The best books about women in the Middle Ages

Who am I?

I am King George III Professor in British History at the Ohio State University. While later medieval England is my specialty, I approach it through a study of the legal record. Medieval people were highly litigious – the average person ended up in court far more often than we do today, making legal records the best means to unearth information about the lives of normal people from the era.  Most of my research has been sparked by questions students have asked me in class, such as: did medieval women stay with their abusive husbands? Did medieval children have rights? What was it like to be a single woman in medieval England?

I wrote...

Divorce in Medieval England: From One to Two Persons in Law

By Sara M. Butler,

Book cover of Divorce in Medieval England: From One to Two Persons in Law

What is my book about?

Divorce is usually considered to be a modern invention. This book challenges that viewpoint, documenting the many and varied uses of divorce in the medieval period and highlighting the fact that couples regularly divorced on the grounds of spousal incompatibility.

Because the medieval church was determined to uphold the sacrament of marriage whenever possible, divorce in the medieval period was a much more complicated process than it is in the modern West. This book steps readers through the process, including: grounds for divorce, the fundamentals of the process, the risks involved, financial implications for wives who were legally disabled thanks to the rules of coverture (the fictive unity of person imposed on married couples by common law), the custody and support of children, and finally, the difficulty of staying divorced.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth

Why did I love this book?

Beth Allison Barr is both a medieval historian and a Southern Baptist preacher’s wife.  Her mission with this book is to rock the foundation of the Southern Baptist Church’s dedication to complementarianism – the theological view that men and women have different but complementary roles within church and society. In theory, those roles are equal; in reality, women are relegated to a position as helpmate to their husbands and barred from teaching even children about the basics of their faith.

The SB Church argues that all of this is grounded in the Bible – but as a historian of medieval Christianity, Barr knows this is not the case. Using her training as a historian, Barr debunks this mythology, highlighting how women shaped early Christianity through their roles as mystics and theologians up until the Protestant Reformation, which wrought irreparable damage on women’s position in Christianity, enshrining their role as wife and mother. Most damning, Barr reveals how the strategic translation of scripture, in particular the rendering of gender-neutral language as masculine, has been manipulated to limit women’s role in Christian society.

By Beth Allison Barr,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

USA Today Bestseller
Christianity Today 2022 Book Award Finalist (History & Biography)

"A powerful work of skillful research and personal insight."--Publishers Weekly

Biblical womanhood--the belief that God designed women to be submissive wives, virtuous mothers, and joyful homemakers--pervades North American Christianity. From choices about careers to roles in local churches to relationship dynamics, this belief shapes the everyday lives of evangelical women. Yet biblical womanhood isn't biblical, says Baylor University historian Beth Allison Barr. It arose from a series of clearly definable historical moments.

This book moves the conversation about biblical womanhood beyond Greek grammar and into the realm of…

Book cover of Scholastic Affect: Gender, Maternity and the History of Emotions

Why did I love this book?

When comparing the Protestant and Catholic versions of Mary, the Catholics always come out on top. The Protestant Mary is little more than a vessel to house the Godhead, while the Catholic Mary is the Queen of Heaven. Indeed, medieval sermons stories and miracles align Mary most closely with the superheroes of the modern era: ready to help at a moment’s notice, she takes on the worst of villains and always wins. Yet, there’s something about Mary… despite being best known for a quintessentially feminine act (giving birth), she’s really not your typical woman.  Why is that?

In this movingly written book, Monagle explains how scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages refashioned the ideal Mary by stripping away the inherent messiness of femininity. Monagle explores also the pitfalls of this perfection for the modern woman, taking aim at Gwyneth Paltrow, Marie Kondo, and Jordan Peterson, all of whom seek to foster the purity of the Virgin Mary in every one of us.

By Clare Monagle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Scholastic Affect as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Scholastic theologians made the Virgin Mary increasingly perfect over the Middle Ages in Europe. Mary became stainless, offering an impossible but ideologically useful vision of womanhood. This work offers an implicit theory of the utility and feelings of women in a Christian salvationary economy. The Virgin was put to use as a shaming technology, one that silenced and effaced women's affective lives. The shame still stands to this day, although in secularised mutated forms. This Element deploys the intellectual history of medieval thought to map the moves made in codifying Mary's perfection. It then uses contemporary gender and affect theory…

Book cover of Royal Bastards: The Birth of Illegitimacy, 800-1230

Why did I love this book?

