Top 10 Influential Medieval Women

Suggested by SMS

Before the Renaissance, women in particular were not recognized widely for their contributions to writing and the arts.  In these medieval times, women were greatly oppressed and the consensus were usually that women were not to be educated at all “Seen but not heard”.  Women were not allowed many privileges that were considered only for men and education and warfare are just few practices that were considered taboo or scandalous.  These ten women made their mark in one of the darkest times in history; not caring what anyone thought.

10. Heloise

Heloise was born in 1101 in France.  She was the ward of her uncle, Abbot Fulbert, the Canon of Notre Dame.  Her uncle oversaw her education and was quite intent on having the best education money could buy.  Her education started at the Convent of Saint Mary in Argenteuil, then on to Paris where she studied philosophy, theology, and literature.  She then became the pupil of Peter Abelard.  He was a professor at the University of Paris who took board at Abbot Fulbert’s home in order to focus solely on tutoring Heloise.  Peter and Heloise began an affair in her home.  Being that Peter was sworn to celibacy as a professor, this was strictly forbidden.  Her uncle eventually found out and forced the two apart, though they would later flee off into the countryside together.

Heloise’s legacy comes from the love affair with Peter Abelard and the letters written to him even through the turmoil they faced.  They wed and bore a son in secrecy, but were forced apart again when they were finally discovered.  Peter was brutally attacked and forced to become a monk. Heloise chose to take her vows as a nun and gave their son up.  Though they never saw each other again, they continued writing the beautiful love letters that would be chronicled and sung about for ages to come.

Her career included philosopher, medieval scholar, Prioress at the Convent of Saint Mary in Argenteuil and Abbess of Paraclete in 1129.  She was laid to rest on May 15, 1164.

9. Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim

Hrotsvitha was born in the 10th century in what is now known as Lower Saxony.  She was of German nobility and was made a canoness at the Benedictine Abbey of Gandersheim.  She was considered a poet and a dramatist and by most, she was thought to have been the first person since antiquity to compose drama strictly in Latin.

She was well educated, and studied under another well-educated woman by the name of Gerberg.  It was actually Gerberg’s brother that influenced one of Hrotsvitha’s works which was based on the coronation of Empower Otto in 962, entitled Carmen de Gestis Oddonis Imperatoris.

Her works were part of the Ottonian Renaissance.  Here’s a list of her workings:

Ascensio, Gangolf, Pelagius, Theophilus, Basilius, Dionysius, Agnes, Maria

Gallicanus, Dulcitius, Callimachus, Abraham, Pafnutius, Sapientia

Gesta Ottonis (a history of the Ottonian houses 919-965), Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis (a history of her order from 846-919).

The first set of workings make up The Book of Legend, the second make up The Book of Drama, and the last two are historical writings in Latin Hexameters.

Her workings are so popular in Europe that there is even an award name after her, the Roswitha Prize (Roswitha being one of the names she was known by).

Women like her are few and far in between throughout our history, at least that have been recognized.  Though little is known of her life other than her workings, those alone have made her a very large influence on writings throughout history.

8. Anna of Byzantium

Anna Comnena was born on December 2, 1083 to the emperor Alexius I Comnenus.  She was also known as Anna of Byzantium.  She was a recognized historian for her documentary of her father’s life and reign.  She was alledged to have been the first female historian recorded.

Though she never went beyond the palace walls, she pursued knowledge with vigor her studies included subjects such as, literature, philosophy, history, and geography.  She was betrothed to Constantine Ducas, her mother’s cousin; however he died before it ever took place.  She eventually married Nicephorus Bryennius in 1097.

She and her mother, Empress Irene, had tried unsuccessfully many times to persuade her father to disown her brother, John II Comnenus, who was heir to the throne.  When those attempts failed, they turned to Anna’s husband and asked for his help in overthrowing her brother.  Instead, he went to John II Comnenus and informed him of their intentions.  Once he had officially taken the throne, he cast them all out of the court.  Anna and her mother lived out the rest of their days in a convent after the death of Anna’s husband.

Though she died in 1153 stripped of her former life, her book “Alexiad” has been used as a valuable source of a pro-Byzantine account of the early Crusades.

7. Lady Murasaki

Lady Murasaki was born in Japan and is considered throughout history to be the world’s finest and earliest modern novelists.

She was the daughter of the governor of their province and proved to be better at her studies than her brother. This caused her father great distress at which time he was known to have proclaimed: “If only you were a boy, how happy I should be!”  Even though he had reservations, he still allowed her to continue her studies.  Part of her studies included some of the Chinese classics, which were considered to be improper for females to study at the time.

