Two Medieval Books for Women's History Month 2024

📘 The Works of Gwerful Mechain

Edited and translated by Katie Gramich
-Broadview Press
Translated from the Middle French by Laurence Binyon & Eric R.D. Maclagan (1908)
-Leopold Classic Library


This is my third year of reading for Women’s History month since I began this book blog in 2022, and there is a theme: medieval female writers. It’s entirely due to the influence of my daughter Sophia, who is nearing the end of her Medieval Studies degree and keeps suggesting these amazing women writers from centuries ago. It has totally opened my eyes to the medieval female voice and feminist writing.

For you this year, I’m introducing a new-to-me writer with the poetry of Gwerful Mechain, and revisiting an author I read last year, Christine De Pizan. I hope you enjoy!


The Works of Gwerful Mechain
Edited and translated by Katie Gramich

My Quick Take: What joyful and audacious poetry by a 15th century medieval female poet!

Sophia was so taken by this book that she proceeded to read some of the poems aloud to me. I was hooked. The Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain lived c.1460 to c.1502, a married woman from a family of relatively higher status, thus having the freedom to write the poetry that she wanted to, rather than having to compose verse as a trade. Her poetry is sometimes more conventional and true to the poetic forms of the day (especially her religious poetry) but at other times breaks the rules of form (with her erotic poetry). Yes, that’s right: she wrote both sacred and profane poetry! It’s not unusual for the erotic to be showcased in medieval writing, but apparently it is more unusual that one poet would write both types:
“ is indeed unusual for such different sorts of work to be know to have been written by the same author; Gwerful’s authorship of both playfully erotic poems about the female body and sexual desire and of utterly serious and sombre works about Christ’s passion is, from any angle, quite striking.”
The introduction by Katie Gramich, a translator and professor at Cardiff University, is essential reading as it imparts context for Mechain’s time and contemporaries. Mechain often wrote cheeky poems as a “dialogue” with male contemporary poets, especially one Dafydd Llwyd.
“...she engages in poetic dialogues with her male contemporaries, using the same forms, metres, tropes, and vocabulary as they. She often speaks with a female voice and overtly sees things from a woman’s point of view, taking her peers to task for their male arrogance, but she jousts with them verbally as their equal, confident in her own craft and opinions.”
There are not many of her poems that can be unquestionably attributed to Gwerful but what exists is fantastic. I liked the religious poems well enough, but the erotic poems were the best. They were tongue in cheek, satirical and sharp poems mostly parodying the male writers of her time.

Two poems that I’d like to highlight in this collection see Gwerful speak to the male voice in the Welsh poetic tradition of the time. The first is Poem to the vagina, which was written as a counterpoint to men of her time writing humorously about the penis. In fact, this poem is thought by some to be a response to Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym’s Poem to the Penis (which, for context, is also included in the book). It’s about how men praise all sorts of things about the female body when wooing and writing, but somehow skip over the “middle” part of her.
He sang before nightfall,
His tongue giving fruitless praise
To God in his gifts and forgiveness.
But he leaves the middle without praise,
That palace where children are conceived,
The snug vagina, clear hope,
Tender and lovely, open circle strong and bright,
The place I love, delicate and healthy,
The quim beneath the cloth.
It goes on, becoming more bawdy in unabashed praise of the vagina and vulva and ends on a wonderfully satirical note, almost patriotic: “Noble bush, may God save it.”

The second poem felt to me a little darker in its origin. Poet Ieuan Dyfi had been spurned by a woman nicknamed Red Annie, and wrote a scathing poem shaming her and, indeed, all women. His poem cites numerous examples of treacherous women throughout history. In response to this misogynistic rant, Gwerful wrote A response to Ieuan Dyfi’s poem on Red Annie. She counters Dyfi by invoking strong women of history who were an asset to their husbands; indeed, powerful women in their own rights. After this list, her anger and scorn leaps off the page these centuries later:
No woman could, fornicator,
Ever rape a man, your doings are wicked.
Evil, jealous man, if the chance came,
You would be pulled down, not towards heaven.
Stop your attacks, adulterer,
Calling a lovely woman a whore.
You’re the one who’s been sinning at both ends,
And in your heart, if we could see into it.
One thing I’m always amazed at is how the issues we face don’t change very much. Angry spurned lovers were publicly shaming women well before the internet. Gwerful’s poem is an example of a tradition called “querelles des femmes,” (dispute of women) where European female writers began to pen a response to the dominant male culture’s often misogynistic writing.

There is so much joy and whimsy in Gwerful’s poems. In other sections she exchanges sometimes erotic, sometimes sweet verse with her older contemporary poet Dafydd Llwyd. In others we see snippets of everyday life. What is evident is that there isn’t a lot of her work that survives.

This collection, edited and translated by Cardiff University’s Katie Gramich, is so well done. There’s an informative introduction, and there are poems included for context, such as the Poem to the penis and also Dyfi’s scornful poem about Red Annie. Given a couple of hours, one can sit and learn a rather complete lesson about Gwerful Mechain and her lived context.


