Women in Their Own Words

This chapter will discuss a selection of women writers from the Middle Ages in their everyday lives. Finding the writing of women authors from the medieval period can be challenging, not least because fewer women were able to become literate than men. Some people in the Middle Ages could read but not write, as the two skills were taught separately from each other, and it is possible that was true for some women. Even in the later Middle Ages, when more women became able to both read and write, their writing was circumscribed by the control of books and education by men: fathers, uncles, church superiors, and husbands. Those women who did write were fortunate enough to have the physical space and economic privilege that they needed for writing.

While scholars are fortunate to have surviving writing from women in the Middle Ages, we certainly do not have all of it. Much of women’s writing must have been destroyed, labeled as old-fashioned or unimportant over the many centuries, or simply suppressed. For example, letters from nuns in the early and central Middle Ages, such as Constance of Angers below, only survived because those nuns were correspondents of important male authors whose letters were considered worthy of being copied and saved. Writing by women may also have been rewritten by male authors; medieval scholars relied on the concept of authority to judge the merits of texts, and male writers may have co-opted women’s works to increase the texts’ authority. However, women’s writing should not be seen as inferior to men’s simply because there is less of it surviving. Scholars have pointed out that at least some of the time, an “anonymous” text might have had a female author.

This chapter will expand the information given about individual women earlier in this book in brief biographies centered around what women’s writing can tell us about daily life. The authors are listed in chronological order. There are fewer women writers for the early Middle Ages than for the late Middle Ages, a result of the expanding literacy taking place in the later period. In addition, they are mostly upper-class women; the voices of lower-class women are seldom heard in their own words. Many of these writers wrote of themselves as weak or ignorant—so much so that one might wonder if they had deep problems with self-confidence. Some of them may well have, but it is a cliché of writers in the Middle Ages, men as well as women, that they never compliment themselves. Scholars have, therefore, looked past these statements to see what the true messages of the authors really were.


Brunhilda, a Visigothic princess, married Sigebert, King of Austrasia, northern Gaul, in 566 CE. She had a son, Childebert, and a daughter, Ingund. Ingund married a Visigothic prince, Hermenigild, and had a son. But Hermenigild fell out with his father, and his father had him killed. Ingund, now a widow, attempted to flee back to Austrasia with her little boy but was captured along the way by some soldiers of the Byzantine emperor Maurice. Ingund herself then died. Only the little boy, named Athanagild, reached Constantinople; the emperor hoped to hold him as a hostage that he could use to influence Childebert, the boy’s uncle, to enter a war in Italy.

Heartbroken by the loss of Ingund, Brunhilda wrote a letter to the empress of the Byzantines to plead for her to send Athanagild to Gaul. “Let me,” she wrote, “who have lost a daughter, at least not lose her sweet child, who remains for me . . . let me be consoled by you through my captive grandson’s safe return” (Dronke 1984, 27). It is not known what happened to Athanagild or whether Brunhilda ever got her grandson back. The letter is one of a very few from women of Brunhilda’s time period, showing that grandmotherly love was as present in the Middle Ages as it is today.


Baudonivia was a nun at the monastery of Holy Cross in Poitiers, France. She undertook a project of writing the Vita (life) of the convent’s founder, the Frankish queen Radegund (ca. 520–587 CE). Her Life of Radegund is unusual because a prominent churchman and author, Venantius Fortunatus (ca. 530–ca. 609 CE), had already written a vita of the saint, and Baudonivia both knew him personally and knew his work. It may seem strange that a nun would write what was essentially a second biography of the saint when she had already been profiled by such an illustrious author. Baudonivia’s work, however, presents a different view of Radegund than Venantius’s work. While Venantius had emphasized Radegund’s larger story as queen, wife, and then nun, Baudonivia preferred to emphasize Radegund’s role as a bride of Christ and as a role model for the nuns of Holy Cross. It is a more personal biography and gives a different view of the famous queen.


All we have of the Frankish noblewoman Dhuoda is her Book for William, dictated to a scribe in Latin somewhere around 841–843 CE. Scholars have posited that she was born about 803 because she married Bernard of Septimania in June 824 and was probably from the northern Frankish lands because her first language was Germanic. Bernard was a noble at the court of Louis the Pious (814–840 CE), emperor of the Franks, and deeply involved with the intrigue and backbiting of that court. He spent very little time with his wife. Dhuoda had one son, William, in 826, and another, whose name was to her unknown, in 841. In the meantime, she lived in the city of Uzès in southern France, where she may have been in exile or may have been in charge of Bernard’s interests in the region. Their father took both children away from her, William at approximately fourteen years of age and the younger son (whose name she did not know) when he was still a newborn infant. William was then traded as a hostage as a guarantor of his father’s loyalty to King Charles the Bald. This heartbreaking situation was what prompted Dhuoda to dictate the Book for William (Dronke 1984, 37).

The premise of the Book for William was that because she was far away from her sons, Dhuoda wanted to give them the religious education that she would ordinarily have given them had they been with her. The book shows both Dhuoda’s deep religious faith and her complete loyalty to her husband and to the emperor. She urged both her sons to take care of their immortal souls and gave them many suggestions about how to do this. She also, however, admonished them to be loyal to their father; even if William was at a foreign court, she wrote, he should strive to make his father’s interests his focus.

It is unknown whether Dhuoda knew her family’s eventual fates. Bernard, her husband, was executed for treason. William became a rebel against Charles the Bald and was executed as well, four years later. Dhuoda’s date of death is also unknown, as is the story of what happened to her second son. Only a few small places in the text give more information about Dhuoda’s life. Scholars have learned that she had to borrow money to support Bernard’s military debts, “not only from Christians but also from Jews” (Dronke 1984, 53). She asked William to make sure that in the event of her death, these debts and any others should be paid. She also wrote that she had many illnesses but did not describe them further.

What makes Dhuoda’s writing unusual is the degree of feeling she imparts in her short work—personal feeling as much as religious feeling. It is easy to sympathize with a mother whose children have been taken from her and whose attitude toward her own future is so resigned. It is a work that reminds us that though there are many years between Dhuoda and the twenty-first century, we can see many human qualities in the writing of the past.


