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A Medieval Woman's Companion: Women's Lives in the European Middle Ages

What have a deaf nun, the mother of the first baby born to Europeans in North America, and a condemned heretic to do with one another? They are among the virtuous virgins, marvelous maidens, and fierce feminists of the Middle Ages who trail-blazed paths for women today. Without those first courageous souls who worked in fields dominated by men, women might not have the presence they currently do in professions such as education, the law, and literature. Focusing on women from Western Europe between c. 300 and 1500 CE in the medieval period and richly carpeted with detail, A Medieval Woman's Companion offers a wealth of information about real medieval women who are now considered vital for understanding the Middle Ages in a full and nuanced way. Short biographies of 20 medieval women illustrate how they have anticipated and shaped current concerns. Their legacy abides until today in attitudes to contemporary women that have their roots in the medieval period. The final chapter suggests how 20th and 21st century feminist and gender theories can be applied to and complicated by medieval women's lives and writings. Doubly marginalized due to gender and the remoteness of the time period, medieval women's accomplishments are acknowledged and presented in a way that readers can appreciate and find inspiring. Ideal for high school and college classroom use in courses ranging from history and literature to women's and gender studies, an accompanying website with educational links, images, downloadable curriculum guide, and interactive blog welcomes your visit.

In the Times Literary Supplement, Hetta Howes writes, “’A pregnant teenager. The teacher who seduced her.’” These sentences might sound like clickbait, or the headline ripped from a modern newspaper. But as Susan Signe Morrison delights in revealing, they actually describe twelfth-century events – specifically, the relationship between the young student Heloise and her private tutor, Abelard, whose romance endured both separation and castration. Throughout her lively companion to medieval women, Morrison works hard to draw out the transhistorical aspects of the stories she tells, in order to challenge twenty-first-century assumptions about the “dark ages”. The book invites “readers to think about these readers to think about these women as living, breathing humans rather than distant historical figures….Morrison captures readers’ attention. Having reeled us in, she then uses the lives of these women as a vehicle for discussing more complex ideas, such as gender dynamics, religious belief and political engagement. The Companion is directed at high school and college students and it is therefore an excellent resource for teachers, too….Morrison sounds a rallying cry for more women to be integrated into programmes that teach medieval literature or history and her book, so rich in material, serves to challenge any argument that there simply aren’t enough records of medieval women’s writings to merit their inclusion….The Companion offers a surprising peephole into the everyday life of both medieval women and men for anyone who is interested in the period. It also serves to revise many of our modern preconceptions about the Middle Ages, particularly with regard to gender. Anyone who believes that medieval women were subdued, powerless and oppressed into silence by the patriarchy should be directed to Morrison’s chapter on Christine de Pizan.”

~ Hetta Howes, Times Literary Supplement (March 22, 2017)

~ Kara Larson Maloney writes about Medieval Womans Companion in the Medieval Feminist Forum: “Morrison’s A Medieval Woman’s Companion serves as excellent introductory reading for students to help integrate them into the complex and varied experiences of women within the Middle Ages.”

~ Professor Mary Dockray-Miller writes in her review for The Medieval Review, September 25, 2017 the following: “Susan Signe Morrison’s new general-interest book about medieval women has been deservedly nominated for awards in women’s studies, young adult non-fiction, and history. It is a wonderfully illustrated and pleasant read, touring its audience through short biographies of notable women of the Christian, European Middle Ages while simultaneously providing context and historical overview….[I]t is overall an engaging production….Morrison succeeds in her project to present an accessible and relevant group of medieval women to her audience. While most chapters ostensibly focus on one woman, each actually provides a wealth of contextual information….”

Dr. Dockray-Miller, suggesting the future for discussions about medieval women lies in “open-access digital humanities projects, blog posts, and curated websites that introduce the Middle Ages to general audiences around the world,” praises the book for providing “a friendly, accessible user experience. Morrison includes very high-quality black and white images in all the chapters, usually of manuscript miniatures, but also some artifacts (e.g. the Lewis Chess queen, pilgrim badges). The ‘learn more’ sections at the ends of chapters include references to novels, video games, and movies as well as translations and scholarly work. The book’s companion website (www.amedievalwomanscompanion.com) includes information about potential lesson plans, a curriculum guide, information about some women who did not make it into the print edition (e.g. Hild of Whitby), and brief remarks about some women who did (e.g. Christine de Pizan).”


Sandra Alvarez writes, "[I]it is an excellent book for readers who want a good starting point on their journey into women's studies, feminism, and gender during the Middle Ages....The book takes aim at many of the mainstream myths perpetuated about the lives of medieval women, such as, the idea that they lived horrible oppressed lives, and had little to no agency, or the notion that all medieval women were illiterate....Morrison does her best to debunk these claims by providing over 200 pages of examples, from the Early Middle Ages to the beginning of the Early Modern period....She also discusses how to approach medieval texts with a view to modern concepts of freedom and agency...Morrison does a superb job of making medieval women accessible to mainstream audiences, and tying in traditional and digital sources."

~The Medieval Magazine


Story Circle's Susan Wittig Albert reviewed A Medieval Woman's Companion. She writes, "A Medieval Woman's Companion is—I'm not exaggerating here—the best introduction I know of to the widely-varied lives of medieval women….Borrowing from the Irish poet Eavan Boland, [Morrison] reminds us that the past needs us: "That very past in poetry which simplified us as women and excluded us as poets now needs us to change it." And that, for Morrison, is the central point of all our learning and study and thought. As a teacher, she knows that "we need to understand the historical past of women to change the historical future of women … As women historians and chroniclers of women's lives and writings, we … have our work cut out for us." As readers, too, we have our work cut out for us. And Morrison's Companion is exactly the kind of guide we need for the journey."

~ Susan Wittig Albert, Story Circle Book Reviews


And a lovely review by the great medieval mystery writer, Candace Robb.


"Historians are writing brilliant books about women in the middle ages. Hurrah! Where to begin?! If you're just starting, I can't think of a better introduction and overview than Susan Signe Morrison's new book, A Medieval Woman's Companion (Oxbow Books 2016)....If you're writing about medieval women or teaching medieval history or literature, this book is an essential. What a resource!"

~ Candace Robb, author of The Service of the Dead, The Triple Knot, and the Owen Archer mystery series

“A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages by Susan Signe Morrison offers a treasure trove of information about the trail blazing women who lived during a tumultuous time in Western European history. In this book designed for young adult readers, the author introduces – in six informative and interesting chapters – twenty-one courageous women who defined their roles in a male dominated society….Morrison’s A Medieval Woman’s Companion is a book that should be read by both men and women alike so that they get to know the lives of these amazing personalities who have helped shape the modern world as we know it today….Morrison proves that behind the male facade, it is possible to see resolute and resourceful women who took leading and diverse roles during the Middle Ages, and in the process they empowered themselves and future generations of women. From the pioneering Gudrun to the fearless Eleanor of Aquitaine, the innovative Hildegard von Bingen, the reformer Birgitta, the fearless Joan of Arc, and the inventive Teresa de Cartagena, we get to know the women who have made history ‘her story’ too.”

~ Maria Beltran, Readers’ Favorite

  • Gold Medal Winner in College Nonfiction by Literary Classics

  • Bronze Medal Winner for the 2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award in Women's Studies

  • Honorable Mention for the 2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award in both Adult Nonfiction and Young Adult Nonfiction

Many thanks to Sandra and her team for producing such a beautiful magazine and website, Medievalists.net.