A Cultural History of Women in the Middle Ages
A Cultural History of Women in the Middle Ages

Kim M. Phillips

Kim M. Phillips is Senior Lecturer in History, University of Auckland, New Zealand, and author of Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1275-1540 and co-author of Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2013


Content Type:

Book chapter



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Artistic Representation: Women and/in Medieval Visual Culture

DOI: 10.5040/9781350048164-ch-008
Page Range: 179–214

(From the Medieval Feminist Art History Project)

In comparison to men, women were at a social, political, economical, and sexual disadvantage in the Middle Ages. As a result, there is a relative paucity of information about women’s lives, especially those from the lower echelons of society. Scholars frequently turn to artistic representations of women in order to fill the gap left in the historical record. A plethora of images from sources such as illuminated manuscripts, frescoes, panel paintings, tapestries, and carved ivories have come down to us and can suggest much about the past. However, it is important to remember that such representations of women, like those of men, were often highly stylized, represented holy or mythical figures, or idealized situations. Thus, to a certain extent, they can tell us more about received ideas than about real life in the Middle Ages.

The objects and images discussed in this chapter are by no means exhaustive but have been chosen to offer a broad range of examples of the different ways in which women were represented in western Europe. The most frequently represented woman at this time was no doubt the Virgin Mary, whose roles encompassed intercessor, mother, Seat of Wisdom, and Queen of Heaven. Yet Mary was a paradox, and her status as both virgin and mother served to emphasize the association of the female sex more generally with corporeality and sexuality: many of the images discussed here, from Eve to the virgin martyrs, luxuria, and medical imagery reveal, in various ways, this association. The sensual and sinful body of Eve was diametrically opposed to the intact body of the Virgin Mary. Mary Magdalene was usually depicted wearing red, a reference to her former life as a prostitute, which she left in order to serve Chri st. However, whereas Eve was held responsible for women’s suffering in childbirth, the biblical saints Elizabeth and Anne were feted for their miraculous conceptions and God-given children. Women’s intrinsic role as child bearers also made their bodies an object of study for medical authors, although the images accompanying the texts often reduce the woman to her uterus, a vessel for the child, emphasizing certain contemporary medical ideas about women’s relatively passive role in procreation.

Most artistic production in the Middle Ages was collaborative and carried out in monasteries and in town-based workshops, meaning that many artists have remained anonymous. Yet nineteenth-century constructions of the artist as an inspired, singular, male personality have been mapped back onto the Middle Ages where scholars talk of different hands as “masters.” Thus, historiographical tendencies as well as the lack of primary evidence make it difficult to discern women’s roles as creators of images. Figures such as Hildegard of Bingen and Christine de Pizan who were involved in the production and dissemination of their own works are often cited as exceptions to the rule, yet we should not overlook other instances where women may have produced works of art, even if we do not know their names: the female embroiderers of the Bayeux Tapestry discussed here are a case in point.

It is often much easier to discuss women’s roles as consumers and patrons of art objects, although the evidence is heavily biased toward aristocratic women whose positions of wealth and power mean that their names and their commissions have been preserved for posterity. Women such as Blanche of Castile and Isabeau of Bavaria, who were at times invested with the authority to govern the kingdom of France, had themselves depicted in manuscripts, sculpture, and stained glass. Although aristocratic women were often pawns on the marriage market, the sumptuous images that they had created of themselves as counselors, patrons, and rulers nevertheless testify to the power they could exercise on both political and artistic levels.

In addition to personal commissions, other art objects such as books of hours, birth trays, and carved ivories were also produced with women in mind or gained particular popularity among groups of female viewers. Books of hours bear witness to women’s devotional interests—particularly the importance of saints like St. Margaret, patron saint of childbearing—and often became treasured objects in themselves. Similarly, carved ivory combs and mirror backs usually depicted secular scenes drawn from the literature of courtly love, manuscript copies of which were also popular among female readers.

Women were thus presented with, and in some cases created themselves, a whole variety of images of the female sex. It is tempting for us as modern viewers to use these representations as a window onto some past reality. Yet, we must remain aware of their complexities of production by and within a patriarchal society and an often didactic or instructive use. Nevertheless, placed in their sociohistorical context, medieval depictions of women remain an important source for understanding not only attitudes toward sex and gender but also the power of representation.

Biblical Women

For medieval people, Eve was the first woman. Created from a rib taken out of Adam’s side, she remained a thorn in his side thereafter. A sculpture of Eve, originally part of a doorway into the twelfth-century church of Saint-Lazarus at Autun (France), conflates the next several moments in their story into a single image, as shown in Figure 8.1. Stretched out horizontally within the space of the doorway’s lintel, Eve reaches back with one arm to pluck a piece of fruit from a tree. A claw grasps the tree’s trunk and bends it toward her hand, suggesting that a monstrous figure originally appeared behind Eve, representing the satanic source of her action. The lintel also originally included an image of Adam, in a posture similar to Eve’s so that their heads came together in its center. The line of Eve’s reaching arm suggests her next action, bringing the fruit forward and offering it to Adam. With her other hand cupped around her chin, she appears to be whispering to him, encouraging him to take a bite. A second foliage frond that curls up and around her head and a third that crosses over her body suggest the significance of their horizontal posture as a result of tasting the fruit of the tree: ashamed, they try to conceal themselves in the trees, hiding from God’s eyes in particular. God cannot be avoided, however, and Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden. Eve’s gesture to her face is also a conventional sign of grief in medieval art and so indicates her sadness at their loss of paradise.

Figure 8.1 Gislebertus, The Temptation of Eve. Limestone lintel, Saint-Lazare, Autun, ca. 1130. Musée Rolin, Autun, France. Photograph by Erich Lessing, courtesy of Art Resource, NY.

Aspects of this sculpture also suggest the most common medieval interpretation of the nature of Eve’s transgression, as a specifically sexual sin. There is a close relationship between the rounded forms of the fruit on the tree and of Eve’s breasts, demonstrating that what Eve offers to Adam is actually her body. In encouraging him to take a bite, she becomes a sexual temptress. Furthermore, the tree that passes in front of her body crosses in front of her genitalia, indicating that the shame that results from this act is sexual shame.[1]

The sexualized, sinful Eve was frequently placed in opposition to the Virgin Mary in medieval theology and art. In the terms of the medieval church teachings, Eve’s sin brought death into the world, but Mary’s sexless pregnancy brought the possibility of resurrection and eternal life. A comparison of the Autun Eve with a contemporary image of the Virgin holding the Christ Child demonstrates the visual form given to this opposition, as shown in Figure 8.2. Where Eve is stretched out horizontally and her body bends into sinuous curves, Mary sits rigidly upright with her legs and arms bent at sharp angles. Eve’s hair and exposed breasts sexualize her body, whereas Mary’s body is denied by regular patterns of curving folds. Her body is further obscured by the large form of the child who sits bolt upright in her lap. His size and selfpossession are meaningful aspects of this image; an example of a type of Virgin and Child sculpture known as the Throne of Wisdom, the child here represents wisdom and so is shown as a miniature man rather than as an infant.[2] Mary, then, is the throne. On the one hand, this symbolism associates her with power and authority, which are represented visually by her upright posture and her confrontational gaze. On the other, it identifies her as a mere container for God’s child and as an inanimate object rather than a human being.

