Notable Women of the Middle Ages

Every year March is dedicated as Women's History Month, set aside to honor women's contributions in history. To note this occasion let's talk about a few of the famous women of the Middle Ages.

1. Joan of Arc, Maid of Orléans

St. Joan of Arc War Plaque

An ordinary peasant girl with no prior military experience, Joan persevered through repeated obstacles until she was allowed to join the French military army. She led a French army to the besieged city of Orléans and participated in strategic and tactical engagements afterwards. Later, she was captured by the Anglo-Burgundian forces and handed over to an English tribunal who executed the 19-year-old Joan for witchcraft and heresy in 1431. This martyrdom later led her to be honored as one of the patron saints of France.

2. Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Following the death of her husband Aethelred II, Aethelflaed (r. 911-918 CE) became Queen of Mercia. Best known as the Lady of the Mercians, she carefully planned the defense of her city and defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Chester in 907 CE. Later, she formed alliances with Irish mercenaries to aid in defense of her kingdom and worked with her brother Edward the Elder of Wessex to protect the region against further Viking raids and boost the economy.

3. Matilda of Tuscany

Matilda of Canossa (1046-1115 AD) was one of the most preeminent political forces in medieval Italy. She is best known for defending her lands and the authority of Pope Gregory VII (c. 1073-1085 AD) from the aggression of emperor Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire (r. 1056-1105 AD). Matilda supervised the entire military operations and expeditions while ably managing the affairs of state which included administration over a vast kingdom. She continued her struggle to defend the papacy even after the death of the Pope until Henry IV was defeated in a battle in 1095 AD. She was later crowned Vice-Queen of Italy or Imperial Vicar by Henry IV's son and successor, Henry V in 1111 AD.

4. Empress Theodora

Theodora's (l. 500-548 AD) story is a classic tale of rags to riches. Starting her life in the lowest section of the Byzantine society, she went on to become one of the most powerful women in history. An actress in Constantinople, she converted to Christianity and took up wool-spinning and weaving as a profession. It is unclear how she met the future emperor Justinian (r. 527-565 AD), but they fell deeply in love, which is why he changed the law which forbade royalty from marrying actresses and made her his wife and partner in the rule. Both of them jointly ruled the Byzantine Empire until Theodora's death, possibly from breast cancer, in 548 AD.

5. Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor (l. c. 1122-1204 AD) was Queen of France, Queen of England, wife of two kings, mother of a number of other notable children including King John of Magna Carta fame, King Richard I the 'Lion-heart', and Marie de Champagne (patroness of Chretien de Troyes). Apart from this, she is known to have personally participated in the Second Crusade along with her ladies-in-waiting.

Women in the Middle Ages were frequently characterized as second-class citizens; their status was elevated to an extent in the High and Late Middle Ages. Though we have just featured a few of the notable women in this blog, there were many others throughout the Middle Ages who broke from societal norms and lived the kind of life they choose for themselves.

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