She was married off to a distant relative when she was in her early twenties.  They had a daughter, but her husband died soon after.  Learning of her brilliance and writing skills, she was called to join the imperial court.

Although she may have begun to write The Tale of the Genji before her time in the court, the majority was written while there and loosely based on her time as a lady in waiting to Empress Akiko.

Her story has been translated many times into hundreds of languages, and although the original was eventually lost over time, the tale of “The Shining Prince” has become legendary.

Other than her time in the royal court there is little known about the life of Murasaki.  She has more than earned her place as a well-established and influential woman of the ages.

6. Empress Matilda (Queen Maud)

Empress Matilda was born daughter and heir to King Henry I of England, and granddaughter of William the Conqueror.  She had only one other sibling but he would die before he could ever take the throne. Though she did occupy the throne, it was only for a period of a few months, and unfortunately she has been left out of most accounts of rulers.  Her cousin, Stephen, took the throne and actually is claimed to have ruled even during her brief time on the throne.  The battle with her cousin caused civil unrest that has been called at time “The Anarchy”.

When she was twelve, in 1114, she was married to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor.  They never had any surviving children, so after his death in 1125, she returned to England.  Soon after her return, King Henry I arranged another marriage in order to keep peace between Normandy and Anjou.  She was wed in 1128 at the age of twenty-six to Geoffrey of Anjou, then only fourteen.

Her marriage to Geoffrey was very troubled, but even so, she managed and bore him three sons, Henry, Geoffrey, Count of Nantes, and William X, Count of Poitou.  She ended up surviving her second husband as well, his death being in 1151.

Though the civil war created by the feud between Stephen and Matilda, due to his only son’s early death, Stephen eventually named Henry, Matilda’s son, king.  Matilda retired to Normandy where she held her own court, and acted as mediator between her three sons.  When she finally died in 1167 she was buried in the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin, Normandy. Her body was transferred to Rouen Cathedral in 1847 where her epitaph reads: “Great by Birth, Greater by Marriage, Greatest in her Offspring: Here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry.”

5. Amalasunith (Queen of the Goths)

Amalasunith was born in 495 and was the daughter of the Ostrogoth king, Theoderic.  Theoderic was known to rule more like a Roman emperor than in the traditional way of the Goths.  Amalasunith was married in 515 to Eutharic, an Ostrogoth nobleman.  They had one son, Athalaric and a daughter, Metasuntha.

Eutharic died at an early age, leaving Amalasunith a widow raising the children on her own.  She made sure they had a good Roman education, emphasizing law, rhetoric, and the humanities. When her son was named as successor to the throne in 526, the gothic community did not take kindly to this.  They would not be ruled by someone who knew nothing of fighting and war; only of reading and writing.  To appease them, Amalasunith allowed Athalaric to befriend some of the rougher children, believing he would pick up enough of their behavior and put him in good graces with those against him ruling.  Instead, he learned only of drinking and womanizing.  He died in 534 leaving Amalasunith as acting regent.  She knew that a woman would not be accepted as ruler, so she contacted her estranged cousin, Theodahad, to share the throne.  He agreed to rule as she did and was allowed to join her.

Unfortunately, Theodahad had a grudge against her, and almost immediately after taking the throne, imprisoned her in the island of Martana in the Tuscan lake of Bolsena.  Unbeknownst to Theodahad, Amalasunith had long ago made an agreement with the Eastern emperor, Justinian.  He would come to her aid should anyone confine or kill her.  Theodahad sealed his fate when Amalasunith was murdered in 535.  The ensuing battle lasted for fifteen years and ended the Ostrogoth era.

4. Olga of Russia

Olga was born in 879 to Oleg Veshchy, the founder of the Kieven Rus state.  They were thought to have been of Viking origins.  Her father initiated the marriage between Olga and Prince Igor, son of the Novgorod Prince Rurik, a founder of the Rurik Dynasty of Russian tsars.  Igor took the throne upon Oleg’s death in 912.

In 945, Prince Igor visited the Drevlyans in order to collect tributes, however, after demanding more in payment, the Drevlyans killed him.  This is when the legend of Olga of Russia really began.

After her husband’s death, Olga assumed control of the throne since their son was only three at the time.  Amazingly enough, she had full support of the Rus army since she had earned their respect many years before.

The Drevlyans sent ambassaders to Olga, requesting of her to marry their Prince Mal.  She responded by immediately killing the ambassadors by burying them alive.  She sent word back to the Drevlyans and demanded they send better ambassadors.  When the next group arrived, she had them burned alive in the bathhouse.  Soon afterward, she visited the land of the Drevlyans, supposedly to have a memorial feast in honor of her dead husband.  When her enemies were drunk, she ordered them all killed.  It’s reported upwards of five thousand were slaughtered.

