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Authority and Gender in Medieval

and Renaissance Chronicles

Edited by

Juliana Dresvina and Nicholas Sparks

PERSPICAX INGENIUM MIHI COLLATUM EST:


STRATEGIES OF AUTHORITY
IN CHRONICLES WRITTEN BY WOMEN
GRAEME DUNPHY

The world of the medieval chronicle was a male preserve. Not only
were the overwhelming majority of the authors and primary readers men,
but the interests and perspectives are recognizably traditional male
interests and perspectives, while women, when they appear at all, are
constructed from within a male paradigm. Of course, much the same
observation could be made of other medieval literary genres. Its particular
poignancy in the case of chronicles has to do with the crucial degree of
authority which these texts enjoyed. This goes far beyond the intellectual
authority of the historian whose erudition in mastering the vastness of the
available data on past events commands respect. As repositories of
historical narrative, chronicles might appear to be fundamentally constative
texts, but recent work on their agenda, transmission and reception has
highlighted what we might regard as a strongly performative dynamic.
They record legal precedents, legitimate dynasties, take sides in conflicts,
consolidate or question the structures of society, and define group and
national identities. They not only tell the past: they shape the way the
present is conceived and processed. In short, they have to do with the
exercise of power.
The Encyclopedia of the Medieval Chronicle covers some 2500
chroniclers or anonymous chronicles, of which only fifteen can be said
with any degree of probability to have been written by women.1 On closer
1
Graeme Dunphy, Women chroniclers and chronicles for women, in EMC, pp.
1521-4. For general studies of women as historians see for example Natalie Zemon
David, Gender and Genre: Women as Historical Writers, 14001820, in Beyond
their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past, ed. Patricia H. Labalme (New
York UP, 1984), 153-82; Historikerinnen: Eine biobibliographische Spurensuche
im deutschen Sprachraum, ed. Hiram Kmper (Kassel: Archiv der deutschen
Frauenbewegung, 2009); Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women

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167

inspection we find that up to eight of these are generically so borderline


that by some definitions they might not be regarded as chronicles at all.2
The Renaissance period adds further names to the repertoire, but does not
really change the pattern: the proportion of chronicles by female authors is
low even by medieval standards, and becomes lower still the more we
insist on conceptualizing the chronicle genre in a traditional way. We may
suspect that the reason for this is connected to the particular authority
attached to these texts in a society which strongly tended to exclude
women from positions of authority. It can therefore be instructive to
explore which strategies women chroniclers used to lend authority to their
writing. For the purpose of the present study, I understand authority to
mean both authorization, the right to speak and be heard, and
authoritativeness, the intellectual credibility of the author and therefore of
the text as a citable witness. In the following discussion, five women will
serve as examples.
Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (ca. 935 post-973) is the earliest attested
female poet from any of the Germanic language groups, although she

and Historical Practice (Cambridge MA & London: Harvard UP, 1998); Charlotte
Woodford, Women as Historians: The Case of Early Modern Convents, German
Life and Letters, 52 (1999), 271-80; K. J. P. Lowe, Nuns Chronicles and Convent
Culture in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy (CUP, 2003); Anne
Winston-Allen, Convent Chronicles, Women Writing about Women and Reform in
the Late Middle Ages (Pennsylvania: State UP, 2004); Jane Chance, The Literary
Subversions of Medieval Women (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Janet L.
Nelson, The Frankish World: 750900 (London: Hambledon, 1996), esp. the
chapter Gender and Genre in Women Historians of the Early Middle Ages;
Albrecht Classen, The Power of a Womans Voice in Medieval and Early Modern
Literatures (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2007).
2
The term chronicle has undergone a significant broadening in the scholarship
of recent years. By a traditional nineteenth- and twentieth-century definition, a
chronicle was a survey of world history or at least of a significant chunk of it
with a strong focus on establishing chronology, probably with more narrative than
a volume of annals, but with more retrospective distance and more breadth of
scope than a historia. Since the 1990s the tendency has been to see chronicle as the
umbrella term, with annals, historiae and all kinds of hybrid and borderline forms
being seen as types of chronicles. Since female historians tended to be writing with
an agenda which involved them personally with their material, their works are
more likely to be classed as generically borderline on the older, narrower
definition. On the history of the term, see Graeme Dunphy, Chronicles
(Terminology) in EMC, pp. 274-82. Also David Dumville, What is a Chronicle?,
in The Medieval Chronicle II, ed. Erik Kooper (Amsterdam and New York:
Rodopi, 2002), 1-27.

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

never wrote in her native Low German.3 Conrad Celtis, who discovered
the manuscript of her chronicle in 1493/4, celebrated her as a German
Sappho. She was almost certainly of high birth, as the Gandersheim
Abbey was an imperial foundation originally for daughters of the court.
This house of secular canonesses in Lower Saxony had been founded in
852 to allow unmarried women of the highest circles of Carolingian
society to live comfortably and in relative independence, without taking
vows or forgoing the right to return later to court life or to marry. As a
canoness in such a well-endowed secular house, Hrotsvit would have had
the leisure to pursue learning and literary activity for its own sake, and
although the ethos of the abbey was religious, the link to the intellectual
circles of the court was not lost.
Hrotsvit was, for her period, a relatively prolific writer. She composed
in total some eight saints lives, six dramas intended to provide a Christian
alternative to the classical comedies of Terence, and two historical works:
a life of the current Emperor, Otto I, and a foundation history of her
convent, the Primordia coenobii Gandeshemensis. The dramas are her
most original works, and probably those by which she is best known to
modern readers, but the two historical texts deserve more attention than
they have had in the past.
The abbey chronicle appears to be Hrotsvits final work, written
sometime before the death of Otto in 973. It was composed at the
prompting of the abbess, possibly to support the abbeys claims in a
dispute with the episcopal see of Hildesheim. Fashioned in a literary form
reminiscent of an epic, it begins with the foundation of the house in 852,
and the surviving text, some 594 lines, carries down to the year 919; we
assume that in the original text Hrotsvit continued the story to the date of
writing, but the transmission of the Primordia is the poorest of any of her
works, and the end is missing. Like many foundation histories, it mixes
legendary material with usable historical data, but the legendary motifs are
not so frequent that the value of the text as a historical source might be
3

Text edition is Helene Homeyer, Hrotsvithae opera (Munich etc.: Schningh,


1970). Homeyer also published a German translation, Hrotsvitha von
Gandersheim: Werke in deutscher bertragung, (Munich etc.: Schningh, 1973).
The other available translation reproduces the verse form but in consequence is not
accurate enough to be citable when the exact wording is important: Hrotsvit von
Gandersheim, Smtliche Dichtungen, tr. Otto Baumhauer, Jacob Bendixen,
Theodor and Gottfried Pfund, intro. Bert Nagel, (Munich: Winkler, 1966). For
general information on Hrotsvit see above all Bert Nagel, Hrotsvit von
Gandersheim (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1965); also Barbara Schmid, Hrotsvit of
Gandersheim, EMC, pp. 813-4.

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169

compromised. Indeed if we leave aside passages which are obviously not


to be read as historical, the entire text contains only one relatively minor
factual error, and it was regarded by contemporaries as reliable enough to
be used as the main source for a rather more functional history composed
early in the following century. In content, it is therefore a fairly standard
representative of the genre, and more reliable than many.
As the earliest known female chronicler of medieval Europe, Hrotsvit
was breaking new ground. How did she deal with the question of
authority? The Primordia itself tells us little about its poet. It opens with
only the very briefest of prologues:
Ecce meae supplex humilis devotio mentis
Gliscit, felicis primordia Gandeshemensis
Pandere coenobii, quod cura non pigritanti
Construxere duces Saxonum iure potentes,
Liudulfus magnus clarus quoque filius eius
Oddo, qui coeptum perfecit opus memoratum.4
Behold the servile devotion of my lowly mind is stirred to tell the
beginnings of the fortunate monastery of Gandersheim, which the justly
powerful Dukes of Saxony built with unresting care, the great renowned
Liudolf, and of his son Otto, who completed the famous work which had
been begun.

Thus the poem itself does not even name its author, and the only testimony
to the process of composition is this brief reference to an inner compulsion
to write.
However, towards the end of her life, Hrotsvit arranged her collected
works in three books, containing the legendae, the dramas and the
historical works respectively, with a verse praefatio and at least one
dedicatory epistle to each. This in itself testifies to a startling degree of
authorial awareness: it is difficult to think of any other tenth-century writer
anywhere who in the presentation of a complete oeuvre raised the unifying
feature of authorship above a diversity of genre in quite this way. The
accompanying texts in this, Hrotsvits final rearrangement of her lifes
work, contain rather more in the way of reflection on the difficulties of
authorship. The specific problem of the presumption of a woman writing
in serious male genres is addressed in the so-called Epistola eiusdem ad
quosdam sapientes huius libri fautores (Letter to the learned patrons)
which precedes the dramas in Book 2:

Homeyer, Hrotsvithae opera, p. 450. All translations of Hrotsvit are mine.

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women


quia, cum philosophicis adprime studiis enutriti | et scientia longe
excellentius sitis perfecti, | mei opusculum vilis mulierculae | vestra
admiratione dignum duxistis | et largitorem in me operantis gratiae |
fraterno affectu gratulantes laudastis, | arbitrantes mihi inesse aliquantulam
scientiam artium, | quarum subtilitas longe praeterit mei muliebre
ingenium.5
For you, having been nourished above all on philosophical study (the
quadrivium) and more excellently perfected in knowledge (sc. of
literature), have thought this work by me, a worthless little woman, to be
worthy of your admiration, and while congratulating with brotherly
affection have praised Him who gave the grace at work within me, judging
that I possess some little knowledge of the arts, the subtlety of which far
exceeds my womanly nature.

