Women Medievalists in Modern Academia: Inspiration and Challenge

In this, the first of a multi-part series focused on women in modern medieval studies based upon an informal survey sent to the fellows of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the university’s admission of undergraduate women, we will be briefly exploring both the extraordinary contributions thatIn this, the first of a multi-part series focused on women in modern medieval studies based upon an informal survey sent to the fellows of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the university’s admission of undergraduate women, we will be briefly exploring both the extraordinary contributions that women scholars have made to the lives and scholarship of our own faculty members, as well as some of the continuing challenges faced by women medieval scholars in both their scholarship and careers. It is not intended to be an exhausted survey and still less the definitive statement on the matter. Rather, it is an anecdotal collage assembled from the helpful comments of Notre Dame’s own medievalists, to whom I am deeply indebted for their assistance and their candor.

Women Scholars as inspiration

Faltonia Proba
Image of Faltonia explaining the history of the Cosmos from an anonymous French translation of Boccacio’s De mulieribus claris (des cleres et nobles femmes), 1488-1496. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Français 599, f.83r.

The two most striking points of emphasis in the comments of all respondents were first, the personal inspiration and support offered by women scholars and mentors, and second, the considerable difficulties that continue to confront women within the academy. It is here that we will begin, with discussion of specific research contributions from modern scholars as well as the challenges and importance of studying medieval women to follow.

Many respondents mentioned not only the women scholars whose work has influenced and inspired their own, but also those who provided personal support and directly guided them.

Professor Deborah Tor, for instance, cites the extraordinary Patricia Crone, who, over the course of a career that saw her hold notable positions at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, was “the greatest scholar in medieval Islamic history of the past hundred years” and “a figure so towering that she simply could not be ignored”, despite the considerable obstacles laid in her path, but who was also a valued mentor and friend. Professor Tor writes, “I undoubtedly learned more from her about historical inquiry, historical imagination, and the use of evidence, as all these relate to medieval Islamic history, than from anyone else in my life.” Professor Katie Bugyis credits two women with directly shaping the course of her academic career, both of whom we are now proud to count as Fellows of the Medieval Institute here at Notre Dame. The first of these was Margot Fassler, then at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music whose contribution to the collected volume Voice of the Living Light, edited by the equally remarkable Barbara Newman, left Bugyis convinced “I knew that I had to study with her as a graduate student at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music. I wanted to keep working on medieval religious women and their liturgical practices, and she was the very best scholar in the field with whom to undertake this research.”  Bugyis subsequently made good on her ambition and received her M.A.R. from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, summa cum laude. When Bugyis was choosing a PhD program, it was another woman who proved the decisive influence:

…when I was deciding between pursuing my doctoral studies at Yale or at Notre Dame, it was meeting with Kathryn Kerby-Fulton that finally tipped the balance in favor of accepting Notre Dame’s offer. Kathryn had been hired by the university shortly after I had graduated from the university as an undergraduate. I was very familiar with her scholarship on Hildegard of Bingen, and during my on-campus visit, I was keen to meet with her to discuss her work on women writers in medieval England. We talked for over an hour, and after that meeting, I left feeling like I knew nothing about the very writers and texts that I wanted to know something about. I was convinced that, if I wanted to become the kind of medievalist that I wanted to become, then I needed to work with Kathryn. I called my partner, Eric, immediately to tell him that we needed to rethink the plans for my future studies. This, of course, was a bit challenging because he was finishing up his doctorate at Yale, but he wanted me to get the best training that I could get as a scholar, and so I ended up accepting Notre Dame’s offer. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