The clever and highly educated Hrosvitha was born to a noble family in Lower Saxony and spent most of her life as a canoness in the abbey of Gandersheim, an extremely wealthy monastic house. The noble canonesses were allowed to study not only the writers of the church but also classical Roman poets and writers. Under the tutelage of a superior named Rikkardis, Hrosvitha learned the foundational topics of classical education: the trivium, made up of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium, made up of astronomy, arithmetic, music, and geometry. She wrote many works of poetry and the history of the monastery but is most well-known for her six plays. She was the first woman playwright in European history and is the only woman playwright in this collection from the early Middle Ages.

Hrosvitha designed her plays in the style of a Roman playwright called Terence (second century BCE). The plays of Terence were popular in the tenth century as examples of fine Latin-language style, and many people studied them as exemplary texts. Terence’s plays were comedies, usually farces that featured sexual intrigues, slapstick comedy, and happy endings. Hrosvitha did not want to replicate Terence’s subjects along with his style, writing disapprovingly, “Many Catholics can be found who prefer the vanity of pagan books to the utility of holy scripture” (Dronke 1984, 69). Therefore, three of her plays are stories of virgin martyrs, and three are about ascetic saints. The stories still have their elements of humor. For example, in the play Dulcitius, a Roman governor who wants to rape three Christian virgins is deceived by God into thinking the pots and pans in his kitchen are the women. He embraces and kisses the pots and pans, gets soot all over him, and frightens his family and soldiers when he emerges. After this funny moment, however, the play goes into the martyrdom of the three virgins, whose executions form the “happy ending” of the play, since they will go to heaven afterward. The “happy” part of this ending may be hard for us to understand, but to Hrosvitha’s medieval audience, this convention of martyr stories was expected.

Hrosvitha’s daily life in the convent at Gandersheim was probably quite different from the lives of other Benedictine nuns. Gandersheim had been founded specifically to be a refuge for noblewomen and was very like a small city on its own, with a significant library, its own courts, and even its own coinage. As a canoness, she did not take full monastic vows, although Gandersheim had nuns who did. Canonesses like Hrosvitha were required to take vows of chastity and obedience but not poverty. She could, and probably did, have servants, see guests, buy her own books, and leave the nunnery when she wished. Hrosvitha also certainly spent some time at the emperor’s court, where her plays were either read out loud or performed. She broadens our understanding both of dramatic literature and the lives of noble religious women in the central Middle Ages.


Some details of certain tenth- and eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon women were communicated through the wills they left behind them. About seventy-two of these wills survive. Wealthy Anglo-Saxon women controlled their personal property at a much higher rate than upper-class women elsewhere. Although they probably did not write down their wills themselves, the documents the scribes recorded for them tell a great deal about everyday life. Wynflaed, who lived ca. 950, began her will by detailing an extensive list of properties and objects that she wanted to leave to the church, including an altar cloth and a gold cross. Most of her belongings, however, went to her children, particularly to her daughter Aethelflaed. Aethelflaed received not only land but many personal items, including tableware, tapestries, jewelry, bedclothes, chests, and “books and such small things.” A substantial part of Wynflaed’s will also went to the freeing of numerous enslaved women, sometimes including their husbands and sometimes not. She also bequeathed particular enslaved women to others, including a weaver and a seamstress.

Wulfwaru, who lived during the reign of King Aethelred (984–1016), bequeathed both personal property and land to her four children, two sons and two daughters. The two sons and her elder daughter inherited manors, including their produce and the people who worked them. Her younger daughter, Aelfwaru, received half of an estate shared with her older brother. Wulfwaru’s personal treasures went to her daughters. She mentioned especially two cups worth four pounds, two brooches, and the large sum of thirty mancuses of gold. Similarly, the will of Wulfgth, dated to 1046, parceled out large estates to Wulfgyth’s children and gave a few small bequests to different churches. Wulfgyth’s will ended with a threat of divine punishment for anyone who attempted to avoid enforcing her wishes: “May he be delivered into the abyss of hell to Satan the devil and all his accursed companions” (Amt 2010, 114–117). Curse clauses like this one were not unusual in medieval legal documents when the parties were uneasy about what might happen after their deaths.

Legal documents like wills are one important resource for modern scholars who want to know what everyday women owned and whether they had control over property. Although it is hard to know how the women made their decisions about who was to inherit what, one can still perceive what they thought was important and who they wanted to recognize with a bequest.


The daughter of the caliph, or ruler, of Muslim Spain, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi is the most well-known of the female Andalusian (Spanish) Muslim poets from the Middle Ages. Her mother was probably an Ethiopian Christian slave named Bint Sakrah al-Mawruriyah. Wallada was well-known for her poetry as well as for the meetings, or salons, of upper-class learned people that she sponsored. The Spanish Muslim historian Al-Fath ibn Khaqan (d. 1134) wrote of her that “Her presence encouraged the old to behave like the young” (Fernea and Bezirgan 1977, 69). Wallada declined to wear a veil and had verses of her own work embroidered on her sleeves. She fell in love with a poet named Ibn Zaydun (d. 1071), and the two exchanged romantic verses. She wrote, “Before, when you visited me during the wintry season, I spurned the brazier, so great was my fire of passion!” When the relationship soured, however, Ibn Zaydun complained, “[Wallada] is like water, difficult to hold in hand; its seething foam prevents getting it easily!” (Fernea and Bezirgan 1977, 70–71). Wallada’s unconventional life is interesting in itself, but it also tells us about the conventions for women in Spain in the eleventh century. It is one of very few glimpses into the life of women in Spain during the Muslim period.


Constance of Angers is the name of a young nun that we know from a letter written to Baudry of Bourgeuil (ca. 1046–1130), a well-known French Benedictine abbot who wrote to many correspondents in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Constance was a novice at the monastery of Our Lady of Charity of Angers, also called Le Ronceray, in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. Her letter survived in a manuscript of Baudry’s poems that is now in the Vatican Library. Although the manuscript makes reference to the names of other nuns who exchanged letters with Baudry, Constance’s poem is the only one that was copied into the manuscript. Both Baudry’s poem and Constance’s reply are in Latin and are the same length (179 lines) and in the same complex meter and rhyme style, based on the Héroïdes of Ovid (first century BCE), a Roman Latin writer. The texts are flirtatious and, in some ways, erotic. Constance spoke of having Baudry’s letter in her lap, which “heated up my heart” (Tuten 2004, 261). Strangely, though, the flirtatious style was a commonplace for monastic letters at the time, even between men. Baudry had many correspondents, both male and female, for whom he made verses about love and longing, and some nuns of Ronceray seem to have exchanged letters with Marbode, bishop of Rennes, around the same time.