While this wording clearly demonstrates confidence that as a woman


and an author she has been accepted by the small circle of her friends and
patrons, it also shows how keenly she is aware that this acceptance is in
defiance of the prejudice of gender. As a woman the diminutive
muliercula is deliberately self-effacing she is by nature vilis, cheap or
of slight value, and her ingenium condition, nature, character or
spirit ought not to be marked by literary genius. If in fact she has such
talents, they are to be understood as wonders of the Grace of God. A
similar theme may be found in the praefatio to Book 2, which is linked
thematically with the epistle: here she writes about the triumph of men
over women as one of the givens of her world.
In keeping with this note of defensiveness, Hrotsvit repeatedly resorts
to the standard modesty topoi, which form the bulk of the praefatio to
Book 1 and echo throughout the other prefaces and letters: confessions of
inadequacy and poor erudition, apologies for expected errors, requests for
correction from the reader, pleas for forbearance, and assurances that she
is acting in good faith. Speaking of the dangers of using apocryphal
material, she explains that when she first began to write, she did not
understand how controversial the act was, but now she may as well finish
in the hope that some scraps of truth are preserved in her poems. In the
conventions of medieval writing, these set-pieces were almost obligatory
even for male authors, but in Hrotsvits verse they have a particular
frequency and urgency, not because she fears she is less competent than a
male writer, but because she has greater reason to be wary of the derision
5

Homeyer, Hrotsvithae opera, p. 235. Homeyer glosses philosophicis studiis with


das Studium der im Quadrivium zusammengefaten Wissensgebiete and scientia
with Kenntnis besonders der fr literarische Ttigkeit wichtigen Fcher.

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171

of the jealous. However if we wish to know the reality of her selfassessment, we find it clearly voiced a few lines further down in the
Letter to the learned patrons:
Unde non denego praestante gratia creatoris per dynamin me artes scire, |
quia sum animal capax disciplinae, | sed per energian fateor omnino
nescire. | Perspicax quoque ingenium divinitus mihi collatum esse
agnosco...6
For this reason I cannot deny that by the most excellent grace of the creator
I have a potential for knowledge of the arts, for I am a creature with a
capacity for learning, though I confess that in reality I know nothing. I also
recognize that the Godhead has endowed me with a sharp mind ...

The play on the words per dynamin and per energia is a learned joke:
the reference is to Aristotles philosophy of potentiality and actuality, but
transferred to Hrotsvits feigned ignorance this learned vocabulary negates
the protestation of ignorance even as it is spoken, rendering all the more
credible the assertion of her intellectual merits: she has been endowed with
a perspicax ingenium, a sharp mind. These words are a bold acknowledgement
of her own intelligence, and though the statement is immediately linked to
a further modesty topos the sentence continues with the regret that since
her teachers ceased to instruct her, her laziness has hindered her continued
learning this only serves as a new motivation for writing: that her natural
faculties might not be wasted:
... et largitor ingenii | tanto amplius in me iure laudaretur, | quanto
muliebris sensus tardior esse creditur.
and the Giver of talent might justly be praised through me more highly,
the more limited the female intellect is believed to be.

This head-on confrontation with the issues of gender and the authority
of a poet is backed up by two further legitimation strategies. The first may
seem obvious but is worth stating nevertheless: as a daughter of the
nobility Hrotsvit can call upon her connections. Though her precise social
standing is not attested, it is clear that her friend and patron was the
Abbess Gerberg II, a niece of Otto I. In the unlikely event that a woman of
humble birth had been admitted to Gandersheim, she would hardly have
become Gerbergs special protge. But even if Hrotsvit had no standing
of her own, through Gerberg she is associated with the House of Saxony,
6

Homeyer, Hrotsvithae opera, p. 236.

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

and it was Gerberg who gave the commission to write the life of her uncle.
Indeed, the epistle to Otto II suggests that the order came from the
Emperor himself: in monstrando tuis quantum plus pareo iussis (showing
how closely I follow your commands).7 It is therefore certain that at least
the Gesta Ottonis, if not Hrotsvits entire lifes work, was intended to be
presented at court, and would have been received by the Emperor with a
predisposition of good will. Any writer would take courage from such a
constellation, and Hrotsvits prefaces and epistles repeatedly remind the
reader of the dignitaries whose favour she enjoys.
Some significance might be attached to the fact that the life of Otto and
the Primordia are poetic works. All Hrotsvits opera were written in a
competent Latin verse laced with sometimes elaborate figures of speech.
While the choice of verse was not uncommon for saints lives or drama, it
was highly unusual in the historical writing of this period. I have shown
elsewhere that only about seven percent of medieval chronicles are in
verse. Furthermore, apart from isolated exceptions, the verse form appears
in this kind of writing only from the eleventh century, and then
predominantly in the vernacular.8 The rise of the late-medieval verse
chronicle in Germany, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere can be seen
as a compensation for the lack of sophistication which was felt to be
inherent in the use of the common tongue, although it has also been
understood as a relocating of historiography in the tradition of the courtly
romance. Hrotsvit, writing in the tenth century, is well before these
developments, but her innovative choice can be explained by the same two
factors: it may be that, having begun by writing in other forms in which
verse was thought appropriate, she simply transferred the use of verse
from there to her history writing; but at the same time, it is possible that
the choice of the more demanding linguistic form was a way of
compensating gender bias. It is an obvious and demonstrative way of
being better than the boys.
Finally, an unusual and highly innovative form of authorial legitimation
is to be found in a play on the poets own name which we find in the
preface to Book 2. As a personal name, Hrotsvit is an early form of
Roswita, a name from the Germanic heroic tradition derived ultimately
from Proto-Germanic *hriz, honour and *swina, strong. The tenthcentury Low German forms of these words, hrthswth (affected by the
Ingvaeonic nasal-spirant law), were still similar enough to the current
northern form of the name that Hrotsvit would easily have recognized the
7
8

Homeyer, Hrotsvithae opera, p. 388.


Graeme Dunphy, Verse and Prose, EMC, pp. 1473-6.

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173

derivation. Developing the semantics rather imaginatively from honour,


which in the medieval sense implied positive acclaim bestowed by others,
to proclamation (both involve speaking out), Hrotsvit understood the
name to mean she who speaks with a strong voice, allowing her to style
herself Clamor Validus Gandeshemensis, the Clarion Voice of Gandersheim.
This explanation of the name may not be supported by modern research on
historical linguistics, but it is perfectly in keeping with the medieval
tradition of hermeneutical etymologizing, in which the truth of an
etymology did not lie in anything as dead and dusty as attestable historical
cognates or deducible regular sound shifts, but rather in the insight which
the hypothesis about the signifier could provide to the nature of the thing
signified, and to its place in the divine economy.9 If Hrotsvits name could
be etymologized as clear, strong, resounding voice, then that was what
she was, by Gods command.
Anna Komnene (10831153) is unique among the female chroniclers
of the Middle Ages in that her birth status gave her vast authority in
society, and a freedom to operate independently of the sort which women
seldom enjoyed.10 As the eldest child of Alexios I Komnenos, she was
born with a strong claim on the Byzantine imperial throne, and only a few
weeks after her birth she was betrothed to the nine-year-old son of the
deposed Michael VII, Konstantinos Doukas, whom Alexios had made
nominal co-emperor in order to safeguard the legitimacy of his seizure of
power. Thus together Anna and Konstantinos were heirs to both rival
claimants on the imperial dignity, and Anna was brought up in the
expectancy that she would one day succeed her father. These hopes were
9

Friedrich Ohly, On the spiritual sense of the word in the Middle Ages, in Ohly,
Sensus Spiritualis: Studies in Medieval Significs and the Philology of Culture,
translated from German by Kenneth Northcott (Chicago UP, 2005): It would be
foolish to deride such an etymology as unscientific if it helped the people of its
time to arrive at a deeper signification of the meaning of the word, since it was
precisely the task of etymology at that time to illuminate the spiritual meaning of
the word. Our modern etymology would have appeared questionable to the Middle
Ages, because it is bogged down in the literal meaning of the word and does not
give any explanation of the meaning of the world or of life. The spiritual meaning
of the word with its universe of signification, and its scope of signification,
contains an interpretation of meaning that derives from the Christian spirit and is
thus a guide to life, p. 18.
10
Text edition: Dieter R. Reinsch, Annae Comnenae Alexias (Berlin and NY: de
Gruyter, 2001). English translation: Anna Komene, The Alexiad, tr. E.R.A. Sewter
(1969, revised edition Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics 2009). I am indebted to
my colleague Stephan Albrecht (Mainz) for his generous advice on the Byzantine
background.

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

dashed with the birth of her brother John in 1087, and the death of
Konstantinos around 1095. In 1097 she was married instead to Alexios
general and favourite, the 35-year-old Nikephoros Bryennios the
Younger. However, Anna never relinquished an ambition to be Empress,
and was encouraged in this by her mother, the Empress Eirene. In 1118
they twice plotted unsuccessfully to usurp John, first by trying to persuade
Alexios on his deathbed to name Bryennios rather than John as his
successor, and then by attempting to stage a coup before the newly
enthroned John had a grip on power. They were thwarted by Bryennios
himself, whose conscience would not allow him to conspire in an act of
treason. Anna spent much of the rest of her long life in retirement in a
convent founded by her mother. It was there that in 1137 she nursed the
dying Bryennios, and subsequently wrote a chronicle of the period
inspired by his writings.
Annas (Alexiad) is the most significant medieval Greek work
in any genre by a woman, and at over five hundred pages in the critical
edition it is by far the most ambitious of the works discussed here. This
encomiastic history, centred on the life of Annas father and with its
heroic-sounding title echoing Homers Iliad, is a highly sophisticated
literary undertaking written mostly in a classicizing Greek. It is arranged
in a prologue and fifteen books, the first two of which tell of campaigns
during Alexios youth almost as a preamble, while the remaining thirteen
books contain an account of his reign. Although strongly focussed on his
successes, its scope is much wider than a purely biographical work, giving
an account of incursions of the Seljuk Turks into Asia Minor, and the
ravages of Norman Crusaders, whom Anna calls (Celts), in the
Mediterranean. For much of the political history of the period, Anna is one
of our most important sources.
Her prologue begins with an almost lyrical meditation on the nature of
time, the force which wipes away important and unimportant things, and
of historical writing, the finest bulwark against times irresistible flow.
Then she continues:
,
, , ,



( ,
,

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175

)
... 11
I, Anna, daughter of the Emperor Alexios and the Empress Eirene, born
and bred in the purple, not without some acquaintance with literature
having devoted the most earnest study to the Greek language, in fact, and
being not unpractised in rhetoric and having read thoroughly the works of
Aristotle and the dialogues of Plato, and having fortified my mind with the
tetrakus [i.e. the quadrivium] of sciences (these things must be divulged,
and it is not boasting to recall what Nature and my own zeal for knowledge
have given me, nor what God has apportioned to me from above and what
has been contributed by circumstance); I desire now by means of my
writings to give an account of my fathers deeds...

