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Medieval Heroines in History and Legend

Discover remarkable women in the light of the present "golden age" of medieval scholarship.
Medieval Heroines in History and Legend is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 48.
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Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not worth the time Prof. Bonnie Wheeler’s course is similar to those of Prof. Rufus Fears and shares all of their weaknesses. First is the over reliance on “The Great Man/Great Woman” approach to historiography to the exclusion of more important religious, social, intellectual or economic crosscurrents. Second, is the tedious editorial moralizing; for example, asking whether Heloise would be a suitable role model for our daughters is not a serious question for a series of history lectures. Third is the two-penny theatrics of her delivery; seemingly random words are enunciated with intensity. There are additional problems: her admiration for her subjects is so unrestrained that she loses academic credibility. Finally, she is particularly poor in contextualizing the legendary aspects of her subjects in later historical periods. There is certainly interesting information in her lectures; with such fascinating figures, how can there not be? All the same, this course is not worth the time.
Date published: 2023-12-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Didn't like it Only audio and the teacher has a nagging voice very difficult to stay with
Date published: 2022-08-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Four Great Women, One Strong Professor Strong course, taught by a strong professor. I had taken several history Great Courses in video format, and I was a bit concerned about my attention focus to an audio course. But the professor has a commanding enthusiasm and brings these women and their times to life. The four women certainly deserve more than one 30-minute lecture, and Professor Wheeler portrays them well. Video format for the course would be appreciated.
Date published: 2022-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What a lot of fun! I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the importance of women in history, their feelings, attitudes, and concerns. The professor was very knowledgeable. I would love more courses in this genre, please!
Date published: 2021-12-29
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
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Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Heloise, and Hildegard of Bingen escaped the boundaries of medieval perception and painted their own lives. Using the most current medieval scholarship along with recently discovered records and writings, medieval specialist Bonnie Wheeler provides you with an intimate portrait of these women through the context of their times.


Bonnie Wheeler


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 recipient of the Phi Beta Kappa Perrine Prize for excellence in scholarship and teaching. Professor Wheeler has written extensively on medieval literature and culture. She edits the book series The New Middle Ages for St. Martin's Press, editing such books as Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, Listening to Heloise: The Voice of a Twelfth-Century Woman, and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady. She has served as a commentator and historical consultant for A&E and The History Channel's programs on Camelot, The Holy Grail, and Joan of Arc.

Four Remarkable Medieval Women

01: 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.

33 min
The Revolutionary Twelfth Century

02: 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.

30 min
Prodigious Heloise

03: 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?

30 min
Abelard's Story of Abelard and Heloise

04: 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.

30 min
Heloise as Lover—Her Sublime Submission

05: 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.

30 min
Heloise, Adept Abbess and Mother

06: 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.

30 min
Heloise of the Imagination

07: 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?

31 min
Hildegard of Bingen, Sibyl of the Rhine

08: 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.

30 min
Hildegard, Holy Hypochondriac

09: 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.

31 min
Hildegard's Visionary Trilogy, Science and Letters

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.

30 min
Wholly Hildegard

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.

30 min
Eleanor's Lineage

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.

30 min
Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of France

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.

30 min
Eleanor and the Politics of Estrangement

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.

30 min
Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of England

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.

30 min
Eleanor the Dowager Queen

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.

28 min
Legendary Eleanor

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.

31 min
Joan of Arc and Her Times

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.

31 min
Joan Discovers Her Mission and Her Dauphin

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?

30 min
Joan the Warrior, Holy Berserker

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.

30 min
Joan's Success and Captivity

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.

31 min
Joan's Trial, Death, and Retrial

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.

30 min
Joan of the Imagination

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.

31 min
Four Pioneers

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.

32 min