Medieval Women Writers

Women Writers of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Medieval Women Writers." ThoughtCo, Jun. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/medieval-women-writers-3530911. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, June 29). Medieval Women Writers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/medieval-women-writers-3530911 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Medieval Women Writers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/medieval-women-writers-3530911 (accessed September 21, 2017).
Lady Murasaki writing Tale of Genji
Culture Club / Getty Images

Around the world, a few women came to public attention as writers during the period from the sixth through fourteenth centuries. Here are many of them, listed in chronological order. Some names may be familiar, but you're likely to find some you didn't know before.

Khansa (Al-Khansa, Tumadir bint 'Amr)

Embossed binding of Jami's 'Khansa, Five Poems', 1931.
Embossed binding of Jami's 'Khansa, Five Poems', 1931. The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

about 575 - about 644

A convert to Islam during the life of the Prophet Muhammed, her poems are mainly about the deaths of her brothers in battles before Islam's arrival. She's thus known both as an Islamic woman poet and as an example of pre-Islamic Arabian literature.

Rabiah al-Adawiyah

713 - 801

Rabi'ah al-'Adawiyyah of Basrah was a Sufi saint, an ascetic who was also a teacher. Those who wrote about her in the first few hundred years after her death portrayed her as a model of Islamic knowledge and mystical practice or critic of humanity. Of her poems and writings that survive, some may be of Maryam of Bashrah (her student) or Rabi'ah bint Isma'il of Damascas.

Dhuoda

about 803 - about 843

Wife of Bernard of Septimania who was godson of Louis I (King of France, Holy Roman Emperor) and who became embroiled in a civil war against Louis, Dhuoda was left alone when her husband had her two children taken from her. She sent her sons a written collection of advice plus quotations from other writings.

Hrosvitha reading from a book at Benedictine convent of Gandersheim
Hrosvitha reading from a book at Benedictine convent of Gandersheim. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
about 930 - 1002

First known woman dramatist, Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim also wrote poems and chronicles. More »

Michitsuna no haha

about 935 to about 995

She wrote a diary about court life and is known as a poet.

Lady Murasaki writing Tale of Genji
Culture Club / Getty Images
about 976-978 - about 1026-1031

Murasaki Shikibu is credited with writing the first novel in the world, based on her years as an attendant in the Japanese imperial court. More »

? - about 1097

Trotula was the name given to a medieval medical compilation of texts, and the authorship of at least some of the texts is attributed to a female physician, Trota, sometimes called Trotula. The texts were standards for guiding gynecological and obstetrical practice for centuries. More »

1083 - 1148

Her mother was Irene Ducas, and her father was the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus of Byzantium. After her father's death, she documented his life and reign in a 15-volume history written in Greek, which also included information on medicine, astronomy, and accomplished women of Byzantium. More »

Li Qingzhao (Li Ch'ing-Chao)

1084 - about 1155

A Buddhist of northern China (now Shandong) with literary parents, she wrote lyric poetry and, with her husband, collected antiquities, during the Song dynasty. During the Jin (Tartar) invasion, she and her husband lost most of their possessions. A few years later, her husband died. She finished a manual of antiquities which her husband had begun, adding a memoir of her life and poetry to it. Most of her poems -- 13 volumes during her lifetime -- were destroyed or lost.

Frau Ava

? - 1127

A German nun who wrote poems about 1120-1125, Frau Ava's writings are the first in German by a womanwoman whose name is known. Little is known about her life, except that she seems to have had sons and she may have lived as a recluse within a church or monastery.

Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen. Heritage Images / Getty Images
1098 - September 17, 1179

Religious leader and organizer, writer, advisor and composer (Where did she get the time to do all of this???), Hildegard Von Bingen is the earliest composer whose life history is known. More »

Elisabeth of Schönau

1129 - 1164

A German Benedictine whose mother was the niece of Münster bishop Ekbert, Elisabeth of Schönau saw visions beginning at age 23, and believed that she was to reveal the moral advice and theology of those visions. Her visions were written down by other nuns and by her brother, also named Ekbert. She also sent letters of advice to the Archibishop of Trier, and corresponded with Hildegard of Bingen.

Herrad of Landsberg

Manuscript illustrated by Harrad of Landsburg, Torments of Hell
Manuscript illustrated by Harrad of Landsburg, Torments of Hell. The Print Collector/Getty Images
about 1130 - 1195

Known as a scientist as well as writer, Herrad of Landsberg was a German abbess who wrote a book about science called Garden of Delights (in Latin, Hortus Deliciarum). She became a nun at the convent of Hohenberg and eventually became abbess of the community. There, Herrad helped found and serve at a hospital.

Marie de France

1160 - about 1190

Little is known about the woman who wrote as Marie de France. She likely wrote in France and lived in England. She is thought by some to have been part of the "courtly love" movement associated with the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Poitiers. Her lais were perhaps the first of that genre, and she also published fables based on Aesop (which she claimed were from a translation from King Alfred).

