Awesome Forgotten Women of the Middle Ages

St. Joan of Arc image from Wikipedia

To most of us, the Middle Ages were a time when history was shaped by a few powerful kings and nobles, knights in shining armor jousted and fought in battles, peasants lived in the mud working their lord’s land, and women were passed around through arranged marriages to broker treaties and create alliances, with virtually no say in the matter.

Be honest, how many women from this time period can you actually name? Saint Joan of Arc and… Saint Joan of Arc?

To be clear, medieval society was not great for women, but it wasn’t as bad as you might think. There were plenty of women who made great accomplishments during this time. Women like…

Anna Comnena

Anna Comnena image from cover of Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett

Anna Comnena was the eldest child of Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. She was taught many subjects as a child, including astronomy, geography, mathematics, science, history, and medicine. In an age where education was rare, this was a luxury that shaped the princess’s life. She became a medical doctor, and with her father’s help she built and ran a hospital in Constantinople that could treat 10,000 patients. She even became her father’s personal physician in his last years, trying to save him with the treatments she had learned and practiced.

When her father died, the throne was passed to her younger brother, John II Comnenus. This didn’t sit well with either Anna Comnena or her mother, who conspired to try to overthrow him and replace him with Comnena’s husband. However, her husband refused to participate, the plan fell apart, John II discovered what his sister was up to, and Comnena wound up spending the rest of her days in a convent.

Even in exile, however, she continued to make history. Literally – she became the first female historian, writing a chronicle of her father’s reign called the Alexiad. This text is invaluable for modern historians, as Alexius I’s reign happened to coincide with the First Crusade. Not only did Comnena recount the broad, sweeping events of that time, but also many specific anecdotes of events she witnessed first-hand. Such detailed accounts written so soon after the events are very, very rare in the Middle Ages.

Hojo Masako

Hojo Masako image from Professor Brian Hoffert

Let’s talk a little bit about a woman’s life in Medieval Japan. Though Japanese society was very much a male-dominated space, there were many female samurai (known as onna-bugeishas), female ninjas (kunoichi), as well as female novelists and poets. There was even a female shogun! Sort of.

Hojo Masako was the wife of Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, a proud and ambitious warrior who defeated his enemies in the Genpei War, secured complete control over Japan, and became its first shogun. Unlike many of the politically arranged marriages that were common among noble clans of the time, Hojo’s was a love-based marriage. She was so dedicated to her husband that she would ride side-by-side with him in battle. Then, in 1199, Minamoto died, passing the title of shogun to his son, Minamoto-no-Yoriie.

This is where things get a bit… complicated. Theoretically, the supreme ruler of Japan is and always has been the Emperor, who is said to be a descendant of the goddess Amaterasu. For almost all of Japanese history, however, the Emperor has been just a symbolic, ceremonial figurehead with no real power. This is the case today, with Japan’s modern democratic government, and it was the case in the days of the shoguns. Thus, the idea of somebody actually running things behind-the-scenes while the official ruler was a puppet is very common, and even expected, in Japanese political thinking.

So when her husband died, Hojo shaved her head and took the vows of a Buddhist nun, but didn’t go to a nunnery to live out her days in isolation. No, she continued being actively involved in the political affairs of what was theoretically her son’s reign. At first, she shared power with her father, Hojo Tokimasa, but that changed after a familial power struggle. After her father had her own son and six-year-old grandson killed, she sided with her surviving son, Monamoto-no-Sanetomo, in a rebellion that forced him from power.

For the next 14 years, she ruled Japan through her son, and when he died she arranged for Kujo Yoritsune to succeed him as the new shogun. She put down rebellions against her family’s rule in 1221 and 1224. She died in 1225, but the regime she helped create remained in power for more than a century afterwards.

Matilda of Tuscany

Matilda of Tuscany image from Wikipedia

While Hojo Masako controlled Japan indirectly, Countess Matilda of Tuscany openly shaped Italian politics in the 11th century. She inherited various domains in present-day Italy and France in 1076, after all of her male relatives died out. She took power just when a crisis was brewing between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, officially over who had the power to appoint bishops, but in practice over who should be more powerful in general. In 1080, Emperor Henry IV marched into Italy to settle the dispute by force. Matilda rushed to the Pope’s aid with her own army.

Things went badly at first. The Emperor’s forces captured Rome, forcing the Pope to flee to Matilda’s castle for safety. However, Henry got cocky, leaving Italy once he had appointed his own “pope”. He figured his Italian allies could sweep Matilda aside, but instead Matilda’s forces were victorious at the Battle of Sorbara in 1084. For eight years afterward, a stalemate emerged, with Matilda’s forces unable to secure Rome for the Pope but the Emperor unable to drive Matilda from her mountain strongholds. By 1092, however, fortune started turning in Matilda’s favor with a string of victories. By 1097, Henry IV simply quit Italy altogether, leaving Matilda in control there.

Eventually, Henry IV died and his son, Henry V, took over as Emperor. Much more conciliatory than his father, Henry V formally recognized Matilda’s power by naming her “Imperial Vicar Vice-Queen of Italy”. This was the beginning of a peace process that led to the Concordat of Worms, which separated religious and secular power as two separate institutions. Every year, a historical re-enactment of the meeting of Matilda with Henry V is held in Quattro Castella, Italy.

The Anglian Princess

Valkyrie on horseback image from Wikimedia Commons

This tale comes from the writings of the historian Procopius. Unfortunately, he neglected to actually record the name of this woman, which is a real shame, as you will soon see.

Fans of medieval history will tell you that our English language, and the English people themselves, originally came from the Anglo-Saxons, who came from Denmark and northern Germany and conquered much of modern England from the Celtic and Roman people who originally lived there. A key detail about this period in history is that the Anglo-Saxons were not originally one people. Before they moved to Britain, the Angles and Saxons were separate tribes, and there was nothing to guarantee that they would end up getting along, let alone merge into a single people.

So it was something of a big deal when the Varni, a tribe who were vassals of the Saxons, arranged to have a young Varni prince named Radigis marry an Anglian princess. The two were betrothed, but before they could be married, Radigis’s father fell ill. As he lay dying, he told his son not to go through with the wedding with the Anglian princess, on the logic that the Franks were a rising power and securing an alliance with them was much more important than diplomacy with the Angles. Radigis followed his father’s advice, calling off the wedding when his father died.

It turns out that Radigis had just messed with the wrong princess. She raised an army of 100,000 warriors, sailed to Saxony, and defeated the Varni so completely that Radigis tried to flee. Soon, the Angles found him hiding in the woods, tied him up, and brought him before their princess. She demanded to know why he had broken off their engagement, and Radigis apologized to her and explained that he was only following his father’s wishes. Apparently, his answer satisfied her, and she released him on the condition that their betrothal was back on and they would be married. Sure enough, shortly thereafter, the wedding took place, and Procopius’s account ends.

Now, obviously one wedding didn’t create the Anglo-Saxons overnight; the merger of the Angles and Saxons would have taken many generations and been an incredibly gradual process. Having said that, the marriage of Radigis and the Anglian princess was a step in that direction, and might not have happened if our princess hadn’t decided to take matters into her own hands. If only we knew her name so she could get the credit she deserves.