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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Women in Medieval France

Christine de Pizan, author. The Book of the City of Ladies. 1405. Library of Congress Digital Collections.

The Middle Ages (Moyen Âge) spanned the years between 500 CE and 1500 CE. It followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire and preceded the Renaissance that occurred in the early 16th century. The term medieval was not used at the time, but is a phrase that was popularized by later scholars of the Renaissance who wished to separate this era from what they saw as the "Dark Ages." Scholars typically divide the Middle Ages into three eras. The first of these eras is the Early Middle Ages (500-1000) under the rule of the Merovingian and Carolingian Frankish dynasties. The most well-known Frankish ruler during this period was Charlemagne who consolidated power and was crowned emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III in 800. The High Middle Ages (1000-1250) was dominated by the activities of the powerful Duke of Normandy (a region in northern France) who later became the King of England after the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066 and was thereafter known as William the Conqueror. This battle is chronicled in the Bayeux Tapestry which can still be viewed in Normandy, France. The Late Middle Ages (1250-1500) featured the Hundred Years War during which Joan of Arc played a key role in French victories over the English, and the Black Plague ravaged the populations of Europe. Needless to say, this period of France's history is marked by a complicated array of competing rulers and factions that began to be consolidated with the Carolingian dynasty, roughly followed by the Capetian and the Valois dynasties. France, as the modern nation we know today, only just began to take shape as these Franks became known as "Frenchman" around the 12th century. A cohesive nation under one French language would take many more centuries to emerge.

There were many powerful and intriguing French women who lived during this period. Some exerted political power as rulers of empires and kingdoms. These women also had the financial means to serve as patrons for talented artists. Wealthier women would gather around these rulers at court. The medieval "French court" refers to the people who attended these rulers, usually to gain social or political influence in the realm. They were part of the extended household and often the women vied for position and favor. The ensuing scandals have provided plots for many works of historical fiction. Modern-day authors such as Maurice Druon (La louve de France), Philippa Gregory (The Lady of the Rivers), Judith Merkle Riley (Margaret of Ashbury trilogy) and Sharon Kay Penman (When Christ and His Saints Slept) have written numerous popular works that cover the feuds and dramas — Penman, with great historical accuracy.

Educated women who found themselves outside of the protection of a male head of family looked to survive as nuns, writers, poets, philosophers and artists. The idea of "courtly love" emerged during the 12th century when troubadours (lyric poets and poet musicians) wrote about the rules of courtship, romantic love and chivalry. Chivalry actually comes from the French word chevalier or knight. It refers to a system of ideals around the concepts of virtue and Christian ethics. It is most often associated with King Arthur and the Round Table. It laid out a code of how men should behave toward the women they desired. The popularity of troubadours and their poems provided a means for women such as Christine de Pizan and Marie de France (a nom de plume) to make a living. Both used their wit and worldly skills to compose these intricate works of poetry for an eager audience. Troubadours wrote in their native language of Provençal or Occitan rather than the Latin of the Holy Roman Empire. This use of the vernacular was notable, as was the novel idea of romantic love. Some scholars call William IX of Aquitaine (Eleanor of Aquitaine's great grandfather) the first troubadour, and note the influence of the Spanish Moors on these playful ballads. Alongside the male troubadours, the Trobairitz, were a remarkable group of women poets from the 12th and 13th centuries. They were largely rediscovered by scholar Meg Bogin in the 20th century. They wrote in the same style and language of the troubadours but with a noticeably more direct and intimate voice. Tibors de Sarenom and Béatrice de Die were two famous trobairitz. "The feat of the women troubadours is to conflate two identities, male and female, in their one singing voice" (The Songs of Women Troubadours External, edited and translated by Matilda Bruckner, Laurie Shepard and Sarah White, p. 48). Robert Kehew authored the first comprehensive translation of these poems in both English and the original Occitan languages. He presented his work at the Library of Congress in 2005, sponsored by the Kluge Center and the Alliance Française. His presentation is available online (see "event video"): Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours. In the poem, Maria de Ventadorn and Gui d'Ussel (Gui d'Ussel be m pesa de vos) trobairitz, Maria de Ventadorn is debating questions of love from both perspectives:

It's truly a disgrace to argue/That a lady's greater than/The man who loves her, lady, when/She has fashioned one heart from two./You must either say that the man exceeds/The lady in love (scant praise), or else concede/That with respect to honor they're the same:/The lover only owes what bears love's name.