Figure 8.2 Virgin and Child as Throne of Wisdom (Enthroned Virgin and Child). Auvergne, France. Oak, ca. 1150–1200. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

Images of the Virgin Mary changed over the course of the Middle Ages, as is demonstrated by a comparison of the Throne of Wisdom sculpture with a thirteenth-century ivory statuette of the Virgin and Child shown in Figure 8.3. In contrast to the rigid frontality of both figures in the earlier sculpture, here the child is seated sideways in Mary’s lap and turns to reach toward her as she turns and bends her head. She is still heavily swathed in drapery, but her mantle falls open to expose her upper body, and her breasts swell visibly beneath her dress. The child extends a piece of fruit toward her breast, recalling the association between those two forms seen in the Autun Eve, but here as a symbol of maternal nourishment rather than sexual temptation. With his other hand, the child reaches up her to touch her veil: the veil was considered to be a very intimate garment, and so his grasp of it represents his unhindered access to her body.

Figure 8.3 Virgin and Child in Majesty. Paris, Ivory, ca. 1250–60. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

As well as being an image of intimacy between the mother and child, this statuette would have been an intimate object for a medieval viewer. Where the Throne of Wisdom is approximately two and a half feet tall and would have stood on an altar within a church, the ivory statuette is only seven and a quarter inches tall and was most likely the private possession of an elite individual. Images like this one that belonged to women offered them with idealized images of mother-child bonding and provided them with opportunities to consider their own experiences of motherhood. The associations with power and authority seen in Throne of Wisdom sculpture are here replaced by a more human relationship.

In addition to the relationship with figures of the Virgin Mary, certain aspects of the Eve figure at Autun resonate with the figure of St. Mary Magdalene. Herself a conflation of a number of women who appear in the Gospels, Mary Magdalene was understood to have been a sexual sinner who repented of her sins and became a devoted follower of Jesus. The Autun sculpture’s exposed breasts and flowing hair, a strongly sexualized sign in the Middle Ages, point toward Magdalene’s early life as a prostitute, while her horizontal posture recalls her prostration at Jesus’s feet, where she wiped his feet with her hair. Her prostration also indicates that repentance requires submission and subordination, while her wiping his feet with her hair represents the intimacy with God that the repentant sinner gains. The possibility of reading this sculpture of Eve as representing Magdalene is strengthened by its appearance on a church dedicated to her brother, St. Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. A now lost tympanum sculpture that was located over the same doorway into the church represented Lazarus’s resurrection. Although its exact form is unknown, it likely included a large standing figure of Jesus so that the Eve/Mary Magdalene on the lintel did appear prostrate at his feet. This combination of images would have represented the association of sin with death, as death was understood to be a consequence of Eve’s original sin, and likewise of repentance with resurrection.[3]

In addition to Eve, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene, other biblical women also provided the opportunity to represent the various facets of womanhood as understood in the Middle Ages. For example, depictions of Bathsheba at her bath, spied on by King David, not only evoked David’s sin of adultery but also emphasized Bathsheba’s beauty and her sexuality. The image in the Hours of Louis XII (ca. 1498–99; Los Angeles, J. P. Getty Museum, MS 75) shows her naked to below the waist, with long flowing golden hair reminiscent of that used for depictions of Eve and Mary Magdalene. In such images, the gaze flits from David to Bathsheba to the viewer, often trapping her in the position of object. Yet in the Hours of Louis XII, Bathsheba looks coquettishly to one side as if soliciting David’s glance. The ambiguity of the gaze in representations of David and Bathsheba thus parallels the difficulty contemporary people had in interpreting Bathsheba’s own part in the story: she oscillates between innocent woman and agent of seduction, a paradox that has its origins in the Eve–Mary binary and that structured debates about the nature of women in the Middle Ages.

Two other Biblical women, St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin, and St. Elizabeth, her cousin, offered an alternative image of women that negotiated the Eve–Mary binary. The story of Elizabeth’s conception of St. John, as proof of the truth of the Annunciation, is included in the canonical Gospel of Luke. St. Anne’s immaculate conception of the Virgin appears in the Proto-Evangelium of James and Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend. Pious, married, and blessed with children in old age and after a period of shameful sterility, the names of St. Anne and St. Elizabeth appear in prayers and charms for childbearing. Their images in books of hours and paintings commissioned by women or couples wishing to conceive are also frequently found, such as in the Visitation miniature from Anne of Brittany’s Très Petites Heures.[4] Between them, St. Elizabeth and St. Anne (who was said to have been married three times) bore a host of holy children including St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. James the Great, St. James the Less, St. Jude, and St. Simon. This “Holy Kinship” of Christ’s relations became an extremely popular subject for manuscript and panel paintings in the Middle Ages. Anne and Elizabeth were also popularly depicted having given birth to their holy children. For example, the Baptistery in Padua contains a fresco cycle recounting the life of St. John the Baptist by Giusto de Menabuoi, as shown in Figure 8.4. It is possible that this work was commissioned by Fina Buzzacarini, wife of the ruler of Padua, in 1375 as a thanksgiving for the birth of her son, Francesco, some fourteen years into her marriage.[5] In the frescoes, Fina is depicted with her three older daughters having entered the bedchamber of St. Elizabeth. A woman seated in the foreground turns to present St. John to the women. The fresco thus draws a parallel between Fina and St. Elizabeth, as mothers blessed by God with a son.

Figure 8.4 Giusto de’Menabuoi, Birth of St. John the Baptist. Baptistery, Padua, Italy, ca. 1375. Photograph courtesy of Scala/Art Resource, NY.


Whereas biblical saints were popular devotional subjects, the early Christian virgin martyrs were among the most revered and represented. The basic outlines of their legends are remarkably similar: they are young, beautiful girls devoted to their Christian beliefs, but with the misfortune of attracting the erotic attention of a powerful pagan man. When they refuse to marry or bed their suitors, they are tortured, often in sexually charged ways, and ultimately killed. While all martyrs were interesting to medieval audiences, most of them reminiscent of a time of Christian persecution before the legalization of the faith by Constantine the Great in the fourth century, something about the virgin martyrs particularly captured the imagination of medieval people. They were the subjects of written texts, as well as artistic representations, including manuscript illuminations, sculptures, paintings, and stained glass.

It was quite common to depict virgin martyrs in the throes of their particular tortures; this could even be used as a way of identifying them given the similarities of their narratives. For instance, one of the most graphically represented tortures suffered by the virgin martyrs was the severing of their breasts; Barbara and Margaret are sometimes shown undergoing this torture, and St. Agatha, in particular, has become associated with this gruesome punishment. After Agatha refuses the advances of the pagan consul Quintianus, he responds by sending her to a brothel, stretching her on the rack, throwing her in prison, and rolling her on a bed of burning potsherds and coals, in addition to cutting off her breasts. Despite the rich and complex nature of her legend, however, Agatha is most commonly depicted with her hands bound and the forced mastectomy about to occur. It is likely that the shocking and visceral nature of this type of image would have inspired empathy and devotion in medieval viewers, but it has also been suggested that the sadistic, even erotic, potential of the scene would not be lost on viewers, be they medieval or modern.[6] The depiction of the half-naked St. Agatha in the early fifteenth-century Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, MS 54.1.1, fol. 179) is particularly ambivalent, with the well-endowed young woman seeming to arch against the knee of the torturer, who thrusts it into her groin, as shown in Figure 8.5.

St. Margaret of Antioch was another early Christian virgin martyr who was tortured and killed because she would not submit to the advances of a Roman prefect, Olibrius, and renounce her Christianity. Although the narrative associated with St. Margaret shares much with other early Christian martyrs, it is also unique for the miraculous events that occur while she is imprisoned. Two messengers of Satan, an evil man shrouded in black and a dragon, visit her. She vanquishes them both, the first by taking him down and standing upon him, and the second by bursting forth from his body after he has swallowed her. Her successful emergence from the dragon’s body is what eventually associates Margaret with successful birth and motherhood.[7]

Figure 8.5 Limbourg Brothers, Saint Agatha from The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, MS 54.1.1 fol. 179 recto. ca. 1405–8/9. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art /Art Resource, NY.

