Books of Art: 20 Medieval and Renaissance Women Reading

Saints Christina and Ottilia by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1506)

I love to read. I also love books depicted in art. I became fascinated with Medieval and Renaissance pictures of women reading or with books. I noticed while I was walking around the National Gallery, Musèe Cluny and the Louvre recently that there are many beautiful images of women reading or with books. Saints, sinners, and laywomen; I wanted to share a few of my favourites. Here are 20 works of art of women and their books

How to Create a Legend? An Analysis of Constructed Representations of Ono no Komachi in Japanese Medieval Literature

Ono no Komachi - Painting by Kikuchi Yosai (1781–1878)

Although the historical figure known to us as Ono no Komachi (ca. 825–ca. 900) is considered to have been a famous and talented female court poet of the Heian Period in Japan, not much is known about her actual life.

Imagining Islam: The Role of Images in Medieval Depictions of Muslims

Song of Roland

Instead, one finds accurate, even rather compassionate accounts of Islamic theology side by side with bizarre, antagonistic, and even hateful depictions of Muslims and their belief.

Petrarch’s Africa I-IV: A Translation and Commentary

"Africa" V.2 - Petrarch's 1501 Latin collection. First page of poem.

English-speaking scholars have neglected Francesco Petrarch’s self-proclaimed masterwork, the Africa.

Discovering hidden music in the Bestiary of Love

Elizabeth Eva Leach

Elizabeth Eva Leach speaks on ‘Richard de Fournival Across the Disciplines’

Breaking the Mold: The First Woman in Italian Literature

Fabian Alfie

Active between 1260-1270, the woman known only as La Compiuta Donzella (the fulfilled damsel) attracted the attention of several male writers. Two of them were astonished that such wisdom could be found in a female.

What Women Want: Female readers of Virgil’s Aeneid in the Middle Ages

British Library - King's 24   f. 101v   Dido and Aeneas

Emma evidently knew Virgil’s epic, to which the text she commissioned makes explicit reference, and commissioned a Latin work modelled on it as a political tool to influence the actions of men.

Some Wise Advice from Francesco Guicciardini

Francesco Guicciardini Ricordi

Ten of our favourite maxims from the Italian Renaissance scholar Francesco Guicciardini

Obscenity Out of the Margins: Mysterious Imagery Within the Cent nouvelles nouvelles, MS Hunter 252

Miniature illustrating tale 30 of the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles (Tale of the three friars).

The blatant portrayal of male genitalia is reminiscent of fourteenth-century marginalia, but here is located front and centre. Unlike marginalia, which was either allegorically related or not related at all to the text, these images are a direct portrayal of events recounted in the tales which they accompany. How can we explain where the inspiration for these images came from and how they fit into the ideas and conventions of the context in which they were created?

Can you answer the Riddles of Symphosius?

Symphosius Riddles

In the early Middle Ages, the writer Symphosius created a hundred riddles. Here are fifteen of our favourites – can you answer them?

Three Fairy Tale Romances for Valentine’s Day

Fairy Tale Romances

What is Valentine’s Day without a little fairy tale romance? For your Valentine’s Day enjoyment, here are three medieval romances involving fairies.

From Swifan to Swyved: Contemplating the Evolution of Medieval Double-Entendre Literature

Anglo Saxon RIddles

Throughout history verbal jousts tested a participant’s creativity, knowledge, and mastery of language, thus catalyzing the evolution of so-called wisdom literature.

The Troubadours, Part II: Ladies in Love


Like many people – if not most – I had heard about the troubadours, but I had no idea that the tradition included women.

The Troubadours, Part I: Sad Songs Say So Much

A Troubadour playing his fiddle

The height of their popularity was in the 12th-13th Centuries, and they wrote songs about people, politics, and religion, but most of all, love. Let’s take five minutes to talk about troubadours.

Chaucer the Love Poet: A Study in Historical Criticism

Wife of Bath

This thesis is an historically based inquiry into the aesthetic function and moral significance of the themes of marriage, fornication, and adultery in Chaucer’s poetry about sexual love

Roses are Red, Violets are Beowulf

Beowulf poetry

Let’s take five minutes to look at medieval alliterative poetry, using some of the most famous poems of the period.

The Anglo-Saxon War-Culture and The Lord of the Rings: Legacy and Reappraisal

The Lord of the Rings - Aragorn

The literature of war in English claims its origin from the Homeric epics, and the medieval accounts of chivalry and the crusades.

Trolls in the Middle Ages


Where did trolls come from? What did medieval and early modern people think of trolls? How did the concept of the modern day troll evolve?

Hemingway’s Twentieth-Century Medievalism

Ernest Hemingway in 1946

This study shows how ‘twentieth-century medievalism’ provides a unified fictional microcosm for the novel and serves as a backdrop from which Hemingway projects his uniquely medieval modern-world tragedy.

The Sounds that Animals Make – the Medieval Version

geese book

It seems that every parent at one time or another teaches their children the sounds that animals make. They did it in the Middle Ages too.

Horticultural Landscapes in Middle English Romance

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x.

Gardens played a significant role in the lives of European peoples living in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The Lost Foot – A medieval tale from the Gesta Romanorum

lost foot - photo by StarMama / Flickr

A certain tyrannical and cruel knight retained in his service a very faithful servant. One day, when he had been to the market…

Medieval Books for Christmas

The Middle Ages - Johannes Fried

It’s that time of year again – the mad scramble for the perfect Christmas gift for the historian, nerd, avid reader on your list. Here are a few suggestions for you – new releases for December and January!

Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine


While the reliance of the fantasy market on medieval motifs – its reliance on medievalism, to be more precise – is not news, there remain a few thoughts to be articulated about the means by which so many popular female protagonists continue to have staying power and high market value within particular systems of power, systems familiar to the medievalist even when decontextualized, displaced and relocated elsewhere in the space–time continuum of the imagination.

‘De civitatis utriusque, terrenae scilicet et caelestis’: Foundation Narratives and the Epic Portrayal of the First Crusade

Siege of Antioch - from a 15th-century miniature painting.

My summary of a paper given at the Institute of Historical research on the accounts of Antioch and Jerusalem during the First Crusade.

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