This manifesto of self-confidence would be remarkable for any


medieval writer, let alone for a woman, and clearly has the tone of one
who has been raised to command. The source of authority here is in the
first instance Annas belief in her own persona the daughter of an
Emperor does not need to apologize for letting her voice be heard. The
Porphyra (Purple Chamber) was the birthing pavilion of the Great Palace
in Constantinople, the walls of which were lined with porphyry. Any child
fathered by the emperor was entitled to the honorific designation
or .12 Anna leads with the claim to be
porphyrogenite, a distinction which only a reigning Empress could trump.
Her parentage remains a primary theme throughout the work, inevitably
perhaps given the nature of her project.
It is interesting that in the opening lines Anna cites both her parents in
equal measure. Although the Alexiad is strongly focussed on her father, for
the prevailing norms of the historiographical tradition require the
centrality of the ruling monarch, it nevertheless has been argued that in
fact Anna is in some ways more interested in the female line, not least
because, a generation earlier, Eirenes parentage was far more
distinguished than that of Alexios.13 Anna and Eirene were both strong
11

Reinsch, Annae Comnenae Alexias, pp. 5-6. Translation from Sewter, Alexiad, p.

3.
12

Gilbert Dagron, Ns dans la pourpre, Travaux et mmoires du Centre de


recherche sur l'histoire et la civilisation de Byzance, 12 (1994), 105-42.
13
On this, see various articles in Anna Komnene and Her Times, ed. Thalia
Gouma-Peterson (New York and London: Garland, 2000), especially Barbara Hill,
Actions Speak Louder than Words: Anna Komnenes Attempted Usurpation, 4562, and Thalia Gouma-Peterson, Gender and Power: Passages to the Maternal in
Anna Komnenes Alexiad, 107-24.

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

figures, and it is notable that Anna, who never took her husbands family
name, Bryennios, sometimes appears in contemporary documents with her
fathers surname, Komnene, but sometimes with her mothers, as Anna
Doukaina. Eirene for her part had favoured her daughter Anna over her
son John, to the extent of conspiring in Annas attempted usurpation of the
throne. Anna and Eirene shared a view which a misogynistic Byzantine
society generally would have found anathema, namely, that a woman of
royal birth carried within her as much innate stature as a man when it came
to the legitimacy of dynastic succession. Alexioss mother Anna Dalassene
also appears in the Alexiad as a powerful matriarch,
,14 who in a dramatic scene in Hagia Sophia guaranteed the
safety of her dynasty. Anna certainly found in her mother and her
grandmother powerful models for her own career, and it was from them
that she derived much of the confidence she required both as an actor on
the political stage and later as a writer. After all, the commission to write a
history of Alexios had come initially from Eirene.
To this claim to social authority Anna adds a second claim, one of
intellectual authority, and unlike Hrotsvit, she gives no hint whatsoever of
even a pro-forma modesty. Her education in the advanced disciplines of
the quadrivium, she tells us, was impressive, and it is interesting that she
makes reference in particular to her knowledge of the pre-Christian Greek
classics: she might also have mentioned Homer, to whom she alludes
many times in her text.15 Her intellectual capacities, she is not embarrassed
to boast, are attributable to a combination of the fine education she was
given, her own hard work, and the native wit endowed to her by God. This
is no idle claim, for already by this stage, only ten lines into the work, she
has shown unmistakably that her command of the skills of language and
rhetoric are formidable.16
In the second section of her prologue, Anna addresses a question of
credibility which might be tricky for any historian who stands too close to
the subject she or he records. Ultimately the authority of the historian is
derived from the confidence of the reader that the historical record will be
reliable, so while Annas status as an imperial princess may counterbalance
any doubts the reader might have about the reliability of a woman writer, it
14

Reinsch, Annae Comnenae Alexias, p. 65.


Maria Tziatzi-Papagianni, ber Zitate und Anspielungen in der Alexias Anna
Komnenes sowie Anklnge derselben in den spteren Geschichtsschreibern,
Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 97 (2004), 167-86.
16
On the awareness of classical learning in medieval Byzantium, see Anthony
Kaldellis, Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and
the reception of the classical tradition (CUP, 2007).
15

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177

also raises a new question mark: can a daughter have the critical distance
to write about the reign of her father?

,
,
, . 17
Now that I have decided to write the story of his life, I am fearful of
wagging and suspicious tongues: someone might conclude that in
composing the history of my father I am glorifying myself; the history,
wherever I express admiration for any act of his, may seem wholly false
and mere panegyric.

This is a perfectly valid fear, if she seriously wants the reader to


believe she is a neutral reporter. Most historians in the Middle Ages wrote
with an agenda, and Anna is no exception: as even a casual reading
suggests, and scholarly studies have confirmed, the Alexiad certainly does
have a propagandistic element which goes beyond building her fathers
reputation to undergird the legitimacy of the entire dynasty which he
represents. Nor is there anything particularly reprehensible about this,
provided it is not achieved through outright falsehood. But Anna
apparently has an ambition to be read as one of the great Byzantine
historians, and would like to be known for her fairness and neutrality. This
requires a conscious distancing of her critical perspective from her
personal affinities, as Anna now expounds in words adapted from Polybios
(Histories I.14.7), the Hellenic historian of the second century BC.
,
,
,
,
. 18
Whenever one assumes the role of historian, friendship and enmities have
to be forgotten; often one has to bestow on adversaries the highest
commendation, where their deeds merit it; often, too, ones nearest
relatives have to be censured, as and when their behaviour deserves it.

17
18

Reinsch, Annae Comnenae Alexias, p. 6. Translation from Sewter, Alexiad, p. 4.


Reinsch, Annae Comnenae Alexias, p. 7. Translation from Sewter, Alexiad, p. 4.

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

In the passage Anna cites here, Polybios is seeking the historians


purpose in the practical benefit which judicious historical writing can
provide for future generations. Anna does not name Polybios, but an
educated reader could have been expected to recognize the source. By
placing herself in his intellectual tradition she hopes to guard against
possible criticism of her judgments.
One further claim is made at this point to emphasize her reliability:
Anna is basing her account, she says, on eyewitness testimony,
, for the participants in the events she describes
were the fathers and grandfathers of men still alive. In fact, her proximity
to these eyewitnesses is even closer than this rhetorical formulation
suggests, as she lived through many of the events herself. Interestingly,
though, she does not present herself as a witness, but instead emphasizes
the process of interviewing those in a position to know. While this may
seem an obvious procedure to the modern reader, it was not in fact
common for medieval chroniclers to assert the superiority of oral
testimony or use it in more than a sporadic and haphazard way. Although
references to this as a source of historical knowledge do gradually increase
in frequency from the eleventh century onwards in the works of such
chroniclers as Otto of Freising, Thietmar of Merseburg and Peter of Zittau,
it was not until the radically innovative French chronicle of Jean Froissart
in the fourteenth century that a scientific methodology of gathering and
evaluating a multiplicity of testimonies was developed.19 Yet, we know
that Anna, writing in a convent in Constantinople, received distinguished
guests and grilled them for information for her project. In this she was
ahead of her time, and her claim that this procedure adds authority to her
history is more than the pro-forma topos which it might at first appear.
Christine de Pizan (13641430) was, after Hrotsvit, the only medieval
woman of whom we can say she was an accomplished writer in a
multiplicity of genres who also wrote history.20 She was born in Venice,
19

Peter Ainsworth, Contemporary and Eyewitness History, in Historiography


in the Middle Ages, ed. Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 24976.
20
There is a not inconsiderable body of scholarly literature on Christine. See for
example Marie-Josphine Pinet, Christine de Pisan 1364-1430: tude
biographique et littraire (Paris, 1927, reprinted Geneva: Slatkine, 1974); Enid
McLeod, The Order of the Rose: The Life and Ideas of Christine de Pizan
(London: Chatto & Windus, 1976); Charity Cannon Willard, Christine de Pizan:
Her Life and Works (New York: Persea, 1984); Maureen Quilligan, The Allegory
of Female Authority: Christine de Pizans Cit des Dames (Ithaca & London:
Cornell UP, 1991); Kate Langdon Forhan, The Political Theory of Christine de

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but lived in Paris, where she produced forty one quite diverse vernacular
works, often in the service of the French court. Europes first professional
female writer, she took up the pen out of the need to support her children
after their fathers death, and she wrote with an erudition and a literary
brilliance which most male writers of the period would have envied. She is
certainly best known for her Livre de la Cit des Dames (1405), which
today is celebrated as the first feminist work of European literature, but it
is often forgotten that she twice acted as a historian, with great success.
Her biography of King Charles V of France (1404), Le Livre des faits et
bonnes meurs du sage roy Charles V,21 is an imaginatively structured
account which completely breaks the mould of the contemporary tradition
of historical writing. Rather than arranging events chronologically, she
approached the task thematically, constructing the work in three main
sections on Charles courage, chivalry and wisdom, and gathering the
episodes which illustrate the point at hand. It is certainly a work of great
erudition, as is clear from her use of such sources as the Grandes
Chroniques de France, the Chronique Normande du XIV sicle, Bernard
Gui, Vincent de Beauvais, and many others, as well as a series of
important eyewitness interviews, which since Froissart had become an
essential element of any serious historical work on events within living
memory. But equally it is marked by a creativity of form and a level of
insight into the personality of her subject which make it one of the great
historical texts of its period. Then towards the end of her life Christine
composed a poem on the wars of Joan of Arc (1429), Dicti en lhonneur
de la Pucelle or Le Dicti de Jehanne dArc, which even more strongly
subordinates chronology to a thematic presentation.22
Christine stands apart from the other authors discussed here in that she
actively challenged the gender stereotypes which Hrotsvit in principle
accepted and Anna Komnene simply ignored. The challenge began in her
early poem Epistre au Dieu dAmours (1399) with her first criticism of the

Pizan (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002); Francoise Autrand: Christine de Pizan: Une


femme en politique (Paris: Fayard, 2009).
21
Text edition: Christine de Pisan, Le Livre des Fais et Bonnes Meurs du Sage Roy
Charles V, ed. Suzanne Solente (Paris: Socit de lhistoire de France, 1936;
reprint 1977). There is no published translation, though part of the prologue
appears in English in Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee, The
Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan (New York and London: Norton, 1997),
113-5.
22
Text edition with English translation: Christine de Pisan, Diti de Jehanne darc,
eds Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty (Oxford: Society for the Study of
Medieval Languages and Literature, 1977).