In my own experience as both a student and as a professional academic, it would be all but impossible to overestimate the impact that women scholars had upon me. As an undergraduate, Professor Anne Clark was an invaluable source of guidance and an inspiration in her scholarship on Elisabeth of Schönau, Hildegard von Bingen, and Gertrude von Helfta. While pursuing my M.St. at Oxford, it was Professor Almut Sauerbaum who introduced me to Wolfram’s Parzival and who reliably provided the highlights every meeting held by the University’s extraordinary collection of esteemed medieval Germanists. To this day, I work hard in each and every class I teach to follow the standard set by Professor Jennifer Harris at the University of Toronto, who supervised me over the course of multiple appointments as a TA. The kindness and mentorship provided to me by Professor Bettina Bildhauer at the University of St Andrews, both during my first experience at an academic conference and, later, during my first professional appointment saw me through some of the most difficult moments in my professional development, and neither my dissertation nor any of the scholarship  work which has followed would have unthinkable without the work and support of innumerable women scholars, Ann Marie Rasmussen, Elke Koch, Katharina Philipowski, Christina Lechtermann… the list goes on. I consider myself extraordinarily privileged and honored today to count many amongst them as not only colleagues, but friends.

Image of Eriphilia reading, from an anonymous French translation of Boccacio’s De mulieribus claris (des cleres et nobles femmes), 1488-1496. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Français 599, f.18v.

Challenges Facing Women Medievalists

Yet this long list of remarkable, influential women who have collectively shaped every aspect of my scholarly and academic development also masks some of the darker truths about modern academia. Despite the fact that many of the very foundations for the work that I was to pursue as a graduate student were laid down by women, and despite the enormous influence that the women listed above had upon me, throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I found myself shepherded from one male advisor to the next. It was not until the final years of my doctorate that I ever even found myself in a department headed by a woman (in this, case, the ever amazing Suzanne Conklin Akbari). Without in anyway wishing to diminish the accomplishments and contributions of these men, all of whom I account myself extraordinarily fortunate to have worked with, it seems to have been assumed, without ever being verbalized, that for me, a white, cis-male scholar, the path forward lay primarily through other men. Even my doctoral committee consisted of four men and one woman (the aforementioned and remarkable Ann Marie Rasmussen), who joined by special dispensation. All of the other women scholars who contributed did so either unknowingly, through their work, or while remaining essentially unacknowledged institutionally, simply by being decent people, willing to help out a young scholar – doing so, at times, at considerable cost to themselves: time is never free. Mentorship is draining. Especially for junior scholars on the tenure track or under pressure to deliver a book on time, even a weekly meeting for coffee can risk derailing important progress. They did it anyway and continue to do it today for many others.

Although the field of medieval studies is, thankfully, no longer as profoundly male-dominated as it once was, the difficulties faced by women medievalists remain substantial. As one fellow of the Medieval Institute writes of her own experience, “Right before I was scheduled to give a presentation on one of the chapters of my dissertation… a very senior male scholar in the field approached me and said, ‘I am prepared to be skeptical.’ Rightly or wrongly, I keep his words at the forefront of my mind every time I work on my research because the burden of proof still remains so much higher for scholars of medieval women than it is for scholars of medieval men.” Another comments on the “old boys” network that still predominates at many, perhaps most, institutions when it comes to hiring practices:

I know for a fact about the final round of hiring for a position at one of the world’s great universities, which took place about ten years ago. I was told by one of the people who sat on the committee and saw the files that one female scholar led in the written scholarship component, and another female scholar led in the mock–teaching component. Neither was hired– rather, an Old Boy, who had led in neither area, was. Moreover, his principal recommender was also the principal recommender of the female candidate whose written work had put her in the lead, and that recommender specifically ranked the female candidate above the male who got the job. This outcome is quite typical.

This “skepticism” and, at times, outright opposition to the inclusion of women within the academy may be less prevalent today, but it remains all too common. It also exists alongside other, no less formidable, barriers that many women face in pursuing an academic career. Unforgiving deadlines are hardwired into the academic system both in the US and abroad. Deviations from the standard progression are seldom tolerated, and monitoring begins during one’s undergraduate studies.  For all academics, this often requires a dedication bordering on fanaticism, to the exclusion of all other interests, be they hobbies, personal relationships, or the interests of family. This last falls especially hard on women, whose graduate studies and early career, generally the highest-pressure phase for academics, coincides with the period of life in which most people so-disposed start families of their own. Such difficulties are only magnified for Women of Color and for those from less-privileged backgrounds. As one MI fellow comments:

Young scholars are all under increasing pressure to publish, with increasing precarity of the job market.  But a particular added challenge for women scholars is the continued tension between the expectations of total dedication to career advancement during the pre-tenure phase, and the fact that this is often exactly a period of increasing family responsibilities.  This tension has been addressed by many reforms, but remains very difficult to navigate for many; in the end, any progress is continuously undone by the arms race for the increasing number of publications that one is expected to produce, or grants that one is expected to manage, in order to distinguish oneself.  In addition, praiseworthy efforts to diversify, e.g., volumes, panels, editorial boards, etc., can become overwhelming for the small number of women scholars who exist in the field.

The fact that, even beyond pregnancy, the burdens of childcare fall, unjustifiably, predominantly upon women, can present an insurmountable obstacle for women who desire or feel pressured to pursue both a career a family life, all but eliminating not only the opportunity to thrive, but even, for some, any entry at all.

To make matters still worse, as mentioned by a number of respondents, such pressures and hostility all too often have a poisonous effect within the community of women scholars. In some cases, competition for the relatively limited number of desirable positions unofficially allotted to women scholars, competition and hostility sometimes result: “[T]he biggest personal obstacle I have encountered in my career was the overt hostility, and even explicit threats… of certain more senior female scholars within my department when I was a junior scholar.”

St Catherine of Alexandria (Patron Saint of Scholars)
Catherine disputes with the philosophers, c. 1280 (restored). Ceiling painting from the North Choir Chapel of St. Maria Lyskirchen, Cologne. Photo by Christopher Liebtag Miller.

Here it is worth noting that Medieval Studies, like academia as a whole, presents a diverse landscape. While some general trends may be observed and hold true across the board, there are certain areas in which notable deviations occur. In my own field, Medieval Here it is worth noting that Medieval Studies, like academia as a whole, presents a diverse landscape. While some general trends may be observed and hold true across the board, there are certain areas in which notable deviations occur. In my own field, Medieval Germanistik, for instance, it is striking to observe the dramatic increase in the number of women scholars active since the year 2000. While this evidence may be purely anecdotal, the vast majority of scholars that I find myself citing from the last two decades are women – as, increasingly, are the editors of the texts that I study.  Yet when I cite historians who engage with the period in which these texts were created, I find that the number of women scholars publishing become more scarce. With reference to medieval Islamic history, Deborah Tor comments:

Unfortunately, not much has changed. Not only is the field of medieval Islamic history overwhelmingly male, but except in the case of the sui generis Patricia Crone… the work of women typically does tend to be ignored, no matter how fine; or, worse, her ideas appropriated with no acknowledgment. There are some excellent women scholars in the field – Carole Hillenbrand, Louise Marlow, and Beatrice Manz spring immediately to mind– and I have no doubt that were comparable work being produced by men, these women would be occupying endowed chairs at Oxbridge or in the top rung of the Ivy League. But that simply does not happen in the field.

Even where progress in gender equality has been made, the divisions and discrepancies highlighted above point towards a further point of tension: that between fields and subjects that have come to be coded as “women’s’ studies” and those which remain or have become the domain of male scholars. This tension, as well as the manner in which the work of women scholars both past and present has shaped and continues to shape the field of medieval studies will form the focus of our next blog post in this series, to follow in the near future.

Christopher Liebtag Miller, Ph.D.
Assistant Teaching Professor
Director of Undergraduate Studies and Engagement
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Medieval Women You Should Know: Anna Laminit

Anna Laminit (c.1480-1518) was one of late medieval Europe’s popular “living saints” or “holy women,” modern terms for women who were considered to have a privileged relationship with God during their lives as well as after death. For nearly fifteen years, she provided spiritual advice and (possibly) physical healing to everyone from pious laywomen to university professors to the Holy Roman Emperor. She was famous as far away as France, compared to living saints in Italy.

And she may have been one of late medieval Europe’s most successful con artists.

