Claire Harrill – Women Behaving Badly

Claire Harrill’s blog looks at medieval women behaving badly through literature and history, and wonders what we might learn from their bad behaviour… 

14 June 

Margery Kempe 


Crimes Defying the C15th Church by wandering around alternately preaching from her personal (sometimes very personal) encounters with Christ and shrieking, crying and wailing. Generally being such a weepy pest that nobody ever wanted to hang out with her.

Achievements Dictated (ostensibly) the first ever autobiography in English. Received (according to her) the approval of Julian of Norwich.

Life advice to take home It doesn’t matter if everyone else thinks you’re crazy. If you can convince a monk to write a story of your life in which Christ himself takes you as his wife, you win.


5th May 

Edith of Wessex 


Crimes Failed to bear a son and heir for her husband King Edward the Confessor. Was reportedly so annoying that he repudiated her once and was only forced to take her back because her rich family made him.

Achievements Commissioned a saints’ life of her husband, the Vita Ædwardi, which claimed that she was a devoted and perfect wife and they had a chaste marriage out of piety.

Life advice to take home: If your husband is secretly gay (perhaps), tell everyone that you have chosen to have a chaste marriage.


3rd April 

Edith/Matilda (c. 1080 – 1118)


Crimes Reportedly ran away from a virtuous religious life at Wilton Abbey to marry Henry I (and was scolded for doing so by Archbishop Anselm). According to William of Malmesbury, Matilda used to pull off her nun’s veil whenever her aunt wasn’t looking and jump up and down on it, so much did she hate the religious life.

Achievements Claims to have morally reformed Henry I, the king who famously had fifty illegitimate children and who eventually died from eating a surfeit of lampreys, so greedy was he. Reportedly rode naked through London in order to get him to agree to stop taxing the poor so heavily and earned herself the nickname ‘Good Queen Maud’ in the end. Commissioned a biography of her mother Margaret which was later instrumental in her canonization.

Life advice to take home: Ignore your husband’s faults and focus on commissioning histories that make you and your family look good.


27th March 

Emma of Normandy (c. 985 – 6 March 1052) 


Crimes Married King Cnut after his conquest of England and the death of her first husband Æthelred the Unready. Reportedly loved Cnut so much that she came to resent her sons with Æthelred and even had her own son Alfred murdered out of preference for her new family. Repeatedly referred to by medieval historians (that’s historians in the medieval period, not historians of the medieval period!) as one ruled by her lust for both power and men!

Achievements Got back into a position of power after the death of her husband. Commissioned a Latin version of her life (the Encomium Emmae Reginae, which she is pictured above receiving) explaining that nothing that went wrong was her fault, and that really after all she was a super lady and all the murder and betrayal etc. was all the fault of some chap called Harold Harefoot.

Life advice to take home: If people think badly of you, pay a Flemish monk to write nice things about you in Latin.


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