Before the Renaissance -- when a number of women in Europe wielded influence and power -- women of medieval Europe often came to prominence primarily through their family connections. Through marriage or motherhood, or as their father's heir when there were no male heirs, women occasionally rose above their culturally-restricted roles. And a few women made their way to the forefront of accomplishment or power primarily through their own efforts. A few European medieval women of note:
Catherine of Siena is credited (with St. Bridget of Sweden) with persuading Pope Gregory to return the Papal seat from Avignon to Rome. When Gregory died, Catherine got involved in the Great Schism. Her visions were well-known in the medieval world, and she was an advisor, through her correspondence, with powerful secular and religious leaders.
Queen of France then Queen of England, she was duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, which gave her significant power as a wife and mother. She served as regent in her husband's absence, helped ensure significant royal marriages for her daughters, and eventually helped her sons rebel against their father, Henry II of England, her husband. She was imprisoned by Henry, but outlived him and served, once again, as regent, this time when her sons were absent from England.
Mystic, religious leader, writer, musician, Hildegard of Bingen is the earliest composer whose life history is known.
Isabella d'Este was a key figure in the Italian Renaissance, at the late "edges" of medieval history. She supported artists, writers, poets and musicians of the Italian Renaissance, collecting art and antiquities -- and occasionally served as regent for her husband or son, even leading military defenses. At the end of her life, she became a ruler in her own right of a small territory.
Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans, had only two years in the public eye, but is perhaps the best-known woman of the Middle Ages. She was a military leader and, eventually, saint in the Roman Catholic tradition who helped unite the French against the English.
Theodora, empress of Byzantium from 527-548, was probably the most influential and powerful woman in the empire's history. Through her relationship with her husband, who seems to have treated her as his intellectual partner, Theodora had a real effect on the political decisions of the empire.