Letters like Constance’s are rare in comparison to letters written to men and by men. Women’s correspondence was not often preserved, and what is more, the convention of the flirtatious monastic letter fell out of fashion in the twelfth century as times changed. Still, there are enough letters to provide a tantalizing window into the daily life of Benedictine nuns. Angers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries had a cathedral school, a place in which young men were trained to be priests. Le Ronceray’s nuns were connected to the cathedral school via the men, called canons, who administered their religious services. One contemporary during Constance’s day was a canon named Hilary, who wrote numerous poems, some of them to the abbess of Le Ronceray. Constance and her fellow novices also learned under the tutelage of a nun named Emma who functioned as their grammatica, or grammar teacher. Constance playfully referred to her as their “mean stepmother.” They clearly studied the formal Latin language, not just by reading and imitating Christian authors but ancient writers as well.

Evidence exists around Europe for literate nuns who wrote their own Latin texts. A collection of texts from eleventh-century Regensburg contains thirty letters from nuns to their magister, or teacher. Although they were not as skilled as Constance with the difficult rhymes and meters of Latin poetry, their poems are still emotionally complex and effective, sometimes even cheeky, as one woman wrote, “You praised my beauty—as if that deserved it” (Dronke 1984, 91). Another example—identified by some scholars as being by Héloïse (below)—is a text called the Epistolae duorum amantium (Letters of Two Lovers). In these love letters between a man and a woman, dating from the twelfth century, the woman writes, “I shall never have joys except when you give them” (Dronke 1984, 96). Such texts teach us that, far from being voiceless, nuns in the Middle Ages spoke in their daily writing, often enough that hints remain as to how they felt and what they thought.


Very little is known about the woman called Trota who lived in the twelfth century in Salerno, Italy, and wrote medical advice for women. Scholarship has recorded the names of a number of women practicing medicine there in that period who were called the mulieres Salernitanae (women of Salerno). Despite popular guesses as to Trota’s origin, nothing is known for certain about her family, her training, or her birth and death dates. She is only known to have written two works, one of which is still extant, a text called De curis mulierum (Treatments for Women), and another work called the Practica, which is now lost. De curis mulierum forms part of a three-part medical collection that is called the Trotula. The other two sections were anonymously written but were probably written by men (Green 2020).

From what we know about medical practice in the twelfth century, Trota would likely have diagnosed her patients’ illnesses using a urine sample. The body was believed to be made up of four humors or substances whose imbalance could cause disease. Medieval doctors examined the urine of patients in special glass flasks through which they could study the color, smell, and sometimes even taste of urine, which they used to get an understanding of how the humors were working in the patient’s body. After diagnosis, the medieval doctor would advise changes in diet and exercise, herbal remedies, or baths to raise or lower the body temperature to rebalance the body humors. In extreme cases, the physician might prescribe procedures such as bloodletting.

The cures in De curis mulierum are generally mild. Almost all the remedies included in the text are intended to be given in a bath or applied to the skin. They give excellent clues about the various complaints from which everyday medieval people might have suffered. There are reproductive concerns, including childbirth, fertility, and remedies for complaints of the penis. There are recipes for cosmetics designed both to whiten and to redden the face, and wrinkle and freckle removers. The treatise also includes detailed instructions for getting rid of body lice and worms, which were common complaints of the period (Green 2001, 116–165). Trota’s work allows us an unusual way to peek into women’s everyday concerns, their health, and their hygiene.


Born in Spain, Qasmuna was one of a number of women who wrote poetry in Arabic. We learn of her from al-Sayuti (ca. 1445–1505), a collector of women’s poetry. He related that she was Jewish and was educated by her father, Isma’il, who was also a poet. Her three surviving poems are beautiful expressions of a young woman’s longing for companionship. In one, she addressed a deer grazing in a meadow, writing, “I resemble you in wildness and in blackness of the eye” (Nichols 1981, 157). In Qasmuna’s poems, we can catch a very small glimpse of what an educated Jewish woman in Muslim Spain could do.


The story of Héloïse and her husband, Peter Abelard, is one of the best known and most studied romantic stories of the Middle Ages. Even as a young woman, Héloïse was famous in learned circles; she was educated in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew and was the ward of her uncle Fulbert, a canon at the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Abelard, a scholar at the University of Paris, wrote down their story, which he titled “History of My Calamities.” He had heard of Héloïse’s reputation and calmly asserted that he set out to become her lover. Soon he had been made her tutor, and they fell in love—or at least in lust. She became pregnant, and they had a son together. They were then married, but Héloïse’s uncle was still angry at Abelard. He sent a group of thugs to castrate Abelard in vengeance for his public embarrassment. Abelard considered this tragedy to be divine intervention and decided to become a monk and convinced Héloïse to become a nun, though it was initially against her wishes.

The writings of Héloïse that now survive began after she had read Abelard’s account of their misfortunes. By that time, she was the abbess of a nunnery that Abelard had founded for her. They exchanged eight letters that are still extant. Letters two through five are known as the Personal Letters and deal with their past and their relationship. Letters six through eight are known as the Letters of Direction, in which Abelard gives Héloïse advice and theological reasoning in answer to her questions about the nunnery. Although scholars in the past doubted that the letters attributed to Héloïse were actually her own writing, most scholars now consider her letters genuine.


