Women in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages is the historical period generally seen as lasting between the 5th and 15th centuries, also known as the Medieval period. It was notable for the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire and for large-scale European migration, while in Asia and on the Indian subcontinent it is the known as the classical period of the region. Women in the Middle Ages had limited social roles, rarely received an education and were denied any ownership rights to land or property. With the Catholic Church having significant control throughout Europe, its teachings that women should be obedient to their fathers and husbands had a profound influence.

Marriage was almost the sole goal in life for every young woman. Medieval women were not expected to live independently. Those that did not marry usually entered convents and nunneries. Nunneries offered women the opportunity to lead a devout life and also to obtain an education and take on responsibilities denied to them in the outside world. Some women in the Middle Ages, however, were influential both in their time and since. Joan of Arc, also known as The Maid of Orleans (1412 to 1431), is a national heroine and the patron saint of France. At the age of 12, she claimed divine visions and despite her gender and youth, she came forward at a time of crisis and defeat to lead the French army to several important victories over the English during the Hundred Years' War, which paved the way for the coronation of Charles VII. She was captured by the Burgundians, sold to the English, tried by an ecclesiastical court and burned at the stake.

Anna Comnena, also known as Anna Komnene, Anna Komnena and Anna of Byzantium (1083 to 1148), is a daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus. She is the first woman known to write history. The Alexiad was 15 volumes when completed and was written in Greek rather than Latin. It describes the life of her father and the reign of her husband, Nicephorus Bryennius, who reigned after her father.

Blessed Hildegard of Bingen, also known as Saint Hildegard and Sibyl of the Rhine (1098 to 1179), was a writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, German Benedictine abbess, visionary and polymath. One of her works as a composer, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama. She wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, poems and one of the oldest surviving morality plays.

Julian of Norwich (1342 to 1416) is considered to be one of the most important English mystics. Her major work, called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, is believed to be the first book written in the English language by a woman.

Christine de Pisan (1363 to 1430) was a Venetian-born woman who strongly challenged misogyny and stereotypes prevalent in the male-dominated culture. As a poet, she was well known and highly regarded in her own day.

Matilda of Flanders (c. 1031 to 1083) was the wife of William the Conqueror and, as such, queen of England following the Norman invasion of 1066. She bore William 11 children, including two kings, William II and Henry I.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122 to 1204) was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe during the Middle Ages. She is the only woman to have been queen of both France and England.

Isabella of France (1295 to 1358), the sister of Charles IV, married King Edward II of England. At a time of war between the two nations, when her brother seized her husband's French possessions in 1325, she was sent as a peace envoy, but "the French She-wolf," was distrusted by the English. With good reason: she gathered an army of her own which invaded England, forced Edward's abdication and saw herself rule until 1330 when her son assumed the throne as Edward III.

Margaret of Anjou (1430 to 1482) was the wife of King Henry VI of England and queen consort from 1445 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471 and she was queen of France from 1445 to 1453. Margaret was one of the principal figures in the series of dynastic civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses, having led the Lancastrian red rose faction.

Women in the Middle Ages: Selected full-text books and articles

The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages By Shulamith Shahar; Chaya Galai Routledge, 2003 (Revised edition)
Women in Medieval Society By Susan Mosher Stuard University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976
The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman between Demons and Saints By Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves; Jo Eldridge Carney; W. M. Spellman; Gwynne Kennedy; Stephanie Witham Greenwood Press, 2000
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