Five things you might not know about medieval women – the life of Saint Margaret

01 February 2016
imports_CESC_800px-queen-margaret-stained-glass-60128_88395.jpg Five things you might not know about medieval women – the life of Saint Margaret
Professor Susan Morrison, author of the 'Medieval Woman's Companion', explores five fascinating facts about medieval women, focusing on the life of Saint Margaret of Scotland. ...


St Margaret learned the Scriptures in Latin, and knew the writings of St. Augustine.

Many other women were likewise highly educated and wrote ground-breaking works of literary and theological importance. The tenth-century Saxon canoness Hrotsvit of Gandersheim penned the first dramas since the Classical Period praising the virtue and endurance of young virgin martyrs, willing to die for their faith. Marie de France wrote poignant and passionate short romances called 'lais' in Anglo-Norman-including a werewolf story.

The brilliant Christine de Pizan summed up the achievements of women throughout time in her masterpiece, 'The Book of the City of Ladies', written in France in 1404-05, boldly proclaiming feminist ideals in a time when women's triumphs were not always given their proper due.


Canonized as a saint by 1250, the relics of St Margaret were thought to be holy and some now reside in the palace of Escorial near Madrid, Spain.

Many women were made saints in the Middle Ages, including the third-century Perpetua, attacked by wild beasts and put to the sword, though not before she wrote her visions down we can read today.

In the fourteenth-century, Saint Birgitta of Sweden (pictured right) shared her insights and religious and spiritual revelations and fought corruption in the church. Ultimately, she founded her own religious order and in 1999 was canonized as one of the six patron saints of Europe.


The undershirt of Saint Margaret was seen as a helpful garment for women in childbirth to wear, including later queens of Scotland.

The twelfth-century Trota of Salerno is credited with having written a number of treatises dedicated to providing practical medical cures with a special focus on women's issues, such as gynecology and fertility.

Throughout the medieval world, Christian, Jewish and Arab women are mentioned as having served as surgeons, healers, and apothecaries. Hildegard von Bingen (left), that audacious twelfth-century German innovator in music, theology, and religion, excelled in scientific writings, including cosmology and biology.


The 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle', a history recorded by monks, wrote that King Malcolm III of Scotland ‘was very anxious to marry Edgar’s sister’. Saint Margaret passionately wished to devote her life to the church and her early life was devoted to God. ‘She swore she would be no man’s bride’.  Nevertheless, Margaret finally did agree to marry Malcolm, although he was about sixteen years her elder in 1170. St Margaret's piety helped turn Malcolm to God. Frequently in Anglo-Saxon history, we see Christian wives converting their husbands to a more righteous path.

Other romantic unions were more scandalous, such as the love affair between the philosopher Peter Abelard and his brilliant pupil Heloise that ended tragically; their passionate letters survive and many still visit their sarcophagus at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Saint Margaret's great-grandson, Henry II, married Eleanor of Aquitaine (right); their tempestuous union resulted in many children. She strengthened the defensive fortresses along the coast of England and undertook financial and territorial transactions with regard to her property in France.

Dozens of charters over her lifetime attest to her distinctly formidable rulership. Recorded dalliances are not limited to Europe. Medieval Japanese court women wrote of their romances in so-called ‘pillow books’ and Arabic poetry was composed by Muslim elite women, courtesans, and even slave girls.


St Margaret has long with associated with the ritual of pilgrimage – from founding hospices with shelter and food for pilgrims on their way to the shrine dedicated to St. Andrew, to establishing a free ferry for pilgrims across the Forth, that to this day is called Queensferry.

Women pilgrims travelled as far as from Iceland to Rome or Jerusalem.

In the fourteenth century, Isolda Parewastel survived being tortured and beaten after being captured by enemies in the Holy Land. She was not the only woman to survive hardship and imprisonment while far from home. Margaret of Beverley, born in Jerusalem to English parents, fought in a besieged city during the Crusades in 1187 using a cooking pot as a helmet. Margery Kempe, a fifteenth-century mother of fourteen, recounted her pilgrimages in the first known autobiography in English, 'The Book of Margery Kempe'.

You can make a pilgrimage to the Chapel of St. Margaret in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle. About a thousand years old and once used to house gunpowder, it has reverted to being a tiny, simple, and holy spot with a stained glass image of St. Margaret to commemorate her virtue.

Where would we be without these medieval foremothers who trail-blazed paths for women? Without those first brave souls who worked in fields dominated by men, women might not have the presence they currently do in professions such as education, the law, politics, and literature. Their legacy abides today.

Susan Signe Morrison is the author of A Medieval Woman's Companion: Women's Lives in the European Middle Ages published by Oxbow Books. Focusing on women from Western Europe between c. 300 and 1500 CE in the medieval period and richly carpeted with detail, this history book offers a wealth of information about real medieval women who are now considered vital for understanding the Middle Ages in a full and nuanced way.

Short biographies of 20 medieval women illustrate how they have anticipated and shaped current concerns. Doubly marginalized due to gender and the remoteness of the time period, medieval women's accomplishments are acknowledged and presented in a way that readers can appreciate and find inspiring.
Susan writes on topics lurking in the margins of history, ranging from recently uncovered diaries of a teenaged girl in World War II to medieval women pilgrims, and even excrement in the Middle Ages. Her recent novel is 'Grendel's Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife' (Top Hat Books). It reimagines the Old English epic poem, 'Beowulf', from the point of view of the women. Grendel's Mother is no monster, as in the original poem. In the novel, Brimhild weaves peace and conveys culture to the kingdom, until the secret of her birth threatens to tear apart the fragile political stability. 'Grendel's Mother' has been shortlisted for the 2014-2015 Sarton Literary Award for Historical Fiction.

Professor of English at Texas State University, Susan grew up in New Jersey by the Great Swamp, a National Wildlife Refuge with terrain not unlike that of Grendel's Mother's mere in 'Beowulf'. Susan has studied in Germany and taught in the former East Germany. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, daughter, and son. Committed to bringing the lives of medieval women to a wider audience, she has two blogs - medieval women and Grendel's Mother and tweets @medievalwomen.

(Image: Saint Margaret stained glass © Erfurth)

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