Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Women in the Middle Ages

When I set out to write this post, I was surprised at the dearth of female figures in the early Medieval period—thus up to about the year 900 in the secular realm and only touching on times to the Renaissance when I was summarizing the papacy. This comes about because the word medieval seems to mean the High Medieval to most compilers of lists, thus 1001-1300, and, furthermore, they omit the Byzantine half of that period. What came before the year 1000 was the Dark Ages to my informants. Many lists, therefore, begin with Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose life blossomed in a time beyond the range of years I intended to cover. From her time forward, we see a thickening of famous females. Well, herewith a small corrective.

To be sure, one might say that women are always more than half of all the people but they are, at best, only a tenth of history. Such is the nature of a patriarchal culture—which is the only one we really know. Visibility is always defined as secular prowess in politics and war. The highly visible women, if one digs down a bit, are invariably associated with good news—the spread of peace, harmony, order, health, and religion.

Above I present a list of prominent women, beginning with Saint Lucy, about whom I wrote in an earlier post on the Middle Ages, and ending with Saint Catherine of Sienna, principally because I mentioned her in my post on the Papacy. She was instrumental in ending the Avignon Papacy. I mention one Saint Teresa of whom few have ever heard—with a nod about the more famous who were to follow her: Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897), the Little Flower.

The color-coding I am using is meant to indicate, roughly, the kind of influence each prominent woman exercised. Blue is religious, the tan secular. The Empress Irene bridges two categories. She was the actual ruler of the Byzantine realm, but she is remembered best for convening the Second Council of Nicaea in which the veneration of icons, prohibited in the Byzantine realm, was once more permitted. The pink color marks two women who were both very rich, powerful in their own right, and rather popular. They were what we would call celebrities; more on them later.

Of the three items left white, the first is a marker to indicate that the womenfolk of barbarian tribes, in this case British, were likely to take part in wars with sword in hand. Of the other two Ende was an artist and not really famous until our day when feminism, I think, discovered her. But she has a place on the list to indicate that women also excelled in a famously monkish art, illumination. Trota of Salerno was also a doctor, but not of the Church. She shares this distinction—as practitioner and as a writer, with Hildegard of Bingen.A brief word, in sequence of time, about each.

Saint Lucy predates the Middle Ages but became, during that time, a highly revered saint. The posting on her is here.

Saint Clotilde’s fame comes from the very important event of her conversion of her husband, Clovis, the most prominent figure in the Merovingian Dynasty, to Catholicism. Women perceived the need for religious unity more keenly then men, with perhaps Charlemagne as an exception. Clotilde is perhaps the first queen who engaged in this unification effort—but not the last.

Theodora is perhaps the most famous name on this list. In the view of many historians, she was de facto co-ruler (some say the real ruler) of the Byzantine Empire under its most famous emperor, Justinian. She came from the bottom, you say, having been an actress. The conflict between East and West and competing forms of Christianity probably contributed to nasty claims that she had been a prostitute; whatever the truth of that, and we must be cautious here, she was certainly a theatrical celebrity, on the scope of a Marilyn Monroe, before she reached her exalted heights. Note here that she was a Miaphysite Christian (Jesus had two natures united as one); she was converted around her 20th year. In her later life she was an able promoter of the Orthodox form of Christianity, and she is a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Amalasuntha was a Goth, the daughter of that people’s most formidable emperor, Theodoric the Great. She illustrates the role of women—then and also now (thinking now of Indira Gandhi) who carried on a famed tradition. She ruled the Ostrogothic kingdom (Italy, parts of France, parts of the Balkans). Her orientation was strongly Roman rather than Christian. Like many ruler she was eventually deposed and murdered in her bath, Had she been Christian, she’d surely now be a saint as well.

Aelia Sophia, ruled Byzantium alone for a period of four years—but she did so during the temporary insanity of her husband, Justinian II, therefore she is called a regent. Her interests were economic and, during her own and her husbands reign, she effectively ran the Byzantine treasury—and all matters linked to that, including banking, loans, taxes, and more.