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thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose by Jean de Meun for its representations


of women, which were crudely misogynistic even by the standards of the
time. In the subsequent furious uproar, the so-called Querelle de la Rose
(14001402), she was attacked by the Provost of Lille, Jean de Montreuil,
and defended by Jean Gerson, the chancellor of the University of Paris,
and the quarrel ran on through a number of publications, lyrics and often
vitriolic letters, taking in an ever widening circle of participants all the
way to the Queen.23 In this exchange Christine debated the merits and
demerits of received perceptions, spoke of the pain of women who felt
themselves wronged by these calumnies, and postulated how different the
worlds literature would be if it had been written by women. This
established Christines reputation as a writer and as an intellectual capable
of holding her own in debates with men, it won her both friends and
enemies among the humanists of Paris, but above all it established her
provocative position on gender, and led to the publication in 1405 of her
Cit des Dames, in which the heroic women of the past build an allegorical
city, behind the walls of which women are safe from defamatory
judgments against their sex.
If the subject of the quarrel was the moral hypocrisy of Jean de Meuns
work, which advocates licentiousness for men while pillorying the
supposed immorality of women, one senses that the real source of outrage
was that it should have been a woman who exercised criticism of a
renowned male author. Christine was obviously sensitive to this challenge
from the beginning, for in fact it was she who first touched on it, noting in
a letter to Jean de Montreuil that he should not think she was only
defending women because as a woman herself she had a vested interest.
Nevertheless, her gender was relevant in the positive sense that when she
claimed women could be virtuous she spoke from experience; therefore
she asked him not to think her arrogant for writing as a woman. However,
it was the royal secretary Gontier Col who turned this against her in
patronising letter which assumed that as a woman she could not have
thought these things herself and must be writing as a cover for others.
Christines answer ignored this, except to say that she did not take it as a
reproach if she was reminded that she was female, and that even a little
mouse can upset a great lion. The nastiest onslaught then came from Cols
brother Pierre, a canon of Paris, who spoke of the foolish conceit of a
womans mouth condemning a man of such high understanding. Her
response to this was remarkably mild: she asked why he attacked her so
23

Text edition of all the documents of the debate, with French translations of the
Latin epistles: Eric Hicks, Le dbat sur le Roman de la Rose: Christine de Pizan,
Jean Gerson, Jean de Montreuil, Gontier et Pierre Col (Paris: Champion, 1977).

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181

personally when he did not similarly attack Gerson. Generally she avoided
being drawn into a discussion of the relevance of her own gender, and she
made no attacks ad hominem herself, instead steering the debate always
back onto the more abstract matters of literary criticism and gender
politics which she wished to debate. This debate she won, simply by the
sovereign, spirited, scholarly manner in which she presented her case.
One might therefore say that when she came to writing the Livre des
Fais in 1404, the strategies of authority were already in place. Turning
now to history, the first Frenchwoman ever to do so, she knows that she
has already attracted and withstood all the derision which Hrotsvit
anticipated. At the beginning of this work, she does not need to justify or
excuse her presumption as a woman for undertaking such a lofty project
because the reader knows she has already fought this battle. As a result,
there is not much in the prologue to compare with the legitimation
strategies seen in some of the other chronicles discussed here. There is, of
course, a set-piece prayer for divine guidance, God being always a useful
ally:
Sire Dieux, euvre mes levres, enlumine ma pense, et mon entendement
esclaires celle fin que mignorance nencombre mes sens expliquer les
chose conceues en ma memoire, et soit mon commencement, moyen et fin
la louenge de toy, souveraine puissance et dignet incirconscriptible,
sens humain non comprenable! 24
Lord God, open my lips, illuminate my thoughts, and give light to my
understanding, that my ignorance should not hinder my mind in explaining
the things conceived in my memory, and let my beginning, middle and end
praise you, sovereign power and uncircumscribable dignity, incomprehensible
to human wit!

And there is a relatively modest modesty topos:


pour ce, moy Cristine de Pizan, femme soubz les tenebres dignorance au
regart de cler entendment, mais doue de deon de Dieu et nature en tant
comme desir se peut estendre en amour destude, suivant le stille des
premierains et devanciers, noz ediffieurs en meurs redevables, present,
par grace de Dieu et . 25
so that I, Christine de Pizan, a woman wandering in the darkness of
ignorance when it comes to clear understanding, but endowed with the gift
of God and nature insofar as desire can turn into love of study, following
24
25

Solente, Livre des Fais, p. 4. All translations of Christine are mine.


Solente, Livre des Fais, p. 5.

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the manner of our predecessors and earlier writers, our teachers in matters
of morals, now by the Grace of God...

But there is no direct discussion of gender and no insistence on her


qualifications, only these minimal set-pieces. If these seem rather
underplayed, this is partly because of the level-headed common-sense
approach which Christine took to conflict, displayed already in her
contribution to the rose controversy. But it is also partly because her
legitimation as a writer had already been defended elsewhere.
However, there was also a second reason why Christine may have
begun this task with confidence, namely that it had been commissioned by
the highest authority. We have already seen the important legitimizing
force of a commission: Hrotsvit also had the encouragement of her abbess
and Anna Komnene saw herself fulfilling her mothers wish that the
Alexiad be written by a family member. But Christine, contracted
professionally for a fee by royal command, is in a different league in this
respect. It seems that Philip of Burgundy, the brother of the late Charles V
and regent during the infirmity of his son, decided that an official history
of Charless reign would be of political value, and casting around for a
scholar to undertake the task, he chose Christine over all the great male
literati in Paris. The obvious choice would have been one of the scholars
of the abbey of Saint-Denis, where Charles was buried, for the abbeys
historians had been the official royal chroniclers since the abbacy of Suger
in the twelfth century. But Philip wanted a more personal account of
Charles than what he already had in the annals of the chancellery. Possibly
he had been impressed by Christines lyric poetry: we know he had
received a copy of her Mutacion de Fortune a short time before.
Undoubtedly he wanted someone who would use the vernacular in a
sophisticated but natural way. But he was taking a risk, for Christine had
never written anything like this before. One might wonder if she had been
recommended by the Queen, who had been observing the Querelle, or if
Philip himself wanted to make a statement of support, for this commission
could not have gone unnoticed in Gontier Cols offices. At any rate, if
Philip chose Christine over all the authors in France, the question of why
she of all people is writing is not one she needs to address. This is
certainly the reason why Christine devotes the entire second chapter of
Part I to an unusually detailed account of the day she was invited to the
Louvre to receive Philips instructions.
One has the impression, then, that Christine began her work on the
Livre des Fais with a sense that the issue of her gender as a writer had
ceased to be immediately controversial. This changed. On 27th April 1404,
the day before she completed work on Part I of her book, Philip died

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unexpectedly, leaving her bereft of the patron whose choice no-one would
dare challenge. Shortly after this, she seems to have received critical
feedback on the current version of her manuscript. It is not known where
this criticism came from, but if she had submitted the draft of Part I and
the beginning of Part II for approval at court, perhaps to ensure that she
still had a commission, it could easily have received attention from the
circles of the same royal secretary with whom she had already crossed
swords. At any rate, it is not hard to imagine why a conservative reader
might have found fault, since her approach to the work, structured around
the personality traits of the deceased king, must have flown in the face of
expectations. As a result, chapters 18 and 21 of Book II are devoted to
justifying her work against adverse opinion, and here among a whole
series of other issues on which she has to defend her methodology, the
reproach that a mere woman should have the audacity to write history
again raises its ugly head.
In II.18 Christine responds to the charge that she has been unduly
flattering to the current king by insisting she has only written what her
sources told her, and indeed, that she believes the praise to be understated
because she knows there is more she has not been told. And at this point
she complains in passing that some of those from whom she sought
information:
... par adventure pour ce que il leur sembloit non apertenir ma petite
facult qui femme suis, enregistrer les noms de si haultes personnes, ne
men daignoient tenir regne... 26
... perhaps because they thought it inappropriate for someone of my limited
ability, being a woman, to record the names of such high persons, would
not deign to tell me what they knew...

Clearly, Christine has been made painfully aware of the prejudice against a
woman historian when it impinged on her access to the historians raw
data. At this point, she does not attempt to disarm the prejudice, she
merely notes it.
However in II.21 she tackles it head-on. Here she is dealing with
criticism specifically of the opening of Part II, in which she spoke
generally of the nature of chivalry, provoking indignation that ceste
ignorant femme should have the presumption to instruct male readers on
such matters.

26

Solente, Livre des Fais, p. 181-2.

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women


Auxquelz je respons ce que meismes autrefois ay dit, qui sert ad ce propos,
ce que Hugues de Saint Victour dit: Le sages homs aprent volentiers;
poson que un enfent lui moustrast, il ne regarde mie la personne, qui
parle, mais la doctrine quil donne; se elle est bonne, il la retient, se
mauvaise est, il la delaisse. Pareillement puis dire en ceste part; et quant
ad ce que femme suis oser parler darmes, il est escript que es anciens
aages, comme autrefois ay dit, une sage femme de Grece nomme Minerve
trouva lart et science de faire armeures de fer et dacier, et tous les
harnois, que on seult porter en bataille, fu par lui premierement trouv; si
ny a nulle force qui que donne la dottrine, mais que bonne et salutaire
soit.27
To them I respond as I have done before, which will serve here again, with
the words of Hugh of St Victor: The wise man should enjoy learning;
even if a child instructs him, he does not look at the person speaking, but at
the instruction he gives; if it is good, he accepts it, if it is bad, he rejects it.
I can say the same thing in this case. And as for the fact that as a woman I
dare to speak of arms, it is written that in ancient times, as I have said
elsewhere, a wise Greek woman named Minerva discovered the art and
science of making arms from iron and steel, and all the armour which one
should wear in battle was first invented by her; therefore it is not important
who gives the teaching, but only that it is good and salutary.