The tomb of Abelard and Héloïse, the famously star-crossed lovers, is in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. (Izanbar/Dreamstime.com)

Scholars have also identified some poems that they believe may also be by Abelard and Héloïse in the period before their affair was discovered. Traditionally called Epistolae duorum amantium (“The Letters of Two Lovers”), the manuscript containing the poems was discovered in the fifteenth century at the monastery of Clairvaux by a monk who copied sections of them—unfortunately, not all of them—as models for literary exercises. His manuscript, which survives today, provides enough of the texts to furnish scholars with an enjoyable controversy. These letters are from lovers who almost compete in their flowery language about each other, the woman just as much as the man, and they make references to a relationship similar to the one Abelard described in his “History of My Calamities.” As sources for medieval love poetry of a high level, these letters are very much worth reading (Mews 1999).


Hildegard of Bingen was one of the most important female authors of the Middle Ages. She was born around 1098 CE to noble parents. She became an oblate, enclosed with an anchoress, Jutta of Spondheim, at the age of eight at the church of Disibodenberg, in what is now western Germany. Jutta’s cell was attached to a wealthy community of Benedictine monks, and, in the early part of Hildegard’s life, she and Jutta were under the supervision of the abbot. By the time Hildegard had grown up and Jutta had passed away, a small group of nuns had gathered around them. After the nuns chose Hildegard as their leader, she petitioned the abbot of Disibodenberg to allow her nuns to build their own independent monastery at Rupertsberg, a distance away. He was initially reluctant to do so, whether for the safety of the nuns in their new house as it was being built or because he realized that Hildegard was a visionary who would one day bring great attention to his monastery. Hildegard finally convinced him to allow the move when she was struck by an illness that left her unable to rise from her bed. She explained that God was punishing her for not following his direction to build the new monastery. This convinced the abbot, and Hildegard and twenty nuns founded the monastery at Rupertsberg in 1150.

Hildegard’s visions left her weak and ill, and she often described herself as a “poor little woman.” She emerged from her illnesses with detailed, highly metaphorical visions and messages from God to the faithful. Several manuscripts that are richly illustrated provide visual images to connect with the visions. Hildegard was forty-two when she had a vision in which God commanded her to tell her visions to other people. At that point, she sought ecclesiastical permission from her superiors and received official sanction from Pope Eugenius III in 1148 to record and circulate her visions. Several scholars have wondered whether a type of migraine headache provoked Hildegard’s complex visions (Newman 1985, 167). However, even if we may wonder about the sources, we should remember that people in the Middle Ages took such visions very seriously.

In addition to her three mystical works, Scivias (an abbreviation of Sci vias domini, Know the Ways of the Lord), Liber vitae meritorum (Book of the Rewards of Life), and the Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works), Hildegard wrote many letters; many musical works; a musical play called the Ordo Virtutum (The Order of Virtues); and two books on medicine, the Physica and Causae et Curae (Causes and Cures). There are also two biographies of Hildegard written by her confessor and secretary. Although none of these works is designed to illuminate Hildegard’s daily life, this large body of work provides many clues to her points of view and the events of her life.

In between writing and sometimes dictating to a scribe, Hildegard managed a monastery of nuns who needed her leadership. The sisters observed the Rule of St. Benedict for their daily worship (see chapter three). One of Hildegard’s many letters was an explanation of the Rule of St. Benedict for some Belgian nuns who had written to ask her advice. The nuns lived quietly, and Hildegard provided them with music to sing and perform—some of the earliest music that we know of that was written specifically for women. Hildegard also worked in the monastery’s infirmary, where she applied her own theories to medical knowledge of the period and wrote her two medical books. Her remedies are largely made up of herbs and other natural substances, explained by her as having virtues sent by God.

Hildegard also caused some controversy. Some people were scandalized by her major preaching trips around the region, even though she had permission from the pope. She was criticized when she dressed her nuns as brides for communion (Bynum 1992, 134). She also allowed a nobleman who had been excommunicated to be buried at the monastery, a position that placed her in opposition to all the local authorities, including her ecclesiastical superiors. During this time the monastery was placed under interdict—meaning that the nuns could not sing the divine office, confess, or take on new sisters—and the authorities threatened to excommunicate them all. Hildegard wrote a letter declaring that her nuns were commanded to worship and sing by God and that the interdict violated God’s wishes for them. Eventually, the interdict was lifted (Morrison 2016, 108).

Hildegard is an unusual example of how women who were considered to be holy could participate in activities, such as preaching, that were normally closed to women.

HERRAD OF HOHENBURG (ca. 1130–1195)

Herrad of Hohenburg was probably given as an oblate to the monastery of Hohenburg, outside Strassburg, as a young child, and received the best education available to women at the time in this powerful Augustinian abbey, which had close connections to the emperor Frederick II Barbarossa (ca. 1123–1190). She has been connected by some authors to the territory of Landsberg, but the attribution dates only to the sixteenth century. What is more certain is that she became abbess of Hohenburg sometime between 1167 and 1176. After a number of years organizing the abbey’s possessions and relationships, Herrad began the monumental work Hortus Deliciarum, or Garden of Delights. The Hortus Deliciarum was intended to be a compilation of current theological thought for the educational benefit of the nuns of Hohenburg. Herrad and her collaborators wrote and compiled the manuscript beginning in about 1175. Some of the many texts the manuscript contains have not yet been identified. The manuscript was also richly illuminated: 254 painted miniatures survive which illustrate people, concepts, and theological subjects. Although the original manuscript tragically burned in the nineteenth century, authors of the period preserved enough of the manuscript to give us the opportunity to wonder at and enjoy this extraordinary work.


Clemence was a nun of Barking Abbey in England in the late twelfth century, probably within the reign of Henry II (1154–1189) or Richard I (1189–1199). Barking was a very prosperous and powerful Benedictine monastery east of London, founded in the seventh century but most powerful in the twelfth. Like Gandersheim, it had a large library, and the abbess was responsible for administering both considerable wealth and many people. Almost nothing is known of Clemence apart from her name, though her command of Anglo-Norman French suggests that she was Anglo-Norman by birth, and since the abbey was full of noble women, she was probably from a prominent family.