The Book of the Duke of True Lovers by Christine De Pizan
Translated from the Middle French by Laurence Binyon & Eric R.D. Maclagan 

My Quick Take: This medieval tale of a Duke’s yearning for his married Lady love is an example of courtly love, but written by the wonderful female author Christine de Pizan (c1364-1430)!

Last year Sophia introduced me to De Pizan’s feminist manifesto The Book of the City of Ladies and this year I’ve followed up with The Book of the Duke of True Lovers, which is one of Sophia’s most recommended stories. The two are very dissimilar on the surface, but De Pizan was one to write a large variety of literature, from romantic poetry to “sacred and scientific” poems, to prose of a moral nature. The Book of the City of Ladies is one such moral, feminist work that directly rebutted misogynistic works of the time.

The Book of the Duke of True Lovers is a romantic novel of sorts that serves as an illustration of the medieval notion of “courtly love.” De Pizan herself was brought up in the sophisticated French court of Charles V, married at 15 and widowed at 25, with three children to support. She turned to writing. True Lovers was likely written about real people: Jean, Duc de Bourbon; and Marie, Duchesse de Berry. Unlike many of her other manuscripts, which were popular and copied often, only two manuscripts of this story survive, indicating that she may have written it for Marie privately. It was Marie to whom the ownership of one of the manuscripts can be traced.

According to, courtly love is: “A highly conventionalized medieval tradition of love between a knight and a married noblewoman, first developed by the troubadours of Southern France and extensively employed in European literature of the time. The love of the knight for his lady was regarded as an ennobling passion and the relationship was typically unconsummated.”

De Pizan’s tale is entirely of this nature, and was both entertaining to read, full of amazingly flagrant angst, and so different to our modern conventions that it really made me think about how literature was stylized at that time to reflect the realities of court, and the ideals of love centuries ago.

It is the story of the Duke, who falls madly, deeply in love one afternoon when on an outing with a Lady he’d never noticed before: “Then love, the playful archer, who saw my silent demeanour, and that I was inclined unto love, took the arrow with the which it is his wont to surprise lovers, and bent his bow, and drew it silently…The arrow of a tender glance, the which is so pleasing and so powerful, pierced me to the heart. Then was I sore bewildered.” Here, love is not only wonderful but also a “grievous malady” that causes no end of suffering.

To get the attention of his Lady, the Duke puts on a three day jousting tournament. This was so interesting, as De Pizan takes us right into this tournament and I felt like I was able to see the customs and the Knight’s life as if I was there for a brief time. Eventually, and with much painful and angst-ridden pleading, his Lady also succumbs to Cupid’s arrow, and the two take up a furtive, passionate but unconsummated affair.

All of this must be done on the sly, of course. Unconsummated or not, it would not do for the court gossips to get wind of the matter. It happens that the Lady needs to ask her friend, the older and wise Dutchess, to be their go-between after her faithful servant leaves court. The Lady sends a letter to request the Duchess’s aid, and the Duchess’s reply was the crux of the book for me. It is a fascinating treatise on the role of women in the medieval court, of the idea of womanly behaviour and decorum, and a warning against deviating from these norms.

The Dutchess’s letter at first took me aback, with its message that a noble woman be in all ways loyal and pure and completely above reproach in every way. There is a most astounding list of qualities that a woman should adhere to that goes on for a page!
"…have a tranquil, gentle and calm demeanour, and in her diversions be restrained and without excess, that she laugh with moderation and not without cause, and have a stately carriage, modest look, and dignified bearing, with a kindly response and courteous word for everyone…never appearing harsh, capricious, or ill-humoured…not lightly believing in gossip…keeping herself neither too much confined to her chamber, or to herself, nor too much in the sight of other folk…”
On the surface, this is an impossible, self-sacrificing standard of womanhood that is at once stifling and unattainable. However, I think there is a practicality to this, for women of the time. It was a warning of protection, for the Lady to keep herself from harm given the standards that women would be judged by. I wonder if there was also a subtext of irony that De Pizan was hinting at. The standards of propriety are so impossible as to be laughable. There are always “malicious tongues” that will gossip and pass judgement on a vulnerable woman,
“And thus it is the more necessary for a noble lady than for other women to pay a great attention to all her words and ways and demeanour, and the reason of this is, that, in the presence of a noble lady, everyone pays attention to her…and thus the lady cannot look, speak, laugh, or jest, without all being put together, discussed, and borne in mind of many, and then reported broadcast.”
I think these words are just as relevant today as they were in 1405, and not just for the famous among us. Sigh.

There is a sad end to this tale, but in real life the probable subjects of this story, Jean and Marie, did find some happiness before the Duke was taken prisoner in the battle of Agincourt in 1415, ultimately dying in captivity as a prisoner in London.


Here’s to my vicarious medieval education–with a focus on medieval feminist literature–by way of my daughter’s excellent tutelage. It’s still in progress, and it’s an illuminating and fascinating journey. This year, I’ve enjoyed learning more about courtly love and life in the late medieval period through the female writers of the time, and am astounded (in a good way) by Mechain’s poetry. This reading of female medieval writers has become a bit of a yearly Women’s History Month theme for me, and I’m already planning for 2025.