Undergraduate and Postgraduate Research Placement: Italian Women’s Writings in the Medieval Period

Adnan Khan discusses his research on women’s book usage in fifteenth and sixteenth century medieval Italy.

With this project aiming to analyse female book ownership in Europe and beyond, Italy is one of the most important regions to be considered by historians given its central role in the Renaissance. This blog will highlight the research undertaken in this interdisciplinary research project in understanding what work on this topic has been done in the secondary literature, and the areas of analysis in this field that still require investigation. The picture below shows Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance.

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In the study of women’s book usage in Italy in the medieval period, historians have focussed considerably on the ‘long sixteenth century’. The period from 1580-1630, saw 66 single authored works written by Italian women. These varied in form including epic poems, pastoral dramas, tragedies, romances, and secular and religious works. This period therefore saw women become established in literary genres which had been previously dominated by male writers. However, this process of larger female book writing and usage can be understood further back than the sixteenth century alone, with important developments starting in the fifteenth century.


As has been studied by Virginia Cox, female book writing was a process that started far earlier in the Renaissance than has previously been stressed by scholars. Prior to the Renaissance, women had undertaken some religious writings however within the secular genre that emerged in the fifteenth century a new secular, cultural profile was created which Cox’s terms ‘the learnt woman’. This new profile that developed meant that it became socially more acceptable for women to write books alongside men, with this flourishing in the following century.


Two pioneers of the female women’s sixteenth century writings were Veronica Gambara (1485–1550) and Vittoria Colonna (1490–1547). Gambara was born in Pralboino and received a humanist education studying philosophy, scripture, theology, Greek and Latin. Gambara wrote many poems, with 80 of these available in English translation today. Colonna was also a highly influential poet from Pescara writing five major collections of poetry such as the Rime de la Divina Vittoria Colonna Marchesa di Pescara. However, from Cox’s research, she has found that both these women are genealogically connected to notable dynasties of “learned women” like the Nogarola of Verona and the Montefeltro of Urbino living in the fifteenth century. Therefore, the cultural profile of ‘the learnt woman’ created by the female elite in the fifteenth century saw the emergence of the vast literary works of similarly elite women in the following century. Yet, the image of the learnt Renaissance women was always restricted to the elite woman who had the opportunity to write and use books from the humanist education they received. How far this stretched to the poorer and less influential members of Italian Renaissance society however needs to be addressed by scholars despite the limited evidence available.

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Undergraduate and Postgraduate Research Placement: The Writings of Anna Comnena in 12th Century Constantinople

Adnan Khan shares his research on Anna Comnena and her writings on the Byzantine Empire.

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This blog investigates European, medieval women’s writings on the edge of the continent in what is now present day Istanbul, Turkey. With much of the historiography on women’s writings in Europe focussing on an Anglo-Burgundian axis in Western Europe, this blog seeks to highlight the research that can be done outside of this. This blog will focus on the case study of Anna Comnena, and how her works represent the opportunities for Byzantine women to interact with book usage and writing.

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Anna Comnena, 1083-1153, was born in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Anna was born in purple being the daughter of Emperor Alexios I and, given this privileged upbringing, was taught through a monastery studying history and philosophy and the work of scholars like Aristotle. Anna wrote histories on her father’s rule, documenting political events some of which she saw first-hand. These histories have been collated and translated into English in The Mexiad of the Princess Anna Comnena. These works sort to venerate her father above his successors with Anna’s analysis on the First Crusade one of the few Byzantine accounts still available.


Anna’s emergence as a historian was not common within twelfth century Byzantine society, despite her elite upbringing. A princess typically did not comment on the life of an Emperor and record this down for future generations to read. Anna was known throughout Constantinople for her intellectual capability and her knowledge of political and Christian practices which is highlighted by accounts provided by Anna’s contemporaries such as the Bishop of Ephesus, Georgios Tornikes. Furthermore, when Anna’s husband the historian Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger died in 1137, Anna would go onto finish his incomplete works in Greek documenting relations between the Byzantine Empire and the West.


Therefore, Anna is an example of a Byzantine women who given her elite birth was able to act beyond the expectations of her as a princess, completing some of the most important historical writings in the period. Furthermore, Anna was able to do this based upon her intellectual ability which reflects upon Byzantine society with similar examples available from other regions of Europe like Italy and Spain. Yet, the importance of Anna’s writings in documenting the life of the Emperor is an exceptional case which with further research may find parallels in other neighboring regions in the Middle East and beyond.



