By Tim Lambert

The Middle Ages produced some powerful and famous women. Here are some of their stories.


Hildegard was a writer in the 12th century. She was born about 1098 in Germany. Hildegard came from an upper class family. She was one of ten children. When she was 15 Hildegard became a Benedictine nun. In 1136 when she was about 38 Hildegard became the abbess. Hildegard claimed that she had visions from the time she was a child. What caused them is uncertain.

Her first book was called Scito vias Domini or Know the Ways of God. Hildegard completed it in 1151. It covered a huge number of theological subjects including the Church, the angels, the Trinity, and the end of the world. Hildegard also wrote a morality play called Ordo Virtutum (order of the virtues). Meanwhile, in 1148, Hildegard announced that God had told her and the other nuns to move to a new location at Rupertsberg near Bingen. They moved about 1150.

As well as theology Hildegard was also interested in the natural world. She made no new discoveries herself but she wrote a compendium of knowledge about the natural world at the time called Physica. Hildegard also wrote a book about medicine called Causes and Cures. As well as being a great writer Hildegard was also a composer. She composed a cycle of songs called the Symposia. Hildegard was also an abbess and she had to cope with the day to day running of a convent. However, Hildegard only allowed girls from noble families to join her convent. In her view, it was unnatural for the different classes of society to mix.

Hildegard died on 17 September 1179. She was aged about 81 (extremely old age in those days). In the Middle Ages Hildegard was an influential woman. Even today Hildegard is remembered as a great scholar and mystic.

Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe was an English mystic of the Middle Ages. She is famous for her autobiography. Margery was born in Kings Lynn in 1373. Her father was a wealthy merchant. At that time Kings Lynn was a large and important town and port. When she grew up Margery married a merchant named John Kempe. Soon she fell pregnant. In those days pregnancy was hazardous and many women died in childbirth. Margery had a difficult pregnancy and labor. Afraid that she was dying she sent for a priest to confess her sins to. However, the priest spoke to her very harshly and this seems to have triggered a period of mental illness. Eventually, Margery Kempe had a vision of Jesus. He said 'Daughter why have you forsaken me, for I have never forsaken you'. Afterwards, she returned to normal.

Margery decided to start her own brewing business. (It was by no means unusual in the Middle Ages for women to run their own businesses). However, the brewing was not a success. Margery then ran a horse mill to grind people's corn to grain. However, the horse mill was also a failure. Margery Kempe believed that God was punishing her for her covetousness and pride and she determined to turn over a new leaf. She had a series of visions and she insisted on having a sexless marriage. (Previously in 20 years of marriage Margery had 14 children. Unfortunately, in those days infant mortality was very high so it's unlikely many of them survived).

Margery Kempe then traveled around England to visit various churchmen like bishops. Her husband accompanied her. She also visited the female mystic Julian of Norwich. In 1413 Margery Kempe went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (In those days people went on long trips to religious shrines). In 1417 Margery went on a pilgrimage to Spain. When she returned Margery went to Leicester.

While in Leicester Margery Kempe was arrested and accused of being a Lollard. (Lollards were a religious movement founded by the famous Christian John Wycliffe. Lollards were persecuted by the Catholic Church). However, Margery was soon released. In 1431 her husband John Kempe died. Then in 1433 Margery, now an old woman visited Danzig. Margery Kempe could not read and write but she dictated a book about her life. It was called The Book of Margery Kempe. It is not known when Margery Kempe died but it is believed it was in 1438 or sometime afterward.

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich 1342-1416 was a great Christian mystic and writer of the Middle Ages but little is known about her. It is a myth that women were unimportant in the Middle Ages. Some women like Julian certainly did have influence. However, we know very little about her life. Julian (also known as Juliana) was probably born in Norwich. She certainly spent most of her life there. At that time Norwich was one of England's largest and most important towns. It was a center of the wool trade although during Julian's lifetime the population was devastated by the plague. In the 14th century, Norwich had a population of about 10,000, which made it a big town by Medieval standards.

Julian described herself modestly as 'a simple creature, unlettered'. However, she probably did have some education and some knowledge of theology. Julian was in her 70s when she died, which was unusual for that time.

During an illness in 1373 Julian of Norwich had a series of profound visions, which she later wrote about. Julian also devoted the rest of her life to prayer. Julian was an anchoress. In the Middle Ages, an anchorite or anchoress was a person who devoted himself or herself to solitary prayer. (The word has nothing to do with anchors on ships, it comes from the Greek word anachoreo, which means to withdraw). Julian lived in a room or cell attached to the Church of St Julian in Norwich. Her cell had 3 windows, one opened onto the church so she could receive communion. One enabled her to speak to her assistant. The third allowed ordinary people to seek her spiritual advice or ask for her prayers.

Julian is famous for her book Revelations of Divine Love. Julian had an optimistic faith. She is best known for her saying 'All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well' and she said 'Prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance. It is laying hold of his willingness'. Julian also said 'God showed me something as small as a hazelnut in the palm of my hand' She wondered what it was and God told her 'It is all that is made' . Julian also wrote about the 'motherhood' of God. She said 'As truly as God is our father so truly God is our mother'. Julian also said 'Between God and the soul there is no between'.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc was a woman who inspired the French army to win victories in the 15th century. Joan was born about 1412 in the village of Domremy. Her parents were fairly well off peasants and as a girl Joan helped her mother around the house. She would have learned feminine skills from her. Joan was proud of her skills. 'I fear no woman in Rouen at sewing and spinning' she once said. Joan also learned her religious faith from her mother. She was very devout. However, Joan never learned to read and write. Joan claimed that from about the age of 13 she heard 'voices'. We are not sure what caused her to hear 'voices'. Today doctors could probably treat her but in the Middle Ages medicine was very primitive.

