Beyond Joan of Arc – Great Medieval Women

by Ellen Micheletti

Quick – name a famous medieval woman. You said Joan of Arc, didn’t you? For most people, Joan of Arc and maybe Eleanore of Aquitaine are the only two medieval women they know. Now, say the first words that come to your mind when you hear the phrase medieval nun. I’ll bet you said things like downtrodden, silent, shut in and similar phrases. Well, as the song says, It Ain’t Necessarily So!

The Medieval period was not a wonderful time to be a woman. Society and the Church considered women to be inferior to men and most women had no outlet for their talents. However, even though the Church officially considered women to be inferior creatures, its convents offered women a refuge and a place where they could develop their gifts. I would like to mention several medieval women, members of religious orders who found in the religious life a place where their talents could grow and flourish.

Hilda of Whitby (614-680) was born in Northumbria. She was the daughter of a noblemen and was baptized at the age of 13. Hilda spent most of her life at the double monastery of Whitby where she served as its abbess. A double monastery was one where the monks and nuns lived, ate and worked in separate quarters, but came together for religious services. These double monastaries were most often under the direction of an abbess like Hilda and the one at Whitby was famous. It produced five bishops. Clerics and kings came to Whitby to consult with Hilda, who had a reputation for learning and holiness.

The monastary of Whitby gained its most lasting fame when it served as the host for a Church Synod – a gathering to decide the issue of whether the church in England would follow the Celtic date for Easter or the Roman date. The Synod decided on the Roman date for Easter, and Hilda (who had favored the Celtic date), threw her influence behind the Synod’s decision. Hilda also was a patroness of the arts. One of her protoges was Caedmon – one of the first English poets.

Hildegarde of Bingin (1098-1179) was a Renaissance women before the Renaissance. She was born in Brockleheim, Germany and as a child, was in fragile health. She was raised by her aunt, the abbess Jutta from the age of 8 and when Jutta died, Hildegarde became abbess. Hildegarde was interested in medicine and natural history and wrote two early works on the subjects. She wrote poetry, commentaries on the scriptures and lives of the saints as well. Hildegarde also wrote music that has only recently been re-discovered. To my chant-attuned ears, Hildegarde’s music is lovely and quite easy to listen to.

Hildegarde was known as “The Sybil of the Rhine” and her reputation for learning and holiness spread far and wide. Kings, Emperors and Popes wrote to and consulted with Hildegarde. Hildegarde’s great work was her Scivias, a book of mystical visions treating the relationship of the soul with God.

Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was the youngest of 26 children. Catherine was a beautiful young woman from a well-do-family and she and her mother did not get along well, both of them being strong-willed. Catherine’s mother wanted her to marry and Catherine was adamant in not wanting to marry. After a battle of wills which Catherine won, she joined the Dominican order of tertiary (lay) nuns and for a time lived a solitary life of prayer at home. She later went out in the streets and began to nurse the sick. She gradually gathered a group of followers around her who called her mama. Catherine never learned to read or write, but she dictated many letters and other spiritual works that are still read today.

At the time she lived, the Pope was living in Avignon, France, and Catherine dictated many letters to him urging him to come back to Italy where he belonged. These letters are a mixture of deference and sternness – Catherine was not afraid to speak plainly and often called the Pope her “sweet Babbo.” When the Pope returned to Italy, Catherine became a diplomat and ambassador between the city of Florence and the Papal States. At her death she was still serving as a diplomatic mediator – and she was only 33. Catherine was honored with the title Doctor of the Church – the first woman so named.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is a personal heroine of mine, because of her wit and sense of humor. She was a paradoxical blend of otherworldly mystic and practical down-to-earth reformer. Teresa Cepeda y Ahumada was born in Seville into a well-to-do family. She had a very happy family life with her siblings and her relationship with her parents was strong. Her mother loved to read and introduced Teresa to tales of Chivalry. Teresa says in her autobiography that unless she had a new book, she was not happy. Teresa joined the Carmelite order of nuns and for a period of several years, she floundered. The convent she was in was quite lax and more resembled a genteel ladies’ club than a religious order. Teresa began to have mystical experiences which she at first distrusted, but these mystical experiences led her to the conclusion that her purpose in life was to reform the Carmelite order and bring it back to its original mission – to be a place of prayer. Needless to say she was not popular and was even investigated by the Inquisition, but gradually her reform took hold and most of the Carmelites returned to their roots.

Teresa enjoyed life and was impatient with sad spirituality. During recreation at her convent, she would sometimes get out the castenets and dance. “God, deliver me from gloomy saints!” was her reaction to long-faced dour people. After a particularly hard day, in her prayers Teresa told God that if that was the way He treated his friends, no wonder He had so few. Teresa is also named a Doctor of the Church, and her autobiography and spirtual writings are still a source of inspiration.

I could share Teresa stories for a long time but one that I am fond of tells about a time when a friend came by with a brace of partridge. Teresa thanked him and went into the kitchen where she prepared them, and began to eat. A nun came by and asked if it was seemly for a member of an order vowed to poverty and penance to enjoy her food so much. Teresa said, ” Sister, there is a time for penance, and a time for partridge”! Then she continued to enjoy her meal.

So there you have four women from early to late medieval times who transcended the limitations put on them by Society and the Church. They are living proof that in all places and times, even though officialdom may pontificate, there are always those who will ignore society’s strictures and go their own way. And we are all richer for their independence.


Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer – you can email her via the link here Find links to all of Ellen’s Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants