Wives and Wenches, Sinners and Saints: Women in Medieval Europe

Hana Layson and Karen Christianson

What did medieval Christians believe about women’s nature and social roles? How did they express these beliefs in illustrations, poetry, and religious writings?  

Introduction

The medieval period can seem very distant from our own time, and the study of medieval women may appear particularly elusive. But feminist historians have found medieval Europe a rich subject for both its differences from and its legacy for subsequent eras. Medieval means “middle age” in Latin and refers to the division of history into three, broad periods: classical, middle, and modern. The Middle Ages span approximately 400–1500 AD, beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and concluding with the start of the Renaissance. As in other periods, women of the Middle Ages were not a uniform or homogenous group. Historians such as Judith M. Bennett have demonstrated that women’s experiences and opportunities varied widely depending on such factors as marital and sexual status (singlewoman, wife, widow, prostitute); religious status (Christian, Muslim, Jew, but also laywoman, nun, mystic); legal status (serf, slave, free); class status (noblewoman, townswoman, peasant); ethnicity; and region.

Married women were “covered” by their husbands’ legal identities; they could not own property or engage in contracts.

However, there were some experiences that most, or all, women shared despite these differences. Women, on the whole, were excluded from political structures. Under the legal system known as coverture, married women were “covered” by their husbands’ legal identities; they could not own property or engage in contracts and the husband’s decisions stood for both spouses. (Widows and singlewomen received somewhat greater legal recognition and, hence, property rights.) Wives of all classes were expected to be “helpmeets” of their husbands and to assist their husbands in whatever they required, whether it be plowing a field or entertaining members of the king’s court. Finally, women of all classes learned domestic skills, such as spinning thread, sewing, cooking, and caring for children.

The documents included in this collection do not attempt to represent the full range of medieval women’s experiences. Instead, they focus more narrowly on representations of women within the Christian tradition in manuscripts and books produced in Flanders (now a province of Belgium), France, and England. Two of the works excerpted here are devotional texts, which offered prayers and stories from the Bible for contemplation. The two other texts include exchanges about love and marriage, the nature of women, and their roles in medieval society.

Please consider the following questions as you review the documents

  • Identify and discuss the beliefs about women that these medieval documents express. What claims do these writers and illustrators make about women’s essential nature?

  • What seem to be women’s and men’s roles in medieval society?

  • How do women in these texts demonstrate their piety, or Christian devotion?

  • All of these medieval texts are vividly decorated and hand painted, two of them with gold. Why are they so lavish? What does this attention to the text’s physical beauty tell us about reading practices, Christian devotional practices, and the identities of readers during the Middle Ages?

  • In each manuscript or book, what are the relationships between the written text and the accompanying illustrations? Do they seem to form a consistent whole, both in their visual effects and in their content, or ideas? Do you find inconsistencies between the texts and the illustrations?

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

Le Miroir de Humaine Saluation, or “The Mirror of Human Salvation,” is an illuminated manuscript from Flanders that dates to approximately 1455. Illuminated manuscripts are richly decorated texts with illustrations and borders, often in gold, that were written by hand on vellum (thin, durable sheets made from animal skin). Le Miroir is a French translation of Speculum Humanae Salvationis, a religious manuscript written in Latin during the early 1300s, probably by Ludolphus de Saxonia, a German Roman Catholic theologian. The original manuscript was copied many times and translated into vernacular, or spoken, languages. The text exemplifies the medieval theory of typology, according to which the events portrayed in the Old Testament prefigure, or foretell, the events of the New Testament. Le Miroir begins with an account of Lucifer’s fall and God’s creation of Adam and Eve. Forty, two-page chapters follow this introduction, each one comparing a New Testament event to three Old Testament events. Four illustrations accompany each chapter. The pages reproduced here portray the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib and Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe Adam, Eve, God, and the serpent in these illustrations. How do they appear?

  2. Why do you think the serpent appears with a female face?

  3. Why does Eve choose to eat the apple, according to this rendition of the fall?

  4. What are Eve’s traits? To what extent does the manuscript apply Eve’s traits to women in general?

“Eve Formed from Adam's Rib”

Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author). From Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), Circa 1455.

