Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals: 36 Great Women before 1400

Course No. 3815
Professor Joyce E. Salisbury, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
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Course No. 3815
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover how the intellectual contributions of women helped expand fields like literature, the arts, science, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and much more.
  • Explore the influences of female rulers like Boudicca, Zenobia, Razia, and Wu Zetian.
  • Better understand how historians can shape our views of the past by looking at the many ways women's stories have been recorded and shared.
  • Survey the ways women had a profound impact on the major religions of the world, especially Christianity and Islam.
  • Look at the many ways women could wield power in the premodern world, either individually or through marriage and family connections.

Course Overview

Throughout history, women have played integral roles in family, society, religion, government, war—in short, in all aspects of human civilization. Powerful women have shaped laws, led rebellions, and played key roles in dynastic struggles. Some were caught up in forces beyond their control, while others manipulated and murdered their way to the top. However, unearthing their stories from the historical record has been a challenge, with the ordinary difficulties of preserving information across the generations increased by centuries of historical bias and gendered expectations. Women, when they were mentioned at all, often filled the role of virtuous maiden, self-effacing mother, or seductive villain. Imagine what you are missing when only half the story is being told.

In Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals: 36 Great Women before 1400, taught by Professor Emerita of Humanistic Studies Joyce E. Salisbury, you will experience another side of history, one that has often been overlooked. In these 36 lectures, women step out from the footnotes and sidebars of traditional history and into the spotlight, illuminating the dark corners of the pre-modern world along the way. From thwarted daughters and ambitious wives to fearless revolutionaries and brilliant philosophers, you will see how women have played diverse roles throughout history and why their influence is so vital to a fuller understanding of the world we live in today. Beginning at the start of the Roman Empire and carrying you through to the end of the Middle Ages, Professor Salisbury will introduce you to dozens of influential women from all across the globe.

As you will see, there are many ways to wield power. Some women worked within the rules and expectations that bound them, using their unique influence as wives and mothers to shape politics, religion, and more. Meanwhile, others defied restrictions imposed on them, occupying places of leadership and power that changed the world. With this course, you will get the unique opportunity to explore their contributions to our history, and see major turning points and ideas through new perspectives.

Rebels and Rulers

From Rome and China to Persia and Byzantium, the world before 1400 saw the foundation and expansion of immense imperial powers. These powers were often hierarchical and rigidly patriarchal, and their presence imposed new systems of religion, tradition, and governance that forever altered the places they touched, often to the detriment of women who had held a certain level of power and respect within tribal communities before their arrival.

Striving to survive under these new conditions, some women took on the mantle of warrior and revolutionary, fighting for the good of their people in times of crisis. Their rebellions often failed in the face of insurmountable odds, yet their power as symbols of freedom (and cautionary tales) has lived on. In the case of the Trung sisters of Vietnam, their unsuccessful attempt to wrest their homeland from the hands of imperial invaders made them symbols of patriotism and resistance that survive in Vietnamese culture to this very day. Another famous rebel leader, the Celtic warrior queen, Boudicca, also ultimately failed in her attempt to defeat Rome. Her legend lives on, however, thanks to a revival led by one of the most powerful female leaders of the modern era, Queen Victoria.

There were those who fought against imperial powers, and then there were those who wielded power within those sprawling empires. Though few have heard her name, some modern scholars believe Sorkhakhtani was one of the most influential women in history, wielding immense authority in the Mongol empire at the height of its power. Plotina, Julia Maesa, Pulcheria, Wu Zetian, and Razia are just a few of the women you will encounter from all over the globe who achieved power, either through their own rule or that of their families. Some were benevolent and some were ruthless—often many of them were both—but they all left a mark on the world.

Saints and Sinners

Everyone loves a hero, but history is not painted in stark contrasts of black and white—and neither are the women whose stories you will uncover. As Professor Salisbury demonstrates, for every Vibia Perpetua or Joan of Arc who was martyred for a cause greater than themselves, there are many others who could certainly be considered selfish, amoral, or even villainous. (And many who were painted as weak or nefarious by historians with their own agendas.) This is one of the many important reasons historians work so hard to uncover the stories of overlooked and forgotten women: to reveal their many complex dimensions as people who were important to history, for both good and ill.