Hugh was a twelfth-century Parisian theologian and philosopher who


would have been held in the highest esteem by Christines critics, and
citing him here, as she had four years earlier in LEpistre Otha, is a clever
move. To this she adds information on Minerva which was a standard part
of the medieval repertoire of classical lore. With such authorities cited,
even a woman can write what she knows.
Christines second piece of what might be termed historical writing
was her poem on Joan of Arc. This was her final work; she had in fact
retired from writing around 1418 when, together with the rest of the court,
she was forced to leave Paris, the city having fallen to the Burgundians,
but she broke her silence with this final piece published in 1429, the year
before her death. It is the first of many French works in praise of the
pucelle, and the only one of any importance composed while Joan was still
alive. Noting the call in strophe VII for the story to be escript, qui que
displace, / En mainte cronique et hystoire! (written, no matter whom it
displease, in many a chronicle and history) we will certainly place it in the
historiographical tradition, but it can in no sense stand alongside the Livre
des Fais as a factual account. Snippets of report flash stroboscopically
before the readers eye amidst longer passages of panegyric and prophecy,
27

Solente, Livre des Fais, p. 190-1.

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185

and the whole narrative has a tone of religious and patriotic fervour which
is far from the scholarly composure of the earlier work. Clearly, the
intended readers did not need to be told the story, they needed only clues
as to which parts are being celebrated in any particular meditation.
Christines delight at the successes of the French army under Joan are
entirely understandable, she herself having spent the last eleven years in
the safety of a convent while her country was ravaged by the worst phase
of the Hundred Years War, and this in itself would explain the enthusiasm
with which she predicts an English defeat followed by a French crusade to
the Holy Land led by Joan herself. But in view of her lifes work of
rehabilitating a strong and intelligent femininity, she must have been
particularly delighted that it was a woman whom God had chosen for the
task. At the latest when strophe XXXIV declares Hee quel honneur au
femenin / Sexe! (Oh what honour for the female sex!), we recognize how
perfectly Joan fits into Christines programme. It is perhaps a mercy that
Christine did not live to see Joan executed after a travesty of a trial in
1431. This poem, then, is not only a record of an inspirational teenage girl
on the battlefield; it is also the final statement by a now elderly champion
of the female intellect on the ability of a woman to do anything at all.
When Joan saves France, any remaining doubts about Christines
legitimacy as a female writer must surely be silenced.
And yet the doubts remained. Christine won many eminent admirers
and began a process of philogynous rethinking within the male
establishment, but obviously there were still those who were embarrassed
by a woman writing in manly genres. When Christines book on arms and
chivalry (Le Livre des fais d'armes et de chevalerie, 1410) was republished
in 1448, the editor altered the text to make it look as though it had been
written by a male. And well into the eighteenth century, historians of the
reign of Charles V who used the Livre des Fais as a source thought it
better not to mention whom they had been reading.28
Bartolomea Riccoboni (c. 13691440) was one of the founding
members of the Dominican convent of Corpus Domini in Venice.29 The
convent was in fact a rebranding of a tiny community of Benedictine nuns
which had existed on the same spit of land at the north-west end of the
28

McLeod, Order of the Rose, p. 106.


The text edition appears as an appendix in the edition of the letters of
Riccobonis confessor, Giovanni Dominici: M.-T. Casella & G. Pozzi, B. Giovanni
Dominici OP Lettere Spirituali (Freiburg/Switzerland UP, 1969). English
translation: Daniel Bornstein, Sister Bartolomea Riccoboni, Life and Death in a
Venetian Convent (Chicago UP, 2000). See also Cristian Bratu, Riccoboni,
Bartolomea in EMC, 1274-5.
29

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

medieval town for a quarter of a century previously, but it was only with
the assumption of the Dominican habit in 1394, with a new patron and a
new energy, that a substantial community of women were settled in
adequate accommodation. Twenty-seven women took their vows on the
day of the consecration of the house, and within two years they had grown
to a body of seventy-two sisters living behind locked doors in a closed
society, enjoying considerable financial security thanks to influential
benefactors, and living according to the strictest observance of the rule.
Sister Bartolomea was twelve years old when she joined Corpus
Domini in 1394, and she remained within its walls until her death in 1440.
A daughter of a respectable Venetian family with a strong sense of
religious calling, she found the fresh piety of the new community
inspirational and in her writings she painted an idealizing picture of their
communal life. Around 1415 she began work on the Cronaca del Corpus
Domini and in parallel the Necrologia del Corpus Domini, which she
continued to 1436. The chronicle is arranged in eighteen chapters, of
which the first eleven recount the history of the sisters as far as the
difficulties they encountered in the Papal Schism. The remainder of the
work almost loses sight of Corpus Domini as it turns to the macropolitical, narrating in a highly partisan manner the events of the Schism
and the life of Pope Gregory XII. This latter section is interesting as it
goes far beyond the material we might expect a Dominican woman to
cover, and it is possibly to be explained by the fact that Gregory, born
Angelo Correr, was a Venetian who may well have been known to
Riccoboni or others of the sisters.
Riccoboni introduces her work with a brief but bold showcasing of her
identity and her intentions:
Mi, sour Bortolamia Richobon, abiando uno grandissimo desiderio de
scriver le grandissime maraviglie che l nostro clementissimo signor Dio
ha adoperado in questo sacratissimo monestier, facto a reverentia del suo
sancto nome ora el fa anni 20 (ma per vederme insufficiente ho pugnado
com mi medema, perch a tal opera bisogneria persone dotte e savie), per
non far tanta resistentia al Spirito sancto, me ho deliberado a scriver a
questa intentione, acci che le sorelle che vegner da pu de noi siano ben
edificate et abiano causa de laudar el Signor de tanti beni et infiamarse a
ben viver et seguitar el bon principio. Or come saver me sforzer de dir
tutta la verit de quello ch visto et habudo, e se io non componesse como
doveria, priego li lectori me perdona.30

30

Casella and Pozzi, Lettere Spirituali, p. 258. Translation from Bornstein, p. 25.

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187

I, Sister Bartolomea Riccoboni, had the greatest desire to write of the


wondrous marvels that our most clement Lord God has performed in this
most blessed convent, built in reverence for his holy name some twenty
years ago. However, I wrestled within myself at the thought of my
inadequacy, since such an undertaking would require wise and learned
persons. Rather than continue to resist the Holy Spirit, I have decided to
write with this goal in mind: in order that those sisters who follow after us
may be properly edified, and that they may have reason to praise the Lord
for so many good things and be inspired to live well and follow through on
this good beginning. I shall strive to do my best to recount the full truth of
what I have seen and heard, and if I do not write as I ought to, I beg my
readers to pardon me.

In some ways this prologue shows obvious conventional traits. The


modesty topos and appeal for divine guidance are standard rhetorical
elements. While one can imagine that this secluded religieuse might have
been genuinely daunted by the task she had undertaken, the sovereign
manner in which she subsequently handles the material in the body of the
work testifies that she is more than competent. The prologue also betrays a
tone which suggests that any apprehension is mixed with confidence as
she rises to the challenge. The predominance of first-person verb forms
which translate into English with an authorial I is striking, and these
recur, though far less frequently, throughout the course of the chronicle.
Riccobonis perception that the task requires a wise and learned author
raises the stakes and makes it seem all the more remarkable when she
undertakes to do her best. The conscious equating of her own activity
with intellectual authority, albeit couched in the topos of inadequacy, is as
striking as the claim to have conceived and initiated the project on her own
authority without patron, commission or human prompting motivated
primarily by her own greatest desire: me ho deliberado, I have decided!
This must be seen in the context of the spirituality which is evident in
the chronicle as the essence of life at Corpus Domini. The sisters report
visions, revelations and epiphanies with a regularity which puts them on a
par with the everyday communication between a group leader and his
team: every decision is a decision by God. In the first chapter of the work,
for example, the first founder of the earlier Benedictine settlement, Sister
Lucia Tiepolo, is inspired to establish a convent in Venice when she sees
the Lord Jesus in the form of a man tied to the column, all wounded and
bloody, with the crown of thorns on his head and receives instructions
from him. Chapter by chapter Riccoboni records how the authority for the
building of the community was given step by step in visions to the sisters,
and the male representatives of the church hierarchy were inclined to
accept these instructions if not immediately then at least when the stream

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

of complementary visions became impossible to ignore. Thus Riccoboni


does not need a commission from a superior: if she feels moved to
undertake this work, this must be a command from the Holy Spirit, and it
would be disobedience to refuse. This of course was a daring argument in
a world where every heretic claimed visionary authority and the
instruments of church discipline were not readily inclined to accept
purported theophanies at face value. It is however entirely in keeping with
the movements of female spirituality in the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries, and as the primary readership was within the convent, we may
assume that the sisters at least would have accepted this assumption.
The strong sense of harmony and unity of purpose which characterizes
the sisterhood and permeates the chronicle is also a source of authority.
Riccoboni entitles her work una breve cronica del sanctissimo monestier
del Corpo di Cristo de Veniexia, de le sorelle dellordene de missier san
Domenico, focusing on the sisters as a group, and at no point does she
sound detached from the history she records. She is at one with the
community, and the authority of the community is the authority of her text.
The community however derives its authority not only from the visions of
the sisters but equally from the patronage of two father figures, whose
indulgence and approval the chronicle is in large part dedicated to
charting. The reader senses the assumption that these two great men would
be pleased with the devoted offering of a Sister Bartolomea.
The first of these men is the diplomat and poet Giovanni Dominici,
longstanding confessor to the convent, who had been involved in the
negotiations leading to its re-establishment as a Dominican house, and
followed its progress benevolently for the rest of his life. A long entry in
Riccobonis necrology describes his rise from lector in the Dominican
church of San Zanipolo in Venice (appointed in 1388) to Cardinal under
Gregory XII (1408), and ultimately to papal ambassador in matters
concerning the schism and the Hussites; it was in this function that he
travelled to Buda, where he died in 1419. Riccoboni styles him Our
Reverend Father and depicts the sisters filial affection so vividly that the
reader can scarcely imagine the convent without this central figure. In one
memorable episode, he became aware of the excessive self-abuse occurring
in the convent in the name of piety, and required that the instruments of
flagellation be surrendered to him. Apparently he was shocked by the
array of items with which he was presented. He thus appears both as the
figure who encourages and facilitates strict observance, and as the one
who protects the sisters from their own zeal. His five-year exile from
Venice, a punishment for bringing the popular flagellant movement of the
Bianchi battuti to the city in 1399 in defiance of the municipal authorities,

