to Reims for his coronation.  Not to paint the French authorities as credulous; it should be mentioned that they did a thorough background check on her, whereupon they found her life beyond reproach and her visions sincere.  In fact, her presence at Orleans was a test of the veracity of her claims, since even medieval theologians possessed a grain of doubt in such matters.

Her military strategy was very aggressive, and she had if not the charm then the moral force to get the army moving to engage the English. She even took a cannonball to the head and crossbow bolt to the leg and survived to continue leading from the saddle.  In essence, this was the beginning of the end for English France.

Joan of Arc also defied the convention of medieval sainthood by refusing martyrdom when she was finally captured, instead choosing to make several escape attempts.   She was fashioning her own fate.  This was no inner musings with God about personal salvation and the quest for truth, the revealed Word and the like; this was about crusading to save France.  In 1431, after a comedy of errors, the English tried Joan for heresy, since that would have been the only way to discredit her in the eyes of the French authorities and people.  However, she was cleverer than she looked, and avoided in incriminating herself.  Being as sad as they were impatient, the English courts ended up just forging documents and intimidating witnesses to ‘prove’ their case, so they had her burned at the stake.

However, her heroic image could not be reduced to ash, so in 1456 another trial was held, by the French this time after the Hundred Years War was over, and exonerated her.  Joan has ever since been a symbol of national liberation.  She is one of the most studied women in French history, but even with all this, I cannot justify granting her the top spot.

1. Christine de Pizan (1363-1430, Italian-French)

Christine de Pisan - cathedra

Known For:  Doing just about everything and leaving an impressive legacy

Sex Appeal:  Beauty, elegance, intelligence, talent, what’s not to love?

In some ways Christine was lucky.  She was born near Venice to a prominent physician/astrologer who found a great gig in the court of Charles V of France, where fatherly indulgence and a massive up-to-date library opened the door for Christine to educate herself to the level of the most learned theologians of the time.  Although married at 15, she was blessedly widowed in her mid-twenties, allowing her to resume her self-studies.  However, the threat of poverty and need to support the remnants of her family (her father lost his job in 1380) obliged her to turn to the quill, rather than remarry, and so she was able to put all that knowledge to good use.  This was remarkable, since not only was writing a strange way to make a living – period, it was doubly strange for a woman to do so, and she had no patron.

However, Christine well understood the turn of the quill on parchment.  She also understood marketing and promotion.  She wrote love ballads and sold them at court for good coin, since it was a sentimental time, but she only rose to prominence when she decided to enter one of the main literary debates in the early 15th century.  This was no mean feat because, as a woman of commerce, and therefore in an especially fragile economic and social position, Christine opened herself up to ruin should some meany-bobeeny decide to put her in her place.

The debate in question revolved around the literary merits of the famous medieval epic Romance of the Rose, to which Chrissie objected because it not only denigrated women, including the high born, but also contained vulgar and unrealistic dialog, thereby reducing the value of the work.  Bottom line: she was a proto-feminist and understood high-brow art.  People of influence listened and were impressed.  It was the first in a long line of challenges to the literary establishment.

Now well ensconced in the art scene, Christine wrote her magnum opus – Book of the City of Ladies and the accompanying Book of the Three Virtues, wherein she does something revolutionary – demonstrate the importance of women to society in a secular context and teach women in all classes to be well-rounded intellectually.  This was pretty cool because, not having much in the way of literary example, she was able to adapt Platonic dialog to create a utopia a century before Utopia.  She was clever enough to understand the importance of discourse and gestures in the definition of personality before the full-blown onset of the Renaissance.  Christine argued that a woman could only be influential, whether at home or at court, if she spoke in the values of chastity, virtue, and restraint.  In other words, she not only advocated that women speak their minds, but also that they employ rhetoric to assert themselves.

In another act that revealed the strength of her convictions, Christine eulogized Joan of Arc within moments of her execution.

The brilliance and influence of this independent literary gal attracted the interest of the highest circles, and Christine was more than once invited to take up residency as a sort of poet laureate in England and Milan, which was the most powerful city-state in Italy.  Her patrons included not only kings of France, but also the powerful and cultured dukes of Burgundy, Berry and Bourbon, in other words the royal family.  She remains one of the most studied medieval women and her writings were critically accepted by many post-war feminists, including Simone de Beauvoir.

Somehow, she managed to escape being tried as a witch, although it is difficult to say how wide her later works circulated.  Of course, that might have been a survival strategy on par with that of Copernicus, and a desire to leave a powerful rallying call to independence to future generations of women.  She knew about love, she about knowledge, she knew how to flourish at the brightest courts, she knew how to say her piece without serious repercussion, and she knew about survival.  Christine de Pizan, you can be anything you want, and so you are #1!

Evan Ostryzniuk is the author of the historical novel Of Faith and Fidelity: Geoffrey Hotspur and the War for St. Peter’s Throne (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2011).  His second novel, Of Fathers and Sons: Geoffrey Hotspur and the Este Inheritance, comes out in December 2012.  He has a PhD from Cambridge University and can be found at: www.evanostryzniuk.com.

Coming up next…

Top 10 Diseases of the Middle Ages

Top 10 Battles of the Middle Ages

Top 10 Inventions of the Middle Ages

Top 10 Heresies of the Middle Ages


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16 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.

    • Beteltooth’s comment is spot on. The fact that there were sex appeal sections is really lacking in class.

    • I thought the same!
      like was the sex appeal part necessary? nope. so why would the writer even consider putting it there…

  2. I would have put Joan of Arc at # 1 but a great list–Well written and interesting.

  3. 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.

    • I agree, that is an awesome movie. Hepburn is terrific. I also liked Timothy Dalton’s portrayal as the King of France

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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_=

  7. 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.