Our major sources for Laminit’s life are three Augsburg chronicles written after the fact but by men who were present in the city during her reign and fall. Regarding Laminit, the three offer different details but agree on all major points, and they are uniformly hostile to her.

Laminit came from a family of Augsburg artisans. She was supposedly exiled from the city as a teenager for “mischief,” probably some sort of sexual misconduct, but the punishment may have been largely symbolic. By seventeen or eighteen, she was back in the city and living at a charity-funded group residence for pious widows and unmarried women. Shortly thereafter, it seems, more and more people around her started to believe she was surviving on no food except the Eucharist—the surest sign of God’s special favor. The divine provenance of her inedia was certified by the fact that she tried to eat but was unable (it was not a human feat), and her confessor’s approval of her foregoing earthly food (demonstrating her obedience to the clergy).

Unlike most holy women, Laminit seems to have lacked the typical “powerful (male) cleric” promoter. The only places her confessor are even mentioned are her own supposed legal statement included in Rem’s chronicle, and his later charge that she lied to her confessor. Nevertheless, her fame spread throughout Augsburg and beyond.

Chroniclers stress the high social status of her local visitors; a pre-Reformation Martin Luther stopped to consult with her on his way home from Rome. Some people visited her for advice (sourced from God’s communications to Laminit, of course), others simply to experience proximity to a vessel of God’s grace, and probably others to observe something exotic and exciting. Some copies of Clemens Sender’s chronicle add an interesting detail: Laminit and a group of her women friends used to travel around the countryside outside Augsburg providing healing services.

Other people took advantage of her spiritual power from afar. Many devout Augsburgers donated their money to Laminit for her to distribute to the poor, thus increasing the amount of God’s good will that would reflect back on the original donors. Others donated money and goods to Laminit herself, including a private house near one of Augsburg’s most prestigious churches.

Unlike with other holy women, sources make no mention of a particular powerful (male) cleric who supported and promoted Laminit. However, the Church gladly offered a vehicle for her mutually beneficial social and spiritual climb. She received a designated seat for weekly Mass in the church near her house, drawing more people (and money) to it. Her response to outbreaks of apocalyptic fear in Augsburg and beyond was to call for Church-led penitential processions through the city (also featuring her, of course). Indeed, the sources agree that in the first decade of the sixteenth century, Anna Laminit was “St. Anna” to everyone in Augsburg and beyond.

Everyone except the duchess of Bavaria.

Daughter of one emperor and sister to another, Kunigunde of Austria had retired to a Munich convent after the death of her husband Albrecht, duke of Bavaria, in 1508. And when she invited (“invited”) Laminit to Munich in 1513, she had more in mind than a consultation with a saint. She and the other sisters gave Laminit her own private chamber—a chamber specially prepared with holes in the door. And the first night, they observed Laminit do the one thing a holy woman was not supposed to do: eat. Food under the bed and excrement outside the window confirmed the charade.

According to her supposed confession, Laminit claimed that God had allowed her to eat that one time because she was so weak from travel. But nobody was interested in listening. The discovery that she ate one time was enough to unravel more than a decade of adulation and trust. Despite the animosity reflected by the invective used against Laminit in some of the chronicles, her only punishment was exile from Augsburg—apparently with a good piece of the money people had donated to her over the previous decade.

As for Laminit’s life after sainthood, Rem provides the most (and most colorful) details. Apparently she got married and ended up in Freiburg. And if Rem can be believed, she and her husband spent the next five years running a con based on, of all things, child support fraud. But the game was up when the non-existent child’s father wanted to meet him, and Laminit was executed by drowning in 1518.

Laminit’s end has led to her neglect as a late medieval holy woman in modern scholarship. But despite—or perhaps because of—the ultimate belief that her sanctity was a fraud, the sources that discuss her life are invaluable for insight into popular devotion to living saints and the lives of those saints at the end of the Middle Ages.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame


Roth, Friedrich. “Die geistliche Betrügerin Anna Laminit von Augsburg (ca. 1480–1518).” Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 43 (1924): 355–417.

