BIOGRAPHIES

NOTABLE WOMEN

CIRCA THE YEAR 1000 C.E.

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womeninworldhistory.com


WESTERN EUROPE

Hroswitha (or Hrotsvit) of Gandersheim (c.930-c.990) - Nun, playwright, and the first women historian of the Germans. When she was young, she joined Saxony's most important nunnery, the Benedictine nunnery at Gandersheim. It was one of many founded in the 10th century under the encouragement of the Saxon (German) dukes. Gandersheim was recognized as a center of intellectual and religious activity. It had close ties to the German Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, who gave its abbess her own court, knights, and the right to coin money and attend the meetings of his Diet.

In the nunnery, Hroswitha developed her intellectual skills and eventually became a canoness. A canoness could leave the convent for outside visits, thus giving Hroswitha the chance to view the world beyond the abbey, and the knowledge to create her long epic poem detailing the rule of Otto I, "the Great." She also wrote plays and poems. Not all have survived, but those that do deal with the battle between Christianity and paganism, the lives of saints, and of heroic "frail" women who victoriously defend their virtue against "strong" men. Hroswitha gave herself the title "the strong voice of Gandersheim." She said, "Sometimes I compose with great effort, again I destroyed what I had poorly written...[so that] the slight talent...given me by Heaven should not lie idle in the dark recesses of the mind and thus be destroyed by the rush of neglect."


Sigrid "the Haughty" - Viking rebel. On the eve of the first millennium, King Olaf of Norway decided to convert to Christianity. With this act he insisted that all his people join him, or face death. Many were reluctant to stop worshiping their ancient gods and goddesses. The roots of Christianity were not all that firm in much of Christian Europe anyway; people still turned in times of trouble to their pre-Christian deities such as the earth goddesses of health. In 998, when it was proposed that Sigrid, daughter of the Swedish king, marry Olaf, she rebelled. To his face she told him, "I will not part from the faith which my forefathers have kept before me." In a rage, Olaf hit her. It is said that Sigrid then calmly told him, "This may some day be thy death." She proceeded to avoid the marriage, and created instead a coalition of his enemies to bring about his downfall. Olaf was defeated in an epic Viking battle some years later. It should be noted that Viking women had a certain measure of protection through their family, which was likely to avenge any serious wrong done them.
Trotula, (d. 1097) - Physician. In 1000 C.E. the famous medical school at Salerno, in Southern Italy, was founded. It's faculty and student body included both men and women. A most distinguished teacher at this medical university was Trotula. Her husband and sons were also physicians in Salerno. Trotula was interested in managing the diseases and health problems of women. She was a skilled diagnostician who wrote on a wide variety of issues, including caesarean sections, beauty prescriptions, and what a girl who loses her virginity, "by the follies of passion, secret love, and promises," should do. Her work on gynecology was so practical that it was used for hundreds of years. In the fables and stories of Northern Europe she became the fictional character called "Dame Trot."


THE ISLAMIC WORLD

Walladah Bint Mustakfi (c. 1001-1080) - Poet. Walladah was a poet and the free spirited daughter of a Caliph. She lived in Cordoba, Spain, during its most sophisticated and tolerant period. In contrast to Christian Europe, Cordoba under the Moors housed one of the great libraries of the world. At one time it included scholarly women on its staff. In this relaxed atmosphere where women went about unveiled, Walladah was free to give mixed sex parties where she read her quite bold poetry. Economically independent and beholding to no one, Walladah had lovers but never married, which illustrates the nature of the tolerant society into which she was born. Only a few lines of Wallada's poetry remain. Yet she is considered one of the three most important female poets of the era. "My lover I offer the curve of my cheek/ And my kiss to whoever desires it."
(Walladah is one of the personalities featured in Women in the Muslim World.)


Asma (?-1074 or 1087) - Queen. Asma, wife of Ali al-Sulayhi, the founder of Fatimid rule in Yemen, was a powerful woman in her time. The Fatimids were leaders of the Ismaili Shiite movement devoted to the regeneration of the entire Muslim world. Since they in general believed in the equal education of boys and girls and in the active involvement of women in political life, Ali entrusted much of the management of his realm to his queen. Asma attended councils with her face uncovered (unveiled), and had her name as well as her husband's proclaimed from the pulpits of the mosques. Commentaries about her mentioned her intelligence and literary knowledge and her acts of patronage toward poets.

Queen Asma made sure that both her son and Arwa, her future daughter-in-law who was raised in her court, learned the skills necessary to rule. This was one reason why Arwa became celebrated as a wise and strong leader when it was her turn to become queen. In 1066, Ali was killed during their pilgrimage to Mecca. Asma was kidnapped and spent a year in prison before her son managed to rescue her. When he fell ill, she took over management of Yemen until her death, after which his wife, Queen Arwa, assumed the role of queen. (the rule of Queen Arwa is featured in Women in the Muslim World).

THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE

Theophano (965 - 997) - Byzantine Princess and Saxon Empress. Theophano was a Byzantine princess who at the age of seventeen was given to the young Saxon emperor Otto II. Though elegant and a delicate beauty, she was high-spirited and a superb politician who brought with her an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of court life. When her husband died, leaving her with a three year old son, she took the title "Imperator Augustus" and defended the child's title for seven years from those who challenged him. She was called by a contemporary "a woman of discreet and firm character...with truly masculine strength." At her death in her early thirties, her mother-in-law Adelaide took over her duties.


Zoe, (1045-1055) - Empress. Zoe more than once took upon herself the role of emperor maker. She was accused of murdering her first husband, Romanus III, in order to marry Michael, a leading political figure, so she could place him upon the throne. Then she replaced Michael with her third and last husband, Constantine IX Monomachus. After his death in 1055, she ruled jointly with her sister Theodora for a year. Theodora, the last of the Macedonian dynasty, ruled independently for twenty months.

For obvious reasons, Zoe was seen by her contemporaries as ruthless and pleasure loving. She was called unnatural by those who thought it shameful that a woman should rule the empire. In truth, Zoe's rule weakened the empire. She did little to lessen the enormous government civil service, and permitted the civilian aristocracy to gain control of the governmental machine. When not at her ritual laden court, she apparently spent much time in her bedroom, making perfume of various blends. That she was strong willed there is little doubt. She caught the attention of a contemporary Michael Psellus who described her ascension to the throne after the death of her first husband: "Empress Zoe, immediately took control of affairs just as if she were, by divine will, the next inheritor of the throne. But actually she was more concerned to take over power briefly so that she might turn over authority to Michael (her next husband). She summoned Michael and dressed him in robes interwoven with gold thread. Then, placing the imperial crown on his head, she sat him down on the sumptuous throne with herself dressed in similar garb seated next to him. She ordered everyone who was living in the palace at this time to...acclaim them both together. And they did so."
(Chronographie in Byzantium, Church, Society and Civilization Seen through Contemporary Eyes, Deno Geanakoplos, University of Chicago Press, 1984.)


THE FAR EAST

Lady Murasaki Shikibu (978-1030) - Writer. Lady Murasaki wrote the world's first epic novel, The Tale of the Genjii. She lived during Japan's brilliant Heian Period (950-1050), a time when aristocratic women enjoyed a number of privileges. At court, for example, women were expected to be as well read as were men; both would take part in poetry contests where they tested each other's wit and cleverness. Poems were also a way men and women communicated with each other. (For much more, CLICK HERE.)
Murasaki Shikibu is also featured in the unit Samurai Sisters: Early Feudal Japan.


Li-Ch'ing-Chao (or Li Qingzhao), 1084-c. 1151 - Writer and Art Collector. Li-Ch'ing was a scholarly writer, painter, and art collector of great note, specializing in bronze and stone inscriptions. As a woman who was forced by war to become a refugee, her poetry and writings range from the political upheavals of China during the early years of the Sung Dynasty to musings about her personal feelings.

Li Ch'ing-Chao came from a family of well-known scholars and administrators. She led a protected, intellectual life, competing with her father's friends in writing poems. For women, the opportunity for education in this period depended mainly on one's family background. When she was eighteen Li Ch'ing-Chao married Chao Ming-ch'eng. Their marriage was one of equals who shared the same passion for the arts and for a desire to preserve China's rare works. Their collection of calligraphy and paintings became one of the finest and largest in the nation.

Li-Ch'ing lived in a time of social and political upheaval. Her family followed the Sung court when nomadic peoples forced it to flee South from its capital on the north China plain. After the death of her husband, Li-Ch'ing was constantly in flight, following the route of the fleeing court. She questioned the corruptness and military weakness of the Sung regime. At one time she wrote, "I would follow Mulan- a brave girl they say? But youth and ambition are over."

She married again in a brief marriage during which her husband abused her both verbally and physically. She appealed for a divorce, and also charged him with misappropriating military funds. She won her suit, but since, according to Sung law, a wife who brought a lawsuit against her husband must be confined, Ch'ing had to spend some time in prison. She lived out her last years, isolated and lonely.

"A friend sends her perfumed carriage/And high-bred horses to fetch me.
I decline the invitation of/My old poetry and wine companion.
I remember the happy days in the lost capital.
We took our ease in the woman's quarters.
The Feast of Lanterns was elaborately celebrated -
Folded pendants, emerald hairpins, brocaded girdles,
New sashes - we competed/ To see who was most smartly dressed.
Now I am withering away,/ Wind-blown hair, frost temples.
I prefer to stay beyond the curtains, /And listen to talk and laughter
I can no longer share."
(Kenneth Rexroth & Ling Chung, trans., Li Ch'ing-Chao: Complete Poems, New Directions Book, 1979.)


For more information, read our essay, Women in the Year 1000 C.E.


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