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From damsels in distress to powerful patrons, from the Virgin Mary to the adulterous Bathsheba, a wide variety of female figures populated the pages of medieval manuscripts. Virtuous women such as biblical heroines, steadfast saints, and pious nuns were held up as models for proper behavior, while lascivious women were warnings against sinful conduct. Female figures fulfilled the romantic role of lovers, the social and political function of wives, and the nurturing capacity of mothers. They were also creators of manuscripts, as women of great wealth and high status exercised their authority and influence by commissioning books—and sometimes even illuminating them.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website
Whether you go or not, the publication, Illuminating Women in the Medieval World, features more than one hundred illuminations depicting medieval women from England to Ethiopia, providing a lively and accessible introduction to the lives of women in the medieval world. When one thinks of women in the Middle Ages, the images that often come to mind are those of damsels in distress, mystics in convents, female laborers in the field, and even women of ill repute. In reality, however, medieval conceptions of womanhood were multifaceted, and women’s roles were varied and nuanced. Female stereotypes existed in the medieval world, but so too did women of power and influence. The pages of illuminated manuscripts reveal to us the many facets of medieval womanhood and slices of medieval life—from preoccupations with biblical heroines and saints to courtship, childbirth, and motherhood. While men dominated artistic production, this volume demonstrates the ways in which female artists, authors, and patrons were instrumental in the creation of illuminated manuscripts.