Coping with the Pen: Women Writers of the Middle Ages

The lives of most medieval women were not easy, particularly in the tumultuous the first few centuries of the medieval period. Such women enjoyed less control over their destinies than the majority of their modern western counterparts, and in most cases, far less education and opportunity. Yet many medieval women managed to become highly literate, often in more than one language, and some picked up their pens to compose their own works. When women wrote in the Middle Ages, they were motivated by purposes beyond creativity alone, and often their pens were driven by the necessity of coping with what must have seemed intolerable suffering or insurmountable problems–situations frequently created by the swords of the men around them. Their textual approaches to their circumstances are therefore practical and shaped by external forces, yet they are also incredibly creative, born of the intimate fears and desires of intelligent, innovative women who are as interesting as their writing.
Medieval women picked up their pens for many reasons. Among the most important was their need to cope with physical, political and emotional hardships.

Perpetua of Carthage: Mother, Visionary and Martyr (died in the arena March 7, 203 A.D.)

Vibia Perpetua was a young upper-class mother in the North African city of Carthage, which was part of the Roman Empire in the early third century when she and a number of her friends were arrested for being christian catechumens (beginners in the faith).They not only refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods when it was demanded of them, but had themselves baptized in prison, confirming both their conviction and their defiance. This defiance was all the more troubling to the authorities because Perpetua belonged to the illustrious Vibii family. Christianity had been spreading among Roman slaves, but a noble woman’s conversion and conviction was considerably more dangerous to the status quo, and one cannot help but think that Perpetua was punished severely as a warning to others of her class.

Separated from the infant son she was still nursing and sentenced to death by beasts in the arena, Perpetua experiences a number of dreams that provide her with comfort in what can only be called extraordinary circumstances. She writes these visions down in Latin using a simple but distinctive style which incorporates several adopted Greek words that reveal her familiarity with that language as well.

In the first of her dreams Perpetua is given reassurance that she and her fellow Christians will ultimately climb the ladder to eternal life. In the second and third, her prayers for a brother who died of cancer at the age of seven are rewarded with a vision of him healed, well-nourished and playing joyfully. Most remarkably, in her fourth dream Perpetua sees herself transformed into a male gladiator in the arena: “I was stripped, and I was made male. My supporters began to rub me down with oil as they usually do in a combat, and I saw that Egyptian on the opposite side rolling around in the sand.”

The Egyptian is her “foul” opponent, who most obviously represents the beasts–and her fears of the beasts–to which she is condemned, but conquering him in a very physical battle of “fists” and “feet” within her dreamscape clarifies for her both his significance and her situation in spiritual terms that promise a greater victory. “I awoke,” she tells her readers, “and I understood that I would have to fight not with the beasts, but against the devil, but I [also] knew that the victory was mine.” It is the last vision she records in her prison diary and she is indeed thrown to the beasts the following day, yet the influence of her dreams lingers in the remarkable courage and dignity with which she faces her death, even guiding the trembling sword of the young gladiator charged with finishing her off.

Radegund of Poitiers: Queen, Scholar and Abbess (circa 520 – August 13, 587 A.D.)

Radegund is also known as a Christian saint, though one made through a good life rather than a violent death, and she, too, refused to be a victim of the patriarchal politics of her day. The daughter of King Berthar of Thuringia, she was brought up at the court of her uncle after he killed both her father and a third brother to gain control of the kingdom. Her uncle was slaughtered in turn along with much of Radegund’s family when Theodoric and Clothar, the two sons of the warlord Clovis, founder of the Merovingian royal house, sacked Thuringia in 531.

Radegund (then about ten or eleven years old) and her younger brother became the spoils of Clothar. She was educated at his royal estate while she grew old enough for the marriage that would legitimize his claim to Thuringia. She was also converted to Christianity, too well, it seems, for the liking of the polygamous Clothar, who followed the faith in name more than in practice and apparently found his newest wife more “nun than queen.” Yet Radegund was every bit both, and when her husband’s cruelty extended to murdering her brother, she escaped, found a bishop courageous enough to consecrate her as a deaconess, and managed to establish her own community of religious women at Poitiers, ultimately with Clothar’s support.