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is presented as an unbearable loss for the sisters, as are his later absences
on papal missions. Riccoboni pointedly places the words crucifige eum in
the mouths of those townspeople who spoke against him at the 1399
hearing, thus raising Dominici to an imitatio Christi. This almost
hagiographical language may have contributed to Dominicis beatification
in 1832.
The second revered male in the chronicle was the Pope himself. It is no
co-incidence that Giovanni Dominicis first action on behalf of the sisters
as recounted in chapter III of the chronicle was to visit the Papal court at
Perugia to seek approval from Boniface IX. From the beginning, a
connection between Corpus Domini and the Holy Father is established,
which then takes on its full significance when the Venetian Gregory XII
ascends the Roman throne. Although unlike Dominici he is not placed in
direct relationship with the convent, one suspects that he is known
personally to some of the sisters, and that conversely he would have
known through Dominici of their adoration, which he must have valued as
he manoeuvred for position against the Avignon Antipope, Benedict XIII.
Gregory too is the recipient of lavish filial affection. His visit to the
Venice area is celebrated and the political tensions which prevented his
visiting the city itself are lamented, and ultimately he too achieves saintly
status when the same words, crucifige eum, are placed in the mouths of his
opponents.
However, the simplicity of the sisters loyalty was challenged as the
Western Schism reached its climax and a third rival Pope, Alexander V,
was elected in 1409 by the Council of Pisa in an ill-conceived attempt to
end the Schism by replacing both of the existing claimants. The city of
Venice declared for Alexander, and the sisters of Corpus Domini were
now divided between a faction which obeyed the instructions of the city
government and one which remained loyal to Gregory. Bartolomea
Riccoboni belonged to the latter. This is the only place in the chronicle
where we are allowed a glimpse of any kind of disunity among the sisters,
and the chronicler makes great efforts to show the depths of mutual respect
between the two sides in a situation which all found painful. The
resolution of the problem with the early death of Alexander is seen as a
universally accepted happy ending, and the succession of John XXIII as a
new Pisan Antipope is quietly ignored. Thus the convent weathers the
storm of the schism without breach to its harmony, and returns to
unanimous devotion to Gregory in the end.
These two father figures, el nostro venerando padre and el sancto
padre, watch Christ-like over the convent as Jesus himself watches over
the Church, but the solidarity of love among the sisters even when division

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is forced upon them contrasts starkly with the bitter feuds within
Christendom at large. Thus Riccoboni does not speak on her own, but
derives her authority from a perfect holy community under unquestioned
male leadership, leaving the legitimacy of the female author without
question. The protection of a spiritual pater familias lends status to the
convent which is thus less dependent on other factors, and its voice is free
to speak.
Helene Kottanner (ca. 1400 after 1470) was, like Anna Komnene, a
participant in political events who later recorded these events for
posterity.31 She was, however, a retainer rather than a member of the royal
circles. She was born in Sopron (denburg) to a family of the lower
Austrian nobility, and married into patrician society; this might be seen as
marrying down, but her first husband Peter Szekeles was mayor of Sopron,
and her second marriage, to Johann Kottanner, took her into the wealthiest
circles of Viennese society. Though herself a wife and mother, she was by
1436 in the service of the Queen, Elizabeth of Luxembourg, as was her
husband. Since Kottanner was not of sufficiently high birth to be a lady31

Text edition: Karl Mollay, Die Denkwrdigkeiten der Helene Kottannerin


(1439-1440) (Vienna: sterreichischer Bundesverlag, 1971). English translation:
Maya Bijvoet Williamson, The Memoirs of Helene Kottanner (Cambridge: D. S.
Brewer, 1998). Recent studies include: Andreas Rther: Knigsmacher und
Kammerfrau im weiblichen Blick: Der Kampf um die ungarische Krone
(1439/40) in der Wahrnehmung von Helene Kottaner, in: Frstin und Frst.
Familienbeziehungen und Handlungsmglichkeiten von hochadeligen Frauen im
Mittelalter, ed. Jrg Rogge (Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 2004), pp. 225-47; Barbara
Schmid, Raumkonzepte und Inszenierung von Rumen in Helene Kottanners
Bericht von der Geburt und Krnung des Knigs Ladislaus Postumus (1440
1457), in Ausmessen-Darstellen-Inszenieren: Raumkonzepte und die Wiedergabe
von Rumen in Mittelalter und frher Neuzeit, ed. Ursula Kundert, Barbara
Schmid, Regula Schmid (Zrich: Chronos, 2007), pp. 113-38; Barbara Schmid
Ein Augenzeugenbericht im Dienst politischer Werbung. Helene Kottanner,
Kammerfrau am Hof Knig Albrechts II., und ihre Schrift von der Geburt und
Krnung Ladislaus Postumus, in Barbara Schmid, Schreiben fr Status und
Herrschaft. Deutsche Autobiographik in Sptmittelalter und frher Neuzeit
(Zrich: Chronos, 2006), pp. 132-40; Sabine Schmolinsky, Zwischen politischer
Funktion und Rolle der virgo docta: Weibliche Selbstzeugnisse im 15.
Jahrhundert, Fifteenth Century Studies, 24 (1998), 63-73; Horst Wenzel, Zwei
Frauen rauben eine Krone: Die denkwrdigen Erfahrungen der Helene Kottannerin
(14391440) am Hof der Knigin Elisabeth von Ungarn (14091442), in Der
Krper der Knigin. Geschlecht und Herrschaft in der hfischen Welt seit 1500,
ed. Regina Schulte (Frankfurt: Campus 2002), pp. 27-48; H. Sahm, Lizenz zum
Stehlen. Helene Kottanners Denkwrdigkeiten (um 1450), Euphorion, 104 (2010),
295-316; Barbara Schmid, Kottanner, Helene, EMC, pp. 978-9.

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191

in-waiting, it is thought she may at first have come to court as nanny or


governess to the young Princess Elizabeth, but soon if we can believe
her own report she was also a confidante and personal advisor to the
Queen herself, and thus the second-most influential woman in the realm.
Having been brought up in the border region where the population was
part German and part Hungarian, she was familiar with Hungarian
customs and affairs (although she did not speak the language), which must
have proved particularly valuable as Hungary moved to the centre of
political events. This together with her shrewd sense for strategy and her
almost maternal protectiveness towards the Queen, who after all was ten
years her junior, made her the one person on whom Elizabeth was inclined
to rely at a time when it was difficult to know who could be trusted.
Elizabeth had inherited from her father the Kingdoms of Hungary and
Bohemia, although in practice power passed to her husband, the Austrian
Duke Albrecht of Habsburg, who later was also elected King of Germany.
Albrechts death in October 1439 left all these territories without a male
heir. However Elizabeth was pregnant and gave birth to a son, Ladislaus
Postumus, in February 1440. Ladislaus was accepted without question as
Duke of Austria and King of Bohemia, but the Hungarian nobility were
resistant to Elizabeth as regent, mainly because of doubts about her ability
to deter Turkish advances. Therefore, even before Ladislaus birth, the
Hungarians had pressed Elizabeth to marry the Polish King Wadysaw. In
the hope of forestalling Wadysaws ambitions, Elizabeth quickly had the
new baby crowned King of Hungary, but the pro-Polish faction contested
the legitimacy of the coronation, and it was only when Wadysaw died in
1444 that the Hungarian Estates accepted Ladislaus as their king.
It was during the decisive events of the spring of 1440 that Helene
Kottanner briefly became the figure who shaped key political developments.
As these events are not only the sole content of her book but also our main
insight into her life and person, it is worth rehearsing them in some detail.
Kottanner had been at the Queens side when news of Albrechts death
reached them in Visegrd (Plintenburg). Because the castle at Visegrd
contained a royal treasure vault, Albrecht had arranged for both his family
and the crown jewels to be housed safely there while he made the journeys
on which he died. However in the power vacuum which emerged after
October 1439, the Ban (provincial administrator) Ladislaus Garai, whose
forces held the stronghold of Visegrd, emerged as a supporter of the
Polish faction, causing Elizabeth to fear that she might be forcibly held
until a marriage with Wadysaw had been contracted. Elizabeth therefore
moved her retinue to the castle at Komrom (Komorn), 50 miles to the

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

west, with the intention of travelling further to Bratislava (Preburg) for


the awaited birth.
However, Garai did not allow the Queen to take the royal insignia,
which instead were left in the treasure vault under lock and seal. In
Komrom, Elizabeth plotted to retrieve the holy crown of St Stephen,
without which a coronation could not be valid. Helene Kottanner was
charged with the task of returning to Visegrd accompanied only by an
unnamed Croatian, ostensibly to collect ladies in waiting who had
remained behind. They broke into the vault in the night, removed the
crown, hung new locks and replaced the wax seals; then Kottanner sewed
the crown into a pillow to be smuggled out by sledge the next morning. It
was a highly risky action which could have cost Kottanner her life, made
all the more dangerous by the perils of the journey itself: the whole party
was almost lost in the Danube when ice cracked under the sledges, and one
of the sledges was lost.
Back in Komrom Helene Kottanner presented the crown to Elizabeth
just as the Queen went into an early labour. As the birth had not been
anticipated, there was no-one on hand but an unreliable local midwife, and
Kottanner herself assisted in delivering the baby. In the subsequent weeks
she remained close to the Queen, and we frequently read of her opinions
being consulted on tactical manoeuvring as Elizabeth sought to rally her
supporters and outwit the Polish faction. In this precarious situation
Elizabeth did not have a large royal household she could call on, which
allowed the naturally proactive Kottanner to continue to fulfil key roles.
She was involved in the babys baptism, sewed pint-sized coronation robes
for him, transported him safely to the coronation town of Szkesfehrvr
(Stuhlweienburg), and held him in her arms as he was crowned by the
Archbishop of Esztergom (Gran). After the coronation at Pentecost (15
May 1440) it was decided to divide the royal family to protect them from
the advancing armies of Wadysaw. Kottanner was to accompany the new
King to her home town of Sopron while her husband remained with the
Queen. Elizabeths parting words sum up the feelings between them: wie
rat ir liebe Kottannerinn, mocht ich ew in drey tail getailen, des tt ich
gern. Ich behielt euch selber gern vnd liesz euch gern bei meinem Sun, vnd
hiet euch gern bei meiner tochter.32 (Advise me, dear Kottanner, for if I
could divide you into three parts I would gladly do it. I would keep you for
myself, and have you with my son, and have you with my daughter.) They
probably never met again: Elizabeth died in December 1442 while still
engaged in hostilities with the Polish pretender.
32

Mollay, Denkwrdigkeiten, p. 32. All translations from Kottanner are mine.

