The Middle Ages. They weren’t what you thought they were. Welcome to Medieval Monday, in which I employ my two History degrees and irritation about the misconceptions of Days of Yore to bring you topics about an era you only think you know. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet….
In last week’s Medieval Monday blog I wrote about women who ruled. Yes, contrary to popular belief, there were women in the Middle Ages who held positions of power and were able to exercise authority independently over vast kingdoms. They weren’t the only ones who had power in the Medieval and Renaissance worlds. I spent some time talking about one of my personal favorite women of history, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine was a highly educated woman who made the education of all women of means a fashion. But it might surprise you to know that some women were well-renowned for their mental and creative prowess. To you my fellow writers out there, these are our predecessors. Before J.K. Rowling, before Jane Austen, there were Hildegard of Bingen, Christine de Pisan, and Veronica Franco.
Hildegard of Bingen lived from 1098 to 1179 and was, frankly, awesome. When most people think of this High Medieval time period they think of Crusades and Cathedrals, Knights and Popes. But while men were bashing each other and getting into trouble Hildegard was well on her way to becoming a Renaissance Man long before the term even thought of being coined. A contemporary of Eleanor of Aquitaine, she was a German nun who was not only elected to lead her own abbey, but founded two others as well. She was a leading authority on medieval medicine and science, a prophet and visionary or sorts, and a poet and composer. In fact, some of the oldest surviving Medieval mystery plays were composed by none other than her. These sorts of plays would be performed in song in the great cathedrals of the day on holidays and special occasions. So not only was she a precursor to the likes of Shakespeare, she laid the foundation for composers from Bach to Mozart.
What impresses me the most about Hildegard is how far her reach extended. In addition to science and the arts she was also a skilled political scientist. Her opinions and advice were sought by kings, emperors and popes. Not quite the damsel in the tower that some historians picture Medieval women to be, eh? This woman had serious clout. But what also impresses me is how feminine her views of things were. The visions she shared were of a loving God, a distinctly feminine mysticism that was a far cry from the Medieval Church’s lofty God sitting in judgment. She was a smart woman but a woman still.
Hildegard is just one outstanding example of a common theme in the Medieval world. Women in the Church were some of the most learned and influential people in the world. The Church was tantamount to a kingdom within all kingdoms and nuns had the potential to be just as powerful as their male counterparts. It wasn’t a world of complete equality, but it was far from all doom and gloom for the “weaker sex”.
Centuries later this trend of near equality of learning would take a turn for the proto-feminist in Christine de Pisan. Christine lived from 1363 to about 1430 and lived most of her life in Paris and later at the abbey of Poissy. She became a writer as a way to support herself and her children after her husband’s death. Think about that for a second. A woman in 14th century France supported herself by her writing. Many of us can’t even claim that today, but here was this woman in the late Middle Ages making her way with her pen. She composed vibrant poetry of love for her deceased husband as well as allegorical and autobiographical works. I particularly love the title of one of her works, The Book of the City of Ladies. More than just that, she was known as a scholar and people, men-type people, would come from far and wide to study with her as documented in the following contemporary picture:
What makes Christine’s works particularly remarkable are that she was bold enough to take up her pen and write in defense of women, who were often vilified as seductresses, particularly in one work, The Romance of the Rose. Christine defended women … and her books sold. Her views wouldn’t be considered radical by modern standards, but in a world where men hold most of the cards and women had to fight hard and loud to be heard she managed to stand out and make her points known. Women like Christine really drive home to me how much of history is shaped by the voices of a few. Perhaps Jean de Meun, the author of The Romance of the Rose, was a bitter git with a stick up his butt because he couldn’t convince the woman he wanted to succumb to him. That’s total speculation, by the way, but it makes you think. Who were these people who wrote such vitriol and gave women a bad name?
Another woman who fought back against the male conventions of the day, the Venetian Renaissance day that is, was a personal favorite of mine, Veronica Franco. And okay, the first knowledge I had of the lovely Veronica was from the fantastic movie Dangerous Beauty (which, by the way, I highly recommend, especially if you have a thing for Rufus Sewell). But the facts are the facts. Veronica Franco lived from 1546 to 1591 and she was, without a doubt, fabulous. She was a Venetian courtesan of the highest order. This meant she was highly educated and had access to the minds of the most important men in Venice as they had access to her body. Whereas Hildegard was a bit of a prude, as much as I love her (she was violently opposed to lesbianism and masturbation) and Christine was more of a proper, well-mannered noblewoman, Veronica plumbed the whole depths of the human experience. Not only was she well-known and published, her books were endorsed by prominent men of Venice, and when she was put on trial for witchcraft (which was common if you were a prostitute in 16th century Venice) several of the noblemen of Venice came to her defense and the case against her was dropped. And that’s not just the climactic scene of the movie either. That actually happened. It’s just a shame that all of Veronica’s patrons died before her and she was left in poverty before her own death.
So there you have it. Long before the Brontes and Emily Dickenson and Sylvia Plath these women who have unfortunately been obscured by time and history chosen by a few men rocked the intellectual and literary worlds. It makes me wonder what other great women could have made their mark on the ages if their voices hadn’t been filed away in abbey walls and castle shelves. For surely if these three women could rise above the prejudices of the times to make their voices heard through the ages there were other women equally as gifted. I’m glad that we at least have these 5%ers to remind us that women did more than sit around looking pretty in castles with long, pointy hats.
But of course in lower classes they did much more than that….