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


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


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)


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:

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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  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.

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

  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.

    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 :

  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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