And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 13. juli 2015

Where the Wild Women Are - bearded women in medieval geography

To the human mind, faraway places have always held a vague promise of wonder. In the Middle Ages, these places were predominantly located in the east and the north, places were few of their own had gone and places of which the ancient authorities spoke of with enchanting but incredible certainty. Writers of natural history from Herodotus to Pliny the Elder included in their works great narratives of the marvels of the east and the north, the homes of wild peoples and monstrous races. The fictitious Letter To Aristotle, purportedly written by Alexander to his old tutor, and other accounts of the Macedonian conqueror captivated the medieval imagination and achieved a wide dissemination in languages as diverse as Georgian, Greek, Old Norse, Old English and Old French.

Several writers throughout the medieval centuries dealt with the marvels of the world's periphery, and it was not only the east but also the north which served as the setting for tales about strange and weird creatures and phenomena. When these stories were set in the north, they often received an additional dimension by reference to the passage in Jeremiah 1:14 where the Lord says to His prophet that from the North, evil will break out. In a future blogpost I hope to expand more on this.

For the time being, however, I simply want to address the appearance of bearded women in the medieval periphery as described by two medieval writers, Thomas de Cantimpré (1201-72) and Adam of Bremen (fl. c.1070). 

Bearded women in conversation
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.045, Opus de Natura Rerum, Thomas Cantimpre, c.1290
Courtesy of
Among the many wonders of the east, we find a selection of wondrous and often monstrous women. The most famous are probably the amazons whose masculine ferocity had troubled male minds since the time of Homer. There were also others, and first I will present some which are found in Thomas de Cantimpré's magnificent encyclopedia Opus de Natura Rerum.

Thomas de Cantimpré was born in modern-day Belgium and received his education at Liége and later at Cantimpré. He entered the Dominican order in 1232 at Louvain and the next year he went to Cologne where he went to study under Albertus Magnus. After a while in Cologne, he went to Paris. Thomas was a very learned man, and he wrote a big encyclopedia of the known world which was called Opus de Natura Rerum. One section of this work - in which the marvels of Creation are expounded - is dedicated to the monstrous races of the east. It is in this section we find the mention of the bearded women, among a number of other typical marvels of the eastern periphery, such as women with infected glands and women giving birth to toads.

Women with inflamed glands
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.045, Opus de Natura Rerum, Thomas Cantimpre, c.1290
Courtesy of

Woman giving birth to a toad
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.045, Opus de Natura Rerum, Thomas Cantimpre, c.1290
Courtesy of
The appearance of these weird and, perhaps most importantly, subversive women are part of a monstrous kaleidoscope through which the east is seen as a kind of mirror of the west, and its peoples are held up as a way of emphasising the normalcy of the Christian world. The east is a world of heathendom, of monstrosity and of women who transgress the natural order by growing beards or giving birth to amphibious creatures.

We also see women inhabiting the same role in Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, written in the 1070s. The fourth part of this history deals with the faraway north, a description of the northern islands, i.e. Scandinavia, Greenland and Iceland. Adam himself was never north of Denmark, but received his information at the court of the Danish king Svein Estridsson. However, although Adam might have heard a great deal of fantastical tales about Norway in Denmark, parts of his description probably owes to commonplace descriptions of the wild periphery.

This can be seen for instance in his presentation of the women of Norway, chapter 30 (my translation):

In the wildest mountains which are there [in Northern Norway] we hear about women who are bearded, and men who hide in the forest and rarely are seen. 

This is part of a lengthy exposition of the weirdness of the north, which includes references to anthropophagi, oxen that live in the sea, white bears and islands inhabited by cyclops, several of which we also find in Thomas de Cantrimpré's Opus de Natura Rerum. Small wonder, since these are features of the imagined periphery, a place of contrariness whose topography rests on centuries of writings of natural history.

Anthropophagi and cyclops
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.045, Opus de Natura Rerum, Thomas Cantimpre, c.1290
Courtesy of

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