Clemence translated a Latin biography of the legendary North African saint Catherine of Alexandria (fourth century), who refused to marry and was martyred around the age of eighteen under the Roman emperor Maxentius. Catherine was widely venerated around Anglo-Norman England, and Clemence wrote that she had translated the story “so that it will be more pleasing to those who hear it” (Auslander 2012, 171). The Latin Life of St. Catherine was set in the fourth century, but Clemence told the story in a way that may have reflected the politics of her own day. For example, it is easy to draw parallels between the violent emperor in Catherine’s text and King Henry II (1154–1189), who had control over Barking and other women’s monasteries. Both men, the character and the real king, were betrayed by their queens: Maxentius when his wife converted to Christianity, and Henry when his wife, Eleanor, rose up against him in conjunction with his sons in an armed revolt. This uprising happened in 1173–1174, which is the early end of the period when Clemence may have been translating the Life of St. Catherine. At the end of 1174, Henry imprisoned Eleanor in a castle, where she stayed for fifteen years. If Clemence was actively criticizing the king in her translation, her message “would be subversive then and even dangerous” (Auslander 2012, 179).

Looking at saints’ lives written and translated by women, we can learn much about their everyday attitudes and values. Such stories tend toward religious imagery, but there is still plenty to find that reflects genuine everyday life.


There are about twenty women’s names associated with poems produced in southern France in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Along with their male counterparts, who are known as troubadours, the trobairitz wrote popular poetry for singing before wealthy lay audiences. They wrote in Occitan, the language of southern France at that time (there were also female writers in northern French, who were called trouvères). Many of the trobairitz were from noble families, though little background is available for most of them. The Comtessa de Dia (early thirteenth century) was probably the wife of the lord of Die, and her first name was possibly Beatriz; but for many of the writers we have a single name or a name associated with a place. We know that their poems were set to music, but we have only one tune written down, the Comtessa de Dia’s song “A chantar m’er de so qu’ieu non volria,” meaning “I must sing a song I’d rather not.”

Raw emotion jumps out from these poems as the poets express their love and describe their lovers, both positively and negatively. The object of the writer’s love is often a man who is not the poet’s husband, which was not unusual in courtly love literature of the time. Some poems take the form of laments that the lover has been unfaithful or cruel. Castelloza (early thirteenth century) wrote to a man she loved that “I don’t know why you are always on my mind, for I have searched from top to bottom your hard heart; and yet my own’s unswerving” (Bogin 1976, 121). Sometimes, they express all the bliss of love. Azalais de Porcairagues (b. ca. 1140) wrote to her lover, “Handsome friend, I’d gladly stay forever in your service” (Bogin 1976, 97).

It is a much-discussed question among scholars whether the people who wrote back and forth to one another as lovers—some of whom were married to other people—were ever physically intimate. In some of the poems, the love is unrequited and what we might call platonic love. In others, physical love and sex are clearly a part of the conversation. In one of the Comtessa de Dia’s poems, she wrote frankly, “I’d give almost anything to have you in my husband’s place” (Bogin 1976, 89). However, extramarital sex was taboo in medieval Europe, and, among the nobility, it was particularly important that the parentage of any child was known to be genuine. These variables leave us with the question unanswered.


The poet known as Marie de France is mysterious. She revealed in one of her works that she was French, but that is all that is known about her apart from her works. It has been guessed that she wrote in England between 1170 and 1190 and that she was known at the court of King Henry II (reigned 1154–1189) of England and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. She wrote a religious poem called “Saint Patrick’s Purgatory,” in which a knight visited the afterlife, and a series of translations of Aesop (sixth century BCE), the ancient storyteller, called the Fables. She is most famous for her Lais; a lai or lay is a romance set in rhymed couplets. Marie wrote in Anglo-Norman French, but these poems were so popular that they eventually appeared in Middle English, Old Norse, Middle High German, Latin, Hebrew, and Italian. Marie herself seems to have been literate in Latin, French, and Breton (the language of the French duchy of Brittany).

Marie’s poems are most useful to us as reflections of what upper-class people liked to hear in stories. Many of her stories are adaptations from Breton fairy tales. They are about true love, filled with drama and action. In one lay called Lanval, a knight of King Arthur fell in love with a beautiful, magical maiden who made him promise not to tell anyone about their relationship. Lanval could not resist telling Queen Guinevere about his love, though, when the queen invited him to become her lover (Queen Guinevere comes out very poorly in this story). When he broke his promise to keep silent, his magical lady disappeared, breaking his heart. Worse yet, the queen accused him of attempted rape. Just as it looked like he would be executed for treason, his love returned and carried him away to Avalon, and they were never seen again.

Apart from the romance of the story, the beauty of the lady, and the jealousy of the queen, there are a few clues in Lanval that indicate that Marie was thinking about the good and bad behavior of nobles. At the beginning of the story, Lanval was poor and not well-known among King Arthur’s knights. Once his magical lady enriched him, though, he behaved as a good wealthy man should. “Lanval gave costly gifts, Lanval freed prisoners, Lanval clothed the jongleurs (musicians), Lanval performed many honourable acts” (Burgess 1986, 75). It is possible to read this list as a hint to the nobles who were the audience for this lay, particularly the part about “clothing the jongleurs”—no doubt Marie and her contemporary writers would have appreciated some extra clothing! We can also see everyday life in the descriptions of clothing and finery, a sort of fashion show for the rich listener.


Marguerite Porete, a Belgian mystic, was persecuted during her life for stating what she believed to be the divine truth given to her by her mystical visions. She kept the habit of a Beguine as she went from place to place, preaching a message that eventually caused her to be imprisoned. Her work, the Mirror of Simple Souls, urged complete annihilation of the self in God. It was written in lyrical, poetic language, which sometimes drifted into the erotic, and which envisioned the soul and God as lovers. Marguerite asserted that those who completely gave in to God, freeing themselves from all wishes and earthly concerns, would become “free souls,” so that they would neither want nor need anyone, including (and perhaps especially) the church. She criticized the Catholic Church as the “little church,” calling it subordinate to the greater church of free souls because of its emphasis on reason rather than ecstatic experience; true faith did not need reason because the soul would be unable to sin if united with God. Her message led to her imprisonment twice: once for a year and a half, after which she was released and continued to preach, and once, which ended when she was executed by burning at the stake. At the time, the inquisitors searched for every copy of the Mirror of Simple Souls to destroy. However, copies remained in circulation: there is one French copy still extant, and five different translations into Latin, Italian, and English (Dronke 1984, 217–228).