Image of Eve Formed from Adam's Rib

Eva formatur… This image from an illuminated manuscript shows God (on the right) creating Eve from Adam’s rib.

Adam was formed of the dust of the earth in field near Damascus and was created by the eternal King in His own image and in the flower of manhood and the prime of life. After Adam had spent some time as the lord and master of this pleasant and agreeable paradise of delights, from his rib Eve was created ready to wed. She was given to him in marriage by the command of God, not so that she might be the cause of his future woe, but to be his comfort, helpmeet, and loyal companion.

From “Mirror of Human Salvation.” Translated by David Wright with the assistance of John French, Jr. pp. 1–5. Newberry Call No. folio BS478 .S64

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Eve Formed from Adam's Rib
Publication Title Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation)
Short Title Eve Formed from Adam's Rib, 1455
Book Title Le Miroir de Humaine Saluation
Creator Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author)
Publication Date Circa 1455
Pages folio 1 verso
Language Latin and Middle French
Call Number VAULT folio Case MS 40
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Satan Deceives Eve by Means of the Serpent”

Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author). From Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), Circa 1455.

Image of Satan Deceives Eve by Means of the Serpent

Diabolus decepit evam per serpentem. This image (on right) from an illuminated manuscript shows Satan, disguised as a serpent with the head and torso of a woman, in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.

But, alas, this noble wealth, joy, peace, delight, ease, and good fortune did not last them very long. On the contrary, just as they were at the height of felicity, so was their fall into misery as far, and farther. For the accursed foe, envious of the fact that Adam lived in such majesty that he lacked nothing on earth, with his conniving mind that brings everyone to the same end as his, that is to say, into a state of perpetual torment, cunningly put on the guise of a serpent with a woman’s face. And while Adam was busy by himself, this foe, knowing that Eve was weak, credulous, and less prudent than her husband, appeared to her with sweet words honeyed with the most venomous poison. And when this reptilian devil had lured her into conversation, he began to say to her, … “Why has God forbidden you to eat of the tree of life?” Eve answered the serpent, “Lest we die.” Said the serpent, … “Oh woman, neither you nor your husband will ever die if you eat of it only once, but you will have power as great as God’s, and will never be subject to anything. Rather, you will do just as you please.” She decided to ask Adam if they could taste the fruit, and what is more, without the advice, knowledge, or consent of her husband, Adam, she tasted it.

Then Eve began in haste to look for her dear husband, Adam, to whom she revealed the serpent’s word, which had been confided to her as a very special boon. So great was her guile that she weakened the firm resolve of this man to achieve her will. For, going against the commandment of God, he took an apple from the tree, and ate of it. And thus, a woman’s alluring charm brought success to a venture which the devil, for all his cunning, would not have dared to attempt, whatever the means at his disposal. Oh how cruel is ingenuity when it weakens and unsettles the resolute heart of man, with whom the evil one would not otherwise have dared to fight for fear of resistance. Indeed, how very distressing were the blandishments of the woman who corrupted man’s will with her deceitful wiles, and caused him to commit such a criminal act that he could not make amends for it by himself. Oh poor sad heart, ennobled a while ago, now suddenly led astray by a female voice bewitched with reptilian guile. Why did you not resist that diabolic messenger of your fall, raised for you? Sad hope, did you not consider what would come of this? Did you not believe you would be cast down from your high estate, as is now the case. For when God saw Eve’s false deception, and when He saw the will of Adam so alienated and captivated that he had transgressed His special commandment, He came to the sinner, saying, … “Cursed is the ground in thy work and labor, for thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of they face.” Then He cursed Eve and the serpent… Adam began to feel shame, and covered his nakedness, struck by such a grievous pain, and such a severe pang of anguish that man could not imagine it… For her part, Eve found her former joyful diversions much degraded. By her rash deed she, like an empty-headed woman, hoped to be like God and join Him in heaven by means of the accursed fatal bite of the apple. So much harm in one bite. For, it fell to her lot to be expelled from paradise, and obliged to die a final death. This certainly would not have happened if she had not tasted the apple.

