Who where these great female writers and what did they create?
These 6 women left their mark in World Literature. Some followed the norms, others broke them. Some became nuns, other married. But they all produced great literary works that remain widely read -even though they wrote during the Middle Ages and the Baroque. For this article, we arbitrarily chose six fantastic authors from around the world, inevitably leaving out several great female writers.
Kassia. Byzantium (Turkey), c. 810 – 860.
Kassia was born in Constantinople, more than a thousand years ago. And she aspired to a monastic life since she was a child. We know that through three surviving letters that Theodore the Studite wrote to the high-born teenager. In one of the surviving letters he thanks Kassia for standing up for an imprisoned monk. In others, he praises Kassia’s writing style and devotion.
Almost an empress
Kassia was the daughter of a military officer that served the Imperial court. In 823, the emperor’s mother thought her son Theophilos should get married. Foreshadowing the Cinderella story, the most eligible and beautiful maidens of the realm were invited to meet the emperor, Kassia among them. Theophilos narrowed down his choice to two: Kassia and Theodora of Paphlagonia. His mother provided Theophilos with a golden apple that he was to give to his chosen bride. The young co-emperor walked over to beautiful Kassia and said: “Through woman trickled forth the baser things.” The girl replied: “But also through woman gush forth the better things.” