Uppity Women of Medieval Times (Book Review)

Vicki Leon wrote a very enjoyable and informative book labeled humorously Uppity Women of Medieval Times. The book contains brief biographies of perhaps several hundred women from Medieval Times who achieved renown for all sorts of positive and negative reasons.

The tone of Leon’s book is well captured in this brief quote from the introduction:

Anna Maria van Schurman
A portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman by Jan Lievens.

“Life was especially hard on wives, even if you were the lady of the manor. There were no hardware stores and no football games, so husbands tended to be underfoot a great deal. Therefore, when women caught wind of the Crusades idea, they wholeheartedly supported it. ‘Okay, you’ll be gone what, a couple years? Make sure you rake the leaves and take out the garbage before you leave.'” (pg. xi)

Books like this are excellent for throwing our ideas of the way the world does and/or has operated into disarray. I love them because they force me to think about things in new ways – to be challenged as the oversimplifications of life are re-complicated before my eyes.

A few interesting women from this book:

  • Chiyome (Japan) – “around 1560 started her own rent-a-ninja business, training girls to becomeĀ kuniochi or ‘deadly flowers,’ as they were called.” (pg. 8)
  • Anna Maria von Schurmann – “learned a dozen languages, graduated with a law degree from Utrecht University, studied medicine, taught philosophy, wrote books, and in her spare time was a sculptor and painter of note…” (pg. 16)
  • Olga (Russia) – “Around 945…she methodically went after the various rebel groups, wiping them out in ingenious ways designed to put the fear of Olga into the rest. The first batch she buried alive; the second, she had bailed in their baths.” (pg. 28)
  • Raziya (India) – Ruled over a powerful area in the country, memorized theĀ Koran, charged into battle on her war elephant, was the first female leader of a Moslem state. (pp. 32-33)
  • Damia al-Kahina (North Africa) – “…rallied the Berber tribespeople…taken the Jews who’d gotten tossed out of Spain….beaten a famous Arab general…led [her] own army of Jews and Christians and leftover Byzantines to victory over invading Moslem forces….won five years of peace for her people–the only time…that anyone would unite North Africa until modern times.” (This is late 600’s AD) (pg 48)
  • Trotula of Salerno (Italy) – “…pioneered surgical techniques for repair of the perineum…wrote two important medical books…advocated the use of opiates to ease childbirth pan and prescribed hormonal treatments…to regulate menstruation and overcome sterility.” (pg. 92)
  • Louise Labe (France) – “…took up martial arts and became a superlative horsewoman and archer…got a kick out of jousting…During the siege at Perpignan [300 miles from her home]…she rustled up a flattering suit of armor and fought for [her countrymen.]” (pg. 108)
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine (1100’s) – “…ruled as queen of France for fifteen years and queen of England for fifty more, producing ten kids when she wasn’t busy with music, health care, or political maneuverings.” (pg. 126)

Okay, I could go on forever…and I barely touched on many of these women’s amazing exploits.

There is no doubt that women have historically been oppressed and marginalized in a male-dominated society – and I don’t want to minimize that in the least – rather I want to acknowledge the marvelous way in which women under the most adverse of circumstances rose to great heights and accomplished great things.

Go get Leon’s book. It is a fun and informative read!

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