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Medieval Heroines in History and Legend

Medieval Heroines in History and Legend

Professor Bonnie Wheeler Ph.D.
Southern Methodist University
Course No.  2937
Course No.  2937
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

This course presents the lives, based on the latest scholarly interpretations, of four medieval women who still shimmer in the modern imagination: Heloise, the abbess and mistress of Abelard; the prophet Hildegard of Bingen; the legendary Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine; and the woman-warrior and saint, Joan of Arc.

In Medieval Heroines in History and Legend, Professor Bonnie Wheeler discusses these four remarkable women in the light of the present "golden age" of medieval scholarship. Almost daily, researchers are recovering lost information that corrects our picture of what had been a misunderstood era. As a result, we know more than ever about the roles women played in medieval life.

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This course presents the lives, based on the latest scholarly interpretations, of four medieval women who still shimmer in the modern imagination: Heloise, the abbess and mistress of Abelard; the prophet Hildegard of Bingen; the legendary Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine; and the woman-warrior and saint, Joan of Arc.

In Medieval Heroines in History and Legend, Professor Bonnie Wheeler discusses these four remarkable women in the light of the present "golden age" of medieval scholarship. Almost daily, researchers are recovering lost information that corrects our picture of what had been a misunderstood era. As a result, we know more than ever about the roles women played in medieval life.

What did it mean to be a heroine in the medieval world? As the four subjects of this course make clear, it meant shaping and changing that world. In the monasteries and churches where people prayed, the universities where they wrote and thought, and even on the political map of Europe itself, these women made differences perceived not only in our time, but in theirs.

Women of Intellect, Words, and Passion

These lectures are an extraordinary opportunity to study great women of the past in their "own words." Professor Wheeler bases her discussions on recently discovered or recovered written records they left behind, from Hildegard's prodigious scholarship to the personal letters of Heloise and detailed transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial.

With these documents as a basis, you will see Heloise (1101—1163) as a forerunner of Europe's new day. Her letters passionately overflow with the new knowledge of her day. With her star-crossed love, Abelard, she invented a new mode of philosophic thought.

Only now are scholars recovering the long, important second half of the story of Heloise as a woman of power after Abelard's death. Her letters show her to be well versed on such topics as Cicero, classical philosophy, Latin poetry, and rhetoric.

She saw the institution of marriage in her day as little more than a commercial transaction, and its duties burdensome, noisy, costly, and dirty. Her letters reveal her desire to be Abelard's "meretrix" (prostitute) rather than his "imperatrix" (empress). In her discussions on Heloise, Professor Wheeler also covers the long debate as to whether Abelard and Heloise's letters to one another—the first, first-person record of a love affair in human history—are genuine or not.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098—1179), like Heloise a 12th-century abbess, is revealed as the last flowering of antique learning. She lived a dramatic life as a mystic, voluminous writer, and preacher. She was a personal advisor to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and her political involvement and passion as an advocate for clerical and imperial reform give her special interest in our day.

Only in the last generation have scholars rediscovered this amazing medieval intellect. Based on her letters, at least four popes and 10 archbishops corresponded with her, not to mention some 100 other individuals notable to history.

Among her many writings, her Book of Simple Medicine was an impressive mini-encyclopedia on what we today would call the natural sciences.

But Hildegard is also known as the "holy hypochondriac," subject to disabling migraines. Were her visions delusions, a result of brainstorms caused by chemical imbalances?

Women of Action and Legend

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124—1204), Queen of France and then England, mother of at least 10 children, scandalized her contemporaries and has fascinated us ever since. She accompanied her husband, Louis VII, on the second Crusade, and her exploits are a reminder that women were crusaders—not merely camp followers—in numbers that rivaled those of men.

You will learn—based on as-yet-unpublished research by Professor Andrew Lewis—that Eleanor was probably born in 1124, not 1122 as normally thought. As a physically hearty woman of courage, she provides a way for historians to explore the diverse roles that women played in enabling or resisting the Crusades. This is exciting work that will allow us to understand medieval women outside the context of home and family as agents of sometimes-radical change.

