Sunday, June 5, 2016

Uppity Women of Medieval Times by Vicki León

Source of book: I own this.

This isn’t so much a book as a collection of one or two page vignettes, with the stories of various female figures worldwide told in short, pithy, and slightly snarky style.

The scope is pretty broad, with representatives from kingdoms around the world: Japan, China, Africa, India, South America, North America, and so on. Likewise, the timeframe is broad, from about the time of the fall of the Roman Empire through the era of Queen Elizabeth (who naturally makes a featured appearance.)

The women are likewise from a variety of classes and occupations, from queens to commoners, religious mystics to brewers, merchants to courtesans, medics to mercenaries. In order to qualify, a woman need only have left a record and have risen in some way above the station typically allotted to women at the time.

Here is what a typical vignette looks like:

A few observations after reading this.

First, although I pretty much knew this from reading and research, but it was a good reminder that “witch” burning was deliberately targeted at women who got “out of line.” One particular instance where this was common was unmarried women who worked on their own - often as midwives or healers. Even those who got off with their lives were often fined and hounded as they were competition for male doctors.

Still, though, a competing thread that runs through this book is that the idea of a rigid division of labor between men and women, with women primarily staying at home and lacking economic power is a modern myth. For centuries, women dominated trades such as beer brewing, and often had to keep whole communities running while the menfolk were off fighting each other. (Dorothy Sayers discusses this in her excellent Are Women Human?) Just one thing that burns me about the Cult of Domesticity which has been adopted as all-but-official Evangelical doctrine these days. Just last week, I had to keep myself from commenting on yet another ridiculous article claiming that motherhood and career are mutually exclusive, something we never tell fathers. In fact, that crap wasn’t true even in the Middle Ages…) Quite a number of these women raised more children than I have - sometimes alone, sometimes with a husband - while managing businesses, pursuing professions, and other supposedly “male” pursuits.

Others, of course, chose singlehood. A few, though, came to mutually agreeable arrangements quite out of the usual character. Lavinia Fontana of Renaissance Italy, for example, was a talented painter. Her husband also painted, but he was less talented and he realized it. Thus, they agreed that he would assist her in her own works (filling backgrounds and so on) and raise their children, while she supported the family. Yep, he was primary caretaker for their eleven children. By the way, Lavinia is regarded as the first European artist to work in a male-dominated field on equal terms - not in a convent or as a hobby.

Judith with the head of Holfernes
Lavinia Fontana is believed to have used herself as the model, which is pretty badass.

I couldn’t resist including another great female painter, Sofonisba Anguissola in here as well, both because of her reputation with other artists and because I like this picture of her and her sisters playing chess. Also something women weren’t supposed to do.

Another one that stood out was Louise Labé. Born lower-middle class, she still managed to get an education largely on her own. She wrote poetry, rode horses like a man, shot the bow, and even competed in jousting. One of her letters is superlative enough to quote:

Since a time has come, Mademoiselle, when the severe laws of me no longer prevent women from applying themselves to the sciences and other disciplines, it seems to me that those of us who can, should use this long-craved freedom to study and let men see how greatly they wronged us when depriving us of its honor and advantages. And if any woman becomes so proficient as to be able to write down her thoughts, let her do so and not despise the hour but rather flaunt it instead of fine clothes, necklaces, and rings. For these may be considered ours only by use, whereas the honor of being educated is ours entirely.

Or how about music? Hildegard of Bingen was dedicated as a nun as a child (I guess a bit better than being sold into slavery…), but apparently had some extraordinary gifts. She managed to free herself from the intended life in a small single cell, and got promoted to a less restrictive order. Eventually, she ended up running the convent, writing extensively, and a whole bunch of other stuff. She wrote plays, opera, a medical book, a theological treatise, and more. One of the more notable bits in her writing is a description - the first known written one in fact - of a female orgasm. (Not explained is exactly how she gained this knowledge. She did, however, theorize that it helped the semen get where it was going…) She also earned the ire of the male religious authorities of the time with her message of a god who delights in creation and in mankind. And for condemning the corrupt practice of simony.

But anyway, her music has endured. Not bad for a women of the 12th Century. Here is the ethereal beauty of Spiritus Sanctus. There are many more which have survived, great examples of the pinnacle of early Medieval chant.

Sadly, not all men seemed to appreciate these women. One particularly pathetic example was the Marquis of Mantua, married to Isabella d’Este. She was quite the polymath, and is best known to history for using her considerable wealth (and that of her husband) to commission great works of art from pantheon sorts like Raphael. Michelangelo designed her palace - um, yeah. That’s pretty dang cool. So anyway, the hubby had a love for going out and playing soldier, which resulted in his being taken prisoner. She lacked sufficient political pull to spring him, but she did keep a tight rein on the household, and repelled a planned invasion by her political and intellectual machinations. He wasn’t impressed when he got out of captivity, saying one of the most obnoxious things ever said to wife:

“We’re ashamed that it is our fate to have as wife a woman who is always ruled by her head.”