Saint Berta belongs to those who converted barbarian tribes to Christianity, here summarized (I’m quoting others) as having converted her husband and hence the Kent region. Her influence on the spread of Christianity in England, however, was much more complex.

Irene, usually referred to as Irene of Athens, was Empress in her own right, but ruling in the name of her infant son. Like Theodora, she too is a Greek Orthodox saint. Her fame comes from the reversal of the iconoclastic movement which had taken root in the East, reversed during a council of the church that she convened.

Ende. Very little is known of this woman. I include her because she fits the period and appears in the Dictionary of Women Artists published in 1997 in which the first artist featured, chronologically, is Ende—the second is Hildegard of Bingen who also, I might add, made a name for herself as a composer.

Matilda of Flanders is, perhaps, wrongly colored in my chart—as a celebrity. She certainly was one. She also ruled the Duchy of Normandy while her husband, William, was busy conquering England. When he was done, she became Queen of England as well but preferred to live, most of the time, in Normandy; there she continued to rule and to manage and nurture her many church related foundations.

Saint Hildegard. In that she is one of my favorite saints, you can read about her extensively on this blog, most extensively here (“Sibyl of the Rhine”) and here (“Doctor of the Church”). She became a Doctor of the Church just recently, you might say, in October of 2012. Of all the women on this list she is the most accomplished—as a foundress of convents, mystic, preacher, writer, composer, artist, and medical writer.

Trota of Salerno. Salerno is in southern Italy, a city that calls itself Hippocratica Civitas or the City of Hoppocritus, the famous healer. Trota, about whom almost nothing beyond her famous book De Curis Mulierum, thus Of the Healing of Women, was just doing her thing in the city of healing—and, to oblige a future blogger, she concentrated on—women.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, late in her life, became the Duchess of Aquitaine but only after having been Queen consort of France and of England. That word consort means that she shared his honors and titles, not his powers. She was married to King Louis VI but got “divorced,” you might say, because she could not bear a son. Pope Eugene III at first vetoed the annulment of her marriage. After Eleanor produced another daughter, and the lawyers got busy, an annulment was granted after all, based on consanguinity; the lawyers found a relationship between her and King Louis at the fourth degree, thus back in the days of the great grandparents. She was granted her own lands back in this process, i.e., Aquitaine. She next married the Duke of Normandy who later became King Henry II of England. She had ten children in total, of which five of eight were sons, two of them future kings. Just those many children would earn Eleanor, in my eyes, a place on this list…

Teresa of Portugal deserves her place here because she was both a queen and after the annulment of her marriage (she was married to her first cousin) she became a nun. She was also an early but lesser-known Saint Teresa. She founded a Benedictine monastery after returning to Portugal from Léon, where she had been queen. Léon is in Northern Spain. Later she transformed the monastery into a Cistercian convent for 300 nuns: looking out of the women…

Saint Catherine of Sienna’s mother, at birth called Lapa Piagetti, perhaps deserves this place on the list. She gave birth to 25 children in her life. Catherine and her twin sister, Giovanna, were premature births when Lapa had reached her fortieth year; they were Numbers 23 and 24. Giovanna died. But two years later Lapa gave birth again, to a daughter, whom she also named Giovanna. Catherine is the patron of (among others) Italy, miscarriages, sexual temptation, sickness, and nurses—all matters she had learned about in childhood. Yet she had also time to write extensively, her most famous work being The Dialogue of Divine Providence. She too is a Doctor of the Church—and she, too, earned that title quite late in history, in 1970. Even the Papacy is hearing the song of feminism…
Images in order with Wikipedia link:

Matilda of Flanders
Hildegard of Bingen
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Teresa of Portugal
Catherine of Sienna

Middle Ages Posts:

Charlemagne and the Quest for Order

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