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17 August 2022

When women were warriors: the forgotten female leaders of the Middle Ages

In Femina, Janina Ramirez tells the stories of women previously written out of history books.

By Pippa Bailey

On the island of Björkö, in Lake Mälaren, Sweden, is a curious-looking landscape of gently undulating grassy mounds, from which more than 1,000 burials have been unearthed. This grave field is part of Birka, a Viking settlement that was occupied between 750 and 950 AD. When the skeleton marked as “Bj 581” was first excavated there in the late 19th century, it was assumed to be that of a man because of the axe, sword, spears and quiver of arrows buried alongside it, and was dubbed the “Birka Warrior”. This identification was questioned in the 1970s, as the slender forearm and the wide inlet of the pelvis were commonly female characteristics, but it wasn’t until 2017 that DNA extracted from a tooth showed two X chromosomes. The Birka Warrior was a woman.

Surviving law codes show that Viking women could own property, run their own estates and divorce their husbands if improperly treated. At Birka, the weights and scales of traders were found in more female graves than male. The incredibly preserved Oseberg ship, one of two now displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, was found in the burial mound of two high-status women. The Vikings even venerated women as gods: their second most important deity was Freyja, goddess of no less than love, death, sex, beauty and war. Given what we now know of women’s place in Viking society, “the grave at Birka suddenly seems less of an anomaly”, writes the BBC broadcaster and Oxford academic Janina Ramirez in Femina, an interdisciplinary, revisionist history of the women of the Middle Ages.

[See also: The mysterious life of Inez Holden]

If some historical female figures have been unwittingly overlooked, others were deliberately erased by those threatened by their power. The name of Alfred the Great, the 9th-century king of Wessex, has become legend, but few have heard of his daughter, Æthelflæd. The noblemen of the kingdom elected Æthelflæd ruler of Mercia (roughly, the modern-day Midlands) following the deaths of her father and husband – a rare event in early medieval history. She negotiated with and commanded the loyalty of Vikings, and her armies triumphed in some of the most important battles of the early 10th century, taking Derby and Leicester. The Vikings of York were prepared to cede to her and, had she not died before they could, Æthelflæd would be venerated as the woman who unified England. A 12th-century poem remembers her thus:

“Heroic Æthelflæd! Great in martial fame, A man in valour, though a woman by your name: Your warlike hosts by nature you obeyed, Conquered over both, though born by sex a maid.”

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Before her death, Æthelflæd ensured that her crown would go to her daughter, Ælfwynn – the only time rule passed from one woman to another in early medieval England. And yet, the Lady of the Mercians is little known. Ramirez writes that her brother Edward, who succeeded Alfred as king of Wessex, “actively suppressed her reputation” out of fear that her power might rival his, and removed Ælfwynn from the throne she had inherited.

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If there is a logic behind Ramirez’s selection of these women, it is not explained, though it is surely deliberate that her chosen figures are less familiar than, say, Margaret of Anjou, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Empress Matilda, about whom many books have already been written. Also considered are Jadwiga, the 14th-century female king of Poland, who was one of only two women in Europe to have been titled “Rex” rather than “Regina” (the other was her sister Mary, king of Hungary); and Margery Kempe, a Christian mystic and contemporary of Joan of Arc, whose Book is considered by some to be the first autobiography written in English, and whose pilgrimages took her from Norway to the Middle East. Queen Cynethryth jointly ruled Mercia with her husband Offa (of Offa’s Dyke fame) for 25 years in the 8th century and is the only Western medieval woman to have had her own coinage minted – the earliest known depiction of an English queen. She signed herself “Queen of the Mercians by the Grace of God” long before the concept of the divine right of kings was enshrined in the motto of the English monarch, “Dieu et mon droit” (“God and my right”), by Henry V.

Ramirez begins each chapter by considering an artefact linked to one of her subjects – a structure that, when it works (as in the case of the Birka Warrior), is illuminating, but feels repetitive and tenuous when it doesn’t. In one chapter, the Bayeux Tapestry is used as a jumping-off point to write about Queen Emma: the wife of two successive kings of England, Æthelred the Unready and Cnut, today we might call her the “continuity candidate”. Ramirez theorises that Emma may be the tapestry’s mysterious “Ælfgyva”. Six pages are given over to her story, before Ramirez concludes “it is unlikely to be Emma depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry”. Both Queen Emma and the tapestry are more than worthy of inclusion in Femina, but their framing here is unnecessarily distracting.

More successful are Ramirez’s portraits of religious figures such as nuns and mystics, through which she convincingly argues that in the Middle Ages there was an expansive and stimulating role for women in the Church. Before nunneries were closed during the Reformation, monastic life allowed noblewomen to “bypass marriages… and instead form their own centres of learning where they could be rich, respected and remembered”. Early medieval convents weren’t the places of austerity we might imagine, either: archaeological finds at the site of a double monastery in Whitby include decorative hairpins, books with covers of gold and a comb inscribed with runes.

[See also: British diplomacy in the dock]

Of the monastery’s founder, Hild, Bede writes that “kings and princes sought… her counsel”. In 664 she presided over the consequential Synod of Whitby, at which the church of Northumbria was brought into line with the Catholic church of Rome; five men who trained under her went on to become bishops. “If there were king-makers in the medieval world,” writes Ramirez, “then she was the bishop-maker.”

Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German abbess who had visions from a young age and wrote several works of theology documenting and interpreting them, is perhaps the most remarkable of Ramirez’s women of God. A polymath whose life could fill Ramirez’s pages many times over, she was a composer, writer and mystic who corresponded with three popes, Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her words are shockingly modern: in one treatise she gives instructions for performing an abortion; in another, she encourages the drinking of beer, since it “fattens the flesh and… lends a beautiful colour to the face”. She wrote graphically about sex, too, defying preconceptions of the chaste abbess – the first known description of the sensation of the female orgasm, written in 1150, was Hildegard’s. In her time, her works weren’t rejected or censored, but were studied by scholars and even endorsed by the pope. “It is not simply that she is extraordinary,” Ramirez concludes, “but the world she grew up in was more hospitable to extraordinary women than we might think.”

The word “femina” was an annotation used in post-Reformation libraries to mark books that were written by women and were therefore “less worthy of preservation”. It is a neat illustration of the way the motivations and biases of those who record history can change it. But despite her tantalising title, Ramirez spends too much time on the what of her subjects’ stories, and too little considering how and why they were lost from history. Just one paragraph, for example, is dedicated to how Hildegard, so venerated and accepted by her male contemporaries, came to need rediscovering in Femina. Are there parallels to be drawn between the fears of the medieval men who propagandised and embellished male narratives in order to diminish women such as Æthelflæd, and the Victorian historians who preferred the study of Great Men and could not recognise a female skeleton for what it was? There is, of course, value in plainly recognising previously neglected women for the great thinkers and nation-makers they were. But while each of her case studies is fascinating, Ramirez identifies little that links her disparate subjects apart from their gender, and so Femina is missing a broad, considered thesis beyond the obvious question: “But what about women?”

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It
Janina Ramirez
WH Allen, 464pp, £22

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This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World