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.