Biographies of Women

Two Women

Women in Religion 

Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179)

At the age of seven, Hildegarde became the student of a German anchoress named Jutta. (Anchorites of both sexes received the last rites and confined themselves in small cells. They had no access to the outside world except through a small hole used to pass food in and waste out.) Through Jutta, Hildegarde learned to read the Psalter in Latin. After Jutta's death, Hildegarde succeeded her as abbess, even though she, too, had become an anchoress. Hildegarde suffered from terrible migranes, which caused her to see visions. She confided the visions only in Jutta and in a monk named Volmar, who became her life-long secretary and biographer. Pestered constantly by feelings of inadequacy, aware of the numerous 12th Century religious frauds, Hildegarde wrote to several Church officials to have her visions supported. Pope Eugenius responded, and encouraged her to keep writing. Hildegarde was an author and a composer, as well.

Julian of Norwich (1342?-after 1416)

Few personal details are known about Julian of Norwich. She was a well-known anchoress attached to the Church of St. Julian at Conisford in Norwich, England. Julian viewed herself as ignorant, but she had a great knowledge of spiritual literature. Her own works were written in English, which was a language of vague disrepute and dangerous when used in religion. Falling ill at about age 30, Julian experienced a series of visions called "The Showings", which revealed to her Christ, the , and the Devil. These visions haunted her for the rest of her life.

Marguerite Porete (?-1310)

This Belgian Beguine was most famous for her book The Mirror of Simple Souls, a verse treatment of a conversation among Love, Reason, and the Soul. Marguerite stressed the doctrine of seven stages of spiritual growth. This heresy brought her dangerous attention from the Church, which burned and banned her book, and forbade Marguerite to share her views. Marguerite disobeyed the order, was tried for heresy, and burned at the stake.


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Women in the Trades  

Mrs. Runtinger (14th Century)

This woman, whose first name is unknown, learned business from her husband Matthias Runtinger. She was his witness for sales contracts and later his bookkeeper. She also kept her father-in-law's records. She became her husband's representative and assistant, and in the last years of her husband's life, she ran the business herself.

Rose of Burford (14th Century)

Rose was active as a wool trader even while her husband was alive. After his death, she became even more active in the trade, exporting English wool to Calais. Her husband had been an officer of the crown who had loaned money to King Edward II. Edward hadn't paid his debt, so Rose wrote to the court several times requesting that she be paid. When she at last arranged a scheme that allowed the debt to be paid in refunds from Rose's export duties, her request was granted and the debt paid.

Margery Kempe 

Though married to a rich merchant, Margery Kempe also ran her own businesses: a brewery and a mill. She had fourteen children, but she still found time to be a businesswoman. By her own admittance, she wanted the extra money to be able to dress as a woman of fashion. Margery is also a mystic who made numerous pilgrimages.

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Women in Politics  

Empress Matilda (Maud) (12th Century)

Matilda, also known as Maud, was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror. She retained the title Empress from her marriage to the German Emperor Henry V, who subsequently died. She decided to stake a claim for the English throne and wage war with her cousin Stephen of Blois. She personally commanded her army and accomplished a number of daring and wily escapes from besieged castles. At one point, she was under siege in London from troops commanded by Stephen's wife, who was also named Matilda.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (?-1204)

An heiress, Eleanor was married at 15 to Louis VII, King of France. He took her on Crusade with him, where it is said she led an army of ladies all dressed in armour, expecting to pick a fight with infidels. Their marriage was terminated when it was alleged she had had an affair with (her uncle) Raymond of Antioch while in the Holy Land. This didn't stop her from making a profitable second marriage to Henry, a prince of England who would shortly be crowned Henry II. She had four sons by him, but when he took a mistress known as Fair Rosamund, she turned against him. She used sons Henry, Geoffrey, Richard, and John against their father, who was already troubled deeply by the murder of Thomas A Becket. Though she was imprisoned for her treason, she was later released and continued to be active in politics.

Helene Kottanerin (15th Century)

After her second marriage, Helene Kottanerin became a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth, the queen consort to Albert II, the Habsburg king of Hungary and Bohemia. When Albert died in 1439, he left one legitimate heir who was born after Albert's death and christened Ladislas Posthumus. The infant's claim to the throne was challenged by Wladyslaw of Poland; to strengthen Ladislas's chances, Elizabeth asked Helene to steal the throne insignia. The theft was carried out successfully, but Elizabeth died shortly after, dashing the Habsburgs' hopes.


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Women in War 

Aethelflaed (?-918)

Aethelflaed was the daughter of Alfred the Great of England. During her father's reign, she led troops against Viking attacks and was responsible for the construction of numerous fortifications. By expanding her family's influence -- i.e., conquering most of England -- she helped her brother Edward the Elder become England's mightiest monarch.

