How Medieval Women Expressed Their ‘Forbidden’ Emotions

Upper-class women used letters and embroidery to reflect on their inner lives

An illuminated manuscript illustration of Marie de France, a 12th-century poet
An illuminated manuscript illustration of Marie de France, a 12th-century poet Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Medieval Europe was a place of great emotional incontinence, so much so that historian Johan Huizinga once claimed, “Modern man has … no idea of the unrestrained extravagance of the medieval heart.”

Crying was ubiquitous—especially by religious men and women, as writing and illustrations in religious texts of the time show. Women were not allowed to engage widely in holy intellectual pursuits such as writing and interpreting religious texts, so they could only channel their religious fervor and closeness to God through their bodies.

Such displays of extreme emotion were acceptable for religious women because they were seen as a sign of their devotion to God. But this behavior wasn’t considered acceptable for their lay counterparts.

In the medieval period, prescriptive literature warned women of the dangers of anger—one of the seven deadly sins. Women’s anger was believed to confirm their inherent weakness and inability to control their emotions.

But while elite medieval women were discouraged from expressing their feelings in daily life, their letters are a rich source of information about their emotions. Many upper-class women were educated and eloquent in their writing, and letters gave them the opportunity to express themselves and wield power when they had little other means of exerting influence.

Italian-born French poet Christine de Pizan giving a lecture to a group of men
Italian-born French poet Christine de Pizan giving a lecture to a group of men Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Surviving letters

Not many of these letters have survived. One that has was sent by Aline la Despenser, Countess of Norfolk, to the chancellor of England around 1273. Women did not typically partake in official communication, so this was unusual. The letter is a master class in persuasion. It employs language such as “dear friendship,” which was mostly used between male associates. But the countess had to write carefully and stay close to the expected gender norms of appearing to be a decorous, obedient wife—a tight line to navigate.

In Renaissance Italy, the feeling of being powerless was palpable in many of the letters that women wrote. A Corresponding Renaissance: Letters Written by Italian Women, 1375-1650, by historian Lisa Kaborycha, includes 55 letters written by women of different social status. Through their writing, the women attempt to gain cultural currency, enter the public sphere and assert power.

A letter by the aristocrat Lucrezia de’ Medici, better known by the nickname Nannina, shows that she felt trapped in the roles she was expected to play. She was the older sister of Lorenzo de’ Medici, one of the most powerful Italian statesmen of the time, best known for his patronage of artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo.

Lucrezia "Nannina" de' Medici
Lucrezia "Nannina" de' Medici Francesco Allegrini via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Nannina was betrothed at the age of 13 for a large dowry and brought to her husband’s house five years later. In one of her letters, she wrote, “Don’t be born a woman if you want your own way.”

The letters of another Florentine woman from the same period, Alessandra Strozzi, are considered some of the most important insights into political and social life at the time. But, equally, they provide insights into her inner world and emotions throughout her life—from joy and triumph to despair, anxiety, pain and sorrow.

Strozzi wrote long letters because she wanted to, not because she needed to. Following the death of her husband, she chose not to remarry to ensure she remained involved in her children’s lives. She worked hard to negotiate beneficial financial and marital collaborations for her sons Filippo, Matteo and Lorenzo, and she used shame and guilt to manipulate them when they failed to follow her advice.

In one of her letters to two of her sons, she wrote, “Not seeing any children of yours sometimes makes me wonder, ‘Who are they doing all this work for? If they go on as they are, they’ll harden their hearts … and they’ll keep me in all these negotiations for so long that I’ll die.’”

Embroidered messages

Embroidery was another way that medieval women could express their emotions. They used their needles as pens, subverting the traditional notion of female docility by incorporating symbols and messages into their designs.

During this period, embroidery was not just undertaken for practical purposes but was expected from virtuous upper-class women, part of expressing their “true” nature as dutiful and obedient wives and daughters.

Most embroidery pattern books were written by men, and in rejecting these patterns (and sentiments), women exerted power and emotional authority, while treading the line between masculine authoritativeness and female passivity.

In collaboration with noblewoman Elizabeth Talbot (widely known as Bess of Hardwick), Mary, Queen of Scots, designed several embroidery and lace patterns. The designs were a way to express her agency and emotions during her captivity.

A ginger cat embroidered by Mary, Queen of Scots
A ginger cat embroidered by Mary, Queen of Scots Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mary’s designs were a symbol of her pride and resistance, especially as her letters were under constant surveillance. Her use of color and symbols showed her grief and melancholy. In one panel, a crowned ginger cat is pictured with a gray mouse, representing the Scottish queen’s fractious relationship with her cousin Elizabeth I.

While these letters and embroidered messages offer fascinating insights into the emotions of medieval women, most of them are from women of high social standing who had wealth and privilege. Women from lower classes generally weren’t educated, so they couldn’t make use of these forms. And the archives have gaps. What was perceived to be of value has been saved for posterity, while that which did not hold cultural currency was not.

As I discuss in my 2022 book, Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions, while the wider literature from the period tells us that medieval women were silent and passive, quiet and chaste, their letters and embroideries tell a different story. The women who wrote and created these works were bold and strident, angry and astute. And they were clever enough to find their own tools for claiming power in a culture determined to silence them.

This article is republished from the Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Pragya Agarwal is a scholar of social inequities at Loughborough University and a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford. Her latest book is Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions.

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