Eleanor's life is so amazing that it is easy to see why she has become the staple of legends. Among those you will consider are whether she passionately adored, then fought endlessly with, her second husband, Henry II of England (all too true); whether she poisoned Henry's mistress, Rosamund (no proof); and whether she held "courts of love" to encourage and engage in amatory liaisons (again, unproven).

Joan of Arc (1412—1431) was the illiterate French peasant girl whom Mark Twain described as the "youngest person of either sex to lead her nation's army before the age of 19." Known as "La Pucelle" (the "maid" or "virgin"), she lacked any kind of military training, yet her military instincts seemed impeccable. Although she carried a sword in battle, she never used it to kill a man, and seems never to have become used to the sight of dead or dying men.

Was this young woman who heard heavenly "voices" an incomprehensible quirk, or did she change the course of European and world history? Ironically, this debate is complicated by the detailed transcripts of her trials, which make her one of the best-documented figures of pre-modern times.

Trial records and her letters reveal her as someone who spoke with compelling simplicity, quick wit, and piercing honesty." This girl spoke terribly well," said Albert d'Ourches. "I would really like to have had so fine a daughter."

Professor Wheeler dismisses as myth the notions that Joan was actually of noble birth, or that she never fully developed physically as a woman. These lectures reveal Joan as perhaps most memorable for what she was not: a queen, a mother, a beauty, or an intellectual. Instead, she was a woman of action, and the kind of person who is often an enigma to modern intellectuals: someone of profound religious faith.

