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Some medieval women have gained fame for their abilities as rulers, writers and scholars. There are those who are well-known, such Hildegard of Bingen or Christine de Pizan, but many others who are not. Here are ten medieval women whose fascinating contributions deserve more recognition.
It has often been noted that only men attended universities in the Middle Ages – while this is true for those in northern Europe, it was not the case for those in places like Italy and Spain. Scholars are uncovering the stories of women who did get educations, particularly in the field of medicine. Alessandra Giliani was one of these individuals, and had she lived a longer life she might have become quite famous. We do know that in the year 1323 she came to study at the University of Bologna, and soon served as the assistant to Mondino dei Liuzzi, the leading medieval expert on anatomy. She would help prepare the cadavers for study and carried out her own investigations as well. She even developed a method for draining blood from the body and replacing it with a colored dye, which made it easier to examine the cardiovascular system. However, she died in 1326, perhaps from a septic wound. A tablet was erected in an Italian church for her:
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.
Now living a life in exile, Barbara would turn to alchemy, a medieval science similar to chemistry, with the goal of changing metal. Many saw her work as an attempt to cheat people, including John von Laaz, who visited her and wrote this account of Barbara:
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.
Nicknamed ‘La Latina’ for her skill in Latin, Beatriz was born in about 1465 to a family of lower nobility. Because of her love of reading, she was chosen to become a nun, but first got an education in grammar. By the age of 12 her skill as a student was so obvious that she began an academic career.
Beatriz worked as the tutor to the children of Queen Isabella of Castile, including Catherine of Aragon, and also wrote poetry and a commentary on Aristotle. She married, had five children, and founded the Hospital of the Holy Cross in Madrid, which still exists today.
We know very little about Dorotea Bucca, but the few bits of information are impressive: she succeeded her father as professor of medicine and philosophy at the University of Bologna in 1390 and would hold that position for more than forty years.
Garsenda, Countess of Forcalquier and Provence
This 13th century countess was one of the leading patrons of literature in southern France, and was a distinguished female troubadour, or trobairitz, in her own right. She debated about the ideas of courtly love and the relationships between men and women with other poets, while at the same time also ruling her counties as regent.
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.
Born between 805 and 810 into a wealthy family in Constantinople, her beauty and intelligence attracted the attention of the Byzantine leadership. She was invited to take part in a ‘bride show’ for Emperor Theophilos (829 – 842), where the ruler would pick his wife. 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.
Undaunted, Kassiani founded a monastery just outside of Constantinople and became its first abbess. She soon excelled at religious and liturgical writing, including penning about fifty hymns.
She was also a defender of the Orthodox Church against the iconoclast movement, and despite being tortured for her beliefs, she persisted in her faith, saying “I hate silence, when it is time to speak.”
Lubna of Cordoba
According to one account, this tenth-century women living in al-Andalus “excelled in writing,
grammar, and poetry. Her knowledge of mathematics was also immense and she was proficient in other sciences as well. There were none in the Umayyad palace as noble as her.”
Lubna was the palace secretary to Al-Hakam II, the Caliph of Córdoba (961-976) and managed the royal library which had more than 400,000 volumes. It was also believed that she travelled to the Middle East to collect more books, but as Kamila Shamsie explains, this task was actually done by another woman named Fatima.
Margaret I of Denmark
Known as “the Lady King”, Margaret is perhaps the most successful female ruler of the Middle Ages, having united Scandinavia – the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden – into the Kalmar Union. From 1389 to 1412 she expertly managed her empire, expanding it and becoming the most important power in northern Europe. As one historian notes, “Margaret’s triumph establishes her as one among the most remarkable of European monarchs. Yet the fame that is her due has somehow eluded her. ”
Born in Basra around the year 815, her mother sold her into slavery. From this unfortunate beginning, Shāriyah would become a singer, and by the mid-ninth century she had not only gained her freedom but was among the most famous people in Abbasid society. She would run a troupe of female singers, and even took part in a contest with another leading lady.
Don’t you return (to her), after she’s gone!
But look, how I compose a song!
Yocheved bat Rashi
Along with her sisters Miriam, and Rachel, she would learn from her father Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (better known as Rashi) about the Torah and Talmud, the tenets of the Jewish religion. Living in eleventh and twelfth century France, Yocheved and her sisters would become leaders of the Jewish community.
Top Image: It is believed that this 15th century illustration depicts Alessandra Giliani performing a dissection.