Guest Post: Barbara Daniels on Castles in the Southern Welsh Marches


  Whereas the mighty castles of North Wales were built by Edward I to gain and maintain order in that part of the country, the more southern castles in the Welsh Marches were constructed after the Norman Conquest by order or agreement of William I to subdue the troublesome inhabitants of the region. The word March derives from the French “marche” or “border” (medieval Latin Marchia Wallie) and designates the area loosely round the border between England and Wales where Marcher lordships were established and where these men had considerable independent powers. The term “March of Wales” first appears in the Domesday book of 1086.  Marcher lords such as William FitzOsbern, Roger de Montgomerie and Hugh d’Avranches were expected to contain and rule over their areas with a degree of autonomous power. Early castles were mostly wooden motte and bailey structures which were later replaced by stone for strength and invulnerability.

Chepstow Castle

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  This imposing castle dates from 1067 onwards and was clearly designed to reinforce the new conquest by its commanding position and by its being the first one to be built in stone. Earl William FitzOsbern, one of the staunchest supporters of William I, is credited by many historians with the construction of the rectangular Great Tower at Striguil (Chepstow) and Archdeacon Coxe quotes from Domesday; “Castellum de Estrighoiel fecit Wilhelmus Comes”.    

 In 1189, the castle passed to William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, the “flower of chivalry” who married the de Clare heiress, Isabella, the daughter of Richard “Strongbow”. He and his 5 sons updated the outmoded castle and Roger Bigod transformed the domestic arrangements in the later 13th century, including the sumptuous tower which later held Henry Marten, regicide, as prisoner. The beautiful and complex doors, now stored on a staircase, have been dated by dendochronology as 800 years old.

White Castle

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  White Castle (so named either because of the white plaster of which traces can still be seen or because the site was originally owned by Gwyn ap Gwaethfoed, whose first name means “white” in Welsh.) Again it may have been William FitzOsbern who started the building, and it forms a triangle, whose sides are approximately 5 miles long, with Grosmont and Skenfrith, but White is the largest and best preserved of these Three Castles. They were brought under single ownership by King Stephen in 1138 and stayed that way until the early 20th century.

  White was never developed as a domestic residence and retains a military feel in its isolation. At one point it was re-orientated by 180 degrees so that the visitor now enters via the old rear – and safer – ward where the garrison camp plus animals and refugees could be housed. There are the ruins of the original small squarish stone keep but the stronger round towers projecting from the curtain walls and the twin-towered gate-house represent a more modern movement in castle design. It is unusual amongst Welsh Norman castles in having its outer bailey largely intact.

  Rudolph Hess was brought here to exercise during his internment in WWII and a visitor may also like to know that there is a fascinating medieval moated site nearby called Hen Gwrt (Old Court) which was probably the manor house of the Bishops of Llandaff.

Raglan Castle


  Raglan Castle is at the other extreme being largely a nobleman’s vast home with little military pretension, though the Twr Melyn Gwent (yellow tower of Gwent) could be held in case of battle. It is a 15th century fortified palace in the French style with its hexagonal towers and was built by a father-and-son team, Sir William ap Thomas (knighted by Henry VI) and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. It had a Fountain Court with domestic apartments, glass windows and fireplaces as well as a showy second-floor gallery which would have been heated and hung with panelling, portraits and tapestries. Later a moat walk was added with busts of Roman Emperors in niches fashionably decorated with shells along with elaborate gardens, ponds, orchards and deer. Being a comparatively late castle, it enjoyed relative peace and represents a transitional period between forts and manor houses.

  During the Civil War the aristocratic Catholic and wealthy Marquis of Worcester, Henry Somerset, gave nearly a million pounds in financial support to King Charles and was therefore a prime target for Roundhead attack, being hit on the head at dinner by a musket ball. He joked about this but finally surrendered after the arrival of the mortar, Roaring Meg, and Sir Thomas Fairfax on 7th August 1646. There was a bloodless outcome after a 10-week siege and the Marquis left, pleading for the safety of his 2 young pet pigeons. Instructions were given for the castle to be completely destroyed but this did not happen and it was decided instead to slight it and render it incapable of any military function: it was undermined and all traces of aristocratic life such as books and fish in the ponds were eradicated.

Usk Castle, Goodrich and Caerphilly


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   Usk Castle was described by the ubiquitous Archdeacon Coxe who said that “no castle in Monmouthshire has been subject to more frequent assaults”, the main battle being the one at nearby Pwll Melyn (yellow pool) where the forces of Owain Glyndwr, led by his son, were decisively defeated in 1405. After that his rebellion lost strength and petered out. Usk Castle is comparatively small, family-owned and charming.


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  Goodrich Castle is another castle which was involved with strife throughout its history, being at a strategic position between Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth. Its site may have been part of an Iron Age hillfort, the smallish keep is early Norman, the barbican has a similar design to that of the Tower of London and the gate-house has one tower larger than the other and would have boasted portcullises, drawbridge and murder holes. There was a chapel and luxurious large domestic buildings of which the Solar is still impressive. Of particular interest is the powerful mortar, Roaring Meg, built nearby, which helped in the surrender of Royalist forces, as did – perhaps – the fact they were down to their last 30 barrels of beer and 4 of gunpowder.