Marguerite’s insistence that her mystical experiences did not need to be approved by the church hierarchy situated her as one of the boldest religious writers of her time. Some scholars have identified a protofeminism in her work. Like Joan of Arc, who was her contemporary, she did not hide behind self-deprecatory language and never referred to her sex as a weakness. Her execution did not dim her message for future generations (Morrison 2016, 140–141).

JULIAN OF NORWICH (ca. 1343–ca. 1416)

Julian of Norwich was one of the most important spiritual writers of the late Middle Ages and the first woman known to have written in English. Very little is known about her early life, and scholars have made a number of educated guesses about her background that vary from a background as a wife and mother to a background as a professed nun who became a recluse or anchoress in midlife. What is definitively known about Julian is only that she became very ill at thirty years old, experienced sixteen revelations or “showings” from God, and spent the second half of her life as an anchoress, enclosed in a small cell attached to the church of St. Julian in Norwich, U.K. (McAvoy 2008, 3–5).

Two works detail the revelations that Julian experienced, as well as her attitudes about her own life and her gender. The Vision of God Shown to a Devout Woman (a title bestowed by editors of Julian’s texts, also called the Short Text) is a brief work, written soon after the first revelations took place in or around 1373 CE and included Julian’s reactions to the visions. The later reworking, or Long Text, also called the Revelation of Divine Love, added two newer revelations that occurred in 1388 and 1393 (McAvoy 2008, 3). A meditation on the life and death of Christ, the Revelation of Divine Love argues that God gave love to the world: “Wouldst thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning” (Julian of Norwich n.d.).

Although an anchoress was never supposed to leave her cell, Julian’s living space was not severely uncomfortable; she was permitted blankets and bedding and even a cat. Her daily life enclosed in her cell was solitary and full of prayer, but we know she had some contact with people who came to visit her there, including Margery Kempe (profiled below). According to the thirteenth-century Ancrene Wisse, a guide for anchoresses, visitors (mostly women; anchoresses were directed to avoid talking to men) could speak to her through a small window covered by a curtain to ask for prayers and advice. She also had a window between her cell and the church, through which she could see Mass and take Communion, and a window for the two servants whose job it was to cook her meals and attend to her bodily needs (Millett 2009, 161–162).


Christine de Pisan is arguably the best known of all the women writers of the Middle Ages, particularly the late Middle Ages, and is unusual in having been a prolific and popular writer outside of the convent. Born in Venice, she moved to Paris with her father, a physician and astrologer, at the age of four. She was married at fifteen and had three children. When her father and her husband died, Christine was left with her children, a niece, and her mother to support and turned to writing to bring in income from noble patrons. At the beginning of her career in the 1390s, she wrote poetry, especially love songs, allegory, and personal advice for people in the royal family. Her works were disseminated both in manuscript and in print during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Some of Christine’s works were far ahead of their time: she directly challenged sexist stereotypes, proving not only that a woman could write works of literature but also that a woman could be the judge of what was true and right in French medieval society. After more than a decade writing love poetry and other prose works, she defended women from the invective of a book called the Roman de la Rose, written in two sections by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean le Meung. Although the Roman de la Rose was written in the thirteenth century, the work gained a new popularity at the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth centuries. While the first section was a courtly love allegory, the second (and much longer) section was a satire, depicting women as vicious, unfaithful seducers. In 1399, Christine wrote the poem “Epitre au Dieu d’Amours” (“Letter to the God of Love”), arguing that the satire was indecent and vulgar and that it condemned all women for the faults of only a few. Her criticism spawned a flurry of letters from learned writers, both supporting and not supporting the Roman de la Rose and inaugurated a literary movement known as the querelle des femmes (“the debate about women”). The querelle des femmes is the name given by scholars to the centuries-long debate about the morality and intelligence of women, in which many writers sought to prove that women were the intellectual and moral equals of men (Kelly 1982, 10–11; Krueger 2013, 593–595).

In 1404, Christine responded to another thirteenth-century work, the Lamentations of Matheolus, a satire in which clerical marriage was lampooned, but which also contained hostile language toward women and, in particular, to women’s bodies. Christine countered this book with The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), an adaptation and expansion of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women. The Book of the City of Ladies was far from a copy though. It began with a description of Christine herself, sitting appalled after reading the Lamentations of Matheolus, and wondering why God made women if they were so lacking in virtue. Three women, Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice, appeared to her wearing crowns and commanded her to defend women against the invective of the Lamentations. Christine then portrayed one hundred important women, mostly taken from Christian classical literature. These women’s stories formed a metaphorical wall for the City of Ladies, in which virtuous, courageous women could live without fear of slander (Krueger 2013, 595–596). Altogether, Christine produced twelve major works and many minor ones between 1400 and 1415.

Christine’s everyday life as a writer was affected by her status as a widow, a group for whom she expressed sympathy in her work. As a widow, she had control over her own finances and professional life, but she was also vulnerable because she had no male protector. She may have worked as a copyist for a time, a trade in which she would have been paid by the page. She also depended on her father’s court connections to gain audiences for her many works. Her biography of the French king Charles V was commissioned by his brother, Duke Philip of Burgundy; it has been suggested that she might even have had access to the royal library. She had such a good relationship with the earl of Salisbury that he kept her son in his household. However, it has been suggested that in the last years of her life, Christine and her female relatives retreated to the Dominican convent at Poissy, where they were safe both from the outside world and from the conflict that was raging in France at the time (Labarge 1986, 235–37). At Poissy, although they were not nuns, they would have lived simply and safely as boarders.

Since the 1980s, scholars have debated whether Christine de Pisan was a feminist for her time. Her writing does not fit the modern definitions of feminism that include the goal that women and men should have equal access to public roles; rather, she defended women inside the roles that medieval society expected them to have—the family and the church. She did, however, pioneer spaces in which secular female writers could take control of their own stories. The popularity of her works in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries suggests that her audience was broad, until her works fell out of favor and out of print in the seventeenth century. She has found a new readership in modern times.


