Women on Women of the Middle Ages

A few good books on the subject . . .

A few good books on the subject of medieval women . . .

Lisa M. Bitel and Felice Lifshitz (eds.) Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008)

    Some fruits of the contemporary reappraisal of religious sources of many kinds for understanding the lives of medieval women and men

Leigh Ann Craig, Wandering Women and Holy Matrons: Women as Pilgrims in the Later Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2009)

    Pilgrimage was an available form of religious devotion for many, and had a complicated and illuminating relationship to women’s culturally accepted roles.

Marie Anne Mayeski, Women at the Table: Three Medieval Theologians (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004)

    Drawing out the theological content of medieval hagiographies; includes a chapter on Bounivia’s Life of Radegunde, “A Theology of Power”

Liz Herbert McAvoy, Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2010)

A. Minnis, R. Voaden (eds.) Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition, C. 1100-1500 (Brepols Publishers, 2010)

Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (eds.) Household, Women, and Christianities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Brepols, 2006)

Elizabeth Alvida Petroff, (ed.) Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)

Virginia Chieffo Raguin and Sarah Stanbury (eds.) Women’s space: Patronage, Place, and Gender in the Medieval Church (Albany: SUNY Press, 2005)

Margaret Schaus, ed. Women and gender in medieval Europe: an Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2006)

Jennifer C. Ward, Women in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500 (New York: Longman, 2002)

Bonnie Wheeler (ed.) Representations of the Feminine in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1995)


The Life of the Beguine

Beguines trace their origins to the 13th century

Independent women, unregulated by patriarchal institutions, fashioning their own communities around work and spiritual practice . . . might the medieval beguines be a kind of prototype for Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza’s ekklesia of women?

Consider what we know about them:

Beguines were lay women who banded together to lead a more devotedly religious life, without entering a cloister. Reasons for choosing the beguine life differed; some women were widows with children, who would have had to abandon their children to enter a cloister; others lacked the money with which to secure a position in a convent; others felt they lacked the temperament for cloistered life. Some women entered the beguine life in an effort to escape undesirable arranged marriages, or abusive marriages — beguines were known to have helped women in these circumstances. Whatever the motivation, the life of a beguine allowed a creative articulation of the contemplative and the active life in a flexible way that suited the lives of lay women.

The beguine movement seems to have been genuinely collective from its inception in the southern Lowlands, around Liège, in approximately 1200. Well-known early beguines (e.g., Yvette de Huy) were not exactly “founders,” as much as leading lights in a movement in which women formed groups, or beguinages, to support their practice of religious life. Many beguinages were small, based in houses or gaining permission to use portions of existing cloisters. Others, known as “court Beguinages,” became very large, housing as many as 1500 women, becoming semi-enclosed same-sex neighborhoods organized around daily mass and service, with their own hospitals and churches. (UNESCO has designated a number of surviving court Beguinages in Belgium as World Heritage sites and the structures now rank as tourist destinations)

Beguines took vows — of chastity, and of obedience to the head of the beguinage — and engaged in religious practices of contemplation and service. They did not take vows of celibacy, and were free to leave the life to marry or remarry. They did not take vows of poverty, and were expected to provide for their own welfare by their own work. Since the beguines never had official ecclesial status, their vows were not recognized by the church in the same way as those of other religious; but this meant a beguine’s career could be as permanent or temporary as she chose. Some beguines left the life to marry; others moved on to even more rigorous religious observance; Yvette de Huy, for instance, ended her life as an anchoress.

Beguines developed a distinctive form of spirituality that centered on the contemplation of divine love, and emphasized a passionate engagement with elements like the eucharist, Christ’s Passion, and the sorrows of the Virgin Mary. As an empathic path, beguines sometimes sought identification with Christ or the Virgin through a sharing of suffering. As an experiential path, beguine writings display a good deal of “bridal mysticism.”

Beguines’ status in the eyes of official Christendom was precarious at best. Their “vernacular theology,” lay writings, appropriations of Scripture into local languages, and teaching activities (which sometimes seemed to amount to actual preaching, an activity reserved for men) were suspect. The name “beguine” itself was a pejorative, associated with the [heretical] Albigensians or with mumbling speech, that is, speech not to be trusted. The doctors of the church labeled beguine theology “irrational” and church leaders accused the beguines of “false piety.” Ecclesiastical authorities tolerated the movement for about 100 years, then turned towards persecution after the prominent beguine Marguerite of Porete, author of The Mirror of Simple Souls, was condemned and executed as a heretic. Decrees from the Council of Vienne, 1311-1312, also targeted the beguines.