Dompna, so es plaitz vergoignos/Ad ops de dompna razonar/Que cellui non teigna per par/A cui a faich un cor de dos./O vos diretz, e no us estara gen,/que l drutz la deu amar plus finamen/O vos diretz q'il son par entre lor,/Que ren no il deu drutz mas qant per amor.

(Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, ed. Robert Kehew, translated by Ezra Pound, W.D. Snodgrass, Robert Kehew. p. 181).

Jacob Abbott, author History of Margaret of Anjou, Queen of Henry VI of England. 1877. Library of Congress Digital Collections.

Although the medieval period was restrictive and limiting for women overall, there are records that clearly indicate that women from more modest backgrounds worked alongside men in medieval guilds. The popularity of the Virgin Mary as well as the rise of courtly love also served to elevate the status of women during this time. The level of education and the privilege of being taught to read or write (two different skills at this time that did not always coincide) was obviously a crucial factor in the struggle to achieve intellectual parity with men. As the famed story of Héloïse d'Argenteuil illustrates, there were instances where paternal figures decided to educate the women in their families to good effect. Héloïse, through her scholarly diligence and innate curiosity, won not only the affection of the renowned scholar Peter Abelard, but was by all accounts his intellectual equal. She was a philosopher, an abbess, and a scholar whose writings would come to influence the likes of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Throughout the tragedy of their long relationship Abelard maintained that it had been her mind that captivated him.

The presence of a learned woman seemed to greatly animate the field of discourse. Indeed the famous Christine de Pizan was sought after by scholar Jean de Montreuil for her unique female perspective on famous works such as Le Roman de la Rose. Pizan was perhaps the first woman to engage in the so-called "Woman question" or querelle des femmes which discuss a woman's nature and status from a philosophical standpoint. In later centuries this question would become more urgent and would lead to more tangible gains for women's independence. Later during the mid-14th century the "Black Death" or bubonic plague hit Europe and took out a third of the population. The precarious nature of life during this time created many widows and many fatherless daughters. Sometimes the necessity of earning a living or carving out a safe position was what spurred these ladies to take unorthodox steps into new careers, new marriages and creative endeavors that they may not have embarked upon if circumstances had not demanded it.

While Héloïse and Peter Abelard were debating philosophical questions in their correspondences, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Aliénor d'Aquitaine) was carving out a new life for herself. Eleanor (1122-1204) was heiress to the House of Poitiers in her own right, and through marriages she came to be both Queen of France and later, Queen of England. Unlike Hélöise, who was from the more pious north of France, Eleanor was from the southern regions of France. Generally speaking, when compared with the north, this southern region (today known as Nouvelle Aquitaine and Occitanie), was known for its liberalism and relative tolerance (the Langue d’Oc and the Langue d’Oïl were the two principal groups of dialects spoken in medieval France. Languedoc formed the basis of Occitan language). Eleanor had one of the longest and most energetic reigns in history, managing to outlive almost everyone in her family in her tireless efforts to protect her interests. Eleanor led armies including the (failed) Second Crusade but she was also one of the major patrons of writers and poets. She sponsored two famous male trouvères, Chrétien de Troyes and Guillaume de Lorris who wrote Lancelot and Le Roman de la Rose respectively. These works inspired such poets as Dante Alighieri, Petrarch and Geoffrey Chaucer, and came to compose the canon of western medieval literature.

One cannot mention medieval French women without the name of Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc). Known as the “Maid of Orléans,” this young peasant rose to inspire the French to challenge their British rivals and have Charles VII crowned King of France at Reims (pronounced raans). She was later canonized by the Catholic church as a saint. It was not only education and intellectual capacity that brought the world to recognize these women; it was their vision and tenacity. As is often the case, those who must work harder, in many respects become more formidable than those who step into their power as a matter of right. There were many widows and many queens, but only some had the confidence to take that step into uncharted territory.

Below is a list of prominent French women of the Middle Ages, a bibliography of print resources, digitized primary sources, and tips for finding more works in the Library of Congress online catalog. See the Famous Women in French History page for lengthier biographies on French women in history.

