Medieval Heroines in History and Legend

Course No. 2937
Professor Bonnie Wheeler, Ph.D.
Southern Methodist University
Share This Course
4.2 out of 5
44 Reviews
52% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 2937
Audio Streaming Included Free

Course Overview

This course presents the lives, based on the latest scholarly interpretations, of four medieval women who still shimmer in the modern imagination: Heloise, the abbess and mistress of Abelard; the prophet Hildegard of Bingen; the legendary Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine; and the woman-warrior and saint, Joan of Arc.

In Medieval Heroines in History and Legend, Professor Bonnie Wheeler discusses these four remarkable women in the light of the present "golden age" of medieval scholarship. Almost daily, researchers are recovering lost information that corrects our picture of what had been a misunderstood era. As a result, we know more than ever about the roles women played in medieval life.

What did it mean to be a heroine in the medieval world? As the four subjects of this course make clear, it meant shaping and changing that world. In the monasteries and churches where people prayed, the universities where they wrote and thought, and even on the political map of Europe itself, these women made differences perceived not only in our time, but in theirs.

Women of Intellect, Words, and Passion

These lectures are an extraordinary opportunity to study great women of the past in their "own words." Professor Wheeler bases her discussions on recently discovered or recovered written records they left behind, from Hildegard's prodigious scholarship to the personal letters of Heloise and detailed transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial.

With these documents as a basis, you will see Heloise (1101—1163) as a forerunner of Europe's new day. Her letters passionately overflow with the new knowledge of her day. With her star-crossed love, Abelard, she invented a new mode of philosophic thought.

Only now are scholars recovering the long, important second half of the story of Heloise as a woman of power after Abelard's death. Her letters show her to be well versed on such topics as Cicero, classical philosophy, Latin poetry, and rhetoric.

She saw the institution of marriage in her day as little more than a commercial transaction, and its duties burdensome, noisy, costly, and dirty. Her letters reveal her desire to be Abelard's "meretrix" (prostitute) rather than his "imperatrix" (empress). In her discussions on Heloise, Professor Wheeler also covers the long debate as to whether Abelard and Heloise's letters to one another—the first, first-person record of a love affair in human history—are genuine or not.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098—1179), like Heloise a 12th-century abbess, is revealed as the last flowering of antique learning. She lived a dramatic life as a mystic, voluminous writer, and preacher. She was a personal advisor to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and her political involvement and passion as an advocate for clerical and imperial reform give her special interest in our day.

Only in the last generation have scholars rediscovered this amazing medieval intellect. Based on her letters, at least four popes and 10 archbishops corresponded with her, not to mention some 100 other individuals notable to history.

Among her many writings, her Book of Simple Medicine was an impressive mini-encyclopedia on what we today would call the natural sciences.

But Hildegard is also known as the "holy hypochondriac," subject to disabling migraines. Were her visions delusions, a result of brainstorms caused by chemical imbalances?

Women of Action and Legend

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124—1204), Queen of France and then England, mother of at least 10 children, scandalized her contemporaries and has fascinated us ever since. She accompanied her husband, Louis VII, on the second Crusade, and her exploits are a reminder that women were crusaders—not merely camp followers—in numbers that rivaled those of men.

You will learn—based on as-yet-unpublished research by Professor Andrew Lewis—that Eleanor was probably born in 1124, not 1122 as normally thought. As a physically hearty woman of courage, she provides a way for historians to explore the diverse roles that women played in enabling or resisting the Crusades. This is exciting work that will allow us to understand medieval women outside the context of home and family as agents of sometimes-radical change.

Eleanor's life is so amazing that it is easy to see why she has become the staple of legends. Among those you will consider are whether she passionately adored, then fought endlessly with, her second husband, Henry II of England (all too true); whether she poisoned Henry's mistress, Rosamund (no proof); and whether she held "courts of love" to encourage and engage in amatory liaisons (again, unproven).

Joan of Arc (1412—1431) was the illiterate French peasant girl whom Mark Twain described as the "youngest person of either sex to lead her nation's army before the age of 19." Known as "La Pucelle" (the "maid" or "virgin"), she lacked any kind of military training, yet her military instincts seemed impeccable. Although she carried a sword in battle, she never used it to kill a man, and seems never to have become used to the sight of dead or dying men.

Was this young woman who heard heavenly "voices" an incomprehensible quirk, or did she change the course of European and world history? Ironically, this debate is complicated by the detailed transcripts of her trials, which make her one of the best-documented figures of pre-modern times.

Trial records and her letters reveal her as someone who spoke with compelling simplicity, quick wit, and piercing honesty." This girl spoke terribly well," said Albert d'Ourches. "I would really like to have had so fine a daughter."

Professor Wheeler dismisses as myth the notions that Joan was actually of noble birth, or that she never fully developed physically as a woman. These lectures reveal Joan as perhaps most memorable for what she was not: a queen, a mother, a beauty, or an intellectual. Instead, she was a woman of action, and the kind of person who is often an enigma to modern intellectuals: someone of profound religious faith.

Appreciating how these four heroines have been understood and misunderstood will help you understand how history passes judgment on both women and the Middle Ages. The contemporary research upon which this course is based can move us beyond how women "ought" to have been to better knowledge, however precarious, about how women were.

Hide Full Description
24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Four Remarkable Medieval Women
    The four women featured all subscribed to hierarchical worldviews. No feminists, they swam within the intellectual currents of their time. Their heroism derives from worldly accomplishment and from their intensely realized lives. They were ordinary neither in their vices nor their virtues. x
  • 2
    The Revolutionary Twelfth Century
    In the 12th century, an energized Europe conquered hunger, repopulated its cities, founded universities, and coalesced into a confident Christian civilization. Christianity expressed itself inwardly through monasticism and outwardly through crusade. The insular male monastic culture may have been responsible for rising misogyny. x
  • 3
    Prodigious Heloise
    Heloise came of age in a culturally liminal period, before the University of Paris was founded as an institution closed to women. In the protected haven of the Argentuil monastery, she was steeped in classical philosophical traditions, learning to love Cicero, Latin rhetoric and the teachings of St. Jerome. What plans did her uncle Fulbert have for her that went unrealized? x
  • 4
    Abelard's Story of Abelard and Heloise
    From the ashes of his marriage to Heloise, Abelard produced his Historia Calamitatum, a penitential but arrogant memoir of the affair whose accuracy we might question. Are the "Personal Letters" exchanged between Abelard and Heloise an authentic corrective? The self-abasing and submissive Heloise that emerges from these pages appears to some to be a projected male fantasy. x
  • 5
    Heloise as Lover—Her Sublime Submission
    Heloise submitted to marriage but resisted it due to her view of "intentionality"—that sin and virtue reside in intention, not mere ceremonial action. Ironically, this later caused her to cling to every vestige of a marriage she refused to see as ended. Marriage, for her, was as much a meshing of minds and spirits as a physical union. x
  • 6
    Heloise, Adept Abbess and Mother
    Heloise never accepted the justice of Abelard's castration, but together they moved on, collaboratively engaging spiritual, historical and administrative issues. After his death she initiated her own reforms, founded priories, and made peace with Abelard's former enemies. The great Bernard of Clairvaux was just one of many admirers of her sanctity, learning, and pastoral responsibility. x
  • 7
    Heloise of the Imagination
    The heroic love of Heloise has been memorialized by painters, poets, and filmmakers alike, though Heloise's intellectual gifts have not been so well recognized. What, in the end, should we make of a woman who possessed such prodigious talents yet sacrificed them to the devoted service of one man? x
  • 8
    Hildegard of Bingen, Sibyl of the Rhine
    From the monastery at Disibodenberg, Hildegard worked within the monastic world to amplify its cultural influence vis-a-vis the rising power of cathedral schools. By the age of 50, her fame had spread to Paris, and she sought to found her own independent monastic community. x
  • 9
    Hildegard, Holy Hypochondriac
    An advisor to popes and emperors and a preacher to the masses, Hildegard earned her authority through prophecies resembling unmediated visions from God. Disclaiming authorship, she could present herself as a humble "weak woman" while demanding "virility" from a clergy she chastised as effeminate. Today some argue that her visions were actually hallucinations brought on by migraines. x
  • 10
    Hildegard's Visionary Trilogy, Science and Letters
    Hildegard's Book of Life's Merits, a guide to proper living, includes moralizing visions of the spirit world reminiscent of Dante's Inferno as well as novel visions of Christ as a unicorn. Her scientific works are suffused with the idea of viriditas, or "greenness," a vital force connected to virility, freshness, and virginity. x
  • 11
    Wholly Hildegard