Representations of Margaret abound, especially in the later Middle Ages, and most commonly represent her emerging from the dragon. A representative image can be found in the late thirteenth-century Psalter-Hours of Yolande de Soissons (Pierpont Morgan Library MS 729, fol. 262v), as shown in Figure 8.6. Margaret and the dragon are depicted within a historiated initial “D,” her head and torso emerging from the back of the winged beast. Margaret is shown with a halo and her hands folded in prayer, reminding the viewer that the saint’s devotion and prayer contributed to her successful emergence. This image is one of many saints whose representations are found in the section known as the Suffrages (prayers to various saints). Especially popular in the fifteenth century and often linked to female patrons and readers, many books of hours survive that include Margaret, a logical choice because of her important link to childbirth.[8]

Figure 8.6 St. Margaret, from the Psalter-Hours of Yolande de Soissons. New York, The Morgan Library and Museum, MS M. 729, fol. 262 verso. ca. 1280–90. © The Morgan Library and Museum.

Margaret’s victorious action of throwing down and trampling the demon can be read as a heroic transgression of gendered norms, as she displays surprising physical strength in the face of oppression and martyrdom. This power upsets the expectations of female submission, not unlike other female saints who are associated with cross-dressing. In fact, a number of female saints that were popular in the Middle Ages adopted masculinizing strategies as a way of escaping the restrictions of married life, often passing their lives as clerics in monasteries.[9] Significantly, however, in most of these cases, their feminine biological sex (as opposed to their masculine-gendered performance) is exposed at the climax of their stories, usually after they die and their bodies are prepared for burial. There is a notable exception to this sequence of events, however, in the case of St. Eugenia, a cross-dressed cleric who is accused of rape (a common occurrence in the case of the transvestite saints) and brought before the Roman prefect Philip (who is also Eugenia’s unsuspecting father). Eugenia herself bares her breasts to expose her female anatomy and thus prove her innocence in an action that itself complicates expected gender roles played by men and women. Eugenia’s biological identity fixes her as female, but her active agency in controlling the circumstances of this revelation is in sharp contrast to other more passive transvestite saints, who never protest their innocence in the face of false accusations and whose true identities are only discovered upon their deaths; for example, Marina raises the child she is accused of fathering for five years, begging for food outside the monastery from which she has been exiled until she dies and her real sex is exposed. This blurring of the boundaries of gender takes visual form in the representation of the scene on a capital in the monastic church at Vézelay, where a tonsured Eugenia pulls apart her monk’s habit to reveal her breasts, to the astonishment of her accuser and her judge/ father, who flank the saint, as shown in Figure 8.7.[10]

By the sixth century, virginity and martyrdom on behalf of Christianity were not the sole requirements for sainthood. Thus, another popular saint, Radegund (ca. 520–587), was not a virgin martyr but a queen who gave up her wealth, left her husband, and founded the nuns’ community of Ste.-Croix in Poitiers. However, as an elite woman forced into marriage (as a child she was part of the booty won by her future husband, Clothar), Radegund attempted to emulate the characteristics and behavior of the virgin saints—by leaving her husband, renouncing her wealth, praying, serving the poor, and undergoing rigorous self-mortification. This made her a model for queens and women of power who exploited her royal connections as well as her wish to follow a religious life.[11] Her impact on the city of Poitiers—establishing the community of Ste.-Croix, acquiring relics of the True Cross to which the convent was dedicated, and performing a number of miracles both before and after her death—was to be further evident in the centuries to come and was crucial in the creation of an important manuscript of her life in the later Middle Ages.

Figure 8.7 St. Eugenia from a capital on north aisle of the nave, Vézelay. Photograph by Holly Hayes. © Sacred Destinations Images.

The manuscript of the Life of Saint Radegund, made around 1100 and probably commissioned by the nuns of Ste.-Croix, contains twenty-two images (Poitiers, La Médiathèque François-Mitterand, MS 250).[12] While the text of her Life is riddled with self-mortification and extreme asceticism, the manuscript’s images depict virtually nothing from those moving episodes. Instead, they demonstrate Radegund’s important role as convent founder and spiritual intercessor. For example, folio 35r pictures Radegund leaning across her window and toward the woman entangled with a serpentine demon, as shown in Figure 8.8. Radegund does not leave her cell to help this woman, and yet she does not simply reach out her hand to touch her. Despite the small size of the window frame, nearly the entire upper half of Radegund’s body emerges from the window, with her head above the window’s top edge and the sleeve of her garment falling below the bottom. Radegund thus mediates between the sacred space of her cell and the publicly accessible areas that surround it. This emphasis on her role as intercessor between earthly and otherworldly realms reflects the perceptions surrounding female sanctity in the High Middle Ages.

Figure 8.8 St. Radegund Heals a Woman. Poitiers, La Médiathèque François-Mitterand MS 250, fol. 35 recto, ca. 1100. © La Médiathèque François-Mitterand, Poitiers. Olivier Neuillé.

Representations of the Female Body

The previous discussion of the opposition between Eve and the Virgin Mary has already established the medieval church’s association of the female body with sexuality, sin, and death. Those associations may have inspired the creation of a striking figure that appears on the wall of the entrance porch into the church of Saint-Pierre at Moissac (France), as shown in Figure 8.9. Like Eve, this female figure appears naked, and her body is sexualized by her hair and by her exposed breasts. Her breasts are burdened, however, by the heavy forms of serpents that have bitten on to her nipples. The snakes arc up over her arms and then trail down around her legs, where they call attention to a form conventionally identified as a toad that has attached itself to her genitalia. She is accompanied by a demonic figure who grasps her wrist. Placed at the end of a sculpted narrative of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, a story contrasting the heavenly reward of the poor Lazarus with the punishment in hell of the miser Dives, this sculpture has been identified as a personification of luxuria (the sin of lust) or a woman suffering torments in hell for her sexual sins. This interpretation of the image is supported by medieval visions of hell that include women being tortured by snakes and toads. Such a horrific, sexually explicit representation of the female body may have had a specific significance for the important monastery of Saint-Pierre in Moissac: it may have been intended to instill fear of women and horror of sex in the monks as a way of promoting their celibacy.[13]

Figure 8.9 Luxuria. Relief from Saint-Pierre, Moissac, France, ca. 1100. Photograph by Marian Bleeke, used with permission.

The church’s association of women and sexuality with sin and death was not the only discourse on these topics available in the Middle Ages, however. The 230-foot-long embroidery known as the Bayeux Tapestry includes one scene that points instead to a secular discourse on female sexuality and its consequences, as shown in Figure 8.10. The embroidery tells the story of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Although it was probably made by women, its hundreds of figures include only six females, three in its main image space and three in its borders. Despite the inscriptions that name major and minor figures through its images, only one woman is similarly identified. The inscription is highly ambiguous, stating only “where a cleric and Aelgyva”—what? The image suggests some inappropriate sexual contact between them in his violation of her architectural enclosure, his aggressive gesture that touches her cheek, and the mirroring of his gesture by a squatting naked figure with enlarged genitalia in the margin below. This scene appears immediately after one representing a conversation between Harold Godwinson and Duke William of Normandy, the two contenders for the English throne, and so may represent the subject of their discussion. Aelgyva could represent one of two women of that name who were central to the dispute over the throne: King Cnut’s first wife, who was accused of having a son by a priest who she tried to pass off as Cnut’s son so that he could accede to the throne; or Cnut’s second wife, also known by her Norman name Emma, who was an ancestor of both Duke William and the English king Edward the Confessor and so was key to William’s claim to the throne, but who was also accused of adultery.[14] The Aelgyva scene would thus represent the interests of secular male aristocrats in controlling their wives’ sexuality, and thus the paternity of his children, in order to ensure patrilineal inheritance.