From “Mirror of Human Salvation.” Translated by David Wright with the assistance of John French, Jr. pp. 1–5. Newberry Call No. folio BS478 .S64

Image of Satan Deceives Eve by Means of the Serpent

Detail. Satan Deceives Eve.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Satan Deceives Eve by Means of the Serpent
Publication Title Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation)
Short Title Satan Deceives Eve, 1455
Book Title Le Miroir de Humaine Saluation
Creator Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author)
Publication Date Circa 1455
Pages folio 2 recto
Language Latin and Middle French
Call Number VAULT folio Case MS 40
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Women from the Bible

The Virgin Mary became an important object of veneration during the Middle Ages: she was fervently worshiped by ordinary people as well as by theologians and mystics, who had dedicated themselves to union with God. Mary figures prominently in Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation as the mother of Christ, the intercessor who pleads with Christ to have mercy on sinners, and the protector and defender of human beings. But Mary provided a complicated model to ordinary medieval women. On the one hand, as an example of female virtue, she offered a significant counterweight to Eve and pointed to a larger pattern of female heroism within the Christian tradition. On the other hand, her spiritual purity was inseparable from her virginity and established a model of strict chastity and, more broadly, self-denial that ordinary women were expected to follow. In addition, Mary did not possess her own power. Instead, her power derived from her close relationship to Christ and her ability to appeal to him on behalf of others. The images that follow portray Mary alongside women from the Old Testament who serve as types, foretelling Mary’s role in the New Testament.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe Mary’s posture and expression in the first image, in which she appears with the objects that were used to torture and kill Jesus. What is Mary’s relationship to these objects, according to the text and as represented in the illustration? Why does Mary appear with them? What book do you think Mary is reading? Why is she portrayed reading?

  2. What are Mary’s virtues, as described in the text? In what ways is she “armed” against the devil?

  3. Examine the image of Queen Thamyris (Regnia thamaire) and the corresponding text describing her actions as well as Judith’s and Jael’s. How do these figures from the Old Testament appear? What is their dress and their demeanor? How would you characterize the representations of their violent actions? How does the text justify the women’s violence?

  4. The text describes Judith, Jael, and Queen Thamyris as Old Testament figures that anticipate Mary’s role in the New Testament. However, while these women demonstrate their virtue through acts of violence, we usually associate Mary—and Jesus—with nonviolence. What parallels does the text draw between the virtue of the Old Testament women and the virtue of Mary? How do these figures complicate the medieval Christian, binary opposition between Eve and Mary? Do they suggest other models of virtue for ordinary women?

  5. Describe Mary’s appearance in relation to the other figures in the “protector and defender” image. What seems to be the setting for this image? How does Mary protect and defend Christians? What does she defend them from?  

“Mary and Judith”

Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author). From Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), Circa 1455.

Image of Mary and Judith

The Virgin Mary with the implements used in Christ’s torture and crucifixion (left). Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes, the leader of an army threatening to destroy her home city of Bethulia (right).

Since we have shown how Jesus triumphed over our cruel adversary, we shall now come to a description of the power and force which the glorious Blessed Virgin Mary brought to bear against him. It should be known that although the devil was strongly armed, and although he had an arsenal of deceitful tricks, the Virgin Mary had already armed and fortified Herself with maternal compassion for the cruel and unjust punishments, beatings and abuses during the Passion of Her dear Son. Accordingly She brought to bear such strength of virtue that the foe of mankind was terrified at the sight of Her face. There never was, is not, nor ever will be anyone so foolhardy as to oppose Her will, for She was armed in too miraculous and divine a manner for the devil. Indeed, She bore in Her side the wound which Longinus gave her Son around His heart, the four wounds of His hands and feet, the needle-like punctures from the sharp thorns, the disgraceful taunts that had been addressed to Him, jeers, pummelings and other indignities done to Him; in short, all the mysteries which were administered to Her Son Jesus, our Savior, from the beginning to the end of His Passion. Oh blessed Lord, how beautiful, beneficial, and satisfying to God is this armor, since it terrifies the hellish foe, overcomes his temptations, turns to naught his enterprises and destroys his hardy powers. Because of this armor, the devil had no inclination to enter this glorious lady during Her lifetime, although he was aware that She belonged to the female sex, which is credulous by nature. Yet, thus armored, She herself got the better of him. In this connection the psalmist says, … “Oh Mary, mother of the King of kings, you shall tread upon the adder and basilisk; and you shall vanquish the lion and the dragon,” that is, Satan, the wicked serpent.

