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.