Figure 8.10 Aelgyva and a clerk from the Bayeux Tapestry. Musée de la Tapisserie, Bayeux, France. Photograph by Erich Lessing, courtesy of Art Resource, NY.

Despite the negative associations of sexuality and sin, women’s bodies were of the utmost importance to different groups in the Middle Ages. Spouses and fathers were often concerned with the reproduction of healthy offspring, preferably male, and both religious and medical authorities were consulted for diseases and ailments of all kinds. A physician may have been able to facilitate a cure, but a priest might also advise a visit to a holy shrine or the repetition of specific prayers. Medical manuscripts were sometimes illustrated, often with images used for prognostics or treatment, such as figures with small red dots on them that reference points for cautery (coagulating blood and destroying tissue with a hot iron) or images of jars with various colored liquids against which a physician might compare a urine sample.[15] Representations of women’s bodies in medical imagery are relatively limited, in part because the male body was most often perceived as a stand-in for human beings in general. Extant images of women in manuscripts of a medical nature include those linked directly to childbirth and reproduction. For instance, a medical miscellany (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 399), includes a schematic diagram of the female reproductive system and a series of images that depict various positions of the fetus in utero. But in addition to these kinds of anatomical depictions, women also appear as patients and even practitioners in medical manuscripts, especially into the later Middle Ages. In sometimes surprisingly frank scenes, women hold out their diseased breasts to physicians, as shown in Figure 8.11, seek advice for genital ailments, attend parturient women in a birthing chamber, and aid patients themselves through administering treatments like cupping, where a cut is a made and a glass bowl is used to suction out the blood or even perform Caesarean sections.[16]

Women’s active participation in their bodies’ medical matters, such as the services of midwives throughout much of the Middle Ages, is also indicated through a variety of other diverse texts, images, and objects. Images of birthing scenes, objects like jewelry or charms, and prayers to saints for intervention (such as St. Margaret, St. Anne, and St. Elizabeth; see previous discussion) all contribute to a rich body of material culture that points to women’s involvement in the maintenance of health that probably existed outside the text-based and increasingly professionalized and male world of medicine.[17]

Figure 8.11 Patients and Physicians. London, British Library MS Sloane 1977, fol. 7 verso. Early fourteenth century. © The British Library Board.

Wives and Mothers

Medieval visual depictions of wives belie their legally and culturally subordinate role in marriage in favor of a deceptive parity with their husbands. This is in contrast to medieval conduct literature in which authors frequently counsel women on their marital obligations to their husbands. Representations of marriage do exist in which the bride inclines her head or lowers her eyes while the groom stands completely upright, but such submissive displays are not consistent enough in these images to be the rule. Marital iconography tends instead to favor the idea of union, echoing the legal and ecclesiastical insistence on mutual consent as a prerequisite for a valid marriage.[18]

Among the images that feature women (and men) in matrimonial roles are certain donor portraits, non-Marian representations of the sacrament of marriage, and paired tomb effigies featuring married couples. Donors are frequently depicted in association with a sacred episode or figure, or both, so that the marital theme is subordinate to the sacred content. Scenes of marriage ceremonies may feature historical or contemporary figures such as Esther and Ahasuerus but may also display literary characters such as Pietro and Agnolella from Boccaccio’s Decameron.[19] Tombs, on the other hand, commemorate those once alive and offer a prime resource for studying the representation of wives among the elite of medieval western Europe.

Few characteristics distinguish the visual representation of wives from women enacting other social roles such as ruler or mother. All of these categories depend upon the presence of attributes, whether as part of a figure’s costume, such as the inclusion of royal regalia, or children in the case of mothers. The female figure’s matrimonial status independent from any other role is often signified by a headdress and/or heraldry. Thus, a married or widowed woman wears a veil or other form of head covering while an unmarried woman’s hair is not concealed. Heraldic devices also point to married status as the woman’s arms are frequently combined with those of her husband; in heraldic terms, they are impaled.[20]

Paired tombs that feature juxtaposed figures of husband and wife begin to appear in medieval Western art as early as the mid-fourteenth century, but the majority date from the last third of the century forward. The stone monument of Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and his wife Katherine Mortimer, dated shortly after 1369 and installed in the chancel of St. Mary’s Warwick, displays the couple dressed in standard costumes for their social rank: military for him and close fitting gown with mantle and frilled veil for her, as shown in Figure 8.12. The monument has two features setting it apart from the majority of paired tombs: the couple’s hand-holding gesture, in which their right hands are joined, and Katherine Mortimer’s position relative to her husband. While the hand-holding gesture is not unique in paired tombs, it is less frequent than the devotional prayer pose, and it foregrounds the matrimonial rather than pious aspect of the monument. This familial emphasis is reinforced by the presence of small figures in the niches decorating the tomb base, which probably represent relatives and associates of the couple.[21] The hand-holding motif evokes representations of marriage ceremonies in which the couple join hands, but, as noted previously, Katherine’s covered hair signifies a wife, not a maiden. Yet the hand-holding also points to the tomb’s metaphorical dimension since the figures’ physical union may symbolize both that of the married couple and the human and divine simultaneously, just as the tomb itself unites the earthly and spiritual realms.[22]

Figure 8.12 Tomb of Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and Katherine Mortimer, Collegiate Church of St. Mary, Warwick, ca. 1369. Photograph by Rachel Dressler, used with permission.

Katherine Mortimer’s location to her husband’s right also sets this monument apart from other tombs of the time, although it is by no means unique in this regard. In general, the dexter, or heraldic right, is the favored side in any medieval depiction and is usually occupied by the most important figures in a composition. Grooms and husbands are accorded this privileged location in most marriage and paired tomb images, paralleling medieval gender hierarchies. Exceptions might occur when the bride or wife is of higher status as in scenes of the Marriage of the Virgin, where Mary is frequently favored over Joseph.[23] In the case of the Beauchamp tomb, however, it is not clear that Katherine’s positioning is related to any indication of status and may result from some other issue entirely.

As a wife, a woman was also expected to bear children, although this would not have been the case for older widows who remarried. Representations of mothers in the Middle Ages are frequently of a religious nature, like the Birth of St. John noted above (Padua Baptistery). In this and other images, like those depicting the births of figures such as Constantine and Alexander, the mother is invariably shown lying in an opulent bed assisted by other women, as shown in Figure 4.3 in Chapter 4. Sometimes the newborn baby is being bathed, and the mother offered nourishing food. Although it is important to recognize that such images were highly stylized, in that they represent the births of famous figures and, inevitably, a successful outcome, the attention to detail can offer us a partial view of what went on in the space of childbearing. The material culture of childbearing in fifteenth-century Tuscany in particular has left us with a plethora of secular visual material relating to motherhood. For instance, images of childbirth are found on birth trays, or deschi da parto, that were given to mothers in Tuscany in the fifteenth century just before or after a birth.[24] Whereas such objects were often given by men and were intended to encourage laywomen in their social roles as wives and mothers, it is also likely that they offered women a form of focus and comfort during a difficult and life-threatening time. A tomb sculpture from 1470s indicates the close link between motherhood and death. Produced by the workshop of Andrea Verrocchio, this sculpture shows Francesca Tornabuoni on the right-hand side, dying in childbirth while surrounded by female assistants. On the left, a woman hands the newborn to Giovanni Tornabuoni surrounded by male friends. The tomb sculpture represents the liminal spaces of birth and death, as well as negotiating the private space of a woman’s childbearing and the public space of death and mourning.

