Once upon a time, a woman fed a man a piece of fruit he wasn’t supposed to eat, acting on the instructions of a snake. He was, at first, reluctant, but eventually agreed. When this came to light, both the man and the woman got in trouble. Logically, this was all the woman’s fault, right? Well, at least it was deemed to be from Biblical times until relatively recently. Medieval theologians elaborated, through thousands of turgid arguments and sermons, that this event – perpetrated by Eve, the first woman – demonstrated that women were innately stupid, easily tempted, and dangerous to men.
Woman’s essentially bad qualities meant that they were debarred from non-hereditary offices of power and denied the same rights as men in the medieval period, for their own protection as much as the men’s. Over 500 years since the Middle Ages officially ended, women are still undoing the damage done by the period’s theologians and their followers from more recent centuries. But not all women believed what they were told about their innate inferiority to men, and set about behaving as if they were equal. Smashing conventions and challenging ill-founded beliefs, here are 12 of the most badass medieval women.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
No one knows precisely when Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122-1204) was born, but by the age of 15 she had inherited the dukedom of Aquitaine, the largest and richest in France, and became the most eligible bachelorette in Europe. Her father, William X, Duke of Aquitaine, had presided over a vast and cultured territory, giving his daughter a fine education in arithmetic, history, and Latin, befitting a man. This made for a dangerous combination: a well educated woman, whose choice of husband would shift power wherever her affections lay. Her first marriage to the Dauphin, Louis, merely increased her influence.
Louis became King Louis VII of France shortly after their marriage. Her power was not blunted too much by her marriage, for in marriage contract dictated that Aquitaine would remain independent of France until Eleanor’s eldest son became king, meaning that she was in control of a huge territory that could technically rival France. Additionally, though wives were expected to obey their husbands like servants, Eleanor did not tone down her confident and extroverted personality, and successfully advised Louis to go to war with Theobald, Count of Champagne, over his opposition to royal permission for his sister’s marriage.
In 1147, Eleanor even accompanied her husband on a Crusade to the Holy Land, which he took in penitence for the horrors of the war with Theobald. Though her involvement was largely ceremonial, she was accompanied not only by her ladies in waiting but 300 soldiers of Aquitaine. The Crusade was an unmitigated disaster, and Eleanor was rather unjustly blamed for it. Malicious and unfounded rumours had spread that she was sleeping with her uncle, Raymond of Antioch, and these factors combined with her inability to produce a male heir led to Eleanor’s marriage to Louis being annulled in 1152.
The Duchess of Aquitaine was once again a power-broker. 8 weeks after her annulment, she had married Henry, Duke of Normandy, who became King of England in 1154. Though the marriage was tempestuous, perhaps from a combination of Eleanor’s refusal to act like a weak vassal and Henry’s notorious infidelity with Rosamund Clifford, it produced 5 sons and 3 daughters. Their eldest son, Henry, rose up against his increasingly ineffective father in the Revolt of 1173-74, and Eleanor was instrumental in securing support from 2 other sons, Richard and Geoffrey, and a host of powerful barons and lords.
The revolt failed, and Eleanor was imprisoned between 1173 and 1189 for her involvement. She was released when Henry died and her son, Richard the Lionheart, took the throne. She officially ruled England in his name for a month, and also reigned informally during the frequent periods in which Richard was away on Crusade. She survived Richard, and continued to be an important political figure during the early reign of her inept other son, King John, until her death in 1204. Conscious of her power and intelligence, throughout her life Eleanor refused to be bullied by men into subservience.