Women during the High Middle Ages

In the early days of the High Middle Ages a new form of art, mainly poetry, began to develop based on chivalry and courtly traditions.  There were a good number of poems by both men and women, known as troubadours and trobairitz, created showcasing the effects of love on the human psyche.  Each poem helped to create a society assuming “a gentler, more civil tone than that of the rougher code of feudalism.” (Sporre, 2005, p. 245)

If we consider “feudalism as a masculine, “men-at-arms” code of behavior” then we must consider chivalry and courtly traditions as “a distinctly feminine point of view” rooted in “ethics and personal conduct”. (Sporre, 2005, p.245)  One women in particular stands out during this time, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204 CE).


Fig. 1 Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine. (BBC, 2013)

In one of her first of many examples of selflessness, during the Second Crusade to the Holly Land, her and 300 other women dressed in armor, accompanied her then husband King Louis VII of France into battle, with the intention of caring for the sick and wounded.  This act was one of selflessness and was seen as “an act of uncommon personal and social bravery.” (Sayre, 2013, p.166)


Map 1.  The Crusade 1096-1204. (Sayre, 2008)

However, it was not until Eleanor’s reign as Queen of England, when she married to King Henry II of England, that the ideas of chivalry and courtly traditions truly flourished.  By this time in her life she was considered “without a doubt the most colorful woman of her time” and to many “most powerful and enlightened woman of her age.” (Naranjo, 2013)

Elanore effigy

Fig. 2 Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the church of Fontevraud abbey. (Bishop, 2011)

This was, also, a time when women were becoming literate, which promoted the growth of troubadour poetry.  Troubadour poetry was a style originating in the south of France, where Eleanor spent a decade after she separated from Henry II, King of England, and has very characteristic features.  Some of the characteristic features include (Sayre, 2013, p. 166):

  • A feeling of longing
  • Suffering for love
  • Wandering aimlessly
  • Unable to concentrate on anything but your beloveds image
  • Losing one’s appetite
  • Lying awake unable to sleep
  • Willing to perform any deed to win your loves favor
  • Feudal style loyalty for one’s king is transferred to the lady
  • A quasi-religious element due to resisting your desires and rising above human nature


Fig. 3 Casket with scenes of courtly love, from Limoges. ca. 1180 (Sayre, 2013, p.167)

In fig. 3, casket with scenes of courtly love:

“At left a lady listens, rather sternly, as a troubadour poet expresses his love for her.  In the center is a knight, sword in one hand and key to the lady’s heart in the other.  On the right, the knight kneels before the lady, his hand shaped in a heart; a rope around his neck, held by the lady, signifies his fidelity to her.” (Sayre, 2013, p.167)

Beatriz de Dia a female troubadour, called a trobairtiz, writes:

“Cruel are the pains I’ve suffered

For a certain cavalier

Whom I have had.  I declare

I love him – let it be known forever.

But now I see that I was deceived;

When I’m dressed or when I languish

In bed, I suffer a great anguish –

I should have given him my love.

One night I’d like to take my swain

To bed and hug him, wearing no clothes –

I’d give him reason to suppose

He was in heaven, if I deigned

To be his pillow! For I’ve been more

In love with him than Floris was

With Blanchefleur: my mind, my eyes

I give to him; my life, my heart.

When will I have you in my power,

Dearest friend, charming and good?

Lying with you one night I would

Kiss you so you could feel my ardor.

I want to have you in my husband’s

Place, of that you can rest assured

Provided you give your solemn word

That you’ll obey my every command.”

Beatriz de Dia is expressing her regret for staying faithful to her husband and not taking her knight as her lover.

Not only did courtly love have an impact on society but it would also have an “important impact on religious philosophy as well.” (Sporre, 2005, p. 245)  We can without a doubt say “the feudal system fixated on death and devils…faith notwithstanding” but “as time passed…a warmer feeling emerge, a quality of mercy.” (Sporre, 2005, p.246)  In order for the Church to remain relevant it would have to harness these newer, warmer feeling to create a new model of a compassionate motherly love and Mary, mother of Jesus, would serve as the focal point.  This new role of Mary would be seen in much of the art of the High and Late Middle Ages with a plethora of images called Madonna Enthroned.

Three artists, Cimabue, Duccio, and Giotto, in particular would help the Church showcase the new role of women and Mary, especially, as the a warm, compassionate motherly figure.


Fig. 4 Cimabue, Madonna Enthroned, c. 1280-90


Fig. 5 Duccio, Madonna Enthroned, center alter of the Maesta, 1308-11


Fig. 6 Giotto, Madonna Enthroned, c. 1310

Even though each artist represents the exact same imagery it is Duccio’s Madonna Enthroned, fig. 5, which captures the essence of motherly love and compassion.  His Madonna’s head is turned down, icy star removed, eyes look on the verge of tears, and her hand is tenderly touching and concealing her child.  “The tender emotion exchanged between mother and child stands in contract with Cimabue’s formal, outward stares…” and gives the work the feeling of humanity. (Sporre, 2005, p.250)


The High Middle Ages witnessed a phenomenal change in both social and religious thought about the role of women, inside and outside of a domestic setting.  Eleanor of Aquitaine would be the biggest promoter of this new “distinctly feminine point of view” rooted in “ethics and personal conduct”. (Sporre, 2005, p.245)  This was because women were becoming literate and their personal taste for romance poems by troubadours was being explored. The idea of courtly love cumulated in a celebration of women in the secular world and equated to Mary, mother of Jesus, in the minds of Christians. (Sayre, 2013, p.168)


BBC. (2013). Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122 – 1204). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/eleanor_of_aquitaine.shtml.

Bishop, A. (2011, October 18). Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the church of Fontevraud abbey. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Church_of_Fontevraud_Abbey_Eleanor_of_Aquitaine_effigy.jpg.

Levack, B. P., Muir, E., Veldman, M., & Maas, M. (2007). The West: Encounters and transformations. New York: Longman.

Naranjo, R. (20013). Eleanor o. Aquitaine, queen . Retrieved from http://ehistory.osu.edu/world/PeopleView.cfm?PID=394.

Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.

——-, H. M. (2008). The humanities: Culture, continuity & change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall.

Spielvogel, J. J. (2000). Western civilization. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Sporre, D.J. (2005) The Creative Impulse, An Introduction to the Arts, 7th ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.


About kmjantz

My primary goal is to explore humanities existence to date as we know it. I also create works of art that search to understand and explain why humans die because of diseases has plagued humankind since the beginning of time. Until recently, artistic expression of said search was constrained by religious ideology and scientific understanding. Today modern artists have access to a multitude of scientific technological advancements and enjoy greater creative freedom. For these reasons, my projects combination of artist styles/movements, scientific discovery, folklore, and my own imagination. My overall goal is to introduce viewers to a world so small that most do not think about it until they must due to illness. This goal is accomplished by taking selected microorganisms (thought of as ugly, disgusting, and devastating annoyances) and illustrating them as beautiful symbols of humanity’s co-evolution with nature. Making art can be a way of simplifying complex thoughts and scientific findings imbedded in humanity’s narrative.
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