Mechtild von Magdeburg

about 1212 - about 1285

A Beguine and medieval mystic who became a Cistercian nun, she wrote vivid descriptions of her visions. Her book is called The Flowing Light of the Godhead and was forgotten for almost 400 years before being rediscovered in the 19th century.

Ben no Naishi

1228 - 1271

She is known for Ben no Naishi nikki, poems about her time in the court of Japanese emperor Go-Fukakusa, a child, through his abdication. Daughter of a painter and poet, her ancestors also included several historians.

Marguerite Porete

1250 - 1310

In the 20th century, a manuscript of French literature was identified as the work of Marguerite Porete. A Beguine, she preached her mystical vision of the church and wrote of it, though threatened with excommunication by the Bishop of Cambrai.

Julian of Norwich

Statue of Julian of Norwich by David Holgate, west front, Norwich Cathedral
Statue of Julian of Norwich by David Holgate, west front, Norwich Cathedral. Image by Tony Grist, in the public domain
about 1342 - after 1416

Julian of Norwich wrote Revelations of Divine Love to record her visions of Christ and the Crucifixion. Her actual name isn't known; Julian comes from the name of a local church where she isolated herself for many years in a single room. She was an anchorite: a layperson who was a recluse by choice, and she was supervised by the church while not a member of any religious order. Margery Kempe (below) mentions a visit to Julian of Norwich in her own writings.

St Catherine of Siena, 1888, by Alessandro Franchi
St Catherine of Siena, 1888, by Alessandro Franchi. EA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images
1347 - 1380

Part of a large Italian family with many connections in church and state, Catherine had visions from early childhood. She's known for her writings (though these were dictated; she never learned to write herself) and for her letters to bishops, popes, and other leaders (also dictated) as well as for her good works. More »

Leonor López de Córdoba

about 1362 - 1412 or 1430

Leonor López de Córdoba wrote what is considered the first autobiography in Spanish, and is one of the earliest written works in Spanish by a woman. Caught in court intrigues with Pedro I (with whose children she was raised, Enrique III, and his wife Catalina, she wrote of her earlier life in the Memorias, through her imprisonment by Enrique III, her release at his death, and her finaincial struggles after that.

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan, seated on a chair in carved wood with back canopy, and tapestry of worsted or figured silk
Christine de Pizan, from a 15th century miniature. Culture Club/Getty Images
about 1364 - about 1431

Christine de Pizan was the author of the Book of the City of the Ladies, a fifteenth-century writer in France, and an early feminist.

Page from Wycliffe's Bible in English
During Margery Kempe's lifetime, Wycliffe published his English translation of the Bible. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
about 1373 - about 1440

Lay mystic and author of The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery Kempe and her husband John had 13 children; though her visions had caused her to seek a life of chastity, she, as a married woman, had to follow her husband's choice. In 1413 she took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visiting Venice, Jerusalem and Rome. On returning to England, she found her emotional worship denounced by the church. More »

Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrucken

1393 - 1456

Elisabeth, of a noble family influential in France and Germany, wrote prose translations of French poems before she married a German count in 1412. they had three children before Elisabeth was widowed, serving as head of government until her son was of age, and she was married again from 1430-1441. She wrote novels about the Carolingians which were quite popular.

Laura Cereta

1469 - 1499

Italian scholar and writer, Laura Cereta turned to writing when her husband died after less than two years of marriage. She met with other intellectuals in Brescia and Chiari, for which she was praised. When she published some essays in order to support herself, she met with opposition, perhaps because the subject matter urged women to improve their lives and develop their minds rather than focus on outward beauty and fashion.

April 11, 1492 - December 21, 1549

A Renaissance writer, she was well educated, influenced a king of France (her brother), patronized religious reformers and humanists, and educated her daughter, Jeanne d'Albret, according to Renaissance standards. More »

Temple of Mirabai, Chittaurgarh, Rajasthan, India, 16th century
Temple of Mirabai, Chittaurgarh, Rajasthan, India, 16th century. Vivienne Sharp/Heritage Images/Getty Images
1498-1547

Mirabai was a Bhakti saint and poet who is famous both for her hundreds of devotional songs to Krishna, and for her breaking of traditional role expectations. Her life is known more through legend than through verifiable historical fact. More »

The ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila
The ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila. Leemage/UIG via Getty Images
March 28, 1515 - October 4, 1582

One of two "Doctors of the Church" named in 1970, 16th century Spanish religious writer Teresa of Avila entered a convent early, and in her 40s founded her own convent in a spirit of reform, emphasizing prayer and poverty. She wrote rules for her order, works on mysticism, and an Autobiography. Because her grandfather was Jewish, the Inquisition was suspicious of her work, and she produced her theological writings to meet demands to show the holy foundations of her reforms. More »

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