Appreciating how these four heroines have been understood and misunderstood will help you understand how history passes judgment on both women and the Middle Ages. The contemporary research upon which this course is based can move us beyond how women "ought" to have been to better knowledge, however precarious, about how women were.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Four Remarkable Medieval Women
    The four women featured all subscribed to hierarchical worldviews. No feminists, they swam within the intellectual currents of their time. Their heroism derives from worldly accomplishment and from their intensely realized lives. They were ordinary neither in their vices nor their virtues. x
  • 2
    The Revolutionary Twelfth Century
    In the 12th century, an energized Europe conquered hunger, repopulated its cities, founded universities, and coalesced into a confident Christian civilization. Christianity expressed itself inwardly through monasticism and outwardly through crusade. The insular male monastic culture may have been responsible for rising misogyny. x
  • 3
    Prodigious Heloise
    Heloise came of age in a culturally liminal period, before the University of Paris was founded as an institution closed to women. In the protected haven of the Argentuil monastery, she was steeped in classical philosophical traditions, learning to love Cicero, Latin rhetoric and the teachings of St. Jerome. What plans did her uncle Fulbert have for her that went unrealized? x
  • 4
    Abelard's Story of Abelard and Heloise
    From the ashes of his marriage to Heloise, Abelard produced his Historia Calamitatum, a penitential but arrogant memoir of the affair whose accuracy we might question. Are the "Personal Letters" exchanged between Abelard and Heloise an authentic corrective? The self-abasing and submissive Heloise that emerges from these pages appears to some to be a projected male fantasy. x
  • 5
    Heloise as Lover—Her Sublime Submission
    Heloise submitted to marriage but resisted it due to her view of "intentionality"—that sin and virtue reside in intention, not mere ceremonial action. Ironically, this later caused her to cling to every vestige of a marriage she refused to see as ended. Marriage, for her, was as much a meshing of minds and spirits as a physical union. x
  • 6
    Heloise, Adept Abbess and Mother
    Heloise never accepted the justice of Abelard's castration, but together they moved on, collaboratively engaging spiritual, historical and administrative issues. After his death she initiated her own reforms, founded priories, and made peace with Abelard's former enemies. The great Bernard of Clairvaux was just one of many admirers of her sanctity, learning, and pastoral responsibility. x
  • 7
    Heloise of the Imagination
    The heroic love of Heloise has been memorialized by painters, poets, and filmmakers alike, though Heloise's intellectual gifts have not been so well recognized. What, in the end, should we make of a woman who possessed such prodigious talents yet sacrificed them to the devoted service of one man? x
  • 8
    Hildegard of Bingen, Sibyl of the Rhine
    From the monastery at Disibodenberg, Hildegard worked within the monastic world to amplify its cultural influence vis-a-vis the rising power of cathedral schools. By the age of 50, her fame had spread to Paris, and she sought to found her own independent monastic community. x
  • 9
    Hildegard, Holy Hypochondriac
    An advisor to popes and emperors and a preacher to the masses, Hildegard earned her authority through prophecies resembling unmediated visions from God. Disclaiming authorship, she could present herself as a humble "weak woman" while demanding "virility" from a clergy she chastised as effeminate. Today some argue that her visions were actually hallucinations brought on by migraines. x
  • 10
    Hildegard's Visionary Trilogy, Science and Letters
    Hildegard's Book of Life's Merits, a guide to proper living, includes moralizing visions of the spirit world reminiscent of Dante's Inferno as well as novel visions of Christ as a unicorn. Her scientific works are suffused with the idea of viriditas, or "greenness," a vital force connected to virility, freshness, and virginity. x
  • 11
    Wholly Hildegard
    Hildegard's character was not unblemished, as we see in her undignified grief over the reassignment of a favorite personal secretary and her somewhat arrogant defense of her monastery's occasionally flamboyant habits. She was fully human in her faults and in her excellences, such as her joyous mastery of monastic music. x
  • 12
    Eleanor's Lineage
    Eleanor's grandfather, the notorious William IX, defined the 12th-century landscape. Lecherous, outrageous and cosmopolitan, he was an indifferent crusader but was also the first troubadour, composing songs that formed the basis for the medieval language of courtly love. His son, William X, had his appetites tamed by piety and ensured that Eleanor would inherit the Aquitaine. x
  • 13
    Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of France
    As Queen to Louis VII, Eleanor remained active in the administration of her domains, but soon encountered trouble. A sordid war with the ruling family of Champagne led to the scandalous torching of a nearby peasant village, which morally compromised Louis. The failure to produce a male heir put further strains on the royal marriage. x
  • 14
    Eleanor and the Politics of Estrangement
    Perhaps out of guilt over the war in Champagne, Eleanor joined Louis in the Second Crusade, and was transformed. The celibacy enforced upon them further estranged the couple, and her active participation in the crusade may have further emboldened her. Returning from Jerusalem, she was determined to be free. x
  • 15
    Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of England
    As wife to Henry II, Eleanor bore eight children yet would not be sidetracked from pursuing power and influence. Henry's fatal error, exiling Eleanor with their son Richard to the Aquitaine, led to the successful rebellion of his sons and Eleanor's renewed ascent. x
  • 16
    Eleanor the Dowager Queen
    As Queen Mother, Eleanor's energetic diplomacy secured the loyalty of her son Richard's allies. After Richard's death, she used military campaigns to bring peace to her realm and crafted a marriage alliance that aligned the ruling families of England and France, although her son John would eventually undermine that peace. x
  • 17
    Legendary Eleanor
    Unembellished, Eleanor's story is one of sex, violence, suspense, manipulation, ambition, and teeth-grinding tenacity. It is no surprise that legends, myths, and scores of differing depictions would accumulate around such a figure. This lecture attempts to explain the myths and separate fact from fiction. x
  • 18
    Joan of Arc and Her Times
    The 100 Years War between the Plantagenet and Valois dynasties for control of France along with the Great Schism provide the backdrop for Joan of Arc's story. An examination of her early years shows how improbable her rise to greatness was. x
  • 19
    Joan Discovers Her Mission and Her Dauphin
    Joan's progress was punctuated by miracles, beginning with the voices which inspired her. She next persuaded Robert de Baudricourt to recommend her to the Dauphin, then identified the future King as he hid disguised among his courtiers. What secret did she reveal to him to instill faith in her mission? x
  • 20
    Joan the Warrior, Holy Berserker
    The nature of Joan's military genius is multifaceted. She was an able tactician, skilled at horsemanship, and had a keen understanding of artillery. But it was her raw courage, religious certainty, and charismatic leadership of men that made possible the full frontal assault on the English position and victory at Orleans. x
  • 21
    Joan's Success and Captivity
    Joan enjoyed a string of victories after Orleans, culminating in Charles VII's coronation at Reims. A flagging of military confidence and support led to the failure of her attack on the English stronghold at Paris. Treachery may have ultimately delivered her into the hands of the Burgundians. x
  • 22
    Joan's Trial, Death, and Retrial
    Joan evinced great composure and even wit during her prosecution by almost one hundred university-trained inquisitors. After a brief crisis of confidence, she retracted her brief recanting of her mission and was condemned to burn. A quarter century later, a victorious Charles VII arranged her vindication at a second trial. x
  • 23
    Joan of the Imagination
    Shakespeare damned her. Mark Twain adored her. She appears in more works of art than does any other historical figure. Joan lives on in the public imagination as a torchbearer for human rights, the plight of political prisoners, right-wing nationalism, and a bevy of other, often contradictory causes. If anything she is even more important to our time than she was to hers. x
  • 24
    Four Pioneers
    Today, these women are problematic to us in our consideration. We do not share their medieval worldview. We should, however, appreciate that our heroines were women of action, shaped by their world but pushing against it to redefine what the life of a woman could entail. x

