The idea of a powerful woman in the Middle Ages seems like an oxymoron. Females in this time are imagined to be damsels in distress, trapped in a high tower, and waiting for knights to rescue them, all while wearing traffic-cones for a hat. After rescue, their lives improved little. Their career choices were to be either a docile queen, housewife, or be burned at the stake for witchcraft.

But what if this image of medieval women is a complete fiction?

It turns out that it is. Powerful female rulers fill the Middle Ages. Anglo-Saxon queen Aethelflaed personally led armies into direct combat with Vikings in the 900s and saved England from foreign invasion. Byzantine Empress Theodora kept the empire from falling apart during the Nika Revolts and stopped her husband Justinian from fleeing Constantinople. Catherine of Siena almost single-handedly restored the papacy to Rome in the 1300s and navigated the brutal and male-dominated world of Italian politics.

In this episode, part 1 of a 3-part series, I look at the lives of three extraordinarily powerful women in the Middle Ages. In particular I look at the lives of Empress Theodora of Byzantium, Aethelflaed of the Mercians (a proto-English kingdom), and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most powerful landholder in Europe in the 12th century.

We will explore how they managed to ascend the throne, what made their accomplishments so notable, and the impact they had on their respective societies after their deaths.

RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE

The Most Powerful Women in the Middle Ages: Queens, Saints, and Viking Slayers, From Empress Theodora to Elizabeth of Tudor