historywomen

WOMEN OF HISTORY | MURASAKI SHIKIBU, LADY MURASAKI, 紫 式部 (c. 978 – c. 1014 or 1025) (Tae Kimura)

Author of what is often considered to be the first novel, Lady Murasaki was a writer, poet and lady- in-waiting to Empress Shōshi at the Japanese Imperial court. Her book, The Tale of Genji, was written sometime between 1000 and 1012, and although her fame endures because of this, her real name is a mystery: Murasaki Shikibu is a nickname, although it is possible her name was Fujiwara Takako.

Although women were usually excluded from learning Chinese - the language used in government - Murasaki was fortunate enough to be allowed by her father and became fluent. She married and had a daughter, and it’s thought that she began writing The Tale of Genji sometime after she was widowed. She spent several years in the Imperial Court, recording and writing there all the while. Eventually she retired from her role and the exact date of her death is unknown.

As well as its importance as a classic piece of Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji also gives irreplaceable insight into life in Heian court society at its peak.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | MARGERY KEMPE (c. 1373 – after 1438) (Saffron Burrows)

Margery Kempe was the woman behind what is considered to be the first autobiography in the English language - The Book of Margery Kempe. It chronicles her many pilgrimages to holy sites throughout Europe and Asia, as well as her conversations with God and the Virgin Mary. Illiterate, Margery employed scribes and priests to record her work.

During her first pregnancy (she would eventually have fourteen children) Margery became very ill and saw visions of God and the Virgin Mary - visions that would continue on for most of her life. She wished to join join a nunnery at this point but admitted that she couldn’t ‘leave her pride nor her pompous array.’ She spoke openly in the book about her struggles with sexual temptation and jealousy, and eventually she would take a vow of chastity and encourage her husband to do the same.

Margery was not popular with church leaders - she was known to interrupt services to argue with the clergy, and was even charged with heresy. The Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of Canterbury put her on trial for her preaching scripture in public, but she defended herself against all charges and escaped punishment. She was often unpopular during her travels as well - she recounts being accused by the Mayor of Leicester of being a 'cheap whore’ and threatened with imprisonment. Her attempts to defend herself in this case ended with her spending three weeks in jail.

The time and circumstances of her death are unknown, and her book was lost for centuries, existing only in quotes from a few other writers. But in 1934 a manuscript was found in a private library and since then it has been reprinted into numerous editions. Because of its autobiographical nature, Margery’s book provides an unparalleled insight into the lives of middle-class women in the Middle Ages.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | PAMPHILE OF EPIDAURUS, Παμφίλη (1st Century) (Joy Bryant)

A Greek historian of Egyptian descent, Pamphile’s principal work was The Historical Commentaries, a history of Greece composed of thirty-three books. It was not arranged according to subjects or an overarching plan, but rather set down in a more casual way as it came to notice of Pamphile. She believed that this variety would give the reader more pleasure.

She had a strong relationship with her husband, and they could almost always be found in each other’s company. Pamphile was always writing, noting down everything she heard from her husband, from the many dignitaries who visited their home, and from anything she happened to read herself. (Because of this, her work is sometimes ascribed directly to her husband, whose name is stated differently by different authors.)

The Commentaries was highly thought of by her contemporaries and later writers, who quoted and referenced it extensively. As well as this main work, Pamphile also wrote a number of epitomes on other people’s histories, including a writings on disputes and on sex. (Although most of these we know now only through references made by others.)

WOMEN OF HISTORY | BEATRITZ DE DIA, THE COMTESSA DE DIA (fl. c. 1175) (Jessica Marais)

Beatriz was a female troubadour (a writer and composer of lyric poetry), who was thought to be the daughter of a Count in southern France. (Contemporary texts refer to her only as comtessa de Dia, but it’s almost certain that her given name was Beatritz/Beatriz) Her poems were often set to flute music, and five of her them have survived in text, including her song A chantar m'er de so qu'eu no volria, which is the only song by a female troubadour that we have complete with its original music.

WOMEN OF HISTORY | FRANCESCA CACCINI (18 September 1587 – after 1641) (Catherine Keener)

An Italian composer, singer, poet, lutenist and music teacher, Francesca was the highest paid musician in the Medici court and the first woman to write and produce an opera.

Francesca was thirteen when she sang at the wedding of Henry IV of France and Maria de Medici, and the king not only praised her as the best singer in all of France but asked that she remain on at court. She declined the offer, preferring to remain home with her family to compose, before returning later to the service of the royals. She spent almost thirty years in the Medici court workings as a highly respected chamber singer, composer, music teacher and rehearsal coach.

After leaving the Medici service, Francesca disappeared from public record and today very little of her prolific catalog survives.