The mystic saint Catherine of Siena occupies a prominent place in the history of fourteenth-century Italy. Born the last of twenty-four children to a middle-class Italian family, early in life, Catherine decided to stay a virgin and strenuously resisted her parents’ attempts to find her a husband. She joined the Dominican order as a tertiary in 1363 and adopted extremely harsh ascetic practices, denying herself nourishment to the extent that that she was known to chew food and spit it out or even cause herself to vomit (Vauchez 2018, 1–37). Catherine’s severe practices attracted disciples, including her confessor Raymond of Capua (1330–1399), who was also her biographer. Over her lifetime, she dictated more than 380 letters—the most from any one medieval woman known—and a large work called the Dialogue, a four-section treatise on theology.

Catherine was far from a meek religious woman living quietly in a cloister. Her ascetic practices gave her a reputation for holiness that allowed her to affect the politics of Italy, particularly in her home town of Siena. Siena in the fourteenth century was a complex, commerce-driven society that was home to the bankers of the papacy and large trading interests. The city had gone from sixty thousand people to twenty thousand during the Black Death (1347–1353) and had a rivalry with Florence for the control of Tuscany. Different factions controlled the city during Catherine’s lifetime, and, at one time, two of her brothers served in its government. She traveled south of Siena in 1377 with her disciples (whom she called her famiglia, family) and stayed at the manor of a local noble family, the Salimbeni. Magistrates from Siena demanded that she return to the city because her presence at the Salimbeni manor implied that she supported the family politically. In a letter of response, Catherine scolded them: “The citizens of Siena do a very shameful thing in believing or imagining that we are here for making plots in the lands of the Salimbeni, or in any other place in the world” (Luongo 2006, 1–2). She argued that she was staying there for the purpose of saving souls and claimed that the magistrates had no jurisdiction over her because she was serving the higher agenda of God.

Despite her assertions, Catherine did affect Italian politics in the wider sense. During the early fourteenth century, the papacy had moved to the city of Avignon, close to the French border, and in Catherine’s day, the pope was threatened by a large alliance of northern city-states (including Siena) called the Florentine League. During this period, which was known as the “War of Eight Saints,” Catherine attempted to reconcile the two factions with a vision of a united Christendom in which problems in the church would be reformed and the city-states recruited to a new relationship with the papacy. She died in 1380, aged about thirty-three, only two years after the pope moved back to Rome (Luongo 2006, 21). Whether read for her theological discussions or to understand the politics of the late fourteenth century, Catherine’s letters are important for anyone who wants to study Italy during the early Renaissance.

MARGERY KEMPE (1373–ca. 1439)

The Book of Margery Kempe, dictated to a priest by a townswoman in what is now King’s Lynn, United Kingdom, in the fourteenth century, is a difficult text but is also full of insights for modern historians. Margery Kempe was born to a well-off family of merchants. Her father was mayor of Lynn five times and was also a member of Parliament. She was married when about twenty to a man from another middle-class family, John Kempe, who was a brewer. They were married until his death and had fourteen children together.

Margery Kempe began to have visions after the birth of her first child and continued to have mystical experiences for the rest of her life. Although it appears that she could neither read nor write, she had a knowledge of many of the religious works circulating in her day, including works about the mystics St. Birgitta of Sweden and St. Margaret of Hungary. She imitated the saints as best she could through prayer and loud, violent weeping. Her husband was baffled by her desire to cease having sexual intercourse (despite fourteen children!) and to devote herself to religious practices, but he finally granted her wish to be celibate in 1413.

Not long after, Margery resolved, partly inspired by divine visions, to visit Jerusalem, where she did so much weeping and wailing that she tried the patience of the other pilgrims. Returning from Jerusalem, she passed through Assisi and Rome. In Rome, she experienced a “mystical marriage” to Jesus, imagining a ritual in which she replaced her earthly husband with Christ. After returning home, she decided—again with divine encouragement—to visit the major pilgrimage site at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Such experiences made Margery unusually well-traveled for the period she lived in, and it was even more unusual for her to travel alone, picking up companions along the way. It speaks to her determination and resourcefulness, despite her descriptions of herself as weak and sinful.

Upon her return to Lynn, Margery became caught in a controversy centered around an English priest and heretic, John Wyclif, whose followers were called “Lollards.” Margery’s odd behavior caused her to be accused of Lollardy several times, but, each time, she was able to call on the church to attest to her orthodoxy. She cared for her husband after a bad fall confined him to bed and eventually when he became senile and incontinent (Bale 2015, 161–162). After his death, she accompanied her widowed daughter-in-law to Prussia, returning to England only with great difficulty. She probably died around 1439.

Margery Kempe’s Book contains many moments of everyday middle-class life, from Margery’s attempts at starting businesses in brewing and milling (both failures), to her descriptions of her clothing before her conversion, which she later considered sinful (Bale 2015, 13). She recounts frank conversations with her husband, and there are glimpses of Margery’s travels around her area of England, as well as her visits to Jerusalem and to Rome. Although there are not descriptions of everyday chores, her book records the voices of those who believed Margery was a living saint and those who thought she was a heretic. Because of this, Margery Kempe’s Book is an unusual window onto medieval life.


Bartolomea Riccoboni was a member of the convent of the Corpus Domini (body of Christ) in Venice, Italy, in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The convent had begun as a Benedictine house but, in 1394. was converted into a house of Dominican nuns that was wealthy and connected to the upper class of Venice. Bartolomea was twelve when she entered in 1394 and lived there until her death in 1440. Her writing is unusual for a medieval woman because she wrote chronicles. Chronicles are works that tell the history of a place or group, often in a yearly format, and she is one of the rare women who wrote such a work whose work survives. She also wrote a necrology, a list of the dead associated with the convent that served as a prayer guide for the nuns when they commemorated their supporters. Bartolomea’s chronicle, the Cronaca del Corpus Domini, detailed not only the experiences of individual nuns in her convent but also the history of the papal schism that divided the church in the early fifteenth century. This schism was the result of infighting and political conflict in the Catholic Church that led to a feud over who was the pope: there were three candidates, each claiming to have more right to the position than the other two. Bartolomea supported a Venetian-born pope, Gregory XII (ca. 1326–1417), but the city of Venice declared its support for a different pope. Her recounting of the conflict, in which some sisters disagreed with their superiors, emphasized the sisters’ respect for each other and the peaceful character of the convent. There were also moments of everyday life for the nuns. Bartolomea’s biography of the convent’s religious superior and supporter, Giovanni Dominici, is also interesting for its information about life in the convent. At one point, Dominici became worried that the nuns were punishing themselves too much through self-flagellation, a practice in which a person uses a whip or other device to provoke suffering during prayers. He asked them to surrender all the instruments they were using for this practice and was shocked by the number and severity of the instruments he received (Dunphy 2012, 185–190). Bartolomea’s works have an authoritative tone that is often missing from the work of medieval women. She can also tell us how one small house of nuns managed to thrive during a period of intense political pressure.