Weigelt, Sylvia. „Der Männer Lust und Freude sein”. Frauen um Luther. Wartburg-Verlag, 2011.


Preu, Georg. “Die Chronik des Augsburger Malers Georg Preu des Älteren.” In Die Chroniken der schwäbischen Städte: Augsburg, vol. 6, 18-86. S. Hirzel, 1906.

Rem, Wilhelm. “Cronica newer geschichten.” In Die Chroniken der schwäbischen Städte: Augsburg, vol. 5, 1-245. S. Hirzel, 1896.

Sender, Clemens. “Die Chronik von Clemens Sender.” In Die Chroniken der schwäbischen Städte: Augsburg, vol. 4, 1-404. S. Hirzel, 1894.

Medieval Women You Should Know

Women making pasta, from the workshop of Giovannino de Grassi, Italy, 1390s

Nobody loves a listsicle like late medieval Christianity. You know the seven deadly sins; now meet the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the six sins against the Holy Spirit, the four sins that cry to heaven (but one of which is silent)…and in late medieval didactic literature, enumerated lists are everywhere. Fortunately, twenty-first century versions like “10 Badass Medieval Women” tend to have slightly more cross-cultural appeal. But a funny thing happens when you start reading through those lists: they can be almost as repetitive as their medieval ancestors. They feature a few sentences or a short paragraph about Hildegard of Bingen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Sitt al-Mulk, maybe Jeanne la Flamme or Catherine of Siena.

And so the Medieval Studies Research Blog is proud to introduce our new, non-listsicle series on Medieval Women You Should Know. It aims to use the stories of women around the medieval world to illuminate life in the Middle Ages more broadly. That might mean an examination of the transmission history of a woman-authored text, a look at the relationship dynamic between two women, or the traditional contextualized-biography approach.

Yes, “badass women” will be represented, like the now-nameless mother of eleventh-century vizier al-Afdal, who went undercover as the mother of a deceased soldier to root out opposition to her son’s rule [1]; or Juliana Peutinger, the three-year-old who recited a Latin oration to the Holy Roman Emperor in a premodern version of Toddlers & Tiaras. [2]

But there are also the women known to us only by chance, whose existence is folded into miracle collections or tax registers: women extraordinary only to themselves and their loved ones. Through their eyes and lives we see through the bright lights to the texture of medieval society. As Katherine Anne Wilson points out, we should not look at a photo of a gorgeous tapestry and think only of its master, but also the women who spun the thread, the women who cooked meals for the craftsmen and cared for their children. [3]

To illuminate women great and small also offers the chance to highlight one of my favorite things about medieval studies and our scholars: that is, the ability to draw an entire life story out of a line or two in a court case, a papal petition. Who needs a detailed biography when you can read that nine-year-old Mary de Billingsgate drowned in the Thames, and reconstruct her single mother’s efforts to raise a child, manage a household, and try to earn a living on her own? [4]

And finally, as Medieval Studies Research Blog pageview statistics indicate that the blog is taking on a double life as a medieval studies resource blog, I hope to pay forward a debt from the very beginning of my graduate work. When I first fell in love with medieval women mystics, there was an amazing online resource called “Other Women’s Voices.” It collated biographical data, links to online scholarship, and excerpts from the writing of women from antiquity through the early 1700s. Even more than the Classics of Western Spirituality series and the index of Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Other Women’s Voices was my entry to what was for me an unknown and wondrous world. While the Medieval Studies Research Blog has no intentions of replicating that site (which lives on through archive.org’s Wayback Machine), we hope the posts in this series can provide a similar sort of inspiration: not an end, but a beginning.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Della Cortese and Simonetta Calderini, Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam (Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 37.

[2] Jane Stevenson, Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2005), 229-230.

[3] Katherine Anne Wilson, “The Hidden Narratives of Medieval Art,” in Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past, ed. Andrew Albin et al. (Fordham University Press, 2019).

[4] Reginald R. Sharpe (ed.), Calendar of Coroners Rolls of the City of London, A.D. 1300-1378 (Richard Clay and Sons, Ltd., 1913), 252-253.