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Epistolae: Letters of Medieval Women

By Danièle Cybulskie

Like a lot of historians, I’m hugely interested in reading primary sources – the words of medieval people themselves – but it can often be difficult to find them. Lucky for us, Dr. Joan Ferrante (Professor Emeritus at Columbia University) and her team have made a website that features letters to and from medieval women, all translated into English, all for free. The site is Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Latin Letters.

Seals - Photo by Michael Coghlan/Flickr

Seals – Photo by Michael Coghlan/Flickr

Given that so much of history is centered around men’s writing, it’s essential that the women’s writing that has survived the Middle Ages be brought into the light. Although letters such as these would often have been dictated to scribes, and therefore not necessarily a woman’s words verbatim, these letters offer critical insights into women’s roles in medieval society, their thoughts, and the ways in which they used letter-writing as a tool towards accomplishing their goals.

Because literacy was limited to a small portion of women, the vast majority of them nobles, most of the letters on Epistolae are to and from nobility. Some of these women are spectacularly famous queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Blanche of Castile, and Berengaria of Navarre. Other letters are to and from high-ranking nuns, like Hildegard of Bingen and Hrosvit of Gandersheim. But not everyone on Epistolae is famous or necessarily noble. One letter is from Anselm of Canterbury to a nun named Mabilia, who (evidently) had written to him with a request to visit her family. (Anselm very eloquently says no.) Another letter is from Pope Gregory I to a priest’s servant, Montana, granting her freedom, Roman citizenship, and a partial inheritance so that she may enter a monastery. Although these two letters are not from women, themselves, we can read between the lines to see their status, their desires, and how they could expect to be treated by the higher-ranking men with whom they communicated.

These letters are fascinating in what they can tell us about women’s roles in society, and how they influenced it from the top all the way down. Here are some memorable highlights from a few well-known medieval women:

Isabella of Angoulême bluntly rebukes her young son, Henry III:

Your love will know that we have often implored you to give us and our plans counsel and help, and you have done neither up to now. Thus it is that we implore you diligently again that you give us swift counsel, and do not appease us with words. … it is necessary that you give such fruitful counsel without delay for your land and ours in this region that neither you nor we lose our land for lack of your counsel and help. … For you should know as truth that we are much in need and had our husband left us nothing, you should still help us by right with your goods, so we might defend our land, since your advantage and honor is involved.

Eleanor of Aquitaine works behind the scenes on behalf of her son, John:

And again we showed [Viscount Thoarc] that he should feel great shame and sin that he suffered your other barons to disinherit you unjustly: He listened and at the same time understood your words; and because we spoke right and reason to him, he freely and willingly conceded that he and his lands and castles were from now on at your command and will, whatever he might have done before: And his friends, and others, who had seised [taken possession of] the land and your castles without your permission and will, unless they do your pleasure and will, and wished to give back in peace those things which they had unjustly seised, he will oppose them with all his power as much as you possessed as well as your brother Richard who was king of England, [possessed] on the day he died.

Empress Matilda wades into the conflict between her son, Henry II, and Thomas Becket:

The lord pope [Alexander III] charged and enjoined me for the remission of my sins to intervene to reestablish peace between my son the king and you and attempt to reconcile you with him. … [Henry believes] you disturbed his whole kingdom against him as much as you could so that little was left for you to do but to disinherit him by force. …  I tell you truly, that you cannot recover the grace of the king except by great humility and most evident moderation. Let me know what you wish to do about this through my messenger and your letters.

Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Latin Letters is an invaluable tool for anyone looking to get some insight into the lives of the women of the Middle Ages. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’re interested in women’s writing, head on over – but be prepared to be captivated for a good long time! If you’re a scholar with letters to contribute, check out their About page for more information.

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