The Recollections (Denkwürdigkeiten) of the fifteenth-century Austrian noblewoman Helene Kottanner are surprisingly little known by readers today. She described herself as “of humble birth,” but she played a dangerous, secret role in the fortunes of the royal houses of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia. She married twice, once to the mayor of her hometown of Ödenburg and later to a more prominent nobleman. His connections to the crown of Austria enabled her to become a lady-in-waiting to the duchess Elizabeth (1409–1442), wife of Duke Albert of Austria. When Duchess Elizabeth had a daughter (also named Elizabeth) in 1436, Helene Kottanner became part of the household of the new child. During this time, she became very close to the duchess and spent a great deal of time with her as she attempted to have a son for Albert. In 1438, Duke Albert was elected as the king of Germany and, in 1439, the king of Hungary. Queen Elizabeth was pregnant when Albert died of dysentery later in 1439. She was under pressure to remarry from the nobles of Hungary, who chose the sixteen-year-old king of Poland as her next husband, but Elizabeth was sure that the child she was carrying was a boy who could inherit Hungary under her guardianship. To ensure that her son could inherit, she asked Helene Kottanner to steal the holy crown of Hungary, which, according to legend, had been the crown given by the pope to the first Christian king of Hungary, Istvan, around the year 1000. The holy crown was so revered in medieval Hungary that possession of it enabled the holder to claim the approval of God.

The story of the theft of the holy crown reads like an adventure novel. The pregnant queen was on the move, worried that she would be forced to marry the king of Poland, when she asked Helene Kottanner to steal the holy crown. Kottanner and an unnamed servant made a difficult fifty-mile trek to the castle at Visegrád, where the crown jewels were stored. They broke the seals on the vault, stole the crown, and replaced all the locks and other safeguards that sealed it. Kottanner then sewed the holy crown into a pillow and loaded it into her sledge to return to the queen. On the way back, they had to cross the frozen Danube River; the ice cracked under the sledges, and one of them fell into the river. According to her own account, Kottanner arrived just in time to assist at the birth of Elizabeth’s son, Ladislaus V. Ladislaus (called “Posthumous” because he was born after his father’s death) was baptized and crowned in 1440, held in Kottaner’s arms and wearing robes she had hand sewn. After Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1442, the royal family honored Kottanner with an estate near Bratislava (Classen 2007, 315–317; Dunphy 2012, 190–192).

Helene Kottanner’s Recollections allow us to take a look behind the scenes of the fraught political scene in fifteenth-century Eastern Europe and also into the closed world of aristocratic women at the mercy of their dynastic obligations. The adventures of Helene Kottanner introduce us to a resourceful woman who bravely changed the course of history.


In 1735, a collection of about one thousand letters was found at Oxnead Hall in Norfolk. They are the letters of the Paston family, a prominent upper-class family in the area during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The letters express the activities and personalities of several women who married into the Paston family: Agnes Berry (ca. 1400–1479), Margaret Mauteby (ca. 1420–1484), and Margery Brews (ca. 1460–1495), as well as their husbands, sons, and other relatives. Although the women did not always write down the letters themselves, they dictated them, and their personalities shine through the letters.

Agnes, the wife of William Paston, comes through as a ruthless personality. She and William had five living children together, and some of her letters tell of her matchmaking for them. She arranged her oldest son John I’s marriage to Margaret Mauteby in the late 1430s and expected his unquestioning obedience to her wishes. Later she quarreled with him over some property at Clere. Her daughter-in-law Margaret wrote to John, “She says she knows of no claims or legal right you have concerning it, unless you want a dispute with her, which will not earn you any respect” (Watt 2004, 75). Agnes was willing to cause a division within the family in order to maintain her personal rights.

Margaret, the person to or for whom most of the letters were written, had seven children with her husband, John Paston. The Wars of the Roses affected the fortunes of the whole family, and political quarrels with some of Norfolk’s most powerful nobles caused them both personal and financial loss. At one point, Margaret worried that she would have to defend their home physically while John was in London. She wrote to him, asking him to buy crossbow quarrels and pikes. Others of her letters gave news of her attempts to marry off her own children and requests for more normal items, such as caps and dresses. In one letter from 1441, she humorously asked her husband for a new belt because her pregnancy had made it impossible for her to wear the others. “I am now grown so slim,” she wrote, “that I cannot be girt into any girdle I have except one” (Virgoe 1989, 41). In a 1463 letter to her eldest son, John, she scolded him for angering his father and then went into detail about one of their horses, writing, “He shall never be any good for riding not much good for ploughing . . . I do not know what to do with him” (Watt 2004, 70). Everyday concerns and family matters are outlined in her letters.

Margaret’s greatest challenge may well have been the love affair between her daughter, Margery Paston, and Richard Calle, the steward of their estate. Margery and Richard married secretly against her parents’ wishes in 1469. When they discovered this, her parents were infuriated and separated them from one another until a church court determined that the marriage would stand. Margery endured being thrown out of the house by her mother, who directed the servants never to let her in again. The two women never made up. Margaret did, however, leave a small bequest for Margery’s eldest son in her will (Watt 2004, 115).


This book introduces the wide world of European medieval women. Though strong social customs and formal laws restricted their choices, medieval women were not as oppressed and silenced as we in the twenty-first century often imagine. We know the most about the women who left us something behind, whether that is a text (used mostly by historians) or an artifact (used mostly by archaeologists). Source rarity certainly shapes what we have learned and will be able to learn about medieval women. A surprising number of sources do survive, however, and they provide us with opportunities to see inside the everyday lives of women whose hopes and experiences were not that different from our own.

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