Stanford professor describes the somewhat falsified history of medieval women

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Studying the Medieval Period allows us to make connections between history and the present in order to see how life during that time created a foundation for the current state of our world. Women have, and will continue to be, important figures of society who have an interesting history. Photo courtesy of the author.

The Medieval Period lasted from the fifth century until the late fifteenth century and was marked by the fall of the Western Roman Empire. This time period is often thought to have merged with the Renaissance, which allowed for a revival of the arts, culture, politics and economics across Europe.  

To uncover the secrets of and the interest in the women of the Medieval Period, Paula Findlen, Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of History at Stanford University and an Italian Renaissance scholar, presented a talk titled “Inventing Medieval Women: History, Memory and Forgery in Early Modern Italy.” Her research spans across a wide array of topics concerning the early history of science and medicine to the world of the Renaissance. Her interests also lie at the intersection of gender and culture, which led her to study the biographies of medieval women.  

Findlen is the latest in a series of esteemed scholars invited to UConn as a part of the Visiting Scholars in Gender and History program, which first began in 1998. The purpose of this program is to gather prominent scholars with varying research interests from different departments and universities across the country to share their research with the wider UConn community.  

Findlen is the latest in a series of esteemed scholars invited to UConn as a part of the Visiting Scholars in Gender and History program, which first began in 1998. Photo courtesy of the author.

Findlen focused the first part of her lecture on the biographies she studied, which were written during the fifteenth and eighteenth century about women from Bologna and other parts of Italy. The University of Bologna was home to many medieval women such as Bitisia Gozzadini, a thirteenth century woman who lectured there and is thought to be the first woman to have ever taught at a university.  

A common theme among the many biographers of medieval women, including Gozzadini, is that their writing tends to elaborate on the experiences of these women. Findlen says this allowed them to create and define the past. Findlen went on to discuss Alessandro Macchiavelli, an eighteenth-century lawyer from Bologna, who was also a prolific writer who left behind many manuscripts that uncover his passion and obsession with the female doctorate. Findlen described one his pieces of work as “an absolute goldmine of information, real and made-up, about Bolognese women.”  

“I do think that he is fascinated by silence, by historical silence, and by how you tell histories that are not easily visible, that are not in the archive,” Findlen said.   

Studying the Medieval Period allows us to make connections between history and the present in order to see how life during that time created a foundation for the current state of our world. Women have, and will continue to be, important figures of society who have an interesting history. What Findlen has uncovered is somewhat falsified and elaborated upon by biographers, like Macchiavelli, who showed a profound interest in the women that came before them.  

“I think he’s actually come to an understanding that’s not just mischievous, but also sophisticated, that there are histories that are true but cannot be found in these kinds of sources … Sometimes you have to go to other places to find the answer for things that are sparsely documented,” Findlen said. 

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Batu Gezer on Unsplash.com.

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