Beyond simply giving birth to children, mothers played an increasingly important role in the education of their children in the later Middle Ages. Their model was St. Anne who was frequently represented with a book in hand, as the wise widow teaching her daughter(s) to read.[25] The image of St. Anne holding out an open book to teach her daughters in the fifteenth-century Bolton Hours (York Minster, MS Add. 2, folio 35) would have provided a model of piety and conduct for Margaret Blackburn, the manuscript’s owner, when instructing her own daughter(s),[26] as similarly shown in Figure 6.2 in Chapter 6. The theme of St. Anne as an educator was particularly exploited by ambitious aristocratic women in their artistic commissions at the end of the fifteenth century. For example, Anne of France, sister of Charles VIII, had herself and her only daughter represented under the protection of St. Anne in the right-hand wing of the monumental Moulins Triptych, where she presents them to an image of the Immaculate Conception, as shown in Figure 8.13.[27]

Figure 8.13 Master of Moulins (Jean Hey), The Moulins Triptych (The Bourbon Altarpiece). Oil on panel, ca. 1498 © Moulins Cathedral, Allier France/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Women as Creators

Looking for women artists in the Middle Ages raises questions concerning what it means for someone to be an artist. For example, as mentioned above, the Bayeux Tapestry was probably made by women, most likely a group of English nuns. However, these nuns would have been following a design provided to them by a monk, a design that was intended to express the interests of the patron, Bishop Odo of Bayeux. Who was the artist in this situation? A similar question arises in considering the work of Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century abbess who is recognized today as an important author and composer. Some scholars have argued for identifying Hildegard also as an artist, specifically of the illustrations in certain manuscripts of her visionary works.[28] Such arguments credit Hildegard as the designer of these images, not their physical maker, and identify the images as the expressions of her ideas. She thus takes the roles of the designer and patron in the Bayeux Tapestry example, not of the embroiderers.

The arguments for identifying Hildegard as the designer of these images are based on their unusual content, which is best explained by their close connection to Hildegard’s texts and so to Hildegard herself; on visual features that may represent the effects of migraine headaches, which could again tie them closely to Hildegard as she reported being sick repeatedly throughout her life; and on an image that seems shows her working process, speaking the words of her text to a scribe and simultaneously sketching on a wax tablet she holds in her lap, as shown in Figure 8.14. Such sketches may have provided the basis for the fully realized illustrations in these manuscripts. However, this image raises an additional question concerning Hildegard’s identification as an artist, for it shows her head engulfed in red flames as a visualization of her claim to divine inspiration. According to this image, Hildegard is not the designer of her illustrations, nor the author of her texts—God is. Indeed, throughout her writings Hildegard described herself as a “weak woman” who was incapable of producing such works on her own.[29] Hildegard’s denial of her own authorship raises questions for modern scholars who are unable to accept her claims to divine inspiration. Should such statements be accepted as, at least, genuine expressions of her own self-understanding? Should they be set aside as conventional statements of humility? Or were they strategic statements that were necessary for her to function within a male-dominated world?

Figure 8.14 Hildegard of Bingen, inspired by heavenly fire, from the Rupertsburg Scivias (twentieth-century facsimile of lost original, twelfth century). Photograph by Erich Lessing, courtesy of Art Resource, NY.

An interesting comparison for Hildegard’s work comes in the Hortus Deliciarum, or Garden of Delights, a richly illustrated encyclopedic text produced by her contemporary and fellow abbess Herrad of Landsberg. Like Hildegard, Herrard has been identified as the designer of the illustrations in this work based on their close relationship to its text. Given the hundreds of images it contained, however, their actual execution must have been the work of many hands. Unlike Hildegard’s visionary work, Herrad’s text is a compilation that draws from a wide variety of sources, and rather than identifying herself as a mouthpiece for God, Herrad claims only to have been inspired by God in her work of composition, which was done with the aim of instructing the nuns in her community. Indeed, Herrad appears in the final miniature in the text, standing alongside bust-length images of the nuns, holding an inscription that instructs them to turn their attention to contemplation of the divine.[30]

Rather more certain than Hildegard’s role as an artist is that of the nuns of the Benedictine abbey of St. Walburg, whose scriptorium produced a series of drawings dated ca. 1500 designed to aid in the devotions of the foundation’s inhabitants.[31] At first glance, these drawings seem naïve in execution, yet closer examination reveals a greater sophistication of iconography than is usually ascribed to what has been labeled Nonnenarbeiten (Nun’s Work), the genre of medieval imagery with which they have been associated. A comparison between this set of around a dozen drawings and contemporary examples from manuscripts, prints, and textiles demonstrates that the nun primarily responsible for their creation seems deliberately to have avoided slavish adherence to any contemporary models. Instead, she wove together certain existing iconographic conventions with idiosyncratic and innovative motifs that foreground the importance of the visual in the nuns’ devotions.[32] In essence, the drawings present the body of Christ as the object of the nun’s gaze and beyond that as the portal for both entry into the Savior’s heart, and into her own.

Like their religious counterparts, there is evidence of secular women engaging in artistic endeavors, especially in the arena of manuscript illustration. A well-known reference to a female Parisian illuminator named Anastaise occurs in Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies; de Pizan describes the artist as unsurpassed in her abilities to paint manuscript borders and the background of miniatures. Because of the stratification of jobs in manuscript illumination, it was common practice for a master to paint the main figures and leave the secondary decoration to others, but in the case of Anastaise, one wonders if her role was restricted because of her gender rather than her artistic abilities. On the other hand, de Pizan herself suffered no such constraints. Left widowed with three children at a young age, to support her family de Pizan became a professional writer, producing highly regarded poetry and prose for a number of patrons, including members of the French court. While the exact nature of her role has been disputed, she was involved in the production of manuscripts of her writings, possibly even extending to the design of the illuminations. She is particularly known for her vigorous defense of women, not only in the allegorical City of Ladies, which describes heroic and virtuous women from history, but also in her various written attacks on the misogyny she perceived in The Romance of the Rose, a wildly popular dream poem written in the courtly love tradition, recounting the romantic pursuit of the Rose by the Lover. Christine de Pizan particularly addressed the satirical and even vicious attitude toward women evident in the 17,000-line extension to the poem written by Jean de Meun, added several decades later to the original verses penned by Guillaume de Lorris in 1230.[33]

Women as Consumers and Patrons

Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies was enormously popular, especially in the libraries of aristocratic women, and it inspired a tapestry series, copies of which were owned by Anne of Brittany and Margaret of Austria.[34] Another type of illuminated manuscript closely associated with women is the book of hours, the prayer book for the laity that was increasingly produced in the later Middle Ages. While the central text of the book of hours was the Latin Hours of the Virgin, and other parts (including a calendar, the Penitential Psalms, and the Office of the Dead) were more or less standard inclusions, the prayer book could be modified and adapted to fit the devotional needs and interests of the user. In addition to this type of textual personalization, books of hours might also include images of their owners. For aristocratic women, they became a kind of commodity as well as an object of devotion.[35] A particularly elaborate example occurs in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy (Vienna, Österreischische Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis 1857, fol. 14v), where the aristocratic owner is represented twice in the same image, as shown in Figure 8.15. In the foreground, she appears to be seated in an antechamber of a church, intent upon a book of hours that she holds carefully cradled in a bright green cloth, with a lapdog nestled in the folds of her golden gown. In the background, she kneels before the Virgin and Child in an elaborate Gothic church interior, perhaps in a vision of access to the divine accomplished through her pious daily devotions.[36]