In spite of everything, small beguinages persisted well into the 20th century — perhaps attesting to the attractiveness of a way of life that was architected by women, around the realities of women’s lives, and oriented towards the Ultimate Good. That sounds a lot like what might come under the banner of the ekklesia of women after all.

Read More . . .

about the beguines:

by the beguines:

The Life of the Anchoress

Well-known 14th century anchoress and author Julian of Norwich

Virginia Woolf, in 1928, noted that a woman needed “money and a room of her own” to write fiction.

The medieval anchoress, (one of the five religious options available to religiously-minded women of the middle ages) may confirm Woolf’s insight. The anchoress secured both money and a room of her own, not for the writing of fiction but for the religious life of contemplation and study.

An anchoress took upon herself a vow to remain in one place — the anchorhold, typically a small enclosed structure attached to a church — for the remainder of her life. This anchoritic practice was not new, being in fact one of the oldest forms of monasticism, but it flourished during the middle ages.

The life of an anchoress involved renunciation, undertaken for the sake of devotion to God and the religious life. In practice, however, the life of an anchoress was not necessarily:

  • lived out in a single small cell; anchorholds might have several rooms, and might include gardens. Animals other than a single cat were, however, discouraged.
  • solitary; anchorholds might house groups of women, and servants might be part of the group. (Although whether life in a small space with a group would be preferable to life in a small space alone might be debated.)
  • reclusive; typically, anchorholds permitted communication with the outside world in various directions; the small openings into a church, known as “hagioscopes” or “squints,” enabled the anchoress to view the elevation of the host and to receive the eucharist; through their windows onto the outside world, anchoresses received visitors, dispensed advice and counsel, and even engaged in commerce, such as the sale of goods made in the anchorhold. “Sometimes, if criticism of them has any truth to it, they were a little too involved in the community, entertaining visitors, teaching children, and even acting as local bankers.” (Schaus, 17)
  • officially enclosed (!) — The classic image of an anchoress is of a contemplative immured in her space, after a ceremony that emphasized their death to the world; she might have been carried into the cell in her coffin, or she might work daily on digging her own grave. This image does fit some anchorholds! Others, however, simply had doors that locked from the inside, in effect creating a sacred, private space for a woman’s religious life that was under her exclusive control. (Sauer)

Moreover, while an anchoress was not expected to live lavishly, she would not have been destitute. Most anchoresses seem to have come from the upper middle or middle classes of medieval society. Before entering the anchorhold, an anchoress would typically have made arrangements for the provision of her needs, either through her own endowment, or through the sponsorship of a local patron — who might find the merit associated with this charitable deed attractive. In short, anchoresses did not just have the rooms of their own, but also the money, to live lives devoted to contemplation, rather than ones taken up by the daily demands of a household, husband and children.

Most anchoresses were somewhat anonymous, like the 12th century anchorite and poet known simply as Ava, though they conferred prestige on the communities of which they were a part, and would have been significant local presences. Some, however, were well and widely known. Perhaps the most famous of these medieval anchoresses is the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich, who authored her magisterial Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love after taking up the anchoritic life.

Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, while not a work of fiction, is the first book in English written by a woman.

Read more about . . .

medieval anchoresses in Margaret Schaus, ed., Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2006) or, more briefly, at Middle Ages.org

the Ancrene wisse, or rule for anchoresses, in Robert J. Hasenfratz, ed. Ancrene Wisse (Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2000) full text online — for those who read Latin and middle Anglo-Saxon and in Yoko Wada, ed. A Companion to Ancrene Wisse (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003)

Julian of Norwich at her official site or at Other Women’s Voices

Ava the anchorite at Other Women’s Voices

Two Women of Medieval Ethiopia

Facade of the rock-hewn church Abba Libanos, Lalibela (Adefa), Ethiopia

When people in the United States think of “the Middle Ages,” chances are they think of Europe. But people lived everywhere on the globe during the centuries thought of as medieval (roughly the 5th to the 15th centuries CE). In Ethiopia, the fortunes of the Christian Aksumite Empire, and its successor Zagwe dynasty, intersected with the lives of two remarkable women — about whom almost nothing seems to be known with certainty.

History knows that in the late 10th century CE a woman warrior, Godit (alternatively, Yodit, Gudit, Judith, or colloquially Isat), led the raids on the forces of the waning Aksumite Empire that brought it to a definitive end. One source identifies her as the founder of the Zagwe dynasty. It is clear that she was not Christian; some sources suggest she may have had ties to the ancient Falasha, or Jewish, Ethiopian community; what is unclear is whether her opposition to the Aksumites stemmed from this religious difference, or had some other origin.

