03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities

Student Series! Protofeminists of the Middle Ages

Student Series! Protofeminists of the Middle Ages

Feminism is the belief in the equality of all genders, regardless of age, race, religion, or sexuality. Feminism celebrates the opportunity for women to make choices that will benefit their future. Though feminism may not have existed as it does today, brave women of medieval Europe challenged what it meant to be a woman in an austere time period.

Protofeminism refers to a movement for gender equality before the modern term ‘feminism’ applied. Protofeminists lived in a time period before the word ‘feminism’ garnered modern usage; they were equality advocates who anticipated the modern movement for women’s rights.


Protofeminists in Medieval Europe

Hildegard de Bingen

Hildegard de Bingen was a German Benedictine nun known for her visions, composition of music, authorship, and theology. She was forced into the monastic lifestyle at age eight, after her parents offered her to the church as an oblate. Her visions garnered the attention of church. The red-orange light pouring from her eyes represent her divine sight. Hildegard de Bingen became a Doctor of the Church, a title normally reserved for male religious leaders.  She authored several medical and botanical texts, including a treatise on women’s health.

Hildegard sought to understand the complexity of the female reproductive system by applying its menstrual cycles to the cyclical nature of the universe. For instance, she connected the cyclical nature of menstruation to the phases of the moon. Her application of the feminine body and spirit to the greater cosmos, suggests the intrinsic power of women. She connotes the stigmatized bleeding of menstruation with the natural beauty and behavior of the moon, a symbol of harvest and fertility.


She applied feminine aspects to G-d. In her writings, G-d is depicted as nurturing, like the life-giving force of women. In the illustration above (from her book, Scivias), Hildegard paints the divine cosmos. The shape of the universe is arguably feminine, resembling female genitalia. The life-giving ability of God is manifested in the female reproductive system.

Hildegard de Bingen is not a feminist in the modern sense. She references the ‘weaknesses’ of her sex. However, her success as a religious leader in the male-dominated church shows her brilliance, perseverance, and strength of character. She dared to be an outspoken women in a time of female domesticity. Her writings are detailed attempts to understand female sexuality.


Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan was a French writer born in Italy in 1364. Widowed with three children, Christine utilized her unique education to write to support her family. She was supported by royals, including Louis I, dukes of Burgundy, and Isabella of Bavaria. Her poetry, sometimes concerning the death of her husband, was renowned by royal courts. The Book of the City of Ladies, a work of prose, rebukes the satirical criticism of women in society. In the book, Christine constructs an allegorical “city” where notable women of history live. Women, like the Virgin Mary, are valued members of society who contribute to the human condition. In Christine de Pizan’s work, women are defended and appreciated members of society.

Her novels are considered some of the first feminist texts. Her contributions to feminist literature and social commentary are groundbreaking. She used her education, a rare privilege for her sex, to speak out against the blatant sexism of her time. Christine paved the way for women to argue for a better future, all while raising three children. “If it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons” (Christine de Pizan, Le Livre de la Cité des Dames).


Modern Connection

Hildegard de Bingen and Christine de Pizan may not be considered feminists in the modern sense. They were products of their prospective eras, and were limited by the social expectations of their time. Hildegard de Bingen’s ability to criticize sexism would have been daunted by the power of the male-dominated church. However, both women dared to let their prowess as intellectuals and visionaries shine. They both authored successful literature that later prompted discourse on gender equality.

Despite their contributions to feminism, women still fight for gender equality. On January 1, 2017, over five million people globally marched for equality in the Women’s March on Washington. Protesters marched in solidarity for access to women’s health care, equal pay, equal representation, and intersectionality. Protests spanned from Washington D.C. to Nairobi. Feminism is as relevant today as it was centuries ago. Women across the world still face discrimination.

The modern feminist movement aims to be inclusive of all genders, religions, sexualities, and races. Feminism celebrates the ability of people, regardless of background, to have the ability to choose their futures. Giving women-identifying people social, political, and economic opportunity allows for numerous new ideas, stories, and knowledge to be shared. Innovation is on the horizon, if equality can be achieved. Be being inclusive, the advancement of the human race can be fostered.

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