  Caerphilly Castle is also interesting for its weapons, replicas of Medieval siege engines: a trebuchet, a mangonel, a perrier and a ballista. They are housed in the ward of the largest castle in Wales, if you take the surrounding artificial lakes into account. It was built by “Red” Gilbert de Clare, a man of enormous wealth and fiery hair, rising at incredible speed between 11th April 1268 and 1271 to counteract the political and military threat posed by Prince Llewelyn ap Gruffudd to the Marcher lords of South-East Wales. Its function as a fortress was comparatively short-lived though it had a lasting influence on castle design as its concentric form was the precursor to that of the North Welsh castles of Edward I. It was connected with many outstanding royals and individuals, including the infamous Hugh le Despenser, the younger. His lavish efforts on the Great Hall are a visible statement of abundant hospitality and do not tax the imagination as much as the ruins of other castles.

Other castles

 There are several others in this vaguely defined area including Cardiff Castle which is fascinating but mostly Victorian apart from its Norman motte, Caldicot Castle and Ludlow Castle. With less to see nowadays but of historical interest are Monmouth Castle, birthplace of Henry V, and Abergavenny Castle, scene of the Christmas massacre by the villainous William de Braoze. There is a high concentration of castles in this area, tokens of the fighting spirit of the Welsh – the Romans had trouble in this region with the Silures but were perhaps more successful at controlling them from fewer fortresses because of their methods of integration.


You can read Barbara’s regular blog here.

The saintly ladies of the Teutonic knights

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The interior of a 14th C. reliquary comissioned by the Teutonic commander of Elblag (Poland), Thiele von Lorich. The reliquary contains particles of numerous relics, including relics of female martyr saints. 

One of the most common misconceptions regarding the religiosity of the knights of the military orders is that they were involved in the promotion of the cults of military saints such as St Theodore, St Demetrius, St Maurice, Sts Sergius and Bacchus, and, above all, St George. The association between Templar, Hospitaller or Teutonic knights and military saints such as St George seems natural today but, surprisingly, it does not reflect medieval devotions. Except for a few statues and frescoes preserved in peripheral locations, there is little evidence that the military saints were the favourite patrons of the Military Orders. On the contrary, it seems that they inspired only limited veneration. For example the birth place of St. George in Lydda in the kingdom of Jerusalem (modern Israel), did not attract veneration from the Templars and the Hospitallers even though it was one of the major, pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land. The reason for their limited popularity is that the military saints were elevated to sainthood because of their refusal to participate in warfare which made them unsuitable to serve as examples for the knights in Military Orders who were expected to fight and kill, albeit in defence of Christians. The messages conveyed by the lives of the military saints who rejected bloodshed could not serve as guidance and inspiration to knights guarding the crusader states.


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A close-up of the exterior of the reliquary showing a kneeling Teutonic knight wearing a white mantle of the order with a cross and praying to St Mary and Infant Christa 

The evidence from Teutonic Prussia suggests that a group of saints that were deemed more suitable to serve as patron saints of the Military Orders were women such as St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Barbara. As female martyrs who suffered death because of their faith, they possessed several qualities, well understood in medieval European visual culture, which made them suitable candidates as patrons and protectors of male communities of knights. These saints were chaste, they had dedicated their virginity to Christ, just like the Military Orders who professed sexual abstinence and had themselves sacrificed both marriage and parenthood. They too found themselves in peril in a non-Christian world that required bravery and fortitude to resist pagan suitors, incarceration and torture. More loosely, the eastern associations of St Barbara and St Catherine, a Greek saint, were a clear reference to the Orders’ Levantine origins and duties. Furthermore, female virtues of patience, modesty and humility, though unattractive for secular knights, were also something to aspire to in a military male community. Another important factor was that, almost without exception, female martyr saints came from noble families, St. Catherine in particular is described as a sovereign queen and her protection could be read as an affirmation of the wealth and nobility of the devotee.


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The central panel of the late 14th C, mail altar of the Teutonic castle chapel in Grudziadz (Poland) showing St Catherine, visible on the right holding a sword and her wheel, and St Barbara, visible on the lest holding the tower in which she was imprisoned and a palm of martyrdom.

Female martyrs were always depicted at the peak of the ‘curve of life’ according to Aristotelian conceptions of the ‘Ages of Man’ that was so popular in later medieval convention. Always young, wealthy and beautiful they represented an idealised femininity and, in a sense, they offered a spiritual alternative to real ladies of court, a counterpart to the idealised secular knight. Knights of the Military Orders did not fight in tournaments to win the favour of the ladies of the court. In their prayers, Templars, Hospitallers and the Teutonic knights may not have wished to emulate the deeds of St. George or St. Maurice but, if the art they commissioned is to be believed, they might have hoped that their life of service will please one of their saintly female patrons: St. Catherine, St, Barbara, St Dorothy, St. Margaret of Antioch and others.