Outrageous Women of the Middle Ages. Medieval women were empowered by a wide variety of means-family connections, networks of patronage and friendship, widowhood, noble birth, gift-giving-but were never granted authority, that is, power that was publicly legitimated.

Theodora of Byzantium

Theodora (l. 500-548 CE) was an actress in Constantinople (and possibly a prostitute) who converted to Christianity and took up wool-spinning and weaving as a profession. How she met the future emperor Justinian (r. 527-565 CE) is unclear, but he was so in love with her that he changed the law which forbade royalty from marrying actresses and made her his wife and partner in rule.

Hilda of Whitby

Hilda of Whitby or Hild of Whitby (c. 614–680) is a Christian saint and the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby, which was chosen as the venue for the Synod of Whitby. An important figure in the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England, she was abbess at several monasteries and recognised for the wisdom that drew kings to her for advice.

The source of information about Hilda is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede in 731, who was born approximately eight years before her death. He documented much of the Christian conversion of the Anglo-Saxons.

Ende the Illuminator

Ende is the first Spanish female manuscript illuminator to have her work documented through inscription: ENDE PINTRIX ET D(E)I AIUTRIX in the colophon of the Gerona Beatus. She was probably a nun. There are a number of hands discernible in the manuscripts. The chief scribe was a priest called Senior. Historians have also attributed elements of the manuscripts to Emetrius, whose style is attributable in comparison to an earlier signed work. However, based on painting style attributes, some theorists conclude that nearly all of the manuscript illustrations were completed by Ende. Ende worked on a 10th-century group of manuscripts, of which there are 26 known copies with illustrations, however only Beatus of Girona contains the work of a woman.

Matilda of Tuscany

Matilda of Tuscany was a powerful feudal Margravine of Tuscany, ruler in northern Italy and the chief Italian supporter of Pope Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy; in addition, she was one of the few medieval women to be remembered for her military accomplishments, thanks to which she was able to dominate all the territories north of the Papal States.

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen OSB, also known as Saint Hildegard and the Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath of the High Middle Ages.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine was queen consort of France and England and duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. As the heir of the House of Poitiers, rulers in southwestern France, she was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe during the High Middle Ages.

Marie de France

Marie de France was a poet, possibly born in what is now France, who lived in England during the late 12th century. She lived and wrote at an unknown court, but she and her work were almost certainly known at the royal court of King Henry II of England.

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan or Pisan, born Cristina da Pizzano, was a poet and author at the court of King Charles VI of France and several French dukes. Venetian by birth, Christine served as a court writer in medieval France after the death of her husband.

There were, of course, many other women of note throughout the Middle Ages. That women from court documents, business transactions, land sales, and successfully running their late husband’s business, their own business, as well as managing estates and as valued members of medieval guilds. 

The names of the most famous women of the Middle Ages are still known in the present day not because the patriarchy of the time valued them, for the most part, but in spite of that social hierarchy which denied women the avenues of expression and autonomy open to men.