Her last act of vengeance against the Drevlyans was in 946 while visiting one of their towns, Iskorosten.  When they refused to pay their tributes, she asked for a gift instead of a dove from each household.  It’s reported she then affixed a piece of burning paper to each dove’s leg and sent them back to their homes, burning down the entire town.

Her son took over when he was of age, but still shared the throne with his mother until her death.  During his reign, Olga decided to embrace Christianity.  Many times, she beseeched the church, asking them to appoint an archbishop and priests to serve in her country but whether lore or not, for some reason they never would.  And even though her son did not agree with her choice in religion, he granted her wishes and gave her a proper burial upon her death.

In 1547 the Orthodox Church proclaimed Princess Olga a saint and equal-to-the-apostles. She became one of only five women to be honored with this status in the history of Christianity.

3. Lady Godiva

Lady Godiva was said to have been an 11th century noblewoman.  She was wife to Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and bore him one child, Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia.  Both Godiva and her husband, Leofric, were said to have been extremely generous when donating to religious houses.  They would often sign over land, and give gifts of gold and lavish jewels to different churches.

The legend of Lady Godiva centers on her infamous ride through the streets of Coventry.  It was said that she was extremely opposed to the outrageous taxes her husband instilled upon the people.  She begged him many times to lower the taxes and take pity on the people.  Though generous to the church, he was otherwise of a greedy nature.  At one point he became tired of his wife’s pleas that he gave her the condition that should she strip naked and ride through the streets, he would lower the taxes.

She took him at his word and sent out the announcement that everyone was to evacuate the streets, stay indoors with shutters closed.  No one was to look upon her as she rode through.  She made her ride and her husband kept his promise and lowered the taxes, forever putting her in the good graces of the people.

This is also when, supposedly, another legend of the “Peeping Tom” occurred.  It was said that a villager by the name of Tom bore a hole in his shutter and was either struck blind or killed for looking at her naked body.

2. Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc, otherwise known as “The Maid of Orleans” was born in 1412 in eastern France.  She was nothing more than a mere peasant girl, but it would be her claims of visions and later her aid to the French army that would take her from the status of a peasant girl to that of both a savior and a saint.

Though she claimed to have always had visions of angels and saints speaking to her, it wasn’t until she was about twelve years old, when Joan says they began telling her she needed to go speak to Charles VII.  This was amidst the Hundred Year War between the English and the French.  She went several times to speak to a local Lord, but was sent back home each time.  When she finally made it before Charles, he listened to her tell of how the Lord wished Charles VII to be ruler and that if he would follow instruction given through her, he would win against the English.  He wanted to verify her information and sent her to be examined by a group of theologians.  They took three weeks, but declared her knowledgeable.

With her guidance and her leadership, the French succeeded in driving back the English, and Charles VII made it to the throne.  Unfortunately, during battle, Joan was taken by the English and brought back with them to England.  She was put on trial and charged with heresy, resulting in her being burned at the stake.  Nevertheless, she was later declared a saint by the church, joining the short list of women ever given that honor.

1. Eleanor Of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a very powerful presence and extremely wealthy woman born into it during the Middle Ages.  At the age of fifteen, she was married off to Louis VII, making her Queen of France.  She had no intention of sitting behind while battles were being fought, so she knelt before in the cathedral of Vézelay before the celebrated Abbé Bernard of Clairvaux offering him thousands of her vassals for the Second Crusade.   The church was more than happy to take her offering, until they realized she and many other maidens were making their way to help with the wounded.

While helping during the Crusades, she crossed paths with a favorite uncle of hers.  He beseeched her to help him in his quest, while her husband, Loui was determined to make the trek all the way to Jeruselum.  Although a fool’s errand, Louis forced her to follow him, and both returned, defeated.

Back in France, she bore him three children, though all daughters.  When she asked for an annulment, Louis granted it, her lands returned to her, and her daughters remaining with him.  It wasn’t long after her marriage was dissolved that she became to Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy who would later become King of England, and Eleanor, Queen.

She bore Henry eight children.  She was imprisoned between 1173 and 1189 for trying to help their son Henry overthrow her husband.  After he passed his successor, Richard the Lionhearted, immediately pardoned his mother.  She would live out the rest of her days as acting regent and outlived all but two of her children.

As you can clearly see by this list of influential women that even in the darkest times, women have played a persuasive and memorable role throughout the course of history.