While many women throughout history were driven to act by a desire to protect themselves or their families, or to achieve greater freedom and control over their own lives, others had less laudable—but no less human—desires, such as:

  • Ambition. While Victorian-era artists and poets immortalized the death of John the Baptist as the cold-hearted request of the teenaged Salome, it was in fact her ambitious mother Herodias who requested the preacher’s head. Her unending hunger for status and wealth eventually led to exile—and dragged her daughter’s name through the historical mud in the process.
  • Power. In the quest for power, women have often proved themselves to be as ruthless as men. Some sources suggest that Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, had her husband and step-son assassinated so she could rule as regent for her young son. Though she is remembered as a dynamic leader in the struggle against Roman rule and a mighty would-be empress, her path was fraught with moral compromise.
  • Vengeance. Freydis, the sister of Leif Eriksson, was a formidable Viking woman with a nasty temper. When she felt her claim to her brother’s property in the New World was under threat, she wasn’t afraid to manipulate those around her—and commit a few murders—to avenge an insult and protect what she believed was rightfully hers.

And some women gained fame not because they chose to rebel or seek great fortune, but because they were lucky—or unlucky—enough to be caught in the right place at the right time. Whether swept up in a tide of religious persecution or kidnapped by an invading army, you will meet many women who found ways to make their own mark on history and turn misfortune to their advantage.

Belles Lettres

Power isn’t always about wealth and political clout. Sometimes, it can come from something as simple as the ability to read and write. For centuries of human history, women were often denied access to literacy and education. Since most would live out their lives as the keepers of hearth and home, education for women was often considered unnecessary—or even morally dangerous. Despite these fears and the limitations they imposed, we know that some women were able to pursue knowledge and deeply influence fields such as:

  • Religion: The writings of Christian martyr Perpetua became so influential after her death that church leaders warned others not to treat them as scripture.
  • History: Byzantine princess Anna Comnena is credited with writing one of history’s greatest chronicles of the First Crusade.
  • Mathematics: Lubna of Córdoba was an astonishing mathematician who became an intellectual leader in a time and place where women were rarely accepted as public figures.
  • Literature: Lady Murasaki of Japan wrote what is now considered to be the first prose novel, hundreds of years before the novel would become a definitive literary form in Europe.
  • Philosophy: Perhaps best remembered for her love affair with Abelard, Heloise made her own mark on the world through her writings on philosophy and religion.
  • Medicine: The German Benedictine abbess Hildegard revolutionized the medical field with her writings that blended the science of the day with more traditionally feminine knowledge of herbs and food.

The contributions of women to intellectual fields like literature and science, as well as the power they wielded through religion, rebellions, and dynasties, have been invaluable. But even those who left only personal writings like diaries and letters, or whose stories became footnotes in larger struggles, have given us astonishing resources to understand the world they lived in and how history is made every day. With her great passion for these stories and their importance in our collective history, Professor Salisbury will show you contributions great and small, ordinary and astonishing. You will see how many of these women never intended to do more than live their lives in peaceful obscurity, while others wanted to—and often did—change the world.

