HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Heroines of the Medieval World’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Another book talking about Matilda of Flanders. That is no criticism – just because I know all about her doesn’t mean everyone does, and Matilda deserves to be written over and over. Heroines of the Medieval World is a book that caught my interest the moment I laid eyes on it. Matilda may have been married to William the Conqueror, but to start with, he was William the Bastard. Matilda bought legitimacy to her husband by association, a striking and strong woman. Their large family grounded their new dynasty on English shores, and Matilda was more than capable of ruling in her husband’s absence, taking care of her own projects and had to be skilled negotiator.

But this book doesn’t restrict itself to discussing queens. Also featured is Matilda’s daughter, Adela. At a young age, Adela married Stephen of Blois, Count of Blois and Champagne. Stephen went off to fight in the Crusades and left Adela as regent, only to see him killed the 1102 Siege of Ramallah. Adela went on to act as regent for her young son, and ruled jointly with her son when he was of age. Wise, assured and skilled in negotiation like her mother, Adela lived to see her son become king of England under her care.

Other great tales include St Margaret, princess and descendant of Ӕthelrӕd II the Unready (ouch), who fled to Scotland in 1066, married the king of Scotland steered the country away from Celtic teachings and into Catholicism. The well-known tales Katherine Swynford make an appearance, a mistress who bore to stain of the title, only to be risen to the name legitimate wife and bear children would go on to dominate royal houses over England. Also featured is the tale of Joan of Acre, born in the Holy Lands in 1272, married the squire of her first husband behind her father’s back, her father being King Edward I. It was a risk that eventually paid off, a happy ending for a girl previously sold off to an old man at her father’s behest.

Other tales tales exist, such as the exciting story of Nicholaa de la Haye, sheriff of Lincoln, who fought off Richard I’s men in 1191 and held out for three months against a French invasion in 1217. For this, she was stripped of her title and so marched to Henry III’s herself to reclaim her title, insistent that her role in saving the English from the French made her worthy of the title, despite being a woman now in her sixties. There’s a tale every history book needs to add.

Also detailed is the extraordinary Christine de Pisan, the first female writer ever to make a living from the (still) difficult career path, in the court of Charles V of France, and Joanna of England, married off to William II of Sicily, imprisoned by her husband’s bastard nephew, only to be rescued her brother, Richard the Lionheart. Joanna then went to the crusades with her brother before trying to achieve peace between England and France.

This is just a taste of the women featured in medieval history and this book is a great addition to any library. The author has done a wonderful job and this is a surprisingly easy read, not weighed down by facts, more of a story of constant greatness.

 

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