Our image of women in the medieval world tends to be somewhat grim. As one historian has put it, we see them as having two choices in life: either marriage or the cloister. When we look at the sources from this period, those women who appear are frequently being criticised, condemned or ill-treated by men (and they are also overwhelmingly elite – detailed accounts of lower class women are very difficult to find). In this view, the role of the medieval woman appears to be thankless task – marry and produce more children, or withdraw from the world into a nunnery.
But when we turn to tenth-century Germany, something strange happens. Women, and religious women in particular, started to take on extraordinary positions of power in the political life of the Ottonian German Empire. Convents full of nuns were political centres in the German world, where emperors held assemblies and issued decrees. Their abbesses were imperial princesses or royal women, who drew on their families’ wealth and power to make their convents extraordinarily rich and influential. In fact, by the end of the first millennium, one of these abbesses was so powerful that she was left in charge of ruling the German empire for three years while her brother, the emperor, went on campaign in Italy.
So how on earth did these nuns, these abbesses, get this much power? My research focuses on trying to understand exactly how and why these religious women (and their secular mothers and sisters who supported them) were able to take on such powerful political roles. In a period which some have seen as the beginning of the decline of women’s position in society, what made these women in Germany different? If German women were able to take on extraordinary roles of power, why couldn’t their French and English sisters do the same?
What drives me in looking at this topic is, at its heart, a desire to tell these women’s stories and experiences. I want to understand, and to help other people understand, a part of history that isn’t widely known. The women I study were incredibly clever and savvy, and were able to play the political game and win. They deserve our attention, yet we don’t hear about them and their experiences. This is partly because of bias in the sources but, sometimes, our own stereotypical views of what medieval women were like further hides them from our view. Those ideas filter through to today – biases against women and stereotypes about what their roles should be continue to exist around us now. Women in positions of power, especially political power, are still criticised for seeming to be either too masculine or too feminine, for neglecting their families, or for their appearance. Perhaps modern debates about the roles of women may benefit from closer attention to how early medieval women dealt with the same criticisms for daring to dabble in the political world.