In unearthing these stories, we are not only able to rediscover the contributions of women— often lost to time and whose stories were written to fit prevailing prejudices—but we are also able to see our own history in new, more nuanced ways. Beyond battles and dates and the names of great men, there are other stories that can give us a richer understanding of the past and how it has shaped the world we live in today.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Julia Disobeys Emperor Augustus
    Begin your exploration of dynamic, influential women with Julia, the daughter of Caesar Augustus, whose experiences offer a window into the way many societies of the pre-modern world sought to control morality and enforce gender roles. Julia's life may have been one of thwarted potential, but her story is integral to understanding what many other women had to overcome to make a mark on history. x
  • 2
    Herodias Has John the Baptist Beheaded
    Writers and artists have long portrayed the death of John the Baptist as the whim of the young femme fatale Salome, but the truth is much more complicated. Discover the story of Salome's mother, the ambitious Herodias, an influential Judean woman whose hunger for power and recognition ultimately left her exiled and forgotten. x
  • 3
    The Trung Sisters of Vietnam Fight the Han
    Turn from the Mediterranean to China under the Han Dynasty, as its imperial expansion threatened the traditional—and strongly matriarchal—culture of Vietnam. Two of the most famous Vietnamese rebels of this era were the Trung sisters, who led tribal armies against the powerful invaders. See how their story has become a touchstone of Vietnamese culture and pride into the 21st century. x
  • 4
    Boudicca Attacks the Romans
    Witness the end of Iron Age Britain and the birth of “Roman Briton” with the valiant but thwarted rebellion led by the Celtic warrior queen, Boudicca. Like many rebels before her, she was motivated by personal tragedy as much as she was driven by the bigger picture of freedom for her people. Her legacy would be revived in the rule of another British queen, Victoria. x
  • 5
    Poppaea Helps Nero Persecute Christians
    Nero may not have truly “fiddled while Rome burned” but his reputation for excess and cruelty is genuine. See how the beautiful Poppaea became the wife of the mad emperor and how her religious sympathies likely influenced his persecution of Christians following a devastating fire. Ultimately, Poppaea’s story is a complex mix of spiritual zeal and vicious cruelty. x
  • 6
    Plotina Advises Emperor Trajan
    The impact of Plotina on the reign of her husband Trajan is both profound and difficult to delineate. Witness how her moral influence—as well as that of other valued women in Trajan’s household—shaped the policies and reputation of one of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome and how her story demonstrates a particular version of female power in the ancient world. x
  • 7
    Perpetua Is Martyred in the Arena
    Follow the story of Vibia Perpetua, one of the earliest reliably verified Christian martyrs. How did the well-educated daughter of a noble family end up publicly executed in the arena? Trace the seemingly random series of events that led to a tragic death and see how Perpetua's record of her own experiences became an immensely popular text in the early Christian church. x
  • 8
    Julia Maesa Controls an Unusual Emperor
    After the murder of the despised Roman emperor Caracalla, an unlikely new dynasty was formed by a family of Syrian women. Examine how both utilizing and upending the strict gender roles of ancient Rome allowed Julia Maesa and her family to gain unprecedented (and precarious) power. Their influence was short-lived, but altered the course of the empire, nonetheless. x
  • 9
    Zenobia Battles the Roman Legions
    Travel to the furthest edge of the Roman empire, to the wealthy outpost of Palmyra, where the gradual collapse of the Pax Romana opened the way for rebellion. There, the ambitious, young Queen Zenobia managed to bring substantial parts of the eastern Roman empire under her rule before facing defeat and exile when she attempted to declare her son emperor. x
  • 10
    Helena Brings Christianity Down to Earth
    Meet Helena, a tavern girl in Naissus (modern Serbia) who captured the heart of a powerful Roman soldier and gave birth to a son named Constantine. When Constantine became emperor, his mother influenced his religious policy, creating a foothold for Christianity to become one of the most powerful institutions the world has ever seen. x
  • 11
    Galla Placidia Supports the Visigoths
    The unusual life of the Roman Princess Galla Placidia shows how an odd series of events can lead to astonishing results. After being kidnapped by the Visigoths, Placidia became a political advisor to the king of these “barbarians”—and then his wife. Eventually, she would become a powerful empress of Rome and leave a strong mark on the politics, laws, and art of the empire. x
