During the medieval times, women, in general, weren’t given many rights. However, that did not stop them from taking professional and leadership roles traditionally meant for men. One of the most famous medieval women is Joan of Arc, but there exist others who have made an equally significant impact in history. To commemorate this, we have compiled a list of the 10 famous women of the Middle Ages.
Let us take a look at the 10 Famous Women Of The Middle Ages.
1) Margery Kempe
The first on our list of famous women of the Middle Ages is Margery Kempe. She is noted for her work The Book of Margery Kempe, which is deemed as the first autobiography in the English language. Margery grew up in a wealthy household and later married John Kempe and bore him 14 children. However, she subsequently left her husband and embarked on a series of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Germany, and Spain in 1414.
Her book essentially chronicles her experiences during her extensive pilgrimages, her domestic tribulations as well as her faith and beliefs. The book also provides the best insight into the life of a female in the Middle Ages. Additionally, Kempe was criticized several times and even numerously tried by the Church for heresy but never convicted. However, this did not stop her from challenging patriarchy and living her life on her terms. Apparently illiterate, she dictated her famed autobiography to two clerks. Subsequently, it was first published (modernized) in 1936 and in Middle English in 1940.
2) Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim- A famous medieval woman who was the first playwright of the West
Hrotsvitha is a famous medieval woman who is regarded as the first playwright of the West. She also holds the title of the first poetess of Germany, the first female historian and the first female writer from German lands. Hrotsvitha was born in a noble family and grew up to be a nun. She then went on to write six Latin comedies that embodied Christian themes. Due to her works, she has been deemed “the most remarkable woman of her time”.
3) Margaret I of Denmark
Margaret I was a fierce queen and one of the famous women of the Middle Ages. Deemed as the ‘Lady King’, Margaret I was the regent of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Additionally, it was her efforts and dynastic policies that led to the Kalmar union: the unification of Sweden, Norway and Denmark under one ruler. Due to her exceptional capabilities, historians deem her as “the first great ruling queen in European history”. Read more about the Demark royalty here: 10 important Danish Royal Family facts that you must know!
4) Eleanor of Aquitaine- One of the famous and powerful women of the Middle Ages
Eleanor of Aquitaine was perhaps the most powerful woman in the 12th century Europe. During her lifetime, she was the queen consort of both Louis VII of France (1137–52) and Henry II of England (1152–1204). Additionally, she was the mother of the famous rulers Richard I (the Lionheart) and John of England.
She was a headstrong queen who did not sit idle at home. For example, she led armies and was a leader during the Second Crusade. And when she was married to Henry II, she participated actively in the administration of the realm and even more actively in the management of her own domains. Moreover, she was a great patron of literary figures during her time. She then went on to have a large impact on the political and social structure of England till the end of her days. According to historians “She was beautiful and just, dignified and modest, humble and elegant”.
5) Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen is regarded as one of the most famous women of the Middle Ages. Hildegard was a famed German abbess, mystic and composer. She started experiencing religious visions from childhood. And she was only 15 years old when she joined a monastery and began pursuing a life as a nun. Subsequently, at the age of 43, she recorded her visions and compiled them into the book Scivias (1141–52). The book consists of 26 visions and chronicles around topics like the Church, the relationship between God and humanity and redemption.
She then left her monstery and found a new order at Rupertsberg. Here she continued to exercise the gift of divination and recorded her writings. Additionally, she even invented her own language for her amusement. Although she never received any formal education, she was highly literate and well versed in musical composition.
6) Julian of Norwich
Julian is one of the most important and famous medieval English mystics. Deemed as Lady Juliana of Norwich, she is noted for having authored the religious work Revelations of Divine Love. However, Julian’s actual name is unknown and very little is known about her personal life. In May 1373, at the age of 30, Julian was seriously ill and thought she was on her death bed. Subsequently, she received 16 visions from God and recovered. She wrote down these visions shortly and later expanded on them. Her writings focused on God and His compassion and love for all. Additionally, her works inspired her contemporary medieval mystic Margery Kempe and even 20th-century poets such as T.S Eliot.
7) Beatriz Galindo- One of the famous and most educated women of the Middle Ages
Beatriz Galindo is regarded as one of the most educated women of her time. She was an educator, a humanist and a Spanish Latinist. The famous medieval woman was nicknamed ‘La Latina’ for her prolific Latin skills. She enjoyed reading from a young age, consequently, her family chose her to become a nun.
Due to her literary skills, she pursued an academic career and went on to tutor the children of Queen Isabella of Castile, including Catherine of Aragon. Additionally, she also wrote poetry and a commentary on Aristotle. She subsequently got married and had five children and founded the Hospital of the Holy Cross in Madrid. The hospital still exists today and the neighbourhood in Madrid where she once lived is known today as La Latina in her honour.
8) Theodora, Empress of Byzantine- One of the most famous and powerful women of the Middle Ages
Deemed as one of the most famous women of the Middle Ages, Empress Theodora was highly influential. Although little is know about her early life, we know that she worked as an actress and a prostitute. She subsequently converted to Christianity and took up wool-spinning and weaving as a profession.
It’s not clear how she met the future Emperor Justinian I. However, he was so head over heels in love with her that he changed existing laws that forbade emperors from marrying actresses. Justinian I considered Theodora an intellectual equal and regularly took her advice on how to run the Empire. The couple jointly ruled the Byzantine Empire until Theodora’s demise, likely from breast cancer, in 548.
9) Catherine of Siena- A famous medieval woman who highly influenced Italian literature
Another famous medieval woman is Catherine of Siena. She was a mystic, activist and author that highly influenced Italian literature and the Catholic Church. Additionally, Pope John Paul II deemed her as the patron saint of Europe in 1999. Catherine of Siena had a strong influence on the papacy. And she was the one behind the return of the Pope from Avignon to Rome. Moreover, she carried out many missions entrusted by the Pope, an uncommon thing for a woman in the Middle Ages. In 1970, the Church declared her as ‘Doctor of The Church’.
10) Matilda of Tuscany
The last on our list of famous women of the Middle Ages is Matilda of Tuscany. Matilda, the most powerful woman in medieval Italy was a strong supporter of the papacy during the Investiture Controversy. Matilda was the daughter of Margrave Boniface III of Tuscany and Beatrice of Lorraine. From a young age, Matilda became an active supporter of the papacy. Additionally, she was well-versed in traditionally feminine pursuits, such as needlework, but also literate studies including knowledge of Latin.
Furthermore, her prolific military skills were instrumental in defending her lands and the authority of Pope Gregory VII from the aggression of Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire. Following the demise of Gregory VII, Matilda continued to protect the papacy and her reign until finally defeating Henry IV in battle personally in 1095. Subsequently, in 1111 she became the Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy.