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 viz amazon

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I have spent a long time with my head in academic history books, so to read something that reads more like a story was a welcome relief. Heroines of the Medieval World is a book hard to get here in NZ, so when a copy generously floated my way, I grabbed it with both hands. The first thing I thought was – do we still use the word ‘heroine?’ Should it not just be ‘heroes?’ But then people may purchase and then get their egos crushed by finding out all the heroes are women. That only made me like this book more.

The book is great, separated into chapters about women from all over Europe. The book writes about the women of England and France, but also from Spain (yay!) and even as far east as Kiev. There are Warrior Heroines, Literary Heroines, Religious Heroines and Scandalous Heroines. You can read them in order, or however you like depending on your mood. I enjoyed how The Pawns weren’t simply bartering gifts, but smart women in their own right, and the Medieval Mistresses were more fleshed out (excuse the pun) than the simply fallen women ideal.

You won’t be confused between your Eleanors, your Matildas or your Isabels, and while you will read about well-known heroines, they are also great forgotten women given fresh air. The women are not viewed as heroines through 21st century eyes, rather they are simply celebrated for their strength in the time period while on their own crusades. They are heroines for all centuries. Putting together such a thorough assembly of women must have taken considerable time and energy, so treat yourself to the author’s hard work and gain further insight to the women that came before us. Heroines have far more skills and techniques than any hero.

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