In spite of the evidence for female ownership of books of hours, it is not always clear that they had control over their contents; instead, a father or a husband may have commissioned, purchased, and controlled the production of the manuscript.[37] In addition, it seems that most such manuscripts would have been written and illuminated by men, although there were a few women involved in manuscript production, often as part of a family business. The fourteenth-century Psalter and Hours of Bonne de Luxembourg, which includes a double-donor portrait of sorts of Bonne and her husband (who was to become Jean le Bon, king of France) kneeling before Christ on the cross, may very well be the production of the illuminator Jean le Noir and his daughter Bourgot.[38]

Figure 8.15 Donor portrait from Hours of Mary of Burgundy. Vienna: Österreishische Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis 1857, fol. 14 verso. ca. 1475. © Österreishische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

Secular ivory objects produced mainly in Paris during the fourteenth century also seem to have been primarily owned by women. In fact, the climax of Jean de Meun’s section of the Romance of the Rose, so reviled by Christine de Pizan, describes the ultimate seduction of the Rose, which is cast as an attack and forced entry into a barricaded castle: very similar scenes were depicted on ivory mirror backs, combs, and caskets with scenes drawn from the iconography of courtly love. As is the case with manuscripts intended for female users, it is unclear to what extent women might have been involved in the selection of the decoration. Those objects depicting the storming of the “Castle of Love” typically show knights attacking a castle full of women, who ineffectually defend themselves by throwing roses, as shown in Figure 8.16. Other common subjects include scenes from famous romances, with Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Isolde as perhaps the most popular choices, or more anonymous pairs of lovers engaged in various courtship rituals. Although such themes seem innocuous at first glance, they are often underpinned with hints of eroticism and even violence, themes that also appear in courtly literature of the time.[39]

Although the Castle of Love is a fantasy building, it can represent one category of architecture aimed at viewing or use by women. Such structures demonstrate the significance of gender to the configuration of physical space. In medieval religious spaces like churches and monasteries, limits and controls were constructed, determining who had access to specific areas. Especially in monastic complexes, gender played a role in these determinations, as the archaeological study of nunneries has shown that they have more physical boundaries between the precinct and the inner cloister than monasteries. The dormitories of religious women tend to be the most secluded space in a nunnery.[40]

Figure 8.16 Relief carving of the attack on the Castle of Love. Mirror back, ca. 1320–40. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Art Resource, NY.

The so-called Nuns’ Church at Clonmacnoise, Ireland, was commissioned by a young woman named Derbforgaill in 1167.[41] She was a member of a family that was deeply involved in the Irish Church: she was the daughter of the king of nearby Meath, a key patron of Clonmacnoise, and her sister Agnes was the abbess at nearby Clonard. In 1152, Derbforgaill was abducted (possibly willingly) as part of a political dispute, which led to the invasion of Ireland by Anglo-Normans in 1169, and some histories suggest that her patronage may have been a form of penance. Although a large and centralized monastic site exists at Clonmacnoise, the Nuns’ Church is curiously located at a significant distance from the rest of the precinct, exposed and unprotected some 500 meters away from the main group of buildings. As such, this building seems to epitomize experiences of both isolation and independence for the nuns and their activities in this structure. In contrast to nunneries that are deeply enclosed spaces, this church represents a space where it seems religious women were under less scrutiny and possibly more connected to the surrounding population.

Those women who were able to exercise some control over the art objects they commissioned and owned, or who were able to choose the way in which they themselves were represented, belonged mainly to the ruling classes. Despite the fact that women were usually officially excluded from ruling in their own right, the Middle Ages is littered with examples of women who did in fact do just this. Yet it is only relatively recently that researchers have begun to pay detailed attention to women such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Blanche of Castile, Margaret of Anjou, and Isabella of Castile.[42] These women and others, including Joan and Margaret, Countesses of Flanders, Elizabeth of Hungary, Joanna of Naples, Anne of France, and Margaret of York ruled in their own right or acted as regents for their fathers, husbands, or sons. Other women such as Mary of Brittany, Abbess of Fontevraux, ruled over religious institutions.[43] All of them wielded a certain amount of power in a world otherwise dominated by men, and they often exploited their positions to exercise a degree of artistic, literary, political, or social patronage.

Like their male counterparts, female rulers were able to draw on a number of strategies to promote their position, notably by associating themselves with illustrious, pious, or regal figures from the antique and biblical past. They employed this method of enhancing their status across a variety of media such as illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, tapestry, sculpture, and panel painting.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204) was not only one of the most powerful queens in medieval Europe but also a noteworthy patron of the arts. Married first to the French king Louis VII, and later to Henry II, king of England, Eleanor’s political influence spanned many lands. Her spectacular life was marked with momentous events and renown, through which she navigated the complex terrain of going on crusade, dealing with divorce and remarriage, negotiating conflict with her second husband that would result in her imprisonment, and correspondence with key contemporary figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger.

Often referred to as “Queen of the Troubadours” in histories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there is little proof that Eleanor was specifically responsible for the commission of literature in the English court.[44] The lack of such documents does not mean she did not foster an environment conducive to writers, singers, or poets, however, who may have also been supported by her husband. She was certainly familiar with these traditions, growing up as she did at the Poitevin court where troubadour poetry was developed. In addition, there is significant visual and material evidence of several artistic commissions and building projects that she supported.

Although she was queen of England for the majority of her adult life, Eleanor always attempted to keep strong ties with Aquitaine and her court at Poitiers, during her installation as ruler between 1168 and 1174, and especially in her later years, when she retired to Fontevraud. An example from her earlier period of residence is the donation of a stained-glass Crucifixion window to the cathedral of Saint-Pierre in Poitiers, which includes a donor portrait of Eleanor and Henry presenting the window. Later examples include the large-scale renovation of the ducal palace at Poitiers, and the commissioning of the tombs of Henry II, their son Richard, Richard’s wife, and finally that of Eleanor, as shown in Figure 8.17. These effigies are important as some of the earliest surviving three-dimensional, life-sized effigies of monarchs of France.[45] Eleanor’s support of the abbey at Fontevraud began as early as 1170 and increased in later years. She retired there in 1194, after Henry’s death, and eventually took the veil.

Although Eleanor’s role in the development of courtly literature is now disputed, her tomb sculpture does support perceptions of Eleanor as a both an authoritative and intellectual figure. Completed around 1210, a few years after her death in 1204, this sculpture stands out alongside those she oversaw for her husband and son. With greater three-dimensionality and less angularity than their tombs, her sculpture depicts her as fully alive instead of in deathly repose, holding a book in front of her and in the act of reading.[46] Although it appears her eyes are closed, perhaps signaling spiritual contemplation or prayer, the book’s status as open is significant. Probably representing a psalter, the book and Eleanor’s activity link her with the increasing popularity of prayer books commissioned by and for elite women in the later Middle Ages. It also evokes the prayers that she no doubt hoped the nuns at Fontevraud would say on her behalf.

Figure 8.17 Tomb sculpture of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey, France, ca. 1210. Photograph by Erich Lessing, courtesy of Art Resource, NY.

Eleanor’s legacy is evident not only in her final commissions but also through her offspring. Despite the fact that only two of her eight children survived her, her granddaughter Blanche would go on to be an important royal patron of her own. Blanche of Castile (1188–1252) was the daughter of Alfonso VIII and Eleanor’s namesake, known in Spain as Leanor of Castile. In 1200, Eleanor of Aquitaine went to Spain herself to collect her granddaughter for marriage to the future Louis VIII. Serving twice as regent of France (1226–35, 1248–52), Blanche exercised real political power and significant influence over her children, especially Louis IX (St. Louis) and Isabelle of France.[47] This powerful legacy is evident in the many objects in various media that can be linked to her patronage. Perhaps the best known image now associated with Blanche is the lavish, full-page illumination thought to depict Blanche as regent and her son Louis IX from a Bible moralisée, which is now split between the Pierpont Morgan Library (MS M. 240, fol. 8r) and the Tesoro de la Catedral in Toledo, probably made in the late 1230s, as shown in Figure 8.18. This manuscript is one of several extant manuscripts that seem to have been created for Blanche, probably commissioned as a gift to her son.[48] Her and her son’s patronage of the book arts signal the flourishing of commercial book production at this time.

Figure 8.18 Blanche of Castile and her son Louis IX, Bible moralisée. New York, The Morgan Library and Museum, MS M. 240, fol. 8 recto, ca. late 1230s. © The Morgan Library and Museum.

In this extravagantly luxurious image, four figures are depicted in two registers and separated by trilobed arches resting on narrow columns. The rooflines and towers of a simplified cityscape fill the space above the arches in each register, while the background beneath the arches is resplendent in gold leaf. The clerical author and the scribe or illuminator to whom he dictates are clearly subject to the royal figures above them. Seated on ornate thrones, dressed in fine garments and wearing similar crowns, these two figures are the same size and height, suggesting equal importance. Although Louis holds the scepter and seal of his authority while Blanche’s hands are empty, her active gesturing suggests that she speaks in this image while the young Louis looks on and listens to her guidance. Reminiscent of some Gothic images of the Coronation of the Virgin, in which Mary and Christ appear similarly as two royal figures sitting opposite one another on thrones, this image articulates the power and authority held by Blanche as regent through her depiction as valued counselor and wise mother.

In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, another queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria (ca. 1370–1435), wife of Charles VI, played an important role in running the kingdom during the king’s frequent attacks of mental illness. History has not been kind to Isabeau, who has frequently been represented as a villainous criminal whose agreement to the Treaty of Troyes led to her disowning her own son, the future Charles VII. Yet, from 1402, she was invested with very real governmental power by her husband, and she was an important patron of the arts.[49] Around 1410, she commissioned a richly illuminated copy of the works of Christine de Pizan, which is now housed in the British Library. This book, known as the Queen’s Manuscript (London, BL, MS Harley 4431), was supervised by Christine de Pizan herself, and the frontispiece shows the writer in the process of presenting her work to Isabeau who sits in her bedchamber surrounded by five ladies all wearing sumptuous clothes and with their hair dressed in the fashionable “horn” style, as shown in Figure 8.19. The background of fleur-de-lys and the lozenges of Isabeau’s own house allude both to Isabeau’s origins and to her status as queen of France. Her reception of Christine de Pizan’s book makes it clear that she is a lady of learning who takes an interest in women themselves through her patronage of a female author. In her tomb effigy in the church of St. Denis in Paris, Isabeau is represented as both widow and queen. Her figure parallels that of her husband: in addition to her elaborate widow’s headdress, she wears, like him, a crown carved with the French fleur-de-lys; and in her right hand, she holds a scepter, symbol of the earthly power she once wielded.

Figure 8.19 Master of the Cité des Dames and Workshop, Christine de Pisan Presenting Her Book to Isabeau of Bavaria. London, British Library, MS Harley 4431, fol. 3 recto. ca. 1410–11. © The British Library Board.

In the later fifteenth century, a number of powerful and highly educated women emerged at the French court, emanating from the circle of Anne of France (1461–1522), sister of Charles VIII. Anne’s association of herself with St. Anne and her promotion of herself as daughter and sister of the king, and then as the duchess of Bourbon, is evident in the Moulins Triptych noted previously. She served as a model for future queens and duchesses such as Anne of Brittany, Louise of Savoy, and Margaret of Austria.[50] All these women employed images of themselves and their favorite saints to help them assert, execute, and maintain their role as rulers and regents. For instance, the Visitation scene in the Très Petites Heures (Paris, BnF, n.a.l. 3120) belonging to Anne of Brittany (1477–1514) and noted previously, draws a clear parallel between Anne, who had become queen of France for a second time through her marriage to Louis XII, and the holy mothers of the Visitation scene by depicting Anne’s crowned arms at the bottom of the page, as shown in Figure 8.20. Such a mise-en-page was intended to associate Anne with the blessed, biblical mothers and their miraculous conception of illustrious children: as queen of France, Anne too was expected to give birth to a male heir who would be a leader and defend the kingdom of God.

Figure 8.20 Lauds, from the Très Petites Heures. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouvelle acquisition latine, 3120, fol. 40 recto. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.


As noted at the beginning of the chapter, medieval visual images are often conventionalized depictions of idealized figures and thus have somewhat limited value as a record of actual human experience. Nevertheless, it is evident from this overview of medieval female imagery that women were actively involved in cultural production whether as subjects, creators, or consumers of representation. These images frequently suggest a close association between women, corporeality, and sexuality, ranging from the opposition of Eve’s carnality to Mary’s purity, the eroticized torture of St. Agatha, the motherhood of St. Anne, and the assault on the ladies of the Castle of Love. Thus, most of the images discussed in this chapter take as their subject the female body, its reproductive and erotic potential, and the need for its care and control. This prevailing attitude toward the female gender entailed limitations on women’s autonomy and actions; nevertheless, some women such as Hildegard of Bingen, Christine de Pizan, Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Blanche of Castile were clearly able to act within or transcend such restrictions in order to produce and patronize visual and literary productions, and to participate actively in the creative and intellectual discourses of their day. As this chapter confirms, medieval visual culture provided numerous and varied opportunities for the representation and participation of women in its creation.

[1] O. K. Werckmeister, “The Lintel Fragment Representing Eve from Saint-Lazare, Autun,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 35 (1972), pp. 3–7 ; Georges Duby, Women of the Twelfth Century, vol. 3, Eve and the Church (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 29–47 .

[2] Ilene H. Forsyth, The Throne of Wisdom: Wood Sculptures of the Madonna in Romanesque France (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972) ; Miri Rubin, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) .

[3] Linda Seidel, Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus, and the Cathedral of Autun (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 103–4 ; George Duby, Women of the Twelfth Century, vol. 1, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Six Others (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 21–41 .

[4] Marianne Elsakkers, “In Pain You Shall Bear Children: Medieval Prayers for a Safe Delivery,” in Studies in the History of Religions, ed. Anne-Marie Korte (Leiden: Brill, 2001), pp. 179–209 .

[5] Cordelia Warr, “Painting in Late Fourteenth-Century Padua: The Patronage of Fina Buzzacarini,” Renaissance Studies 10 (1996), pp. 139–55.

[6] Martha Easton, “Saint Agatha and the Sanctification of Sexual Violence,” Studies in Iconography 16 (1994), pp. 83–118 ; Madeline Caviness, Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and Scopic Economy (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), pp. 82–124 .

[7] Jennifer Borland, “Violence on Vellum: Saint Margaret’s Transgressive Body and Its Audience,” in Representing Medieval Genders and Sexualities in Europe: Construction, Transformation, and Subversion, 600–1530, ed. Elizabeth L’Estrange and Alison More (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011) . See also Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Timea Klara Szell, Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 285 ; and Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady as Saint: A Collection of French Hagiographic Romances of the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), p. 218 .

[8] Wendy R. Larson, “Who Is the Master of this Narrative? Maternal Patronage of the Cult of St. Margaret,” in Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 94–104 .

[9] Martha Easton, “ ‘Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?’ Transforming and Transcending Gender in the Lives of Female Saints,” in The Four Modes of Seeing: Approaches to Medieval Imagery in Honor of Madeline Harrison Caviness, ed. Evelyn Staudinger Lane, Elizabeth Carson Pastan, and Ellen M. Shortell (Burlington, Ashgate, 2009), pp. 333–47 .