Literary work was central to Radegund and her nuns, who studied, copied manuscripts and wrote their own texts in what became a centre of Christian and classical letters. Radegund’s own writing is both learned and literary, informed by Latin and Germanic poetic traditions. Her poem “On the Fall of Thuringia,” in which she relives the slaughter of her family and people, is not just an elegy of loss and loneliness in which Radegund, as a daughter of the royal house, is alone in weeping for all her people, since “public grief is private” for her and “private, public.” It is also a letter begging her absent cousin’s affection and attention, an autobiography of her ongoing hardships, and an epic that voices not the heroic view of men (though she makes considerable use of poems like Vergil’s Aeneid) but the woman’s experience of war. Wives are bound, torn from their homes by their “mangled hair” and forced to walk barefoot through the blood of their husbands; sisters must step over their fallen brothers.

Radegund’s is a voice caught between the necessity and impossibility of going on, yet go on she did, negotiating a successful path through landscapes laid waste by the sword not just with her extraordinary combination of wisdom, independence and perseverance, but also with her ability to wield her piety and her pen as deftly as a battle-proven warrior.

Dhuoda of Uzès: Wife, Mother and Teacher (married June 29, 824; writing 841-843 A.D.)

Like Radegund, Dhuoda was trapped by the political maneuvers of the aristocratic men around her, and like Perpetua, being a mother brought both joy and grief to her situation. For Dhuoda, however, being a good mother in trying cirumstances was also the primary motivation for writing. Dhuoda’s husband, Bernard of Septimania, was a kinsman of Charlemagne and a dangerously powerful magnate who served Emperor Louis the Pious, particularly in the role of defender against the emperor’s rebellious sons. So when Louis died and his sons fought among themselves for control, Bernard was caught up in the fray and did not initially support Louis’ youngest son Charles the Bald who ultimately took the throne.

Guarantees were needed if Bernard was to regain lands and honours he’d lost, so he assured Charles of his allegiance by bringing his son William, not yet fifteen, to court to swear allegiance to the king and remain as a hostage. It may be that his second son was also used as a political pawn, or it may be Bernard (who was rarely in Uzès with his wife) whisked him away from his mother simply to keep him close and safe from such dangers. For Dhuoda, however, the effect was the same: her first-born had already been cast into the deadly political games of the Carolingian Empire, and now her infant had been taken from her before receiving baptism or even a name.

Little wonder, then, if a sense of vulnerability and urgency pervades the unique Handbook Dhuoda feels compelled to write for William, engaging his assistance in passing her guidance along to his younger brother as well. She writes of how separation from her children makes her deeply uneasy and acknowledges that her concern and longing for them guides her pen. “Although I am absent in body,” she consoles herself, “this little book will be present as a kind of model.” Her Handbook provides her son with detailed guidance in christian morals and practices, exhorting him to place God above all, but it also offers practical advice for success and survival in the world and urges loyalty to both his father and his king.

Given that Bernard and Charles never did come to see matters eye to eye, Dhuoda’s warning to the hostage who lies between them–“never let the idea of disloyalty against your lord be born or thrive in your heart”–might seem confusing at best and destructive at worst. Yet Dhuoda does not write in ignorance or unnecessarily create tension and conflict in her son’s allegiances–those already existed. Her mission is much more pressing: she recognizes the need for William to become an accomplished courtier very quickly indeed, and she even pulls maternal rank on him to ensure he pays full attention, claiming he will have teachers far more learned and important, but they will never equal his mother, who is first in the fervor of her love.

Dhuoda’s worries were as well-placed as Perpetua’s visions were well-timed. Bernard was soon executed for treason, and his son followed in his footsteps at the age of twenty-four when he attempted to avenge his father. Perhaps Dhuoda would have commended William for placing his father above his overlord in his list of loyalties–certainly her Handbook prioritizes family as second only to God–but it could well be that the only true consolation she found was the cushion of her busy pen against the sharp edges of her life.

Sources

  • Cherewatuk, Karen. 1993. “Radegund and Epistolary Tradition.” In Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre, ed. Cherewatuk and Ulrike Wiethaus, pp.20-45. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Neel, Carol, ed. and trans. 1991. Handbook for William: A Carolingian Woman’s Counsel for her Son by Dhuoda. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Robinson, J. Armitage, ed. 2004. The Passion of S. Perpetua. Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press.
  • Thiébaux, Marcelle, ed. and trans. 1994. The Writings of Medieval Women: An Anthology. 2nd edn. New York and London: Garland Publishing.

Article published first time by Linda Olson on: April, 2011