This armor of the glorious Blessed Virgin, is to be understood in the ingenuity of Judith and her poised and moderate demeanor. She armed herself so strongly against the enemies of the city where she made her home, called Bethulia, that she conquered them by killing and cutting off the head of Duke Holofernes, captain and chief of the army of King Nebuchadnezzar, with weapons both virtuous and memorable. Holofernes was excessively cruel and brutal. He desired to kill a very great people, and destroy and crush their city, just as Satan desired to do. And therefore, Judith had to arm herself with diverse powers of virtue, that is, with pleasing rhetoric and eloquence. Using these, she (was able) one night to cut off the head of the said Holofernes. And she returned to her city, where she was received with great rejoicing for her defeat of the enemy.

This womanly victory was long ago prefigured by Jael, the wife of Heber. When she perceived and saw the wrongs which Sisera, a prince of the army of King Jabin, visited day after day upon the people and lineage of Israel in his desire to destroy, exile and do away with them, Jael began to reflect. She decided to make him suffer and take the severest possible revenge on him. Finding him in bed, asleep, she took a great nail, and suddenly without more ado, put it into position and placed it against his temples, then raised a heavy hammer, and, without further delay, hammered the nail into the head of Sisera, whom she murdered and killed, just as Mary, the mother of our Redeemer did with the nails with which her Son had been attached and crucified on the tree of the Cross on the hill of Calvary.

“Mirror of Human Salvation.” Translated by David Wright with the assistance of John French, Jr. pp. 90–93. Newberry Call No. folio BS478 .S64

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Mary and Judith
Publication Title Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation)
Short Title Mary and Judith, 1455
Book Title Le Miroir de Humaine Saluation
Creator Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author)
Publication Date Circa 1455
Pages folio 30 verso
Language Latin and Middle French
Call Number VAULT folio Case MS 40
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Queen Thamyris”

Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author). From Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), Circa 1455.

Image of Queen Thamyris

Regnia thamaire… Queen Thamyris cutting off the head of King Cyrus and placing it in a barrel filled with the blood of his own soldiers.

We also find in the Historica Scholastica on the Book of Daniel the account of Queen Thamyris. When she saw, and heard tales of, the cruelty and heartlessness of the wicked tyrant, King Cyrus, who was insatiably greedy for the sight of massive and horrible human blood letting, and forever making war on kings, dukes, princes, and counts in lands and regions where he felt and could show his vanity and cruelty in putting them all to the sword, sparing or releasing no one. So Queen Thamyris kept a close watch over him and finally caught him at a time so clearly to her advantage that she cut off his head. Then she placed it in a vessel that was filled with the blood from the bodies of King Cyrus’ soldiers, saying these words “Oh accursed and cruel tyrant, may you now sate yourself with the blood that you, while alive, lusted after with such desire, and of which you could never drink your fill during your accursed lifetime.” By Queen Thamyris is meant the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of our Savior Jesus Christ; and by Cyrus, the devil, who before the Passion of our Lord could never satisfy his craving to bring pain and suffering to the human race. However Mary, Queen of heaven, so subdued him that She plunged him into the damnation he had prepared for us…

“Mirror of Human Salvation.” Translated by David Wright with the assistance of John French, Jr. pp. 90–93. Newberry Call No. folio BS478 .S64

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Queen Thamyris
Publication Title Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation)
Short Title Queen Thamyris, 1455
Book Title Le Miroir de Humaine Saluation
Creator Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author)
Publication Date Circa 1455
Pages folio 31 recto
Language Latin and Middle French
Call Number VAULT folio Case MS 40
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Mary Is Our Protector and Defender”

Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author). From Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), Circa 1455.

Image of Mary Is Our Protector and Defender

Maria est nostra protectrix et deffensatrix. The Virgin Mary, surrounded by worshipers.

