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Ten Overlooked Women Who Defined the Medieval Era

#Ten Overlooked Women Who Defined the Medieval Era

In the medieval era, many women distinguished themselves through their prowess as rulers, writers, and scholars. While figures like Hildegard of Bingen and Christine de Pizan enjoy widespread recognition, numerous others remain in relative obscurity. Presented below are ten remarkable medieval women whose captivating contributions merit greater acknowledgment.

Alessandra Giliani

Alessandra Giliani’s story challenges the notion that only men pursued higher education during the Middle Ages. While this stereotype holds true for northern Europe, regions like Italy and Spain boasted opportunities for women scholars. Giliani, a remarkable figure in the field of medicine, exemplifies this narrative. In 1323, she enrolled at the University of Bologna, where she apprenticed under Mondino dei Liuzzi, a renowned anatomist of the time. Giliani’s role involved assisting with cadaver dissections and conducting her own research. Notably, she pioneered a technique for blood drainage and replacement with coloured dye, facilitating the study of the cardiovascular system.

It is believed that this 15th-century illustration depicts Alessandra Giliani performing a dissection.

Despite her promising career trajectory, Giliani’s life was cut short in 1326, possibly due to a septic wound. You can listen to this podcast from Scientific America to learn more about her. Her legacy endures, commemorated by a tablet in an Italian church.

In this urn enclosed, the ashes of the body of Alessandra Giliani, a maiden of Periceto, skillful with the brush in anatomical demonstrations and a disciple, equalled by few, of the most noted physician, Mondino dei Liuzzi, await the resurrection. She lived nineteen years, she died consumed by her labours March 26, in the year of grace 1326. Otto Agenius Lustrulanus, by her loss deprived of his better part, his excellent companion deserving of the best, erected his tablet.

Barbara of Cilli

The story of Barbara of Cilli is interesting if one just looked at the first half of her life – the Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, she was a major political player in Eastern Europe in the first half of the fifteenth century. However, in 1437 she was imprisoned by her son-in-law and forced to give up most of her lands and wealth.

Barbara of Cilli shown in a copy of the Bellifortis

Following this upheaval, Barbara embarked on a new chapter in exile, delving into the realm of alchemy, a medieval precursor to chemistry, with aspirations of transmuting metals. Yet, her pursuits were met with skepticism, with some viewing her endeavours as fraudulent. John von Laaz penned this account about Barbara’s alchemical pursuits.

She knew how to measure her replies with a woman’s subtilty. Before my eyes she took quicksilver, arsenic, and other things which she did not name. Out of these she made a powder, with which copper was dyed white. It stood the test of notching, but not the hammer. With this she has deceived many people.

Similarly I saw her strew heated copper with a powder, which penetrated it. The copper became as refined silver. But when it was melted it was copper once more as before. And she showed me many such deceitful tricks.

Another time she took Iron Saffron and Copper Calx and other Powders, mixed them, and cemented with them equal parts of Gold and Silver. Then the Metal had within and without the appearance of fine Gold. But when it was melted it lost the colour again. Therewith were many merchants duped by her.

While medieval sources tend to negatively portray Barbara, modern historians have seen the former empress in a much better light – as an excellent administrator and politician. Daniela Dvořáková, the author of a recent biography of Barbara, comments that she “ranks among the most fascinating female historical figures of the first half of the 15th century.”

Beatriz Galindo

Beatriz, nicknamed ‘La Latina’ for her mastery of Latin, was born around 1465 into a family of modest nobility. Her early education, focused on grammar, stemmed from her passion for reading, initially steering her towards a religious vocation. However, by the age of twelve, her academic prowess became evident, setting her on a different trajectory.

Monument to Beatriz Galindo in Madrid – photo by Tamorlan / Wikimedia Commons

Beatriz embarked on a notable career as an educator, serving as the tutor to Queen Isabella of Castile’s children, including Catherine of Aragon. Amidst her teaching duties, she also distinguished herself as a poet and authored a commentary on Aristotle’s works. Despite her scholarly pursuits, Beatriz found balance in family life, marrying and raising five children.

Her legacy extends beyond academia, as she played a pivotal role in founding the Hospital of the Holy Cross in Madrid, an institution that endures to this day.

She is one of several female scholars in late-medieval Italy, including the eye surgeon Constance Calenda, the law professor Maddalena Buonsignori, and the  writer Laura Cereta.

Garsenda, Countess of Forcalquier and Provence

Garsenda as she appears on her seal.

In the 13th century, this countess emerged as a prominent figure in southern France, renowned for her patronage of literature and her own illustrious contributions as a trobairitz, or female troubadour. Amidst her role as a leading patron, she engaged in intellectual debates on courtly love and the dynamics between genders, exchanging ideas with fellow poets. Simultaneously, she exercised her regency over her counties, demonstrating remarkable prowess in both governance and cultural pursuits.

