Enlightened women of the Dark Ages

Partly due to the passage of time, the Middle Ages tends to be generally viewed as a foggy mixture of mud, crusades, plague and feudalism. Protestants tend not to take much notice of this era, skipping from the early church straight to the Reformation. Medieval history tends to be quite Eurocentric, and was idealised by the Victorians who liked the concept of chivalry because they were almost as sexist themselves. Women in the Middle Ages had very little autonomy, and unless they decided to become a Beguine, were faced with the apparently grim choice of joining a convent or a (usually arranged) marriage, which may well have led to an early death in childbirth. A notable few, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (who had unusual powers due to her royal status), or Joan of Arc (who was admirably independent even if she was violent and intolerant) had the power to shape their own destiny to some extent.

Surprisingly, some women who joined religious orders actually found an interesting career path ahead of them. Although they were constrained by the rules of their order and operated under the authority of the church, convent life provided comparatively good educational opportunities as well as the chance of promotion. That being said, you often had to be well-born and have a dowry to contribute in the first place even to be allowed through the door. Hilda of Whitby, Hroswitha of Gandersheim and Hildegard of Bingen are three notable examples of nuns who were rather ground-breaking, for their time.

Hilda of Whitby (614-680)

Most of what we know about Hilda of Whitby comes from her entry in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people, which is hardly a critical biography and comes close to hagiography, but provides a good overview of her life and work. Her great-uncle was King Edwin of Northumbria, who brought up Hilda and her sister at his court after their father was murdered by poison. Not much is known about Hilda’s early life. She may have been married, then widowed. Her sister Hereswith went to France and joined a convent in the Seine basin. Hilda stayed in England, because Aiden, Bishop of Lindisfarne, asked her to set up a convent in the Celtic tradition of monasticism on the banks of the Wear River, and later to become abbess of Hartlepool. She then became abbess of a new community called Streanaeshalch, which the Danes later named Whitby.

St Hilda memorial ammonites
St Hilda memorial ammonites. Photo by Wilson44691, 2015, via Wikimedia Commons

Bede seems to have been quite an admirer of Hilda, but his praise of her does highlight her genuine leadership qualities: “Bishop Aidan, and others of the religious that knew her, frequently visited her and loved her heartily, and diligently instructed her, because of her innate wisdom and love of the service of God…Her prudence was so great, that not only meaner men in their need, but sometimes even kings and princes, sought and received her counsel…” A lay brother named Caedmon, who looked after the abbey’s livestock who was inspired by a dream to write a hymn, told Hilda and was encouraged by her to write further poetry.


In 664 the Synod of Whitby took place. The main purpose of this event, convened by King Oswiu, was to sort out the conflict between the two streams of Christianity in Northumbria at the time – Roman and Celtic. The central issues were the Roman tonsure and the calculation of when Easter would fall in the calendar. Hilda, as a friend of the Irish Bishop Aidan, supported the Celtic side, but the Roman argument prevailed.

Whitby Abbey sunset. Photo by James Whitesmith, 2009, via Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Hilda died in 680 after a long illness. Bede records that “all who knew her called her Mother”, as a genuine compliment as well as a formality.

Hroswitha of Gandersheim (935-1002)

The convent of Gandersheim was an unusual institution in that it was, after 947, subject to neither the church nor the secular government. It was renowned as centre of culture and education, and only accepted postulants from the nobility. Hroswitha received a comparatively good education and read many ancient Greek and Roman texts, including the plays of Roman playwright Terence whose works inspired Hroswitha’s own plays.

She was not in fact a nun but a canoness – she took vows of obedience and chastity but not poverty, meaning she was allowed to receive financial support from her wealthy family. This could be considered quite an enviable position for a woman in the 10th century. Money, security, intellectual independence, freedom from marriage and a gruesome death in childbirth. Her works demonstrate her belief in the superiority of the celibate life and that humans can only find fulfilment in the service of God. She sees celibacy as providing women with more opportunities for freedom of speech and action, than they would have as wives. The female characters in Hroswitha’s plays are major characters who have significant portions of dialogue and contribute a great deal to the dramatic action*.

Hroswitha is now considered to be the first dramatist in the West since antiquity. Her writings were brought to prominence by the Renaissance humanist Conrad Celtes, and later published in English in 1920.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Recently canonised and appointed a Doctor of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen may be regarded as the most significant women of the Middle Ages. Her written corpus covers a remarkably wide range of topics, from music and drama to medicine and herbs, as well as theological works. She became abbess at Disibodenberg, a large monastery with male and female monastics, but in 1150 she set up her own convent at Bingen, on the Rhine river. She had the support of Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugenius III, who authorised her preaching tour around the Rhineland. Hildegard used this unprecedented opportunity to have a public platform, to denounce many of the church’s leaders for being spiritually abusive. She was not afraid to make enemies – she refused to obey an order to exhume from the monastery’s graveyard the body of a man who had been excommunicated. The whole convent was forbidden both the Eucharist and music as a consequence, which they would have considered a severe punishment indeed.

“If priests do not show the authority of their priesthood truthfully to the people, then they are called greedy wolves and not priests. For they use their priesthood to plunder…” Scivias, Vision 6, part 94.


Hildegard of bingen and nuns
Hildegard of Bingen and nuns. Unknown artist, 13th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Many historians have diagnosed Hildegard posthumously with severe migraines, and believe this malady is the true cause of the symptoms she believed were divine visions. This may well be true, and the reason she spent so much time investigating herbal medicines. She also included gynaecology and women’s health problems in her medical works. But she genuinely believed her visions were from God, and wrote them down for the benefit of others in her work Scivias. They feature female metaphorical figures – Ecclesia, Caritas, Sapientia.

“The earth is at the same time mother, she is mother of all that is natural, mother of all that is human. She is mother of all, for contained in her are the seeds of all.”**

Many of Hildegard’s ideas and musical works have been co-opted by the new age movement, partly due to the mesmerising quality of her plainchant, and partly her spiritual connection to the natural world. This is unfortunate as it encourages people to take her out of context and superimpose modern ideas on her body of work. Although she was a powerful woman with an unusual degree of authority, she was also a product of her time. Far from being a proto-feminist, she called herself a paupercula feminea forma, or poor weak woman, and viewed the fact that God used women to spread his message was a sign of the chaotic times, not a sign of the advance of women. But this was also the result of her vow of obedience, which led her to believe in the importance of humility: “Humility is like a soul and charity is like a body, they cannot be separated…but they work together.” Scivias Vision 2, part 33.

She also believed there was a connection between music and virtue. In her musical drama Ordo Virtutum, the character of the Devil is the only one who does not sing, and Hildegard had a theory that a lack of sensitivity to music indicated evil in a person’s heart.***

Hildegard is a highly exceptional figure in the history of female mysticism and indeed the entire medieval period. She left a considerable body of work which has survived to this day – the manuscript of Scivias was destroyed during World War II but the nuns had fortunately made a facsimile. This means that like Hroswitha and Julian of Norwich, she was able to communicate her ideas with her own voice. As she herself said, “we cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.”****


*Wong, Cynthia. Female roles in the plays of Hroswitha and Terence. MA Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1981. Retrieved from: https://etd.ohiolink.edu/rws_etd/document/get/osu1165867429/inline

**Quoted in Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, San Francisco, 1988, p. 11.

***McGuire, Therese B. Monastic Artists and Educators of the Middle Ages. Woman’s Art Journal. Vol. 9, No. 2 (Autumn, 1988 – Winter, 1989), pp. 3-9

****Hildegard of Bingen, Essential writings and chants of a Christian mystic: annotated & explained. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2016. p. xv.

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