The best foundational books on medieval women’s history

The Books I Picked & Why

Medieval Women

By Eileen Power

Medieval Women

Why this book?

I love this book because of its contents and the history of the author. Eileen Power was a foremother as a historian of the Middle Ages and medieval women. This book is a posthumous collection of essays that brilliantly lay out the ways in which the medieval world thought about women, and then the outlines of the lives of elite women, working women (both urban women such as silk workers, and peasant women), women’s education, and women in convents. Power modeled lively, creative scholarship, taking the first steps that many later scholars of medieval women would follow.


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Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300

By Heath Dillard

Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300

Why this book?

Heath Dillard uses a very special source, the Castilian municipal codes known as the fueros, to tell us about the lives of ordinary women in Castile in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These municipal codes were given to settler communities during the Christian conquest of southern Iberia, and so reveal the value and roles of all community members: married women and girls, Muslim and Jewish women, widows, and outsiders like prostitutes, concubines, and sorceresses. This book was published just before I began my graduate study and became my constant companion once I settled on Iberian women’s history.


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Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, Ca. 500-1100

By Jane Tibbetts Schulenberg

Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, Ca. 500-1100

Why this book?

This brilliant piece of scholarship examines thousands of early medieval saints to paint a picture of a particular form of life for medieval women that allowed them in some ways to transcend their gender – to “forget their sex”. Early medieval women could be recognized for their sanctity and social contributions through their commitment to virginity, but also as mothers, nuns, siblings, and friends. Schulenberg is particularly attentive to how gender operated in the saints’ lives and tells marvelous stories about real human beings.


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The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Medieval West

By Clarissa W. Atkinson

The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Medieval West

Why this book?

Another companion on my journey to becoming a medievalist, The Oldest Vocation is one of the earliest works of medieval scholarship to take the history of motherhood seriously. Atkinson showed us how mothering was a calling in the medieval world, whether it was a physical experience or a spiritual one. I think this was the first book I ever bought the moment it was available!


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Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages

By Pauline Stafford

Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages

Why this book?

Last, but certainly not least, Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers was a book that helped formed the field of queenship studies, now a booming industry. Stafford teaches us how to think about the meaning of queenship, the sources and limits of the queen’s power, and the evolution of her office; she tells the stories of a number of remarkable early medieval women along the way in what is now England, France, and Germany. Deeply influential for me as I sought ways to think about queenship in later periods, this book remains widely available, accessible, and influential.


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