The best foundational books on medieval women’s history

Who am I?

I am a historian of medieval women, especially women in the Iberian peninsula, and royal women. I became interested in Berenguela of Castile through studying her sister, Blanche, who was queen and regent of France. I learned about Blanche through studying Cistercian architecture – I remain really interested in material culture, memorialization, interpersonal relationships (like motherhood!), and political life in the medieval world, all of which I study primarily through the lens of gender. I still turn to these classic, foundational works on medieval women when I want to teach students how the field developed, and when I want to understand essential premises about Iberia, motherhood, religion, queenship, and historiography. 


I wrote...

Berenguela of Castile (1180-1246) and Political Women in the High Middle Ages

By Miriam Shadis,

Book cover of Berenguela of Castile (1180-1246) and Political Women in the High Middle Ages

What is my book about?

This book is the first English-language study of queen Berenguela of Castile. The eldest child of Alfonso VIII of Castile and Leonor Plantagenet of England (herself the daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine), Berenguela was the queen of León through marriage to Alfonso IX, and then queen by right of inheritance of Castile.

I study her in the context of her mother Leonor’s queenship, and the expectations for all the royal women in her family and consider especially how these women used their motherhood, as well as religious patronage and memorialization as sources of power. Berenguela turned the throne of Castile over to her son Fernando (III), but co-ruled with him, ensuring the successful rule of one of the most powerful kings of the thirteenth century.

The books I picked & why

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Medieval Women

By Eileen Power,

Book cover of 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.

Medieval Women

By Eileen Power,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Medieval Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Throughout her career as a medieval historian, Eileen Power was engaged on a book about women in the Middle Ages. She did not live to write the book but some of the material she collected found its way into her popular lectures on medieval women. These lectures were brought together and edited by M. M. Postan. They reveal the world in which women lived, were educated, worked and worshipped. Power gives a vivid account of the worlds of the lady, the peasant, the townswoman and the nun. The result is a historical yet intimate picture of a period gone by…


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

By Heath Dillard,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Heath Dillard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Daughters of the Reconquest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'[This] vivid and sensitive portrayal of Castilian townswomen ... provides an important source for any comparative study of the social changes that urbanism engendered'. -- Diane Owen Hughes, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 'Heath Dillard demonstrates how living on the frontiers of Christian Europe influenced women's position within urban settlements of the Reconquest ... [Her] study is not of an interesting sidelight of political expansion, but of a critical aspect of that expansion ... This is an important book because it does an in-depth analysis of sources and a topic that needed to be brought to the forefront of Hispanic studies.'…


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

By Jane Tibbetts Schulenberg,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Jane Tibbetts Schulenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Forgetful of Their Sex as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite religious claims of a spiritual egalitarianism in the heavenly kingdom, there was a definite tendency in the Middle Ages to organize the celestial realm according to the established customs, values, and hierarchy of earthly society. In this study of over 2500 female and male saints, Jane Schulenburg explores women's status and experience in early medieval society and in the Church. She focuses on the changing social contexts of female sanctity (women saints as embodiments of cultural models) as well as extravagant, "transgressive" or "deviant" female behaviour which frequently challenged male order and authority. She argues that between 500-1100 a…


The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Medieval West

By Clarissa W. Atkinson,

Book cover of 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!

The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Medieval West

By Clarissa W. Atkinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Oldest Vocation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

According to an old story, a woman concealed her sex and ruled as pope for a few years in the ninth century. Pope Joan was not betrayed by a lover or discovered by an enemy; her downfall came when she went into labor during a papal procession through the streets of Rome. From the myth of Joan to the experiences of saints, nuns, and ordinary women, The Oldest Vocation brings to life both the richness and the troubling contradictions of Christian motherhood in medieval Europe.

After tracing the roots of medieval ideologies of motherhood in early Christianity, Clarissa W. Atkinson…


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

By Pauline Stafford,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Pauline Stafford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A biography of the queens and royal bedfellows of the 6th to the 11th centuries, providing an assessment of their political importance and the many factors that affected their personal lives.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, Women's history, and Europe?

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