Over time, however, the Zagwe dynasty returned to Christianity. Late in the Zagwe period, in the last years of the 12th century and the first years of the 13th century, the ruler Gebre-Masqal and wife Masqal-Kabra undertook a massive architectural project that now ranks as one of the wonders of the world: the rock-hewn churches of Adefa (later known as Lalibela, after one of the epithets of the king).

Masqal-Kabra reportedly exerted sufficient political influence to have had her brother Hirun ordained as bishop (a canonical source documents an ecclesiastical dispute over alleging the bishop’s bad behavior, which proved false; the pious bishop never left his hous except to perform mass), and to have persuaded her husband to abdicate for a time in favor of his nephew Naakweto La-ab, and then, after reports of gross injustice in Naakweto’s administration (soldiers reportedly appropriated a poor farmer’s only cow) to have insisted that Gebre-Masqal take up the crown once more. She is also reportedly the sole patron of one of the rock-hewn churches, Bet Abba Libanos, said to have been built as a memorial to her husband after his death in 1230 CE.

Attestations in every case are less secure than sometimes reported — which may be one of the central lessons these remarkable women have to teach. History is not just a process of memory, but of valued and protected memory. It preserves best what power chooses to remember, and what tenacity refuses to let go. That process has not been particularly kind to women, nor even — despite tenacious efforts by a long-lived dynastic leadership — to Ethiopia. A genuine celebration of diversity includes the celebration of memory . . . the insight behind Women’s History Month.

Read More . . .

In the Dictionary of African Christian Biography on Gudit and Masqal-Kebra — in the biographies of her husband Lalibala, her brother Hirun, and her nephew Naakweto La-ab

In Ethiopia on Godit

In J.M. Harden’s 1926 Introduction to Ethiopian Christian Literature on Masqal-Kabra, as part of an excerpt from the Life of King Lalibela.


Radegund renounces married life

The world-historical break-up of the Roman Empire in the west inaugurated a period of struggle for power and control of the former imperial territories.

That world history involved women.

The life of Radegund (b. ca. 520, d. August 13, 587) — Queen of the Franks, Saint of the Church — dramatizes the intricate relationships that formed between European leaders of the early medieval period and the church representatives whose approval they sought. It also dramatizes the human side of the political and military struggles taking place during this period.

Radegund was the daughter of a king of Thuringia (what would today be an area of central Germany). Her uncle killed her father in a battle for territorial control when she was very young. In 531, Clotaire I, King of the Franks, invaded Thuringia, killed most of her remaining relatives, and took her and her brother, Hermanfried, back to his stronghold in what is now Picardy. This abduction meant exposure to Christianity; the Franks had been at least officially a Christian people since Clovis I’s conversion to Christianity in 496.

Radegund was less than cooperative with the plan that she marry Clotaire to reinforce the Franks’ claim to Thuringia. She fled Clotaire’s court around the age of 18, but was brought back to Soissons and did marry the king ca. 540. She fled the court again ca. 550, after Clotaire’s murder of her brother — another move to reinforce claims to the territory. This time she appealed to the church, first to the Bishop of Noyon — to dedicate her life to the church, despite her married state — and later to the Bishop of Paris, to use the church’s influence over her husband more or less as a restraining order, to induce him to stop trying to return her to his court. This move succeeded. Radegund thereafter remained in religious life, with the support of her former husband and later of his children,

Just how much support can be gleaned from the following facts: Radegund founded the Convent of Our Lady of Poitiers, later the Convent of the Holy Cross, ca. 552, with lands and money from her own inheritance, and with the blessing and active assistance of Clotaire. The convent grew to a community of about 200 nuns. Its organization under the strict Caesarian rule, which stipulated the education of the sisters and their devotion of part of the day to sacred reading, as well as a strict confindement to the cloister, seems to have been part of her efforts to remain free of the control of Maroveus, the Bishop of Poitiers.

Radegund was a saint, but her piety left ample room for politics and pleasure. She reportedly saw no contradiction between the strict monastic rule governing the convent and her practice of entertaining visitors with lavish feasts. In a letter to the bishops of her district regarding the welfare of the convent, she does not hesitate to direct these personages from the status of one long accustomed to make use of her position. On the other hand, if her own words are any indication, this attitude reflected an underlying altruism and advocacy; as she writes:

Some time ago, when I found myself freed from earthly cares, with Divine Providence and with God’s grace to inspire me, I turned of my own volition, under Christ’s guidance, to the religious life. I asked myself, with all the ardor of which I am capable, how I could best forward the cause of other women, and how, if our Lord so willed, my own personal desires might be of advantage to my sisters.

More at:

Other Women’s Voices – Radegund and Baudonivia — a biography and links to primary and secondary sources

Jesus College, Cambridge — a biography, and additional resources on connections between Radegund, patron saint of Jesus College, and the convent at Poitiers