The best books about women in the Middle Ages

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Beth Allison Barr

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

Why 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.

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Scholastic Affect: Gender, Maternity and the History of Emotions

By Clare Monagle

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

Why 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.

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Royal Bastards: The Birth of Illegitimacy, 800-1230

By Sara McDougall

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

Why 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.

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Queenship in Medieval Europe

By Theresa Earenfight

Book cover of Queenship in Medieval Europe

Why 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.  

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Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England

By Louise J. Wilkinson

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

Why 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. 

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