Graeme Dunphy

193

Helene Kottanners Denkwrdigkeiten (Memoirs) is an intense egodocument which provides at once a history of this brief transitional period
and a personal report of her own involvement. It is less than an
autobiography, for it tells us nothing of her life before or after the twelve
months May 1439 to May 1440, yet it is certainly more than a chronicle
with elements of first-person narration. The colloquial style with its
elements of orality has led some commentators to see the author as an
illiterate dictating to an amanuensis, but others have pointed to rhetorical
similarities to the slightly later Ungarische Chronik of Jakob Unrest,
which might suggest familiarity with the chronicle as a genre. More recent
scholarship has uncovered evidence of literary sophistication, for example
in the selection and balance of the episodes, or in the use of heraldry.
Despite its easy accessibility, the text is carefully planned and skilfully
written: the passage describing the theft of the crown will make the
modern reader think of a thriller, with its vivid portrayal of the
apprehension before the event, the fear when soldiers are heard moving
outside, and the silent prayers for deliverance; the author is clearly an able
storyteller.
The Denkwrdigkeiten are our only historical source for events within
the Queens household during this period, and necessitated a radical
rewriting of the history books when they were discovered in 1834. Prior to
this, the account in the Chronica Hungarorum of Jnos Thurczy had been
generally accepted; but read in the light of Kottanners text, it is clearly
partisan in favour of the Polish faction, and in fact changed the order of
events to suggest that Wadysaw was crowned before Ladislaus
Postumus. The Denkwrdigkeiten have been important in exposing such
little fictions. But the Denkwrdigkeiten are partisan in their own way, and
on one occasion we catch Kottanner herself in a deliberate fiction. Her
description of the coronation states that not only the crown but also the orb
and sceptre were used. However other sources reveal, and earlier passages
of her own text imply, that these were left in the vault at Visegrd and
therefore cannot have been available in Szkesfehrvr. As she cannot
possibly have been mistaken about this, it is clearly a fraudulent attempt to
increase the legitimacy of Ladislaus, which leaves us guessing where else
she might have exaggerated.
In this work we look in vain for the set-piece strategies of authoritybuilding which we have seen in other texts. There is no prologue, at least
in the surviving text, and therefore no preliminary explanations or
apologies, no defensive arguments, nothing self-praising and nothing selfeffacing, and almost frustratingly, no statement of intent. Instead, after a

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

title added to the front of the manuscript by a far later hand, the text
plunges straight into the action:
Do von Cristi gepurd ergangen warn fierzehenhundert vnd dar nach in dem
Newn vnd Dreissigisten iar zu den Ostern vnd phingsten, Vnnd do der edel
furst Albrecht erwelt was zu dem heiligen Rmischen Kung vnd
vormaligen kron zu Vngern auch enphangen het [] sandt sein gnad her
wider auf Wienn vnd man prachte im sein Jngste tochter, frawn
Elyzabethen mit irm hofgesind hin ab gen Prespurg, das geschach, Do was
Ich, Helene Kottannerin auch da 33
When in the year of Christ 1439 at Easter and Pentecost, the noble Lord
Albrecht was elected Holy Roman King after having previously received
the crown of Hungary [] his Grace sent to Vienna that they should bring
his youngest daughter Lady Elizabeth with her retinue to join him in
Bratislava, which was done, and I Helene Kottanner was also there

Thus when the name of the author first appears, some one hundred and
twenty words into the text, she is already an actor in media res. As the
opening pages recount events leading up to Albrechts death, the authorial
presence is limited to a repeated we went, we were and I was there.
The almost casual reference to having watched Albrechts men lock the
crown away in the Visegrd vault may have a particular function in the
logic of the later narrative, but otherwise these early references serve the
sole purpose of accustoming the reader to the idea of the narrators active
presence in the sequence of events preparatory to the central role she will
assume when the Queens household is plunged into crisis. The way in
which this is gradually introduced shows some considerable sense of the
dramatic, a drama which only highlights the claim to eyewitness testimony.
This of course is why Kottanner does not need any of the set-piece
moves. Her chronicle is relatively modest: she is not claiming to have
studied sources or evaluated them, nor is she attempting a vast undertaking
which others more erudite might have done better. Rather, as she limits
herself to what she knows, her eyewitness status makes her plausible even
as a woman, and indeed, in places she gives vital testimony which only a
woman could give: being present at labour and child-birth, among the
most intimate moments of a strictly female realm, meant being able to
testify that the baby who guaranteed succession really had been born to the
Queen, a matter of immense importance for the male world of political
power. The fact that with Elizabeths death she is the only surviving
witness to many parts of the story makes her testimony indispensable. No
33

Mollay, Denkwrdigkeiten, p. 9.

Graeme Dunphy

195

reader can wonder why she is so presumptuous as to place herself among


the historians when she has an important tale which nobody else could tell.
In a sense, Kottanner is playing a similar role in her writing to that which
she played in the events she recounts: she is active because, being in the
right place at the right time, she is the only person in a position to do what
is necessary.
As the narrative accelerates, this factor becomes stronger and stronger.
Gradually she is transformed from simply being there to being the doer,
the shaper, the mover. With her growing involvement in the course of
events, her stature as a narrator also grows. Who could doubt that the
woman who held up an infant kings head to receive a crown is entitled to
report, and to be believed? Only once does she momentarily feel the need
to give evidence of the truth of her account. After the break-in at the
treasure vault, the conspirators had to clear their traces very carefully so
that the removal of the crown would not be noticed. The easiest way to
dispose of the files which had been used to open the locks was to deposit
them in the ladies latrines. At this point Kottanner pauses, as though
realising that the whole tale is so extraordinary as to need confirmation,
and assures the reader that anyone who does not believe her is welcome to
explore the sewage pit, where the files still lie as proof. But this is hardly a
serious challenge. Helene Kottanner is not a writer who fears her veracity
will be contested. After all, she quite indubitably really was there.
So far we have considered authority only from the perspective of the
text: how does the writer give legitimacy to the writing? In the case of
Helene Kottanner, however, one might wonder whether the process is the
reverse: whether the purpose of the writing is to lend authority to the
writer. The beloved Queen was deceased, and nothing is known of
Kottanners continued relationship to the young King or his sister, but
with a new regent it is certain that she no longer had influence on the
affairs of state, and her closeness to Elizabeth may well have meant that
there was no place for her at court at all; at any rate, Aeneas Sylvius
Piccolomini, the humanist and later Pope who was tutor to the young
Ladislaus, did not know her. It is a bitter thing to move out of the
limelight. The Denkwrdigkeiten are of course a monument to Elizabeth,
but also to Kottanner herself. They stake a claim to recognition of her
story, which, whether or not it became exaggerated in the telling, was a
worthy tale. In presenting her text, the author demands the respect of
courtly society.
Indeed, this claim to status may have had quite material implications.
There has been much speculation about the circumstances of writing, or
the agenda of the work. The answer may lie in the text itself, in the climax

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

of the coronation: overcome by emotion, so it seems, that she has been


accorded a part in a moment of such greatness, Kottanner exclaims in
wonder that by virtue of carrying the King in her arms, she, a humble
woman, stood in a position to which the Queen herself ceded precedence.
In these words, ich armme fraw, it is not her gender which is emphasised,
for the implied contrast is with the Queen, but rather her humble birth. A
few lines later, when the ceremony is over and the baby laid to bed, we
read:
Do knyat ich nyder fur die edel Kunginn vnd ward ier gnad manenn an die
dienst, die ich iren gnaden, vnd auch dem edelen kung, Vnd auch anderen
iren gnaden kinden, dem edelen frsten geslcht getan hab. Da pat mier die
edel Kunginn ir handt vnd sprach: stet auf. Ist das, daz got gibt, daz die
sach gt wiert vnd zu frid kombt, Ich will euch vnd all ewr geslcht
erheben, Das habt ir wol verdient Vnd habt das an mir vnd an meinen
kinden getan, dazz ich selber nicht hiet getuen mgen noch kunnen. 34
Then I knelt before the noble Queen and reminded her Grace of the
services I had rendered to her Grace, and also to the noble King and also to
her Graces other children, the noble princely family. Then the noble
Queen gave me her hand and said, Stand up. If God grants that all ends
well and peace comes, I will elevate you and all your family; you have
well earned this, and have done for me and my children what I myself
would and could not have done.

One of the rare pieces of information which we have about the authors
later life is that in March 1452 Jnos Hunyaldi, Governor of Hungary,
granted the Kottanners property near Bratislava in recognition of their
services to the throne. If the communis opinio dating the text to ca. 1450 is
correct, the purpose of the text may have been to remind the court of
Elizabeths promise, adding royal authority to a very concrete final
ambition of a most impressive lady.
* * *
All the writers discussed here were vulnerable to the reproach by
contemporaries that, as women, they were less competent than men, and
possibly not even entitled to take up the pen. Neither socio-political
authorization nor intellectual authoritativeness could be taken for granted.
Male historians also had to face questions of legitimation, of course, for
there were many aspects to authority which might need to be addressed,
34

Mollay, Denkwrdigkeiten, p. 28.