Only one of her poems survives:

You’re so well-suited as a lover,
I wish you wouldn’t be so hesitant;
but I’m glad my love makes you the penitent,
otherwise I’d be the one to suffer.
Still, in the long run it’s you who stands to lose
if you’re not brave enough to state your case,
and you’ll do both of us great harm if you refuse.
For a lady doesn’t dare uncover
her true will, lest those around her think her base.

To learn more, read Jennifer Speed’s article The Notorious Garsenda of Provence

Kassiani

Born into a prosperous family in Constantinople between 805 and 810, her remarkable beauty and intellect drew the admiration of the Byzantine elite. She was summoned to participate in a ceremonial ‘bride show’ convened for Emperor Theophilos (829 – 842), during which the sovereign would select his bride from a pool of candidates.

A depiction of Kassiani – Wikimedia Commons

Katherine Schneider explains that during this event:

Theophilos, struck most with Kassiani’s beauty while also aware of her intellect, approached her first. He said to her, “‘From woman flowed corruption,’” referring to Eve eating first from the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Now, this was hardly an endearing statement, but it was one that could be deemed acceptable at a time in Christian cultures when Eve—and therefore woman—was largely blamed for original sin. Kassiani replied, “‘But also from woman sprung forth what is superior,’” referring to Mary giving birth to the Christ. Reportedly, Theophilos was speechless upon hearing this and withdrew from Kassiani with some chagrin to offer the golden apple to Theodora.

Kassiani forged her own path by establishing a monastery on the outskirts of Constantinople, assuming the role of its inaugural abbess. Here, she flourished in her spiritual pursuits and literary endeavors, crafting approximately fifty hymns and distinguished works of religious and liturgical writing.

In addition to her contributions as a writer and religious leader, Kassiani emerged as a staunch advocate for the Orthodox Church during the iconoclast movement. Despite enduring torture for her unwavering beliefs, she remained resolute in her faith, famously declaring, “I hate silence when it is time to speak,” a testament to her courage and conviction.

Lubna of Cordoba

According to historical records, this remarkable tenth-century woman residing in al-Andalus excelled in various fields, including writing, grammar, poetry, and mathematics. Renowned for her vast knowledge and proficiency in multiple sciences, she garnered admiration within the Umayyad palace, with none considered as noble as her.

Lubna held the esteemed position of palace secretary to Al-Hakam II, the Caliph of Córdoba (961-976), and was entrusted with managing the royal library, which housed an impressive collection of over 400,000 volumes. While it was once believed that she travelled to the Middle East to expand the library’s collection, contemporary scholars like Kamila Shamsie clarify that this undertaking was actually carried out by another woman named Fatima.

Margherita Datini

While she has been overshadowed by her husband Francesco, the famous Merchant of Prato, the research by Ann Crabb has revealed a woman with a keen grasp of business and management, who proved to be instrumental in many ways for the Datinis’ successful ventures.

You can learn more about her in the book The Merchant of Prato’s Wife: Margherita Datini and Her World, 1360-1423.

Margaret I of Denmark

Effigy of Queen Margaret from 1423 on her tomb.

Margaret I of Denmark, famously dubbed “the Lady King,” stands out as one of the most accomplished female rulers of the Middle Ages. Her crowning achievement lies in the unification of Scandinavia, consolidating the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden into the formidable Kalmar Union. From 1389 to 1412, Margaret adeptly governed her vast empire, overseeing its expansion and solidifying its status as the preeminent power in northern Europe. Despite her remarkable accomplishments, Margaret’s renown has often been overshadowed, but now historians are recognizing her among the most exceptional monarchs in European history.

Yocheved bat Rashi

In eleventh and twelfth-century France, Yocheved, alongside her sisters Miriam and Rachel, received an extensive education in the Torah and Talmud directly from their father, Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (better known as Rashi). Equipped with deep religious knowledge, the sisters emerged as influential figures within the Jewish community, assuming leadership roles and contributing significantly to the spiritual and intellectual life of their time.

In the following video, Henry Abramson talks about Yocheved:

Arīb al-Ma’mūnīya

How ʿArīb al-Ma’mūnīya may have looked like – drawing created by Rocio Espin and Julia Lillo

She may have been the most famous person in the world during her time – Arīb was a former slave who became a superstar singer, poet and celebrity. A lover to several rulers within the Abbasid Caliphate during the ninth century, she gained fame and fortune. Many were in awe of Arīb, with one admirer writing:

‘Arib was a singer of great skill and a poetess of rarefied taste. She was a fine calligrapher, an engaging conversationalist and a woman of supreme comeliness, beauty and grace; she cut a striking figure and played the oud with brilliance. She displayed performance excellence, in her knowledge of modes and strings, and in the narration of poems and stories. None of her peers could hold a candle to her.

To learn more about her life, please read The Medieval Superstar: A Tale of Singing, Sexuality and Slavery

Top Image: It is believed that this 15th-century illustration depicts Alessandra Giliani performing a dissection.

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