Lecture Titles

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Bonnie Wheeler
Ph.D. Bonnie Wheeler
Southern Methodist University
Dr. Bonnie Wheeler is Associate Professor of English and Director of Medieval Studies at Southern Methodist University. She completed her undergraduate work at Stonehill College and earned her Ph.D. from Brown University. Prior to taking her position at SMU, Professor Wheeler taught at Columbia University. Professor Wheeler has received Southern Methodist University's Outstanding Teacher Award six times and is also a recipient of the Phi Beta Kappa Perrine Prize for excellence in scholarship and teaching. Professor Wheeler has written extensively on medieval literature and culture. She edits the book series The New Middle Ages for St. Martin's Press, editing such books as Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, Listening to Heloise: The Voice of a Twelfth-Century Woman, and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady. She has served as a commentator and historical consultant for A&E and The History Channel's programs on Camelot, The Holy Grail, and Joan of Arc.
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Rated 3.9 out of 5 by 32 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by A View of the Middle Ages from Inside This is a fascinating look at the rich tapestry of medieval European life and thought through the lives of four remarkable women. As Professor Wheeler points out, they are not, and because of their very remarkableness cannot be, entirely representative of their time and place. Nevertheless, as they influence are influenced by the world around them, that world is revealed to us. Professor Wheeler's presentation is clear and engaging. She examines in depth the medieval context in which her subjects live. She also compares and - especially - contrasts the thought patterns of the middle ages with ours. The final lecture is not to be missed; it is an excellent summation of the material covered in this course. May 3, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Too personal for me [audio version] This is not the kind of dispassionate, even-handed history I’ve come to expect from other GC medieval history profs such as Daileader, Paxton and Harl, who all seem to strive to bring the times and people to life without inserting themselves in the picture. After listening to this course, I feel quite well-acquainted with Prof Wheeler, but not with the four women she discusses. I’m fine with whatever personal religious, political, or social views a professor may have – as long as they are kept personal. Prof Wheeler’s hard-core 21st century feminist perspective and her personal speculations so color her stories that I never felt much sense of reality about any of the four women. Her strident, sermonizing lecture style didn’t help. Prof Wheeler also spends too much time on topics with little or no historical basis, such as Heloise’s birth date and early life and the myths that have arisen about each of these women. And maybe I’m picking nits now, but I thought she has an odd obsession with Peter Abelard’s (Heloise’s lover) castration. I lost track of how many times she referred to it in her lecture on Heloise, but it’s easy to count in the course guidebook (21 occurrences of some form of the word “castrate”!) March 20, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Medieval Heroines I loved this course but do not want a digital course. Cannot understand why it was discontinued. I have it on audio tape but would love a CD since my tape is now passe. January 6, 2013
Rated 1 out of 5 by 12 hours of girl power Herstory was too much for me. Gave me one of Hildegard's migraines. I need this class like a fish needs a bicycle. August 6, 2012
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