  • 12
    Hypatia Dies for Intellectual Freedom
    Look at the brilliant and controversial scholar, Hypatia, as she lived, taught, and died in Alexandria in the middle of the 5th century. Her role as a public intellectual and philosopher would make her a rare example of respected female scholarship in a male-dominated world—and would ultimately lead to her murder at the hands of an angry Christian mob. x
  • 13
    Pulcheria Defends the Virgin Mary
    How does a 13-year-old girl become the guiding force of the most powerful empire in the world? Discover how Pulcheria used religion and a very strategic vow of chastity to ensure the success of her family's dynasty following the death of her parents. Also see how her successful theological defense of the Virgin Mary would shape the Catholic Church for centuries to come. x
  • 14
    Theodora Rises from Dancer to Empress
    Witness one of the most dramatic stories of upward mobility in history: the rise of Theodora from prostitution to royalty. As co-ruler with her husband, the emperor Justinian, she led a lavish and influential life, exercising her power to help improve the lives of women who experienced the hardships she had known in her youth. x
  • 15
    Radegund Founds a Convent
    During the brutal Merovingian dynasty, Queen Radegund stands out as an exception to the violence and cruelty of Western Europe after the collapse of Roman power. See how her religious convictions helped her escape her abusive husband and build a convent that would help other women find a place of freedom and safety. x
  • 16
    Aisha Helps Shape Islam
    Aisha bin Abi Bakr was the favorite wife of the prophet Muhammad and she became one of the most influential women in Islam—and one of the most controversial. Explore the many ways Aisha’s influence and authority helped shape a burgeoning religion that would become one of the largest and most powerful institutions in the world. x
  • 17
    Wu Zetian Rules China
    In all of Chinese history, only one woman ever ruled on her own: Wu Zetian. Trace her rise to power, from her lowly origins as the daughter of a merchant to the head of her own dynasty. Along the way, gain insight into the cutthroat nature of the Chinese imperial court and the ways Wu could be both brilliant and cruel throughout her reign. x
  • 18
    Kahina Defends North Africa against Muslims
    Turn to northwest Africa, where the fierce warrior woman, Kahina, fought to defend the mountain tribes of Maghreb from Muslim incursion. Understand why the struggle between the north African tribes and Islam was not about religion, but rather about preserving independence. Also discover the crucial role of olive trees in this conflict. x
  • 19
    Dhuoda Chronicles a Carolingian Life
    Take a closer look at everyday life and politics in the Middle Ages with the chronicle kept by the Carolingian woman, Dhouda, for her young son. Through her writing, we can gain rare insight into this time of constant warfare and shifting alliances from the perspective of a highly educated woman who stands in for the many women whose voices are lost to time. x
  • 20
    Elfrida Rules Anglo-Saxon England
    The life of Elfrida can serve as a lesson in the difficulties of separating historical fact from rumor. See how the first crowned queen of England was often reduced to the archetype of the “wicked step-mother” when she was so much more than that. Look at her contributions to England in the 10th century and consider the common failings of historical memory. x
  • 21
    Freydis Journeys to North America
    The formidable sister of Leif Eriksson, Freydis Eriksdottir, accompanied her famous brother on two of the six voyages he took from Greenland to North America, making a fortune—and building a reputation for cunning and violence—along the way. Through Freydis, consider the contributions of women to the Viking age that would transform Europe. x
  • 22
    Lubna of Cordoba Masters Mathematics
    See how a woman, Lubna, rose to prominence as the most renowned mathematician of her day in the glittering intellectual capital Cordoba and get a better understanding of women's education in the Muslim world and beyond. You'll see that, while Lubna was extraordinary, she was not necessarily unique to her time and place. x
  • 23
    Lady Murasaki Writes the First Novel
    At the height of the Heian period, Japan was breaking away from Chinese influence and developing its own courtly culture, with women emerging as a powerful force in art and literature. Here you will meet Murasaki Shikibu, the woman who wrote the world's first novel: The Tale of Genji. x
  • 24
    Anna Brings Christianity to Russia
    One strategic political alliance changed the course of history in Eastern Europe. Understand how the marriage of a Byzantine princess and a pagan Scandinavian king brought Christianity to the area that would become Russia and how the marriage would establish a base of power that would be used to legitimize future tsars, generations later. x
