Medieval history is largely dominated by men: from kings to popes, nobles to scholars, records of prominent women are relatively few and far between. The church is no exception.
The Catholic church refused – and continues to refuse – to ordain women as priests, but medieval women could still take holy orders and enter a nunnery. Elsewhere, women found roles influencing church policy as visionaries or religious leaders or blending secular and religious authority as abbesses or mother superiors.
With a bit of digging, there are plenty of women who played roles in shaping the medieval church. Here are 5 of the most influential and well-known.
1. St Hild of Whitby (614-80)
One of the most important figures in early English Christianity, Hild of Whitby’s life is mainly known through the writings of the Venerable Bede. Born into a powerful family in the kingdom of Northumbria, Hild was converted to Christianity around 627 when she was a teenager.
Most of her adult life was secular: Hild became a nun aged 33 and quickly became the abbess of Hartlepool. Around 657, she founded the monastery at Whitby, which was home to both monks and nuns: a common phenomenon between the 5th and 7th centuries. Bede’s writing describes her presiding over a regime that focused “particularly [on] peace and charity”, where all lived in harmony, bound together by principles of justice, piety and chastity.
The abbey at Whitby became well known for producing powerful clerical figures, and as abbess, Hild had a certain amount of political power and influence. Her advice was sought by kings and nobles from across the land. She died in 680, aged 66 – a remarkably old age for the time. Reportedly, her death was accompanied by visions, and a cult quickly grew up around her.
Considered a patron saint of education and learning, her name was given to one of Oxford’s first female colleges: St Hilda’s.
2. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
The youngest child of low-level nobility, Hildegard was born in the modern-day Rhineland Palatinate and experienced visions from a young age. She was sent to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg around the age of 8 where she received a basic education, studying reading, writing and music as well as handiwork.
Her visions gained her a following, and she received many visitors at the monastery. In 1136, she was unanimously elected as magistra of the community and requested permission to move the community to Rupertsberg. After her initial requests were refused, Hildegard was stricken with paralysis, which relented only when the Abbot decided to grant the nuns permission to move.
She subsequently founded a second monastery at Eibingen in 1165. As well as being an important religious leader, Hildegard wrote extensively on matters of theology, botany and medicine. She was a prolific composer, writing both words and music for chants, hymns and antiphons. More examples of her music survive than of any other composer in the Middle Ages.
Canonised by the Catholic Church in the 16th century, Hildegard’s visions continued throughout her life and she became revered for them, both in her lifetime and beyond. Feminist scholars have grown increasingly interested in Hildegard in the modern era.
3. Heloise (1100-63)
Heloise’s background is unknown: she was educated at the convent of Argenteuil, just outside Paris, and was quickly known for her intelligence and by her 20s was revered for her scholarship across France. Her fame brought her plenty of attention, including that of a well-known scholar, Peter Abelard, with whom she had a romantic liaison.
The lovers wrote letters to each other which are well-known amongst medieval scholars today. Heloise became pregnant, much to the shame of her family, and the pair were to be married secretly in order to protect Abelard’s career. However, news got out, and Heloise was sent back to the convent at Argenteuil where she grew up. Heloise’s uncle castrated Abelard, and he took monastic orders. Helosie subsequently took the veil.
She quickly rose up the ranks of the sisterhood, becoming prioress at Argeneuil, and later abbess of the Paraclete, before rising to the rank of prelate nullius – the female equivalent in seniority to a bishop. Heloise’s letters to Abelard are noted for their critical thinking and the challenges they posed to Abelard’s thinking. They also provide a valuable window into gender dynamics, sexual relationships and the intersection of secular and religious life.
4. Julian of Norwich (1343-1416)
Biographical details about Julian’s life are virtually non-existent, but it is almost certain she spent the vast majority of her life in and around Norwich, which was one of the most religious cities in England at the time, dominated by churches, the cathedral and various religious institutions.
Julian was what is known as an anchoress: she withdrew from the wider religious community to lead an intensely prayer-orientated life. Her cell, where she lived in seclusion, was attached to the church of St Julian in Norwich. Julian also experienced religious visions which she wrote about in a text called Revelations of Divine Love, which is the earliest surviving English language text written by a woman.
Viewed as one of England’s most important mystics, it is unclear how much sway Julian had in her lifetime, or whether her writings were known about by the wider church community as it does not seem that they were challenged.
5. Catherine of Siena (1347-80)
Born into a large family in Siena (Catherine and her twin Giovanna were the 23rd and 24th children respectively), Catherine also experienced visions from a young age. Supposed to marry her sister’s widower, Catherine rebelled, instead declaring she wanted to take the veil. Whilst she did not follow through with this, she became a member of the ‘mantellate’, a group of pious women devoted to the Dominican order.
Catherine became an increasingly well-known figure, gaining sway in politics and dictating letters which were sent all over Italy, informing local rulers of her visions and trying to influence policy. She was an outspoken advocate of the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome, and helped influence Pope Gregory XI to complete this.
Her extreme fasting (which may explain some of her visions) caused serious damage to her health, and she died aged just 33. She left behind a wealth of writings and she is viewed as one of the most important figures in medieval Catholicism, particularly due to her influence on the papacy.