Isabella was not amused, retorting, “Your Excellency is indebted to me as never husband was to wife. Even if you loved and honored me more than anyone in the world, you could not repay my good faith.”


She left, and never returned.

One final thought I want to end with. There are a number of Moslem women in this book, two of whom were related to Mohammed himself: his first wife, Khadija; and his cousin by marriage, Sukayna.

The story of Khadija is fascinating. She was a wealthy widow when she met the penniless Mohammed. She proposed. He hesitated, but eventually came around. During her lifetime, he was monogamous, compared with his later polygyny after her death. His youngest wife Aisha apparently was jealous of Mohammed’s continued love for Khadija long after her death. She was also the first convert to the new religion of Islam, and she supported his efforts.

The story gets interesting in this way: according to records outside the Koran, which was written after Mohammed’s death, he instituted a number of rather feminist reforms. Women could choose their partners, and they, not their families, would receive the bride price. There is every reason to believe that this was a strikingly egalitarian marriage, particularly for the time.

Likewise, Sukayna didn’t fit the mold of the subservient woman. In a later era, she would have been the central figure at a salon, with the literati of the age coming to her for intellectual discussion and fantastic dinner parties.

The sad thing is, within a century, all this was gone. The Koran itself would contain a great many passages that would be interpreted to make women subservient and silent. There would be very few Muslim women who were permitted to make a name for themselves in later centuries. By our own time, Islam would unfortunately become best known for its combination of violence and oppression of women. (While not universal, obviously, there is a good bit of truth to the idea that modern Islam tends to use the writings of the past to oppress and control women.)

The thing is, this sad tale isn’t at all unique to Islam.

The early Christian church was full of women in prominent roles. From Christ’s use of women as the first witnesses to the resurrection to his commendation of a woman who wished to “learn at his feet” as a rabbi in training, Christ’s life too shows a strong egalitarian streak. Later, women would lead home churches, found ministries, train men like Saint Paul, and even be listed as “foremost” among the apostles. (When is the last time your Evangelical church acknowledged that there was a female apostle. Can you name her?)

Sadly, just like Islam, in the subsequent centuries, when the religion went from a freewheeling and unpopular religion to an organization, women were systematically denied leadership, and the priesthood became for men only.

It is both sad and frustrating that two religions with such auspicious starts, that had the potential to overturn patriarchy have now become justifiably known as the primary perpetuators of sexism and misogyny in our world today. Think about it. Where are women most consistently told that they have no chance at equality in leadership? Where are most likely to be told to obey men, even when abused? Where are they taught that they are inherently more emotional and poorer in judgment than men? Where is the voice in our culture that condemns women who seek education and careers? (No points for a correct guess here…)

It’s an interesting little book. It’s breezy, and doesn’t go into depth, but it is simple enough in our internet age to follow up on the more interesting characters if you want more detail, as I did. It is a good reminder that things in the past were not necessarily how you were taught by those who have an agenda to erase the economic and intellectual contributions of women past. Women have always - although often under daunting odds and outright hostility - succeeded in the world of men.


  1. I remember I was scolded once in a combox, after sharing the number of volunteer music groups I perform in (which don't pay me directly, but maintain my connections to other musicians and have been almost 100% indirectly responsible for all the actual paid gigs I've gotten, so yes, they are related to my job) and how many hours a week I practice to improve on my instrument(s). This guy - and yes, from what I could tell the commenter was male - arrived to inform me I would have to quit all that stuff after I had kids. When I told him in no uncertain terms that the only way I'd quit music is if I was dead, he kept challenging me with stuff like, What if you had a profoundly autistic child, etc. When I pointed out that I know people who work/volunteer AND manage to raise autistic children in a perfectly responsible manner, he was like "not everybody can do that." (The irony was that earlier in the same thread, he had made huge sweeping statements about how dads were morally obligated to get a new job if they worked too many hours. When everyone else pointed out that "not everybody can do that," he blew right past it and said that didn't matter. So apparently it was only a valid thing to say it an argument when HE used it.)

    Anyway, long story short, it turned into a quite a knock-down-drag-out comment fight because I was NOT going to back down with this guy. Maybe I shouldn't have hooked in like that, but what happened, happened and I can't change it now. I'm still not sure whether to count this incident as sexism, or just an internet windbag making sweeping statements about what other people "have to" do with their lives (because to be fair, he made equally sweeping statements about what men needed to do). It was probably a bit of both.

