By Danièle Cybulskie
In the Middle Ages, the ideal woman was meant to be either a helpmeet in marriage, or a cloistered nun, obedience being paramount in both roles. Human nature being what it is, however, not every woman found it easy to fill one of those narrow roles in society. Although my list could be much, much longer, here are five great women who refused to sit down and be quiet.
1. Empress Matilda (1102 – 1167 CE)
Matilda, the daughter of England’s Henry I, was the heiress to the throne, as well as Empress of Germany by marriage. Despite this, her cousin Stephen usurped her throne upon her father’s death, but Matilda did not take this lying down. Unwilling to concede defeat, she gathered her forces and returned to England, deposing Stephen and taking back her inheritance. Unfortunately, the pith and vinegar that gave Matilda the impetus to march in and take over managed to alienate her allies within England itself, and soon enough Stephen was placed back on the throne. Although she was the rightful queen, she was never acknowledged as such, and is remembered as Empress Matilda instead of a queen of England.
2. Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122 – 1204 CE)
Eleanor is remembered as one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages, and with good reason. She was Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Poitou, and Queen of France when she and Louis XII divorced over claims of consanguinity. Not long after the divorce, Eleanor married Henry II of England without bothering to ask for permission from Louis, likely because he would have refused the marriage: with Eleanor’s land, Henry II owned more of modern France than Louis did. Passionate love may easily have been a part of Eleanor and Henry’s courtship, and passionate dislike (if not outright hatred) was certainly a part of their long and tempestuous marriage. Refusing to be a quiet and obedient wife, Eleanor exerted a huge influence over her sons, encouraging their longing for more autonomy in ruling pieces of the kingdom. Henry was so convinced that she was behind the civil wars that erupted between himself and his sons that he kept her imprisoned (comfortably) far from court for many years. The rift between father and sons was never able to be healed, and Henry II died after submitting to Richard (I – the Lionheart) and John. Eleanor’s hand in raising Richard was most likely the reason he was much more enamoured with Aquitaine than England itself, which he barely ever set foot in, as well as the reason the courtly love tradition began to flourish in England.
3. Isabella of France (1295 – 1358 CE)
Isabella was a princess of France, married to Edward II of England. Marriage to Edward was difficult for Isabella, however, as he was a weak king, in the habit of alienating the aristocracy by elevating his favourites (it’s very likely these men were also his lovers) and showering them with outrageous gifts and status. Eventually, Isabella had had enough of Edward’s ineffectual rule, and led an open rebellion against him, placing her son (Edward III) on the throne. Not only did she manage this through her vast influence, but she also held power enough that she was able to keep a lover, Roger Mortimer, without needing to keep the scandal too carefully under wraps. Eventually, Edward III separated them and executed Mortimer, but he never held his mother to the same account. Isabella’s French influence was felt long after Edward’s rule, as it was she (and through her, Edward III) who held a claim to the French throne, a major factor in the Hundred Years’ War.
4. Joan of Arc (c.1412 – 1431 CE)
I mention Joan here because she was absolutely remarkable in her refusal to ever back down. A peasant girl from Domrémy, Joan managed to convince the local population, then high aristocrats, then the Dauphin himself that she was not a heretic, but rather a chosen vehicle for God’s work. Rumour of her visions alone might have been enough to reignite the French army’s low morale, but Joan actually put herself on the front lines of battle, again and again, despite this being absolutely contrary to all convention. Unfortunately for Joan, her obstinacy split the army between the path of her visions and the plan of experienced commanders, and she found herself excluded from strategy sessions and forays against the enemy. By the time she was captured by the English, her influence in France had waned, but Joan held to her convictions. She was treated badly by the English, and told she would escape burning if she would only confess to being a heretic. In a moment of weakness, she signed a confession, but the next day she took it back. Joan was duly burnt at the stake, only being canonized a saint many years later.
5. Christine de Pizan (1365 – c.1430 CE)
Christine was a contemporary of Joan of Arc, and she is said to be the first professional female writer. Widowed young with little children to care for, Christine used the education she had received at the insistence of her father to write poetry and prose for the French court. She wrote essays promoting peace, songs about her experience as a woman, and even a piece in praise of Joan. Most stunningly, however, Christine wrote The Book of The City of Ladies, a careful argument which takes apart all of the conventional arguments men made about women at the time. She wrote it in reaction to The Romance of the Rose, the content of which she strongly, vocally disagreed with. In The City of Ladies, Christine uses biblical stories, legends, and conventional wisdom to prove that women are smart, strong, loyal, and worthy of more respect than they get. Her careful logic and tact kept the book from being banned, and herself safe from prosecution throughout her long life. Unfortunately, The City of Ladies was not considered a vital part of historic study for centuries, which (in its own way) proves Christine’s very point.
Although I don’t have a book recommendation for Empress Matilda’s life, I’d recommend Alison Weir’s biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine (she also has written a novel on Eleanor) and Isabella of France. For Joan of Arc, check out Nancy Goldstone’s The Maid and the Queen for a great look at both Joan and another influential great lady: Yolande of Aragon. As for Christine de Pisan, I highly recommend reading The Book of the City of Ladies for yourself (this is a good edition).
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist