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Opening

Powerful but alone

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06 November 2021

Chiara Frugoni recounts the challenge of five medieval women


Submissive, illiterate, offended, abused, forced to accept arranged marriages, and considered an inferior species akin to animals. Always voiceless and endowed with only one chance to have a more dignified life, which was to enter a monastery where they would learn to read in order to pray better. What a misfortune it was to be born a woman in the Middle Ages. Chiara Frugoni, an internationally renowned historian and academic, explains this with great clarity in her book Donne medievali – sole, indomite, avventurose [Medieval Women - Lonely, Indomitable, Adventurous] (Il Mulino). The book is like a fresco of the period, which is rich in documentation, yet as compelling as a novel, and accompanied by beautiful illustrations. In this disconsolate portrait of the condition of women in the ten centuries preceding the discovery of America, the scholar identifies five women who were endowed with an exceptional personality and great courage. These virtues combined made them capable of breaking the chains of their dramatic rigidly marked destiny, and challenge the misogyny of the time.

The first is Radegund of Poitiers, nun and queen (513-587); the second, the powerful Matilda of Canossa (1046-1115); the third, Pope Joan, who was considered by historians to be a medieval legend who reigned in the ninth century. The forth, the brilliant and prolific writer Christine de Pizan (c. 1364 - c. 1429), who was a forerunner of the defense of women against abuse and violence. Lastly, Margherita Datini (1360 circa - 1423), the unhappy wife of a merchant of Prato, who was rich in intelligence to the point of educating herself to write 150 beautiful letters revealing her wisdom to her husband who was constantly absent and unfaithful.

Professor Frugoni, what do these five “countercurrent” female figures have in common with respect to their times?

The fact that they were able to express their talents in absolute autonomy, that is, outside of marriage. For all five protagonists of the book, the encounter with a man was anything but a happy one. They were therefore lonely, courageous and enterprising women who challenged their era to come out of the shadows and have a voice in a historical period in which only nuns and widows were allowed to express their personalities. Nevertheless, they were not the only ones: the history of the Middle Ages contemplates other strong and courageous female figures too.

Why did Radegund of Poitiers seem interesting to you?

Because she was an extraordinary queen. The wife of Clotaire I, who, after abandoning her husband, took the veil. Her deeds were recounted by the poet Venantius Fortunatus, but Radegund’s true personality emerges from the biography written by a nun called Baudonivia. In the text she describes an extroverted and sensitive woman, rich in emotional impulses and concerned with the fate of both her monastery and the kingdom that she committed to defend through intense peacemaking activity.

What are the reasons that led you to call Margaret of Canossa and Pope Joan “powerful and alone”?

Countess Matilda, who was a friend of Pope Gregory VII, was passionately devoted to the cause of the Church in the era of the struggle for the Investiture Controversy. In 1077, when she was 31 years old, in the castle of her estate she witnessed the historic humiliation of Henry IV in front of the Pontiff. Marked by two unhappy marriages, Matilda also expressed her talents in total solitude, considerably extending the domains of her family. The legend of the highly cultured and intelligent Pope Joan, a character who never existed and who is said to have exercised the papacy disguised as a man, brings us back to the question of the female priesthood which is debated today.

Was the Middle Ages therefore the darkest period for women?

I would like to clarify that it is wrong to associate the adjective “dark” with that historical phase that lasted a thousand years and was the scene of many different events. However, one fact is certain: in the centuries preceding the modern age, the condition of women worsened.

Due to what causes?

One is certainly celibacy for priests, introduced by Gregory VII. The fact that men of the Church could not marry led to the consideration of women as temptresses, and sources of sin. Beginning with Eve, who was the long considered cause of original guilt and author of all humanity’s evils. It should also be remembered that the feudal society was based on land holdings that were managed through arranged marriages. These were real contracts in which women were mere pawns, and sometimes even prey. Only between the end of the eleventh century and the beginning of the twelfth century did the Church change the legal nature of marriage by transforming it into a sacrament based on the consent of the spouses.

Christine de Pizan defended women who had been offended and abused in her writings, but six to seven centuries later feminicides and sexual violence are still commonplace. Has history taught us anything?

Unfortunately, there is still a common thread that ties us to the Middle Ages. Many steps forward have been made, women today get more respect than they used to, but equality is still far away. We will be able to say we have achieved it when there will no longer be any need to celebrate March 8th, a holiday that celebrates women as if they were a separate species. It is not by chance that there is no men’s day.

And what message can the five medieval heroines in your book convey to contemporary girls?

They can help them reflect on the past to acquire a greater awareness of their own value. Moreover, to push them to desire more and more to be free and autonomous, determined to choose their own life.

In your opinion as a historian, do quotas for women represent an indispensable tool for breaking down discrimination?

It would be nice if they did not exist because their existence risks underlining the inferiority of women. However, women have nothing less than men, they simply have fewer opportunities to assert themselves and in this historical moment the quotas for women can help them to express their abilities. However, I hope that soon there will be no need for positive discrimination because it will be a level playing field.

What is the right path to win the battle for gender equality and respect?

The right path is always the cultural one that brings with it awareness. If you lower the level of attention, if you lack information, you won’t get anywhere. Women need to read, talk to educated people, learn about the past to reflect on themselves and give themselves goals. Charlotte Witton (1896-1975) mayor of Ottawa, said, “Whatever women do, they have to do it twice as well as men to be half as appreciated. Fortunately, this is not a difficult thing”. I think the medieval protagonists in my book would have agreed too.

by Gloria Satta