  • 25
    Anna Comnena Writes a Byzantine History
    Meet one of the most significant historians of the First Crusade: Anna Comnena. Denied her dream of ruling as empress in Byzantium, the highly educated Anna made a different kind of mark on history by producing one of the most thorough and clear-eyed records of a momentous event that would echo through the ages. x
  • 26
    Eleanor of Aquitaine Goes on Crusade
    The Crusades of the early Middle Ages would have repercussions for centuries to come. Dive into the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a young queen whose experience of the Second Crusade shows how deeply personal politics could be in a world shaped by dynastic alliances and ruled by church doctrine. x
  • 27
    Marie of Champagne Promotes Romantic Love
    The ideas of chivalry and “romantic love” have been a distinctive feature of Western culture for centuries, but where did they begin? One point of origin is through the patronage of Marie of Champagne. See how her influence shaped literature through the artists she supported, including the originator of the Arthurian romance, Chrétien de Troyes. x
  • 28
    Heloise Embraces the New Philosophy
    Discover the story of Heloise, a woman who embodied the passion for ideas that would define the time known as the “12th-century renaissance.” Her thirst for knowledge—and scandalous love affair with the teacher Peter Abelard—resulted in years of correspondence that captures spiritual and intellectual ideas that foreshadow modern philosophy. x
  • 29
    Hildegard Revolutionizes Traditional Medicine
    Meet one of the most famous women of the Middle Ages. Pledged as a nun from the age of eight, Hildegard put the considerable knowledge she acquired to work through her writings. Her texts on medicine are notable for their blending of ideas that were drawn from the masculine and feminine spheres, as well as the insight they provide into medieval medical practice. x
  • 30
    Razia Rules Muslim India
    Venture to the newly established Muslim sultanate of northern India in the 13th century, where Razia became the first and only female sultan. Though her rule was challenged by conservative Muslims who did not approve of a female ruler, Razia helped keep the peace in her kingdom by promoting compromise between the two competing religions of the area, Islam and Hinduism. x
  • 31
    Sorkhakhtani Administers a Mongol Empire
    Explore the life of a woman some modern historians argue is one of the most influential women in history. From a marriage alliance with the Mongols at the tender age of 13, Sorkhakhtani would grow to have a prodigious influence on this important Asian empire, exercising a degree of power unavailable to many other women of the time. x
  • 32
    Licoricia Deals with the King of England
    The story of Licoricia is inextricably tied to the commerce and violence that swept through England and its Jewish community throughout the 13th century. Her impact on society reflects the changing perception of money in the West and how Jews were both aided and restricted by the laws that dictated how they could make and keep their wealth. x
  • 33
    Abutsu Follows the Way of Poetry
    Though we don’t know her birth name, the woman who would come to be called Abutsu used her talents as a writer to make her fortune in a time of immense change for Japan. Under the new regime of Confucianism, women saw their freedoms curtailed and their opportunities limited, but Abutsu found a path to influence through the “Way of Poetry.” x
  • 34
    Brigitta Speaks to God and the Pope
    The disasters of the tumultuous 14th century paved the way for the modern world. The first of two stories from this era, the life of Brigitta is one of struggle with the social and environmental problems of her time, a struggle she approached through religion. Brigitta's personal faith led her to seek comfort through mysticism and pass her experience down through her writings. x
  • 35
    Joan of Arc Dies for France
    Joan d'Arc stands at the turning point of the brutal Hundred Years' War, a conflict that would transform warfare and national identity in 14th-century Europe. How does an illiterate country girl come to lead the armies of France against the English and become a symbol of a changing world? Look at the events of her life and the tragedy of her death to find out. x
  • 36
    Christine of Pisan Defends Women
    With over 40 works that continue to be read and valued today, Christine of Pisan is considered the first professional writer in history. Her writings offer a clear window into the politics and culture of her day, with a unique perspective based on reason rather than religious faith. She also advocated for a new view of women that was ahead of its time. x