    Hildegard's character was not unblemished, as we see in her undignified grief over the reassignment of a favorite personal secretary and her somewhat arrogant defense of her monastery's occasionally flamboyant habits. She was fully human in her faults and in her excellences, such as her joyous mastery of monastic music. x
  • 12
    Eleanor's Lineage
    Eleanor's grandfather, the notorious William IX, defined the 12th-century landscape. Lecherous, outrageous and cosmopolitan, he was an indifferent crusader but was also the first troubadour, composing songs that formed the basis for the medieval language of courtly love. His son, William X, had his appetites tamed by piety and ensured that Eleanor would inherit the Aquitaine. x
  • 13
    Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of France
    As Queen to Louis VII, Eleanor remained active in the administration of her domains, but soon encountered trouble. A sordid war with the ruling family of Champagne led to the scandalous torching of a nearby peasant village, which morally compromised Louis. The failure to produce a male heir put further strains on the royal marriage. x
  • 14
    Eleanor and the Politics of Estrangement
    Perhaps out of guilt over the war in Champagne, Eleanor joined Louis in the Second Crusade, and was transformed. The celibacy enforced upon them further estranged the couple, and her active participation in the crusade may have further emboldened her. Returning from Jerusalem, she was determined to be free. x
  • 15
    Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of England
    As wife to Henry II, Eleanor bore eight children yet would not be sidetracked from pursuing power and influence. Henry's fatal error, exiling Eleanor with their son Richard to the Aquitaine, led to the successful rebellion of his sons and Eleanor's renewed ascent. x
  • 16
    Eleanor the Dowager Queen
    As Queen Mother, Eleanor's energetic diplomacy secured the loyalty of her son Richard's allies. After Richard's death, she used military campaigns to bring peace to her realm and crafted a marriage alliance that aligned the ruling families of England and France, although her son John would eventually undermine that peace. x
  • 17
    Legendary Eleanor
    Unembellished, Eleanor's story is one of sex, violence, suspense, manipulation, ambition, and teeth-grinding tenacity. It is no surprise that legends, myths, and scores of differing depictions would accumulate around such a figure. This lecture attempts to explain the myths and separate fact from fiction. x
  • 18
    Joan of Arc and Her Times
    The 100 Years War between the Plantagenet and Valois dynasties for control of France along with the Great Schism provide the backdrop for Joan of Arc's story. An examination of her early years shows how improbable her rise to greatness was. x
  • 19
    Joan Discovers Her Mission and Her Dauphin
    Joan's progress was punctuated by miracles, beginning with the voices which inspired her. She next persuaded Robert de Baudricourt to recommend her to the Dauphin, then identified the future King as he hid disguised among his courtiers. What secret did she reveal to him to instill faith in her mission? x
  • 20
    Joan the Warrior, Holy Berserker
    The nature of Joan's military genius is multifaceted. She was an able tactician, skilled at horsemanship, and had a keen understanding of artillery. But it was her raw courage, religious certainty, and charismatic leadership of men that made possible the full frontal assault on the English position and victory at Orleans. x
  • 21
    Joan's Success and Captivity
    Joan enjoyed a string of victories after Orleans, culminating in Charles VII's coronation at Reims. A flagging of military confidence and support led to the failure of her attack on the English stronghold at Paris. Treachery may have ultimately delivered her into the hands of the Burgundians. x
  • 22
    Joan's Trial, Death, and Retrial
    Joan evinced great composure and even wit during her prosecution by almost one hundred university-trained inquisitors. After a brief crisis of confidence, she retracted her brief recanting of her mission and was condemned to burn. A quarter century later, a victorious Charles VII arranged her vindication at a second trial. x
  • 23
    Joan of the Imagination
    Shakespeare damned her. Mark Twain adored her. She appears in more works of art than does any other historical figure. Joan lives on in the public imagination as a torchbearer for human rights, the plight of political prisoners, right-wing nationalism, and a bevy of other, often contradictory causes. If anything she is even more important to our time than she was to hers. x
  • 24
    Four Pioneers
    Today, these women are problematic to us in our consideration. We do not share their medieval worldview. We should, however, appreciate that our heroines were women of action, shaped by their world but pushing against it to redefine what the life of a woman could entail. x

Lecture Titles

Clone Content from Your Professor tab

What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Audio Includes:
  • Download 24 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 159-page digital course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timelines

Enjoy This Course On-the-Go with Our Mobile Apps!*

  • App store App store iPhone + iPad
  • Google Play Google Play Android Devices
  • Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Tablet + Firephone
*Courses can be streamed from anywhere you have an internet connection. Standard carrier data rates may apply in areas that do not have wifi connections pursuant to your carrier contract.

Your professor

Bonnie Wheeler

About Your Professor

Bonnie Wheeler, Ph.D.
Southern Methodist University
Dr. Bonnie Wheeler is Associate Professor of English and Director of Medieval Studies at Southern Methodist University. She completed her undergraduate work at Stonehill College and earned her Ph.D. from Brown University. Prior to taking her position at SMU, Professor Wheeler taught at Columbia University. Professor Wheeler has received Southern Methodist University's Outstanding Teacher Award six times and is also a...
Learn More About This Professor


Medieval Heroines in History and Legend is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 44.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Four Awesome Women In this course, Professor Bonnie Wheeler describes the lives and afterlives of four medieval European women who acted and thought outside the bounds of what others, especially men, believed proper: Heloise, Hildegard of Bingen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Joan of Arc. The precociously learned Heloise became famous in her own time for her seduction by her tutor, the theologian Abelard, and for his castration by her furious uncle. At Abelard’s command, she took monastic vows against her will, but even as abbess she continued to regard herself as his wife and sought his advice in running her nunnery. Hildegard was also an abbess, but also a visionary prophet, a hymn-writer and an author of religious commentaries and medicinal treatises. Eleanor was the ruling duchess of Aquitaine who married King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England, gave birth to at least ten children, and set her sons Richard (the Lion-Hearted) and John against Henry. Joan of Arc…well I assume you know about her. Wheeler calls them all heroines because they intensely realized their own lives and achieved considerable independence. This small group has a mix of interesting similarities and differences. Three of them spoke French and one German. Three of them lived in the twelfth century and one (Joan, of course) lived in the fifteenth. Eleanor and Joan the peasant girl were as far apart on the social scale as two women could be, yet Joan became even more famous as a young woman of action in her role as patriotic virgin-warrior for the man she regarded as the rightful King of France. Two of the women were chronically ill. Joan notoriously heard her voices, which she identified as Saints Catherine and Margaret, telling her to drive the English out of France—possibly a symptom of schizophrenia, though Professor Wheeler doesn’t mention it—while Hildegard likely owed her prophetic ability to scintillating scotoma, which causes sufferers (or beneficiaries?) to suffer migraines with visions of bright light. All four had their lives defined by Christianity; even the very worldly Eleanor went on crusade with Louis, though that venture turned out badly. Long after their deaths these women have also continued to fascinate Western audiences. The film Being John Malkovich (1999) begins with John Cusack’s character showing a small puppet theater of Heloise and Abelard. Eleanor features prominently in the play The Lion in Winter, with Katherine Hepburn playing her in the movie version. Joan of Arc has appeared in many books, plays and movies, but also as a villain in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1. Hildegard has been less well known, at least outside Germany, but she has been taken up by the New Age movement. I have two complaints. First, Wheeler uses rhetorical questions far too often as a way to move lectures onward or to emphasize gaps in our knowledge; I found this habit increasingly irritating over time. Second, Joan of Arc doesn’t belong in this course. Yes, she was a medieval woman and the most famous by far. How could you NOT have her here? I can only imagine the howls of anger among Teaching Company customers if she weren’t. The problem is that Joan lived nearly three hundred years after the other three, in a far darker time for Latin Christendom plagued (literally) by the Black Death, unfavorable weather, stagnant population figures, and the Hundred Years War. So which twelfth-century woman should Wheeler have discussed instead? For a while I couldn’t think of anyone, but finally a good candidate occurred to me: Anna Comnena (1083-1153). Like Eleanor she was a royal, though by blood rather than marriage, the daughter of Eastern Roman Emperor Alexius I. She was even more turbulent than Eleanor, attempting to overthrow her brother, John II, and likewise ending up imprisoned, in her case for life. She is most famous today for the history she wrote in praise of her father, including a hostile view of the leaders of the First Crusade. Anna would have given Wheeler an opportunity to discuss Orthodox Christianity, Constantinople, and the very different conditions at the southeastern end of Christendom after the empire’s disastrous defeat at Turkish hands in the Battle of Manzikert (1071). Anyways, I highly recommend the course as it is, with Joan of Arc. Treat yourself to these four awesome women.
Date published: 2019-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic Listening to this while running, found it was far better than I expected. Many brought to the table of their review that the professor brought too much “women issues” with female slant. I didn’t find this to be true ; rather sad that I almost didn’t buy due to these reviews. It IS about heroines and was treated as such. Loved it don’t hesitate to purchase, contains many interesting unknown (to me at least) facts.
Date published: 2018-10-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from No video I was very disappointed that this was an audio only course. Content was good but difficult to watch a blank TV.
