Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly

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Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Most women in medieval times who left their mark on history have been largely neglected by biographers and historians because of a lack of surviving information. This excellent volume deals with the lives of many, from sovereigns, military leaders and heroines to mistresses, pawns and martyrs, written in a liovely style which vividly conveys the author's passion for her subject.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: September 2017
Publisher: Amberley
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1445662640

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Many women in medieval times left their mark on history, but as a rule they have been neglected by biographers and historians as there is too little surviving information for them to have even brief biographies to themselves. Ms Connolly has adopted an enterprising solution to the problem by writing a general account on a broadly thematic basis.

They say that history is usually written by the winning side ('to the victor the spoils'), and therefore medieval chronicles are generally full of conquering heroes, lawmakers and shapers of religious doctrines. It was also, Ms Connolly tells us, written by monks, men who had little if any time for women, and who viewed females as descendants of Eve and thus likely to be the cause of the downfall of men. Women therefore had a number of hoops to jump, figuratively speaking. Against the odds, some of them defied convention, not being content with the role of bearing children, preferably male, serving their husbands, and doing little if anything else.

Inevitably many, but not all of the characters in this book were members of royalty and nobility. Generally acclaimed as one of the greatest of all was Eleanor of Aquitaine, Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, and the only woman ever to have become Queen of both France and England. A survivor of several kidnap attempts and the mother of ten children, she took a stand against her second husband, Henry II, spent sixteen years in captivity, was released on the accession of her son Richard I, helped to secure his release from imprisonment in Germany, travelled to Spain to select a bride for the Dauphin of France from her two granddaughters, and was besieged by her grandson at Mirebeau in 1202. Having seen her youngest son John become King of England, she survived all her children but him and one of her daughters, living to what was then the remarkable age of about eighty. To the author, she is undoubtedly the ultimate medieval heroine.

Less well-known, but in her own way just as remarkable, was Nicholaa de la Haye, who held Lincoln Castle during two sieges over twenty years apart, the second time in her capacity as Sheriff of Lincoln and Castellan of the castle – no mean achievement for a woman in the early thirteenth century. The achievements of Joan of Arc are more familiar, but she is rightly given her due here.

There are stories of success and failure, of powerful achievement against the odds and some of tragedy. Perhaps none was more pathetic than the saga of Margaret, Maid of Norway, recognised as Queen of Scots shortly before her third birthday after the death of her grandfather Alexander III. After a disputed succession she was sent to her new kingdom, only to be taken ill and die from the effects of seasickness at Orkney, aged only seven. In other chapters we read of heroines in religion, of medieval mistresses, warrior heroines, pawns, and literary heroines. I found the last chapter particularly illuminating. Margaret of Scotland, daughter of James I, was married to Louis, the French Dauphin. After her marriage she spent her days and evenings writing and reading poetry with her ladies, much to her husband's displeasure. Perhaps it was a relief when she fell ill with an inflammation of the lungs and died at the age of twenty. All her writings were destroyed by her husband, who remarried and came to the French throne some years later. More fortunate was Christine de Pisan, born in Venice around 1364, a prolific poet and historian whose works were published in Flemish and English. She is recognised as the first-ever professional woman writer, and also advanced by some (though not all) as the first feminist.

The lives and achievements of so many different women are recounted in these pages that the reader could possibly be forgiven for losing track at times. Yet the author has presented her stories in a clear and very readable style which avoids such a problem. This is a thoroughly engrossing volume of multi-biography, and as always appears the case with this publisher, the text is complemented superbly by the plates section, most of the pictures being present-day photographs of castles and tombs, but a few contemporary portraits and Victorian paintings besides. The author's passion for her subject(s) is as evident as it is infectious. It has been a pleasure to read.

If you enjoy this, we can also recommend The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line that Captured the Crown by Nathen Amin, in which some of the women mentioned figure in more detail. Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir, who is mentioned in the chapter on 'Medieval Mistresses', is a fine standalone biography of John of Gaunt's partner, while Isabella of France: The Rebel Queen by Kathryn Warner is an excellent account of one of the most determined of medieval consorts. Although aimed at younger readers, Sparrow: The Story of Joan of Arc by Michael Morpurgo retells the story of France's tragic heroine and more recently saint.

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Buy Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly at Amazon.com.


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