[10] Kirk Ambrose, The Nave Sculpture of Vézelay: The Art of Monastic Viewing, Studies and Texts 154 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2006), pp. 39–44 .

[11] Véronique P. Day, “Recycling Radegund: Identity and Ambition in the Breviary of Anne De Prye,” in Excavating the Medieval Image: Manuscripts, Artists, Audiences: Essays in Honor of Sandra Hindman, ed. David S. Areford and Nina A. Rowe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 151–77 .

[12] Magdalena Elizabeth Carrasco, “Spirituality in Context: The Romanesque Illustrated Life of St. Radegund of Poitiers (Poitiers, Bibl. Mun., Ms 250),” Art Bulletin 72 (1990), pp. 414–35 .

[13] Emile Mâle, Religious Art in France, the Twelfth-Century: A Study of the Origins of Medieval Iconography, trans. Marthiel Matthews (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 372–76 ; Ilene Forsyth, “Narrative at Moissac: Schapiro’s Legacy,” Gesta 41 (2002), pp. 71–93 .

[14] Madeline Caviness, “Anglo-Saxon Women, Norman Knights, and a ‘Third Sex’ in the Bayeux Embroidery,” in The Bayeux Tapestry: New Interpretations, ed. Martin K. Foys, Karen Eileen Overbey, and Dan Terkla (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2009), pp. 89–93.

[15] Peter Murray Jones, “Image, Word, and Medicine in the Middle Ages,” in Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200–1550, ed. Jean A. Givens, Karen M. Reeds, and Alain Touwaide (Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 1–24 .

[16] In manuscripts such as British Library MS Sloane 1977 and Bodleian Library MS Laud. Misc. 724. On Caesarean sections, see Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born: Representations of Caesarean Birth in Medieval and Renaissance Culture (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990) .

[17] See Elizabeth L’Estrange, Holy Motherhood: Gender, Dynasty and Visual Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) ; Monica H. Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) .

[18] A good overview of medieval marriage history and law is provided by Edwin Hall, “On Marriage Law and Ceremony,” in The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1994), chap. 2, pp. 13–47 . For its symbolic dimensions, see D. L. D’Avray, Medieval Marriage: Symbolism and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) . See also Conor McCarthy, “The Principle of Consent,” in Marriage in Medieval England: Law, Literature and Practice (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004) , chap. 1; and the essays in Philip L. Reynolds and John Witte, Jr., eds., To Have and to Hold: Marrying and Its Documentation in Western Christendom, 400–1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) .

[19] Hall, Arnolfini Betrothal, pp. 70–77.

[20] Thomas Woodcock and John Martin Robinson, The Oxford Guide to Heraldry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 120–26 .

[21] Anne McGee Morgenstern, Gothic Tombs of Kinship in France, the Low Countries, and England (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), pp. 122–25 .

[22] D’Avray, Medieval Marriage, pp. 7–9.

[23] Corine Schleif, “Men on Right—Women on the Left: (A)symmetrical Spaces and Gendered Places,” in Women’s Space: Patronage, Place, and Gender in the Medieval Church, ed. Virginia Chieffo Raguin and Sarah Stanbury (Albany: The State University of New York Press, 2005), pp. 207–49 .

[24] Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) .

[25] Pamela Sheingorn, “The Wise Mother,” Gesta 32 (1993), pp. 69–80 .

[26] Patricia Cullum and Jeremy Goldberg, “How Margaret Blackburn Taught Her Daughters: Reading Devotional Instruction in a Book of Hours,” in Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts: Essays for Felicity Riddy, ed. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Rosalynn Voaden, Arlyn Diamond, Ann Hutchison, Carol Meale, and Lesley Johnson (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), pp. 217–36 .

[27] Elizabeth L’Estrange, “Sainte Anne et le mécénat d’Anne de France” and “Le mécénat d’Anne de Bretagne,” in Patronnes et mécènes en France à la Renaissance, ed. K. Wilson-Chevalier (St-Étienne: Presse Universitaire de St-Étienne, 2007), pp. 135–54, 169–94 .

[28] Madeline Caviness, “Artist: To See, Hear, and Know All at Once,” in Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, ed. Barbara Newman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 110–24 ; and “Hildegard as Designer of the Illustrations to Her Works,” in Hildegard of Bingen: The Context of Her Thought and Art, ed. Charles Burnett and Peter Dronke (London: Warburg Institute, 1998), pp. 29–42 .

[29] Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 2–3, 35, 182–85 ; Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179): A Visionary Life (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 13–14, 42, 53–54 .

[30] Herrad of Landsberg, Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights), commentary and notes by A. Straub and G. Keller, ed. and trans. Aristide D. Caratzas (New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers Publishers, 1977) .

[31] Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997) .

[32] Hamburger, Nuns as Artists, p. 214.

[33] Barbara K. Altmann and Deborah L. McGrady, eds., Christine de Pizan: A Casebook (New York: Routledge, 2003) .

[34] Susan Groag Bell, The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) .

[35] Sandra Penketh, “Women and Books of Hours,” in Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence, ed. Jane H. M. Taylor and Lesley Smith (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and the British Library, 1997), pp. 266–80 ; and Susan Groag Bell, “Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture,” Signs 7 (1982), pp. 742–68 .

[36] The Hours of Mary of Burgundy, ed. Erik Inglis (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1995) .

[37] Madeline Caviness suggests that this is the case in the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. See her “Patron or Matron: A Capetian Bride and a Vade Mecum for Her Marriage Bed,” Speculum 68 (1993), pp. 333–62.

[38] Flora Lewis, “The Wound in Christ’s Side and the Instruments of the Passion: Gendered Experience and Response,” in Women and the Book, ed. Taylor and Smith, p. 206.

[39] Michael Camille, The Medieval Art of Love: Objects and Subjects of Desire (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998) ; Martha Easton, “ ‘Was It Good for You, Too?, Medieval Erotic Art and Its Audiences,” in Different Visions, ed. Rachel Dressler, http://www.differentvisions.org (accessed May 3, 2010).

[40] Roberta Gilchrist, “Medieval Bodies in the Material World: Gender, Stigma, and the Body,” in Framing Medieval Bodies, ed. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996), pp. 43–61 . See also Roberta Gilchrist, Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) ; Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, “Gender, Celibacy, and Proscriptions of Sacred Space: Symbol and Practice,” in Women’s Space, ed. Raguin and Stanbury, pp. 185–205.

[41] For a thorough investigation of the evidence for Derbforgaill’s role, see Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh, “ ‘But What Exactly Did She Give?’: Derbforgaill and the Nuns’ Church and Clonmacnoise,” in Clonmacnoise Studies: Seminar Papers 1998, ed. Heather A. King (Dublin: Dept. of Environment Heritage and Local Government, 2003) .

[42] John Carmi Parsons, ed., Medieval Queenship (New York: St. Martin’s, 1993) .

[43] On female rulers and regents and their representation, see Anne-Marie Legaré, ed., Livres et lectures des femmes en Europe entre moyen âge et renaissance (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007) ; and Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier, ed., Patronnes et mécènes en France à la Renaissance (St-Étienne: Presse Universitaire de St-Étienne, 2007) .

[44] Ralph V. Turner, Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 169, 311–13 .

[45] Kathleen Nolan, Queens in Stone and Silver: The Creation of a Visual Imagery of Queenship in Capetian France (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 98 .

[49] Rachel Gibbons, “Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France (1385–1422): The Creation of an Historical Villainess,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (6th ser.), 6 (1996), pp. 51–73 .

[50] Elizabeth L’Estrange, “Sainte Anne et le mécénat d’Anne de France” in Patronnes et mécènes, ed. Wilson-Chevalier, pp. 135–54.