Although here on earth the Glorious Virgin Mary had suffered such agonizing grief because of the tortures her dearly beloved Son suffered at the hands of our ancestors, nevertheless she continues to moderate and calm the wrath of God, our Creator, whenever He chooses to redress our sins and our crimes…

But our Defender and Mother, seated at the summit, throws the stone, that is, her virtue, among her sevants, so that the devil, all bewildered, often departs, as if in total despair. And it should not be forgotten that the Virgin not only defends us from the temptations of the devil, but also from worldly temptations. And this protection is great for the world is always tempting us.

“Mirror of Human Salvation.” Translated by David Wright with the assistance of John French, Jr. pp. 111 and 116. Newberry Call No. folio BS478 .S64

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Mary Is Our Protector and Defender
Publication Title Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation)
Short Title Mary Is Our Protector and Defender, 1455
Book Title Le Miroir de Humaine Saluation
Creator Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author)
Publication Date Circa 1455
Pages folio 38 verso
Language Latin and Middle French
Call Number VAULT folio Case MS 40
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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A Medieval Prayer Book

Books of Hours are medieval prayer books, made for wealthy lay people, which present prayers to be recited at specific times of day, or hours. This one was created in Bruges (a city now in Belgium) around 1455. It belonged to two aristocratic English families who passed it down through generations and used the first pages to record births, deaths, and marriages. This Book of Hours follows the “use of Salisbury,” that is, the modification of the Roman Catholic rite begun by the Bishop of Salisbury in England in the eleventh century. The prayers are written in Latin. The first image reproduced here portrays Margaret of Antioch, who was widely revered during the Middle Ages as a virgin and martyr. Legend holds that, around 300 AD, a Roman governor demanded that Margaret renounce Christianity and marry him. On her refusal, she was subjected to brutal tortures, including being swallowed by Satan in the form of a dragon. She emerged from the dragon alive and intact, though she was eventually executed. While some people, including a fifth-century pope, disputed her existence, others considered her a powerful saint, especially for pregnant women. The second image portrays Adam, Eve, and the serpent in Eden.

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine the lavish illuminations of these pages from the Book of Hours. Compare this book’s physical form to books that we read today, such as paperbacks and e-readers. How would the experience of reading the Book of Hours differ from your experience of reading books today? Based on its appearance, what can you infer about the significance of this Book of Hours to early readers? What does it suggest about medieval Christian devotional practices?

  2. What appears to be taking place in the representation of Saint Margaret? How do you interpret the dragon’s posture and Margaret’s emergence from him? What is the significance of Christ’s appearance in the upper left corner? Why do you think Margaret was thought to have a special relationship to pregnant women?

  3. Consider the representation of Adam and Eve in Eden. How does the Garden of Eden appear here? What do the postures of Adam and Eve suggest? How does the serpent appear? Why do you think the illustration includes Jesus Christ on the cross? Does the image seem to support or challenge the representation of Eve’s guilt in Le Miroir de Humain Salvation?

“Saint Margaret and the Dragon”

From Book of Hours, Use of Salisbury, Circa 1455.

Image of Saint Margaret and the Dragon

Margaret of Antioch emerging from Satan, who has taken the form of a dragon and swallowed her. From an illuminated medieval prayer book.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Saint Margaret and the Dragon
Publication Title Book of Hours, Use of Salisbury
Short Title Saint Margaret and the Dragon, 1455
Book Title Book of Hours, Use of Salisbury
Publication Date Circa 1455
Pages folios 33 verso and 34 recto
Language Latin
Call Number VAULT Case MS 35
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Adam, Eve, and the Serpent”

From Book of Hours, Use of Salisbury, Circa 1455.

Image of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

A scene from the Garden of Eden with an illustration of Christ on the cross, suspended in the tree of knowledge. From an illuminated medieval prayer book.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Adam, Eve, and the Serpent
Publication Title Book of Hours, Use of Salisbury
Short Title Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, 1455
Book Title Book of Hours, Use of Salisbury
Publication Date Circa 1455
Pages folios 90 verso and 91 recto
Language Latin
Call Number VAULT Case MS 35
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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The Debate over Women

