The Middle Ages, or Medieval period, if you prefer, was a time period in (primarily European) history dating after the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Renaissance. Some historians like to link the Dark Ages with the Middle Ages… but some do not. Alas, for this blog we will. The Dark Ages refer to a time when history was not especially documented. Most Europeans then wanted to forget the horrors that Romans wrought on their cultures and one way to try to erase the past was to document very little! Luckily, a few rogue souls did leave some tidbits for posterity but, when compared with other eras, still not much is known today.
As librarians and historians, we love the Middle Ages. We love the Dark Ages. We love history. Unfortunately, *Shocked — Gasp* most things women were often not documented, were not recorded. Women often were deemed foolish, emotional and overreaching. That said, we’ve highlighted specific women below for their prowess; they’re what we call ‘Medieval Powerhouses’. Please read on.
Born to Malik or Tareq Bin Awse, one of the chiefs of the Banu Assad tribe, Khawlah bint al-Azwar was a ferocious female warrior who played a significant role in the Muslim conquest of what today we know as Palestine, Jordan and Syria. She and her famous warrior brother proved to have great skill both as warriors and leaders. Her most famous battle involved her leading a battalion of women against the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Yarmouk. Fighting the Greeks would prove her downfall
Likely a myth, Fatima holds a special place in Islamic history. She was from what is presently Tunisia and migrated to Fes. She received a strong education and learned a love for learning. When her father died, he left she and her sister an inheritance. With that, she and her sister eventually made possible the building of Mosques. She provided financial backing for the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, expanding its size in her lifetime. Whether real or mythical, her story has provided an example of women exercising agency in a time when highly uncommon
Have you heard of Alfred the Great? For a time, he was king of all Saxons and the first to have the dream of a united England (and not coincidentally, the only English King to have “Great” after his name). Æthelflæd was his daughter. She was born to greatness. Her arranged marriage to the Lord of Mercians, re-secured the alliance between Wessex and Mercia. Æthelflæd was no ordinary woman, of course. She stood and fought alongside her brother, Edward the Elder, against numerous Viking invasions. She eventually spent the rest of her life leading the government of Mercia and promoting her Christian faith.
A shield maiden of unknown origin and detail, Lagertha is a tale told throughout centuries in Scandinavia. We are not sure if she was real or instead a myth based on various Viking shield maidens. For more information, explore the History Channel’s DVD series, Vikings. Our fiction book series does not have Lagertha, specifically, but features strong female warriors from her time period.
Murasaki Shikibu was born in Japan in an era when Chinese was the language of formal government. Women were not often taught Chinese at the time as it was considered inappropriate to teach women. However, her father taught her Chinese language and customs and she earned a position as a lady-in-waiting to Shōshi, the empress and daughter of prominent stateman Michinaga. Despite her education in Chinese that gained her a prominent spot in court, she used the money from patrons to write a novel in Japanese at a time when poetry in Chinese was in vogue. Today Tales of Genji is considered not only one of the first Japanese novels, but one of the first novels ever written.
With her father’s assassination and her siblings all dead or killed, Matilda of Tuscany was the only one left to inherit her family’s lands. She ruled as well as any man. She led her troops into battle. She conquered lands. She hosted the Holy Roman Emperor and Pope Gregory VII at her castle as they had an ever-going dispute. She propped Pope Gregory on the throne of the Vatican. Matilda ruled all the lands north of the Vatican and upon her death, she willed all sorts of treasures to all the seemingly wrong people, leaving a rather bit of trouble after her death.
History’s first female historian and a hero to use by default. Anna Komnene was born in 1083 in the Great Palace of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey). Not only was she a Byzantine princess, she was a scholar, physician and hospital administrator. After her father (the King) passed, her mother and she tried to take the throne from her husband. After that attempt, he banished her to a monastery. There, she wrote The Alexiad which gives us a record of the reigns of the rulers of Byzantium.
Hildegard, Hildegard, you beautiful woman you! Hildegard was a German Abbess (female leader of an abbey full of nuns, much like a mayor of a town). She was a writer, composer, philosopher and Christian mystic. Hildegard had such an impact on the Catholic church that she was officially (since some areas already considered her one) canonized as a Saint in 2012. Hildegard wrote beautiful music and texts that are still in existence today (and can be found at Main Library). Check out this CD that features musical scores from the 1100s!
Empress Matilda was the daughter of Henry I and the granddaughter of William the Conqueror. Upon his death bed, King Henry had his elder men promise to allow Matilda to rule after his death until her sons were old enough to take the throne. The aldermen were not having that. “We cannot be governed by a women”, says they! They believed that a woman belongs behind the man, not in front. Matilda’s cousin, Stephan, decided that was true and that he should be King instead. He went on to take the throne and was secretly anointed in Winchester by his brother Bishop Henry. What a dastardly family affair. Matilda was infuriated that her and her son’s birthrights were stolen from them. Matilda made such a big fuss about it (rightly so) and caused so many battles and deaths, historians have given her the title: The She-Wolf of England. Big war. Lots of killing. Lots of arguing. Eventually Matilda got her son Henry on the throne and he married our next medieval powerhouse lady of France, Elenore of Aquitaine. Look out for our future post for Part 2 of Historic Heroines : Medieval Powerhouses to read about Elenore.