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Your professor

Joyce E. Salisbury

About Your Professor

Joyce E. Salisbury, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Joyce E. Salisbury is Professor Emerita of Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, where she taught history and served as associate dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of International Education. She earned her Ph.D. in Medieval History at Rutgers University, specializing in religious and social history. Professor Salisbury began her career performing research in Spain, and she has...
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Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals: 36 Great Women before 1400 is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 21.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Interesting Perspective Having recently watched Dorsey Armstrong's course on 'The Year 1215...', I was impressed by her refreshing approach to history, rather than the conventional sequential order. By jumping around places, people, and events she was able to correlate (sometimes at a global level) and show relationships that are not immediately apparent. Prof Salisbury attempts a similar approach in her review of 36 women, some of whom I (an avid student of history) had not encountered before. Her lecturing style is engaging, lively, and, at times, humorous. One negative reviewer who persists in continually offering Garrett Fagan as a 'perfect' historical lecturer (I have some of his courses, and agree, he is very good), is substantially missing the point. Naturally, as Prof Salisbury often notes, most history is written by men, so women often get short shrift. She attempts to fill in gaps in our knowledge as best she can. Furthermore, it is germane to realise that the choice of the 36 women in this course is the Professor's choice. Obviously, she could have chosen others ! All in all, this is an entirely satisfying course.
Date published: 2019-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting collection of insights Great content. Software only works well if online, not good for traveling or repeated listening. Lectures are 10s, product is a 3.
Date published: 2019-10-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant Idea for a Course This was a brilliant Idea for a course, whoever came up with it. My only caveat is that it is very heavily Eurocentric in the women that it looks at. There are not enough women from Africa or from Eastern and Southern Asia. this might speak to the fact that these societies did not value the contributions of women and that male authorities might have done their best to restrict their progress. Whatever the case maybe, I would have like more additional lectures on Asian and African women. Still the figures here in this course shows the important impact women have made politically, culturally and socially in the Classical and Medieval worlds. Here are just some of my favorite women surveyed and why they have mattered to our world: Hypatia, a greek philosopher and mathematician who seems more like one of our modern scientists like Marie Curie and Rachel Carson; Pulcheria who helped give us the worship of the Virgin Mary; Marie of Champagne who helped to make romantic love a suitable theme for court literature; and Christian of Pisan who could be considered an early feminist. Courses like these help us to see that women were not always marginalized figures in history. In fact, they were always important to our modern development.
Date published: 2019-09-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from While I found much to disagree with, and disapprove of with the Professors personal comments, I found nothing to fault with her historical presentations. In fact I found this to be an extremely educational and informative course. She has chosen a wonderful spectrum of women to present: From the Most Evil to the Most Admirable. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2019-09-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating stories The stories of these women, most of whom I was unfamiliar with, gave me a glimpse into an area of history that is neglected. The lectures were delivered in a lively style that enhanced my appreciation both for the women's accomplishments and for their failures.
Date published: 2019-09-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Very Interesting Course! I purchased this course when it first came out and I just love it! The information about the 36 women is very interesting and is well told. I love the mix of ladies and was surprised that I was unfamiliar with several of them. I think that the professor did a good job and she gave just enough background information. I hope that she will do other courses for us.
Date published: 2019-09-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Entertaining, but I sense a bias. I have enjoyed the course so far, but by lecture 6 I am suspecting a Christian bias on the part of the lecturer. For example in the lecture on Herodias we have two sources used (and I'm glad they are mentioned so I can judge for myself) - a roman historian and the gospels. Without any discussion of the pros and cons of each, the gospel version is taken as just that, gospel. I appreciate that there is limited evidence given the time period, but I feel a more balanced appraisal could still have been included, rather than the authors pet interpretation. The lecture on Perpetua I found quite upsetting. Approaching it from a medical perspective, surely here is a woman if ever we can identify one in antiquity, with postpartum psychosis. She dreams she is a man, abandons her infant child whom she is still breast feeding and chooses to go to what she knows will be her doom. And it's treated as though her visions are definitively the word of God. I understand why the Romans missed the diagnosis but how are we missing it today? I shall finish the lectures and will no doubt find much to stimulate the mind and inform, but I feel that if the author had battled harder to control her innate bias (its difficult for all of us I realise), it could have been so much more.
Date published: 2019-08-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from this is a very educational course! We've been doing this course two parts at a time - having completed many other courses over this period of time but never with this subject matter. Instructor has her habits but that's okay - her knowledge and humor are great. If you're looking for perfection you'll be disappointed but looking for knowledge you'll be very happy
Date published: 2019-08-12
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