• Catherine Bilson

Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly


Okay, so I’m going to start off by addressing the elephant in the room - or rather, the elephant that ISN’T in the room, and clearly hasn’t been invited to the room, because it’s not from Western Europe.

This book should rightfully be titled “Medieval Heroines of Western Europe”. The furthest east we venture is Poland, and that’s literally because there weren’t any women who ruled kingdoms in their own right in Western Europe in the period in question. Jadwiga of Poland is as close as you get.

With that noted, this isn’t a bad introduction to many of the most interesting women in Western Europe in this time period. Even those with little knowledge of history will have heard of some, like Joan of Arc and perhaps Eleanor of Aquitaine, but there are also some more obscure names (Hildegard of Bingen, Christine de Pisan, St. Julian of Norwich) who will interest those looking for a place to start further research. Even the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine only gets nine pages devoted to her, which will perhaps demonstrate more clearly than anything else I could say that no woman described in this book gets more than a surface glance.

As something of a primer, however, this book is hampered by the author’s writing style, which is a bit too dense. She has a tendency to exhaustively delineate lineages, for example; something which would actually be much better communicated by a family tree diagram when she commences talking about a new heroine. And reading the paperback edition of this book, I was extremely disappointed by the photographic insert, most of which are contemporary, tourist-quality images of castle ruins apparently taken by the author herself and absolutely not appropriate in a book of this type. The few which were reproductions of images in museums were acceptable, but absolutely not things like a photograph of the entry to Canterbury Cathedral with modern-day tourists milling about!

In summary; this might be of interest if you want to know more about some of the more interesting women of medieval Western Europe, but be prepared for a rather dry writing style and that you will need to do further reading if you want to really delve into the life of anyone in particular. The excellent bibliography will give you a good place to start. I was, however, disappointed that the author didn’t look further afield and take the opportunity to introduce English-speaking audiences to medieval-era heroines of Asia and the Middle East, at least. Three stars.

Heroines of the Medieval World is available now, but... not in ebook form in all countries (not the US, for example) and it's bloody expensive in any format. Ask your library if they'll order it in (mine did). It's the kind of reference book they might well like to have.

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