Le Champion des Dames is a long, allegorical poem that defends the honor and reputation of women. Martin le Franc wrote the poem in Middle French between 1440 and 1442. The Newberry’s edition is an incunable, or early printed book, from Lyons, France, circa 1488, that includes hand-painted, woodcut illustrations. The text consists of a prose prologue followed by five books of verses grouped into eight-verse stanzas or octaves. Le Champion des Dames, literally “The Ladies’ Champion,” contributed to an ongoing debate during the Middle Ages known as the querelle des femmes, or “debate over women.” Le Franc responded to earlier works which portrayed women as cunning, deceitful, and exploitive of men. He personified this slander against women in the allegorical character of Badmouth (Malebouche), whose representatives engage in a dialogue with the Champion, named Free Will (Franc Vouloir). The Champion defends the female sex by referring to individual women from history, legend, and mythology who played important roles in the development of civilization, who were skilled in government and warfare, and who were exceptional scholars and artists. Passages from a recent English edition of Book IV of Le Champion des Dames follow images from the original book below. In the recent edition, Steven Millen Taylor translates the title as The Trial of Womankind to suggest how, in the text, women are placed on trial and are portrayed, alternately, as a trial which men must endure and as bearing trials which men impose on them.

Questions to Consider

  1. This full-page illustration, which appears early in the book, shows women literally engaged in defense as they use weapons to protect a castle under siege. Smaller illustrations which appear throughout the book portray women as scholars, knights, queens, and goddesses. Examine closely these illustrations. How do they support the text’s argument?

  2. Based on the translated excerpts, describe the main ideas included in the medieval “debate over women.” What does Badmouth accuse women of? On what grounds does he criticize them? Alternatively, on what grounds does the Champion defend women?

  3. What is the significance of the names that Le Franc has chosen for the allegorical figures? Why are the critics of women named Badmouth and Slow Wit, while women’s defender is named Free Will?

  4. Why does Le Franc present the dialogue as occurring between two men? Why is the debate between Badmouth and the male Champion instead of between Badmouth and a woman? What does Le Franc’s use of these allegorical devices tell us about medieval gender roles?

Le Champion des Dames

Martin Le Franc. Circa 1488.

Image of Le Champion des Dames

The Ladies’ Champion. Illustrations from a long, allegorical poem defending women’s honor.

The Champion

17 “If it please God, I want to display How in all earthly governing, Woman has had just as much sway As man, her merit nobly showing, And that she can in terms glowing Boast as much or more than he.”

Slow Wit (Badmouth’s representative)

38 “I hold that Satan the foul, always Eager for mankind’s punishment, Who will reprieves or delays For gold or silver not consent, Was most desirous and diligent To in such women’s flesh take guise And show himself intelligent By making men idolatrize.”

42 “Granted that women did discover— As you have said—all these things. I answer that they did uncover The door to frauds and other swindlings. From them come bitter differings, Envies, murders, robberies, Gluttonies, pride, tricky fleecings, Betrayals, and lying flatteries.”

The Champion

661 “Alas, they [women] scarcely get leave [to perform good works], instead, For they are governed by men’s hand And on a leash by them are led, So if they really wished or planned To give alms or donations grand, Their greedy husbands would take it ill. Doesn’t their marriage nicely stand? They do nothing of what they will.

662 “Thus we men have not temperance, Justice, prudence, or amity, Fortitude, hope, or continence, Charity, or sobriety, Patience in adversity As much as they are found in women; If one declines these nouns correctly, Every virtue’s feminine.”

From Martin Le Franc. The Trial of Womankind: A Rhyming Translation of Book IV of the Fifteenth-Century Le Champion Des Dames. Edited and translated by Steven Millen Taylor. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2005. pp. 19, 24–25, and 168–169.

Image of Le Champion des Dames
Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Le Champion des Dames
Short Title Le Champion des Dames, 1488
Place of Publication [Lyon]
Creator Martin Le Franc
Publication Date Circa 1488
Number of Pages folios 4 verso, 5 recto, 132 verso, and 133 recto
Language Middle French
Call Number folio Inc. 8695
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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A Medieval Romance