 Sichelgaita (?-1090)

A princess of Lombardy, Sichelgaita was the wife of a Norman mercenary. Tall, imposing, and muscular, she was a soldier herself and rode into battle at her husband's side. She tolerated no insubordination from the other soldiers and threatened potential deserters with death.

Dame Nicolaa de la Haye (13th Century)

The conflict between King John and the rebel barons did not end with John's death. It continued with rebel attacks on royalist strongholds like that of Dame Nicolaa, who was a royalist and the widow of the Sheriff of Lincoln. Taking command of the garrison of Lincoln castle, she defended it against rebel siege until help arrived.

Countess of Pembroke (13th Century)

The Countess of Pembroke was evidently trusted implicitly by her husband, William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. In 1267, he put her in charge of his knights while he was away from home.

Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar (14th Century)

When Dunbar Castle was under siege by Edward III in 1338, Black Agnes led the castle's inhabitants in its defence (Power 45).

Maria (14th Century)

Few personal details are known about this woman, but she is described in one of Petrarch's letters. She is a soldier in an Italian army, dresses like a man, and is almost unrecognisable in her armour. Petrarch describes his shock when he goes to greet her as he would another man and realizes his mistake. She is treated fairly by the male soldiers, and she surpasses them in physical skill. Petrarch lauds her for having remained chaste.

Joan of Arc (-1431)

As a teenager, Joan believed she heard the voices of angels telling her to help the future Charles VII, who had been deprived of his inheritance by the English and the Burgundians, to regain his throne. Impressed, Charles sent her to raise the siege at Orléans, which she did successfully, driving the English from the city and allowing Charles VII to be crowned at Rheims. She was soon captured by Burgundians and sold to the English, who found her guilty of witchcraft and wearing a man's clothes. She was burned at the stake in 1431 and canonized in 1920. Joan made an interesting comment on foul-mouthed English women -- she called them "the Goddams" . 

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Women in Science and Medicine

Trotula of Salerno (11th?-13th? Century)

Salerno, in Italy, was famous for its medical school. Trotula headed a group called the "Ladies of Salerno", who studied medicine. Because male physicians, though they dominated the medical scene, knew little about women's health issues, her two written works were important in educating them. Her major work, actually referred to as Trotula Major, is Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum (The Diseases of Women); it contains information on many subjects, including some daring inferences and prescriptions about impotence and childbirth.

Felicie de Almania (1292?-?)

The Parisian medical faculty prosecuted Felicie de Almania, along with many other women, for practicing medicine without a license -- a cardinal sin in a university town. Felicie is notable for her excellent defence, during which she called several witnesses to testify to her skills. She explained her view of the law against illegal medical practice: the law existed, she believed, to prevent quacks from harming people and not to prevent a knowledgeable woman from helping them. She spoke of the need of women doctors to treat women patients. The faculty banned her from practice, but it is likely that she ignored this injunction.

Peretta Peronne (15th Century)

Another unlicensed practitioner, Peretta Peronne was one of Paris's most successful women surgeons. Perhaps her success led to her prosecution in 1411. She was denied access to her patients for the duration of the trial, and her medical books were confiscated. Her fate is unknown, but it is likely that she defied the court's order as she had previously.

Perrenelle Flammel (Dates unknown)

Perrenelle's husband Nicholas had great fame in his own lifetime as an alchemist. He believed he had found the secret of transforming base metals into gold. Perenelle was his assistant and partner in his research.

Francisca Romano (Dates unknown)

Among all the women prosecuted and banned for practicing illegally, Francisca Romano was one woman who had trained at a medical university. She received recognition and approval from Charles, Duke of Calabria.


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Women in the Arts   

Anna Comnena (Dates unknown)

A historian and diarist, Anna Comnena was the daughter of Alexius I Comnenus, emperor of Byzantium.

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (10th Century)

Hrotsvitha was a German nun who has many "firsts" to her credit. She is Germany's first poet and its first female writer, and Europe's first playwright.

Marie de France (13th Century)

Marie de France was a poetess, a French expatriate living in England. She composed lais, romantic poems based on old legends. Her courtly idol was William Longespée, the illegitimate son of Henry II of England by his mistress Fair Rosamund.

Thomasse (13th-14th Centuries)

Thomasse made her living as a professional, secular illuminator while carrying on a second trade as an innkeeper.

Christine de Pisan (1364-?)

Christine was Italian, the daughter of an astrologer. Her father wanted her to be educated, so she learned French, Latin, arithmetic, and geometry. At the age of 15, she married Etienne du Castel, who was twenty-four. He died when she was twenty-six, leaving her with three children and numerous relatives to support. She used her skill as a writer and poetess to earn a living. She was one of the few true feminists before the modern era.

Anastasia (14th Century)

Christine de Pisan praises Anastasia in a letter, calling her the best illuminator in the world -- or at least in Paris, where the world's best work. Anastasia's specialty was manuscript borders and backgrounds.


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Adapted with permission from Dominion and Domination


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