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:
Regent Queen of the Ostrogoths, her murder became the rationale for Justinian's invasion of Italy and defeat of the Goths. Unfortunately, we have only a few very biased sources for her life, but this profile attempts to read between the lines and come as close as we can to an objective telling of her story.
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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.
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Had Henry V lived, their marriage might have united France and England. Because of his early death, Catherine's impact on history was less as daughter of the King of France and wife of Henry V of England, than through her marriage to Owen Tudor, and thus her role in the beginnings of the future Tudor dynasty.
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Christine de Pizan, author of the Book of the City of the Ladies, a fifteenth-century writer in France, was an early feminist who challenged her culture's stereotypes of women.
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.
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Mystic, religious leader, writer, musician, Hildegard of Bingen is the earliest composer whose life history is known.
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Canoness, poet, dramatist, and historian, Hrosvitha (Hrostvitha, Hroswitha) wrote the first plays known to be have been written by a woman.
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Queen consort of Edward II of England, she joined with her lover Roger Mortimer to depose Edward and, then, have him murdered. Her son, Edward III, was crowned king -- and then executed Mortimer and banished Isabella. Through his mother's heritage, Edward III claimed the crown of France, beginning the Hundred Years' War.
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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.
Never quite crowned as Queen of England, Matilda's claim on the throne -- which her father had required his nobles to support, but which her cousin Stephen rejected when he seized the throne for himself -- led to a long civil war. Eventually, her military campaigns led not to her own success in winning the crown of England, but to her son, Henry II, being named Stephen's successor. (She was called Empress because of her first marriage, to the Holy Roman Emperor.)
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She ruled most of central and northern Italy in her time; under feudal law, she owed allegiance to the German king -- Holy Roman Emperor -- but she took the side of the Pope in the wars between the imperial forces and the papacy. When Henry IV had to beg pardon of the Pope, he did so at Matilda's castle, and Matilda was seated at the Pope's side during the event.
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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.