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise offer the most celebrated account of a medieval romance and include some of the richest passages of medieval women’s writing. Peter Abelard was an admired, if controversial, young philosopher in twelfth-century Paris when he met and fell in love with Heloise d’Argenteuil, herself a renowned scholar who was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Abelard moved into the house where Heloise lived with her uncle and guardian, Fulbert, and arranged for her to study with him, so they could spend time alone together. According to the letters they later exchanged, Abelard and Heloise fell passionately in love. She became pregnant and he sent her to live with his sister in Brittany. Heloise’s seclusion from the public as well as Abelard’s widely circulated love poems raised Fulbert’s suspicions. Fulbert demanded that Abelard marry Heloise, which the couple did in secret in order to avoid damaging Abelard’s reputation and career. Still, sometime later, Fulbert hired men to attack Abelard in his sleep and castrate him. Following this attack, Abelard retired to a monastery and persuaded Heloise to join a convent. He refused to communicate with her, a decision which he later attributed to his sense of shame and sorrow.

Some years later, Abelard wrote a lengthy, repentant account of their relationship and sufferings to a friend. The letter came into Heloise’s hands and she initiated a correspondence with him. The letters they then exchanged were initially published in Latin, after Heloise’s death, as part of a collection of Abelard’s works. No original editions survive—the earliest date to 1350—and, over the years, some scholars have questioned the letters’ authenticity, suggesting that perhaps Abelard wrote the entire correspondence himself or that all of the letters could be fictitious. However, most current scholars accept the letters as genuine. The Newberry’s edition was published in 1743 in London. It is an English translation of a 1693 French translation of the earlier Latin text. The following excerpts are taken from a history of the lovers, which appears at the beginning of this edition, and from Heloise’s letters to Abelard.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why does Heloise resist marrying Abelard and assert that she prefers the name “mistress” to that of “wife”? What arguments does she offer against their marriage, in particular, and, more broadly, against the institution of marriage? What do these arguments suggest about the expectations placed on men and women in medieval French society?

  2. What are Heloise’s own ideals of love and virtue? What does she mean by the term liberty? Does she embrace the prevailing medieval expectations that women submit to their fathers and husbands?

  3. Consider Heloise’s discussion of woman as a temptress, who, following Eve, “was created in order to partake of his Happiness, was the sole Cause of his Ruin” (181). Does Heloise accept this characterization of women as being naturally evil or born evil? What does she regret about her relationship with Abelard and about the choices she has made?  

Letters of Abelard and Heloise to Which Is Prefix'd a Particular Account of Their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes

Peter Abelard. 1743.

Image of Letters of Abelard and Heloise to Which Is Prefix'd a Particular Account of Their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes

Excerpts from a history of the romance of Abelard and Heloise. Heloise argues against marriage and presents her own ideals of love and virtue.

Image of Letters of Abelard and Heloise to Which Is Prefix'd a Particular Account of Their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes
Image of Letters of Abelard and Heloise to Which Is Prefix'd a Particular Account of Their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes
Image of Letters of Abelard and Heloise to Which Is Prefix'd a Particular Account of Their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes
Image of Letters of Abelard and Heloise to Which Is Prefix'd a Particular Account of Their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes
Image of Letters of Abelard and Heloise to Which Is Prefix'd a Particular Account of Their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes
Image of Letters of Abelard and Heloise to Which Is Prefix'd a Particular Account of Their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes
Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Letters of Abelard and Heloise to Which Is Prefix'd a Particular Account of Their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes
Short Title Letters of Abelard and Heloise, 1743
Place of Publication London
Publisher J. Watts
Creator Peter Abelard
Publication Date 1743
Edition 7th ed.
Number of Pages pp. 28–31, 122–125, and 180–182
Call Number Case Y 1565 .A11
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Selected Sources

Judith Bennett. “Medieval Women in Modern Perspective.” In B. Smith, ed., Women’s History in Global Perspective. 2005.

Margaret Wade Labarge. A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life. 1986.

“Mirror of Human Salvation.” Translated by David Wright with the assistance of John French, Jr. Typescript, 1965–1975.

Steven Millen Taylor. Introduction. In Martin Le Franc. The Trial of Womankind: A Rhyming Translation of Book IV of the Fifteenth-Century Le Champion Des Dames. 2005.

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Digital collection produced in conjunction with Karen Christianson’s Teachers as Scholars Seminar, “Wives and Wenches, Sinners and Saints: Women in Medieval Europe,” on December 6, 2011.

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