Udo Keppler, artist. A new legend in an old dress. 1898. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Women of Medieval France

  • Anne of Brittany (1477-1514) Duchess of Brittany who later married King Charles VIII of France thus uniting Brittany with the French crown in 1491. She commissioned one of the most famous Book of Hours (personal prayer book), Les Grandes Heures d'Anne de Bretagne.
  • Anne of France (1461-1522) Regent for her younger brother, King Charles VIII during the early years of his reign effectively governing France for eight years. After Charles married Anne of Brittany, Anne of France (also known as Madame la Grande) left with her husband and daughter to take over the Duchy of Bourbon. She wrote Lessons for My Daughter advising humility and thriftiness in life.
  • Isabella of France (1295-1358) Daughter of Philip IV of France, she married Edward II of England and became queen consort. She was instrumental in the overthrow of her husband and was remembered as a manipulative femme fatale who used her considerable diplomatic skills to promote her interests. After a life of political rule and intrigue she eventually donned a nun's habit. She was known as the "she-wolf" of France or Louve de France and has been portrayed by many famous Hollywood actresses including Tilda Swinton and Sophie Marceau.
  • Jane Frances de Chantal (1572-1641) Founder of the religious Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. She felt strongly about including women who were sick or old and might not have been accepted into other orders. She was beatified in 1751 and canonized as a Catholic saint in 1767.
  • Louise of Savoy (1476-1531) Married Charles of Orléans the Count of Angoulême at age 11 and widowed at 19, she was politically active and moved her children to live at the court of King Louis XII (her husband's cousin). Her son Francis became a favorite and was married to the King's daughter, Claude of France. After Louis' death, Francis became king of France and Louise continued to be politically involved with his reign. Her daughter was Marguerite of Navarre and her great grandson was Henry of Navarre — the future Henry IV of France.
  • Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482) Praised by many for her courage and wit as well as her savvy in politics, she was a key player in England during the Wars of the Roses (a dynastic struggle between York and Lancaster). Her husband suffered from mental illness and she ruled in his place. She was captured after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. She lived out the remainder of her life in France. Many of her letters are preserved in a publication by the Camden Society (a publishing society that focuses on rare historical manuscripts).
  • Marguerite Navarre (1492-1549) Also referred to as Marguerite of Angoulême or Marguerite of Valois-Angoulême, she was an ancestress of the Bourbon kings and the wife of Henry II of Navarre. She was a playwright and poet and was deeply involved in the politics of the Protestant Reformation as a moderate Catholic in favor of religious toleration. There are historical documents linking her to Anne Boleyn. She was also a patron of the arts, and had the unpleasant distinction of hosting Leonardo da Vinci at the time of his death.
  • Marie de France (1160-1215) A poet born in France who lived and wrote in the English courts. She was also a translator, proficient in Latin, Middle English and perhaps the language of Breton (in northern France). While her true name is not known, her works are well established. The most famous is The Lais of Marie de France. It is likely that she was known by Eleanor of Aquitaine who was a contemporary. She was one of the most highly educated and creative women of her time.
  • Marie de Gournay (1565-1645) French writer and activist for women's rights. She taught herself Latin and so impressed her contemporary Michel de Montaigne that she became one of his pupils. She published her first book, Le Proumenoir de Monsieur de Montaigne in 1594. She went on to publish Égalité des hommes et des femmes (The Equality of Men and Women) in 1622 and Grief des dames (The Ladies' Grievance) in 1626. [Sometimes considered a woman of the Renaissance and Ancien Régime.]

For further historical context see Cambridge Illustrated History of France by Colin Jones.

Print Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Finding Additional Materials in the Library's Online Catalog

The Library of Congress Online Catalog represents a collection of over 18 million catalog records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources in the Library of Congress collections. To find additional materials about French Women in the Middle Ages it is useful to browse by authorized subject headings. The following Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSHs) will reveal the most relevant materials in the Library's collections. Keep in mind, no single subject heading is comprehensive. Some headings, for example, will leave out women, and some may leave out France, so it is imperative to do a variety of searches.

For more information on Library resources on Medieval Studies see the research guide, Medieval Studies.

For biographies or monographs on individual women, it is recommended that you browse by name (be sure to try several different forms of the name).

For example, to find all books on Joan of Arc, browse "SUBJECTS (beginning with)":