Brief Glimpses into the Lives of Four Women : Dhuoda, Elisabeth of Schonau, Claire of Assisi, and Jacoba Felicie
This week I had the opportunity to read about a few different women from past history. There are very few records of women in history books or documents- the records that do exist give us an insight into the lives of very privileged and/or wealthy women. I have studied history for years and I can spend hours talking about wars, royal genealogies and the stories of women who were European queens... but the lives, choices and stories of the majority of women have rarely been covered or made easily available for study. However, I had the opportunity to read about four particular women this week and I wanted to share a little bit of their stories and talk about some of the differences and similarities in their lives. Many of the comparisons that I make are obviously my opinion as there is very little information to use. Many of my thoughts are guesses and I would love for others to read their stories and tell me what they think of these women and my assessments. I have tried to post links to sites with specific information about these women.
Dhuoda – She is a mother who worries about the world's influence on her son and worries enough that she has written a specific guide hoping that he will carry her words with him as they are no longer together. The name of her 'guide for her son is titled the "Handbook for William". This is the only major text written by a woman to survive from the Carolingian period (generally seen at 750-900 AD.) She expresses a deep love and fear/ belief in a deity and, while she doesn't tell us what religion her beliefs belong to, they are clearly integral to her thoughts and life. She appears to be a strong believer in justice, honor given to your betters (or understanding of hierarchy) as well as chastity.
Elizabeth of Schonau – She was known for her mystical visions and miracles that she performed during her lifetime which is believed to be from 1128-1164. She became a Benedictine nun which tells us that she was a member of the Roman Catholic church and lived in an order that practiced the rules of St. Benedict. She appears to be a woman of some education (although I did discover on doing some research that most of her writing were actually writing down by her brother so I do wonder if she could write…) and she clearly felt very strongly about spiritually calling. She showed a great desire for information from God that could help her in her spiritual journey- she also hoped and prayed for guidance and visions from the Virgin Mary and other saints. She appears to be a strong believer in God, saints, hope, and visionary knowledge.
Claire of Assisi – She was a one of the first followers of St Francis and lived in the church of San Damiano. She created a spiritual community of women and helped write the rules for her created community that followed the ideals of St Francis when it came to finances -absolute poverty was the ideal. This order that was created by her along with the rules she wrote were the first monastic rules that were written by a woman. The ideals and desires of her community to live in absolute poverty was controversial in the church at that time and it took decades for her community to gain papal approval- this approval was only gained two days before she passed away. She lived a devout life and was a strong believer in charity, community, and simpler living.
Jacoba Felicie – She was a women who practiced medicine at a time where women were forbidden to do so. At this time, medical practitioners were trained through informal apprenticeships which were only available for men. As guilds were developed, individuals could be licensed for their medical knowledge which, again, were only available to men. However, Jacoba would examine patients, use herbs and give medicines top patients, and was sometimes paid for her work. (We can’t be sure from the writing that she was paid all the time and I suspect where she wasn’t successful she wasn’t paid.) The documents available suggest that she had been told not to practice medicine before and was being brought up on charges of doing it again… so she was persistent (whether the persistence was from stubbornness, a need for financial stability with no other options, or even a love of her craft we can’t know from the reading.) She was found guilty at the hearing and was excommunicated from the church as well as charged a significant fine. There is no evidence known as to whether she continued to practice after her trial and/ or what the rest of her life was like.
These women had a few things in common. All of them seem to have some sort of religious mindset and lifestyle. Dhouda frequently mentions her spirituality and morals in the letter to her son, Elizabeth is a Benedictine nun which suggests she is a practicing Catholic, Claire of Assisi is a nun in an established order that she helped create under the auspices of the Pope, and Jacoba was known to have said she could heal sick persons if “God is willing.” How they practiced their spiritual and religious lives were different, but each individual clearly felt the mark of deity on her life. Another thing in common was that all four women seems to feel some motivation to help other people- Dhouda wanted to help her son, Elizabeth wanted to share spiritual knowledge to bring people to a belief in the Virgin Mary and Christ, Claire spent her life giving of her time, energy and physical possessions to others, and Jacoba appears to have made healing the pain and illness of other people her life’s work. Each of these women wanted to share something- whether it was love, knowledge or health with someone else. They saw themselves as teachers and mentors to others whether it was by sharing advice, visions, medical care or charity. Each woman was putting herself at risk- whether of punishment or losing respect in the church- for her views and behavior and all managed to do OK in spite of the risks that they took (from what we can tell- Jacoba is a possible exception.)
Some differences seem apparent to me as well although here is where I jump into some real guesswork and the differences that I see may say more about my biases and perspectives than the women I am analyzing. I feel like Dhouda and Elizabeth grew up in different environments and in different ways, but neither individual seemed to have a great deal of confidence in themselves. From reading either their writings or the things written about them, the writings suggest that both were insecure and their self-talk suggests the low esteem they had for themselves. It appears that both Claire and Jacoba felt fairly confident and brave enough to follow their muse. All four women recognized how their gender affected their lives, but Dhouda and Elizabeth needed more encouragement to do the things they wanted to do and felt held back by their sex…. While Claire and Jacoba were clearly also held back in their societies and chosen professions due to being female, but they found ways to accomplish things unacceptable to their sex in spite of the difficulties presented. I am not sure about Jacoba, but the other women made decisions about leaving their pasts aside or the decision was made for them by others. Dhouda had many of her privileges taken away, Claire walked away from her privileged beginnings to recreate her life as she wanted, and Elizabeth left obscurity to become an abbess in a monastery.
We are so lucky to have opportunity to read the writings and thoughts of women from so many centuries ago- doubly so because we have so few surviving records of any women during this time period. Looking at the challenges they faced, I see some similarities between the burdens they worked to overcome and some of the same burdens facing women today. Each of these women tried to be a positive influence towards those they loved and interacted with, but they also worked to survive and thrive within the world they lived in. No matter what gender we each are, that is what each of us is trying to do too : )