When Joan of Arc was born France and England were engaged in a very long war. French king Charles the Fair, died in 1328 and his cousin became Philip VI. However, Edward III of England claimed the throne of France because his mother was king Charles the Fair's sister. (French law did not allow him to inherit the throne through a woman). So in 1337 war began.

In 1346 the English won a famous victory at Crecy with the longbow. The English went on to win the battle of Poitiers in 1356. A peace treaty of Bretigny was signed in 1360 and France was forced to surrender much of its territory. However, peace was only temporary. War began again in 1369. This time France was successful and by 1375 the English were driven back until they held no more than a few ports.

However in 1415 the English invaded France again. They won a great victory at Agincourt in 1415. The Burgundians then made an alliance with the English. They recognized Henry V of England as heir to the French throne. The French king's son, the Dauphin fled to the south leaving northern France in the hands of the English and the Burgundians. In 1422 he claimed the throne of France but he ruled only southern France. However, the French were by no means defeated. In 1428 the war had developed into a stalemate between the French and the English and their Burgundian allies.

At that time the 'voices' told Joan she would raise the siege of Orleans. They told her to go to the town of Vaucouleurs. They told her to see a man named Robert de Baudricourt. At first, de Baudricourt did not believe her and sent her home. However, in January 1429 Joan went to see de Baudricourt again. This time she gained the support of two powerful men in the town. That might seem surprising. Today if somebody claimed to hear voices we would be very skeptical. However, the Middle Ages was a superstitious age. It was not uncommon at that time for 'holy women' to have revelations. Her two male supporters persuaded de Baudricourt to see Joan a second time. This time she won him over.

He gave Joan of Arc an escort to the town of Chinon some 300 miles away to see the king. Oddly, from that time on Joan insisted on wearing only male clothes. Joan of Arc managed to persuade the king that her voices were genuine. Or did she? Perhaps the king thought that if Joan could persuade the soldiers that God was on their side and God had sent her to lead them it would be a huge boost to their morale.

The king gave Joan armor and weapons and a small number of troops. In April 1429 he sent her to Orleans. The French commander, Dunois allowed Joan and her men to accompany him against the English. (Joan of Arc never took part in the actual fighting herself. Instead, she held up a banner to rally the troops. Nevertheless, she was wounded twice by crossbow bolts). Joan managed to inspire the troops and after several days of fighting the French drove back the English and relieved Orleans although Joan herself was wounded in the throat by a crossbow bolt. The victory at Orleans was a great boost to French morale. They were now convinced that God was on their side. As a result, they won further victories and so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Next the king sent Joan of Arc with the Duke d'Alencon to take command of French forces besieging the town of Jargeau, which was held by the English. Jargeau was captured by the French on 11 June 1429. The French then went on to capture Meung and Beaugency. The French had further successes. They captured Troyes, Chalons, and Reims. However, things began to go wrong for Joan of Arc when she led an attack on Paris in September 1429. Joan herself was wounded in the thigh by a crossbow bolt. The French attempt to capture Paris ended in failure and retreat. It was a huge blow to Joan's prestige and the French began to lose faith in her.

Finally in March 1430 Joan of Arc was captured after making a military blunder. The town of Compiegne was being besieged by the English and the Burgundians. On 24 May 1430, Joan led an army into the town. That evening she led an attack on the Burgundian camp. However, the Burgundians counterattacked and the French soldiers were forced to retreat into Compiegne. Joan of Arc herself was captured. Joan was held prisoner by the Duke of Luxembourg (an ally of the English). At first, he offered to release her if the French king paid a ransom. In the Middle Ages, it was customary to pay a ransom for an important prisoner. However, the French king refused to pay the ransom for Joan of Arc. She had outlived her usefulness.

Since the French were not willing to pay for Joan the Duke of Luxembourg then offered her to the English for the same amount of money. They willingly paid. Joan of Arc was then put on trial for heresy. It was, of course purely a show trial for political reasons. Joan claimed that God sent her to save France from the English. The English had to show that she was a fraud. Joan was questioned about her voices but she insisted they were real. Her captors were also horrified by her habit of wearing male clothes. That may not seem important to us but to people in the Middle Ages it seemed against the natural order for a woman to wear men's clothes.

The verdict was never in doubt. Joan of Arc was found guilty of heresy for wearing men's clothes. The unfortunate woman was sentenced to death. On 30 May 1431 poor Joan of Arc was burned to death in Rouen.

After the execution of Joan of Arc the war between France and England went on for another 22 years. It finally ended in 1453 when the French regained all their territory except for Calais. Meanwhile, after her execution, Joan became a legendary figure. Once she became a legend the king of France decided to try and have her rehabilitated. After all, Joan was associated with his rise to power and he did not want her remembered as a heretic. So an investigation was held and in 1456 the conviction of Joan of Arc for heresy was duly overturned.

Christine de Pisan

Christine de Pisan was a great woman writer of the Middle Ages. Her father Tommaso was a famous academic and she was born in Italy about 1363. When she was an infant Christine and her family moved to France, where her father was employed by the French king. In 1379 Christine married Etienne de Castel. Christine had 3 children, 1 girl, and 2 boys. However, her husband died young in 1390.

Christine was devastated and she took to writing poetry to express her grief. Soon she gained a reputation as a gifted poet. Christine became a professional writer. She wrote on many subjects, often defending women Among her famous books are Letters to the God of Love (1399) and The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), which championed women and their place in society. Her last work was The Poem of Joan of Arc written in 1429. Christine de Pisan died around 1430.

Life for Women in the Middle Ages

Famous Women of the 16th Century


Last revised 2019