    1. I agree that it is both. You notice, of course, that what is assumed in his argument is that childcare is inherently "women's work," and that the father has no corresponding duty.

      As a (female) judge once explained it, it is socially acceptable for men to neglect their children, which is why they are expected to never need to take a day off for a sick child.

    2. Yeah, I agree he probably would not have said the same thing to me if I had been a guy. Or at least wouldn't have said it quite that way. As if something like having a profoundly autistic child - which yeah, obviously would impact your life, I won't dispute that point - wouldn't affect the father as much as the mother.

      What made this particular conversation so ironic was:

      1) Loads of people in my (completely volunteer and yet touring semi-professional) handbell choir had just had kids and were still playing, or only took a single 6mo season off to deal with the newborn phase.

      2) There actually is an organist in my local area who DID have a profoundly autistic son years ago, and gave up a potential career as a touring recitalist. But she never just completely quit. She had a perfectly respectable, well-paying job as a church organist and music/choir director for years. It kept her plenty busy, too, it's not like she got to just sit around and twiddle her thumbs.

      I also suspect there was an undercurrent of bias against artistic careers as "real jobs" instead of just hobbies, because that's present a lot of times in these conversations as well.

    3. True about the artistic careers. Although, at least from a practical point of view, it is darn hard to earn a true living in the arts, particularly if you expect to be a primary breadwinner. (I never wanted violin to be my career for that reason. It's nice to get paid a bit for what I do, but law has better hours and better pay.)

      I also would note that this guy should have a red flag attached to him that says, "Warning: In the event of a disabled child, do not expect a lot of help."

      Regarding what a child does (or doesn't) to one's career, with each of our children, my wife was back at work after three months (the FMLA guarantees 12 weeks), and the kids were with me while she was at work. That would have been the case, autism or not, because I too am a parent. Not a babysitter. And that's the point. If there is to be true equality for women, they need to be freed from the idea that childcare and housework is "women's work." Yes, somebody will need to do these things. And that means men will need to take an equal share. Boo hoo. Grow up.

  2. I would love to borrow the book. I think you must add "Women Who Run with the Wolves" to your reading list as a further study into the world where the woman myth is psychologically and archeologically discussed. Great read, Tim. Thanks for championing the cause.

    1. That sounds like one to put on the list. Do you own it, or should I check the library?

  3. If you want something a little more in-depth I very much enjoyed Frances & Joseph Gies's book "Women in the Middle Ages"--they profile some of the names you mention. Like you point out, it completely shatters the idea that there was a sharp division of labor and that women always "kept their place" instead of, you know, keeping the dang country together while everybody had plagues and wars and couldn't remember to get the crops planted/legal business concluded/taxes paid/cattle sold/militia raised.

    I can also recommend the biography of the badass Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir (she also wrote "The Children of Henry VIII", which is entertaining in a watching-a-train-wreck kind of way). Eleanor is one of those with SUCH a strong personality that I think she still scares people today. In spite of the fact that her husband and sons were not exactly pushovers, she regularly pushed them right the heck over. (And LIVED. She died of old age at 82. No comeuppance at all for being a badass. Anarchy!)

    Don't mean to spam you with recommendations, this is just the part of history that is my first love. (Makes me REALLY fun watching pseudo-historical movies...)

    1. Oh, this is great fun. Suggest away! Eleanor certainly made this book. :)

    2. I am descended from Eleanor and Henry II. Sadly, it is through John Lackland, the single most despised man in all British history. It couldn't have been through one of the daughters no one ever mentions, could it? :-(

    3. I guess it is an open question whether it is better to be descended from the infamous, or from nobody noteworthy at all. The closest I come is that we are tangentially related to Josiah Wedgwood on my mother's side. I think it was a bastard cousin or something. My grandmother was inordinately proud of the connection. :)

  4. I'd like to read more on Lavinia Fontana. last month when I was in NYC I was able to see the Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun exhibit at the Met. She was one of the finest portraitist of her day, but I had never heard of her until earlier this year. The exhibit traveled to NY from Paris where she had her first show in her home country, but the delayed recognition may have had more to do with her association with Marie Antoinette than her gender.

    Did this book touch on Anna Buschler? I read a book on her 20 or so years ago called The Burgermeister's Daughter. She certainly wasn't one to fall in line with society's expectations. You might enjoy it.

    1. I believe Buschler got a quick mention, but now that you mention her, she sounds fascinating. Also, an interesting legal case, which generally interests me. My library, alas, doesn't have the book, so I may have to order it.