For much of Western history, birth out of wedlock has been a serious barrier to inheritance and succession. It is often assumed that this attitude arrived alongside Christianity: yet, McDougall explains that the medieval world actually cared very little about the circumstances of one’s birth until the thirteenth century. What historians have consistently misinterpreted as concern for legitimate birth was instead dogged insistence that a legitimate marriage existed only when husband and wife were of equivalent status. This is particularly relevant when it comes to an heir’s “throneworthiness.” It was not sufficient for a king to be the son of a great man with a remarkable patriline; the matriline had to be every bit as impressive to qualify him for the throne.

McDougall’s eminently readable and thought-provoking book reveals how the misogynistic assumptions of modern-day historians have gotten in the way of understanding medieval dynasties. Historians have preferred to see queens merely as vessels, while medieval kings and their subjects instead welcomed them as scions of great families and astute political partners whose own family connections were vital to successful rule.

By Sara McDougall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Royal Bastards as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The stigmatization as 'bastards' of children born outside of wedlock is commonly thought to have emerged early in Medieval European history. Christian ideas about legitimate marriage, it is assumed, set the standard for legitimate birth. Children born to anything other than marriage had fewer rights or opportunities. They certainly could not become king or queen. As this volume demonstrates, however, well into the late twelfth century, ideas of what made a child a
legitimate heir had little to do with the validity of his or her parents' union according to the dictates of Christian marriage law. Instead a child's prospects…

Queenship in Medieval Europe

By Theresa Earenfight,

Book cover of Queenship in Medieval Europe

Why did I love this book?

Those who enjoy McDougall’s Royal Bastards will also want to pick up Earenfight’s highly accessible masterpiece. Meghan Markle’s recent interview with Oprah Winfrey saw her refer to the royal family as “The Firm,” drawing attention to the fact that the royal family is not just a family, it is in fact a highly structured, tight-knit, business-like operation. In many respects, this approach to the crown is nothing new. Despite histories that single out kings for their successful reigns, the monarchy has never been a one-man (or woman) show.

Earenfight’s book rejects the vision of the royal consort as mere “arm candy.” Medieval kings relied heavily on their queens to perform “domestic tasks” – yet, what we discover is that the lines between public and private are easily blurred when we are talking about the royal family. A queen’s intercession with her husband saved necks from the gallows. When she arranged marriages for the king’s servants, she risked starting a war, or ending one. And understanding why one kingdom allied with another in this era is usually clarified when looking to the queens, who promoted the interests of their own families as well as their husband’s.  

By Theresa Earenfight,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Medieval queens led richly complex lives and were highly visible women active in a man's world. Linked to kings by marriage, family, and property, queens were vital to the institution of monarchy.

In this comprehensive and accessible introduction to the study of queenship, Theresa Earenfight documents the lives and works of queens and empresses across Europe, Byzantium, and the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages. The book:

* introduces pivotal research and sources in queenship studies, and includes exciting and innovative new archival research
* highlights four crucial moments across the full span of the Middle Ages - ca. 300, 700,…

Book cover of Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England

Why did I love this book?

Because everyone loves a good rebel. Eleanor de Montfort was little known before Wilkinson’s fine book. She was the daughter of King John, the sister of King Henry III, and the aunt of King Edward I. She was also the wife of one of England’s most notorious rebels, Simon de Montfort, whose leadership during the period of baronial reform and rebellion (1258-67) saw him rise to become the de facto ruler of England and host of the first representative parliament. Eleanor was no shrinking violet in all of this; she actively supported her husband’s cause through recruitment of allies, strategic hospitality, caring for royal prisoners, and suing for the properties and rights of her sons and husband, even after her husband’s gruesome death and desecration at the Battle of Evesham turned her into an outlaw on the run from English authorities.

Wilkinson’s book is a pleasure to read, as she recovers from the obscurity of the past a woman who took on the king of England to play a vital role in the reform of monarchy. 

By Louise J. Wilkinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eleanor de Montfort as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book deals with the remarkable life of a powerful and fiery woman at the heart of the turbulent Barons' Wars. As sister of Henry III and aunt of the future Edward I, Eleanor de Montfort was at the heart of the bloody conflict between the Crown and the English barons. At Lewes in 1264 Simon de Montfort captured the king and secured control of royal government. A woman of fiery nature, Eleanor worked tirelessly in supporting her husband's cause. She assumed responsibility for the care of the royal prisoners and she regularly dispatched luxurious gifts to Henry III and…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, nobility, and sociology?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, nobility, and sociology.

The Middle Ages Explore 362 books about the Middle Ages
Nobility Explore 72 books about nobility
Sociology Explore 116 books about sociology

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Forgotten Queens of Islam, The Routledge Companion to Women and Monarchy in the Ancient Mediterranean World, and Women Shall Not Rule if you like this list.