Date published: 2018-01-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good! This is a great series, and the professor is engaging and excited about her topic. I had known about most of these women, although not all. But I learned more about the ones I was familiar with, than I had known before. To see history though a sense and story of the women who were also there, is so important. Also, my junior high aged daughter listened to a couple of the classes, as she chose "women" as the topic for her Medieval History class report. It really served her well and sparked her interest in learning more about women in history.
Date published: 2018-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Medieval It is very educational and interesting to read about these people and I have not finished it yet.
Date published: 2017-09-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Balancing the pendulum of History Before writing this review I read many of the reviews of other people - both those who liked the course and those who didn't. During my graduate work in Medieval history at an Ivy League university I learned two important lessons about doing history. The first is that, while historical research is never completely objective, it can be done well (according to established scholarly methods) or badly (using sources to prove your initial bias). Professor Wheeler does the first and does it well. It wasn't until the mid twentieth century that the contribution of women to the direction of history was even acknowledged. There were books that talked about women who lived in the past but generally as if they were examples of what women's lives were like. There was little said about how these women's actions had actually influenced subsequent events. Essentially it was; 'there were women living back then but what they did during their lives didn't really have an impact on 'important things'. Professor Wheeler clearly sets out not only to tell as accurately and as detailed an account of the lives of these women as primary sources permits (and she is scrupulous in grounding her narrative in original source documents), but also in demonstrating from those sources how these women actually influenced the shape of European history. In most histories, for example, Heloise is merely an appendage to Abelard - she matters only because he does. Professor Wheeler demonstrates that Heloise was important in her own right and that through her letters and writings after Abelard's death she influenced decisions made by some of the leaders of that day. The second thing that I learned is the value of perspective when it is handled with integrity. Scholars who pretend that their own perspective is the 'correct objective interpretation' are being honest neither to themselves nor to their readers. Every historian, in the very act of choosing a subject for study has already made a subjective choice. Again, this can be done with scholarly integrity, recognizing that this is a choice (I think Professor Wheeler did this well in each of these four cases), or badly pretending that the choice made is the most correct choice. For the past millennium history has generally been written by men about men as if only men - and the things that they said and did - were the only things that mattered in shaping the direction of the development of events. Professor Wheeler, by pushing the stories of these four women into the spotlight, demonstrates that the flow of events was also influenced by women. Because women were relegated to limited roles in medieval society it was difficult for a woman to have power and influence - but this is the account of how 4 very remarkable women did. Professor Wheeler, by presenting voices that have been absent, by pulling the pendulum of historical knowledge as small bit towards the experiences of women, moves that pendulum towards a balanced center. Finally, a note about the criticism that Professor Wheeler recommends her own articles and books. She does. She freely acknowledges and recommends important works by scholars in this field. But when she herself is one of the most important contemporary scholars working in this area, ignoring her own work would not be appropriate. I love that Professor Wheeler - one of the foremost scholars in the field of medieval history and literature was selected to present this series.
Date published: 2017-01-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fascinating and Perceptive Analysis This is one of my favorite Great Courses; I've listened to it three times. It manages the neat trick of both placing these women firmly in their own place and time while still explaining their relevance to today. It's also just excellent history and biography; the historical and biographical detail is carefully selected and the analysis is penetrating and perceptive. It would be unfortunate if the benefits of this valuable and meaningful course were lost in transient disputes over contemporary politics.
Date published: 2016-04-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Women Were There Too! When I took history in school, it mostly concerned the great men of history. Some mention was made of the occasional female, but few were explored in any depth. I was therefore interested in this course which covers the lives of four women. An important point is that this is NOT just a history course. It is also a study of the myths and legends which have grown up about these women. So, be prepared to go way beyond the cold, hard facts. Wheeler is very careful to distinguish between the facts and the myths. I found three of the four women to be of far greater interest than expected, with Hildegard the exception. I'm afraid that I didn't find Hildegard in the same league as the other women. Nor did I find the lectures about her to be nearly as interesting as the lectures on the other women. Wheeler's voice does take some getting used to. However, she does speak quite clearly which, as I listen in the car while commuting, is very important. Finally, I don't understand all this talk about feminism in the reviews. Yes, I agree that feminism is all around us in today's society. But, I managed to fail to see it in these lectures. Why is it that a course on females has to have some feminist agenda? These women were important figures in their day. These women have long been recognized as such. Why, then, the outrage against feminists?
Date published: 2015-06-08
  • y_2020, m_7, d_12, h_15
  • bvseo_bulk, prod_bvrr, vn_bulk_3.0.10
  • cp_1, bvpage1
  • co_hasreviews, tv_3, tr_41
  • loc_en_US, sid_2937, prod, sort_[SortEntry(order=SUBMISSION_TIME, direction=DESCENDING)]
  • clientName_teachco
  • bvseo_sdk, p_sdk, 3.2.0
  • CLOUD, getContent, 11.89ms

Questions & Answers

Customers Who Bought This Course Also Bought