Graeme Dunphy

197

but gender assumptions added a significant additional challenge. Some of


these women were clearly less worried about this than others. It apparently
never crossed the mind of Anna Komnene that her right to speak need be
asserted; in her entire adult life there had only ever been three men who
had wielded more power than she did herself. Her only concern is that
some might think she has not done the job well, and certainly this worry
did weigh upon her at least a little. Helene Kottanner does not even engage
much with this concern, possibly because she is writing for the single
purpose of reminding the King of the promise of elevation, and is not
thinking of critical readers in future generations; nevertheless there are
signs that it is at the back of her mind. By contrast, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim
and Bartolomea Riccoboni are obviously strongly conscious of the
limitations which their society believed to be inherent in their sex, and
seek so to locate themselves within the framework of social expectations
that their writings are acceptable offerings despite these limitations.
Between these positions we find the proto-feminist Christine de Pizan,
who is acutely aware of the limitations placed on women and stridently
calls these limitations into question.
Christine is the only outright radical of the five, but for medieval
women, showing the audacity to partake in serious writing was always
implicitly radical. Most of these women are unique for their period. Only
Riccoboni belongs to a recognizable type: the late-medieval convent
chronicler who writes the history of the sisters might as easily have been
represented by, say, the Portuguese Margarida Pinheiro (b. 1461) of the
Dominican convent of Jesus de Aveiro in Lisbon, who focussed on the
presence in her convent of the saintly princess Joana,35 or by Marie van
Oss (ca. 14301507), Abbess of the Birgittine abbey of Maria Troon in
Dendermonde (modern Belgium), whose Dutch-language chronicle was
rediscovered in the 1990s,36 or of course by the Dominican mystics like
Anna von Munzingen (fl. 13161327)37 or Christine Ebner (12771356)38,
35

Text edition: Antnio Gomes da Rocha Madahil, Crnica da Fundao do


mosteiro de Jesus de Aveiro e Memorial da Infanta santa Joana fillha del rey dom
Alfonso V (Aveiro, 1939). Maria Joo Branco, Pinheiro, Margarida, EMC, p.
1218.
36
Text edition: Ulla Sander-Olsen, Kroniek van Abdis Maria van Oss, Maria
Troon, Dendermonde, Gedenkschriften van de Oudheidkundige Kring van het
Land van Dendermonde, 21 (2002), 250-332. Graeme Dunphy, Marie van Oss,
EMC, p. 1080.
37
Text edition: J. Knig, Die Chronik der Anna von Munzingen, Freiburger
Dizesans-Archiv, 13 (1880), 129-93. Graeme Dunphy, Anna von Munzingen,
EMC, p. 45; Hiram Kmper, Sisterbooks, EMC, pp. 1364-7.

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

whose chronicles are histories of the dreams and epiphanies of the sisters
over the generations, or a little later by Jeanne de Jussie (1503-61), the
Genevan Poor Clare who records how she watched in dismay as her city
adopted the Protestant Reformation in 1535.39 But Riccoboni does stand
out within this group for the degree to which she goes outwith her own
community to tackle the great power struggles within Christendom.
These, then, are five exceptional women who challenged a convention,
entered an implicitly male sphere of writing, and excelled in it. All five of
them exude a confidence, modesty topoi notwithstanding, that they are
good at what they do. Yet at the same time, all five show signs of
defensiveness at the prospect of unfair criticism. Here we have to distinguish
between a defensiveness because of possible rejection of themselves as
writers and a defensiveness because of possible rejection of their writings.
These are not unrelated, for despite Christines plea that critics should
distinguish between the personne qui parle and the doctrine quil donne, it
is clear that any reader hostile to a female authorship who comes to such
writings with an expectation of their shortcomings will somehow manage
to find this expectation confirmed. In the struggle for acceptance as a
communicator, both personne and doctrine are burdened by gender issues.
But the strategies of defence are different.
The strategies for defending the credibility of the text itself are the
same tried and tested strategies used also by male chroniclers: Annas
discussion of the nature of objectivity and intellectual bias, Kottanners
files in the privy, the claim of eyewitness testimony which was developing
as a method throughout the period, and indeed the claim to be an
eyewitness oneself, which to some extent all five women were. Beyond
this, of course, there is the simple proof of the pudding: if the writing is
good, the unprejudiced reader will know this. Hrotsvit composed a
meticulously structured piece of verse at a time when historians did not
aspire to verse; Anna and Christine are also highly sophisticated in their
use of language and organization of material; Riccoboni and especially
Kottanner have the gift of compelling narration; and as recent work has
shown, Kottanner has hidden depths. Anyone who will separate personne
from doctrine will be convinced by these texts.
38

Text edition: Karl Schroeder, Der Nonne von Engelthal Bchlein von der
Genaden Uberlast (Stuttgart: Litterarischer Verein, 1871). Margarete Weinhandl,
Deutsches Nonnenleben: Das Leben der Schwestern zu Tss und der Nonne von
Engeltal. Bchlein von der Gnaden berlast (Munich: Recht, 1921).
39
Text edition: Jeanne de Jussie, Petite chronique, ed. Helmut Feld (Mainz: von
Zabern, 1996). Carrie Klaus, Architecture and Sexual Identity: Jeanne de Jussies
Narrative of the Reformation of Geneva, Feminist Studies, 29 (2003), 279-97.

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199

The strategies for defending the person, however, for minimizing the
impact of the fact that a woman is writing, are far more complex, and
reflect entire systems of authorial self-construction. Hrotsvits presentation
of her complete works in a single manuscript framed by an apparatus of
letters and praefationes is a clear testimony to a desire to present not only
the text but also the author to a reading public. Hrotsvit, perhaps because
she is so early, is the only one of these five writers who seems to accept in
general that women are less adept at writing than men, seeing herself as an
exception requiring special pleading. This almost ostentatious parading of
her identity in a century where the majority of texts were anonymous can
be thought of as a defence: if a weakness cannot be hidden, it is a good
idea to lead with it. Anna and Christine are also strongly aware of their
own relationship to their public, and in the case of Kottanner, it is possible
to interpret the entire project as a foregrounding of the author. This must
be seen in the context of a tradition in which many chronicles were
anonymous, and when authors did name themselves they frequently did so
in the third person. All five women discussed here refer to themselves as
I.
A modesty topos is in itself not necessarily particularly significant, as
this was a set-piece in most forms of learned writing. In the case of
Christine it is obviously mere formality, and this may or may not be
likewise true of Riccoboni. In the case of Hrotsvit, however, it is
developed into a running motif throughout the praefationes which is
clearly far more than a lip-service to convention. A modesty topos, even
when it is no more than a rhetorical figure, serves to disarm criticism by
voicing it in advance, and to defuse any hint of authorial complacency.
Combining it with a statement of the authors erudition is cunning.
Couched in the language of modesty, a claim to intellectual competence is
immune to charges of arrogance. Hrotsvit is supreme here, and her use of
Aristotelian learning to underscore her professed lack of learning is
endearing, but Christine also puts a claim to be gifted in the same sentence
as a protestation of ignorance. Anna, on the other hand, has no
compunction about leading with her academic curriculum vitae with no
pretence of modesty whatsoever, and strategically uses the allusion to
Polybios to place herself in the intellectual tradition of the great Hellenic
historians of old.
The appeal to religion is a recurring feature. All except for Kottanner
have prologues with prayers for divine guidance linked with the implicit or
explicit suggestion that by doing the best they can as women they glorify
God. Hrotsvit, Christine and Anna all speak of their talents as gifts of God
and Hrotsvit goes further, stating that to fail to use this talent to the full

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Strategies of Authority in Chronicles Written by Women

would be disobedient to the giver of talents. Like the modesty topos, the
prologue prayer is a set-piece in medieval writing, and should not be
invested with undue significance unless it is used in a striking way.
However when it is specifically linked to the issue of female authorship, it
has become a conscious strategy. Hrotsvits etymologizing of her own
name is also connected with divine gifts, for in the tenth century
etymology still had a mystic significance which it had largely lost by the
fourteenth. Of course, Hrotsvit and Riccoboni were both in religious
orders, so a legitimation derived from religion is particularly cogent for
them. In the case of Riccoboni, the spiritual dimension is present
throughout the work, with dreams and visions guiding the sisters at every
stage. It is almost surprising that she does not speak of an angelic
command to write; but she certainly does give the impression that her
writing is part of a larger project steered by the Almighty.
Name-dropping can be a useful deterrent: it is easier to scoff at a lone
woman writer than at a woman with a company of eminent supporters. All
five chroniclers discussed here make much of their connections.
Bartolomea Riccobonis spiritual father figures not only bring a male
dimension to female composition, but also suggest that her support
network reaches all the way to the Pope. Helene Kottanners intimacy with
the Queen is her central message. Anna Komnene, of course, needs refer
only to her own social status, but undergirds this with careful presentation
of her parents and husband. A specific commission to write of course
provides a particularly poignant form of connection, and Christine
obviously enjoys telling how the Prince Regent requested her work.
Hrotsvits commission comes from her Abbess, Gerberg, but she hints that
Gerberg in turn received instructions for the work from the Emperor
himself.
The last recurring strategy is the use of female role models. This is
particularly blunt when Christine says outright that no-one should criticise
a woman for writing about arms when arms were first invented by a
woman, Minerva. Raising Joan of Arc to a champion of her sex is
similarly direct. Annas depiction of her mother and grandmother is more
subtle, but clearly has a legitimizing effect, demonstrating the strength of
the female line to which the author herself belongs. Riccobonis chronicle
of the sisters is packed with worthy women. And of course, Kottanner is
describing not only her own exploits but also those of the Queen two
women together against a patriarchal world.
The authority of an author will always depend both on his or her
stature and on the quality of the work which she or he accomplishes. All
authors have to prove their right to be heard. It is therefore difficult to

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know exactly when the challenge faced by a woman is that common to all
flesh and when it becomes a matter of gender. But the attested reception of
Christines work shows why medieval women had reason to be wary of
gender-based subversion of their credibility: even centuries later, her
gender was an embarrassment to some readers of her work. A woman
writing history, unless she kept her identity strictly secret, had to be more
than pro-active in justifying it. The texts we have examined range across
the continent and across the centuries, and vary greatly in form, style and
purpose. Yet the strategies by which their authority is asserted, and the
insistence with which the authors pursue these, demonstrate a remarkable
consistency.

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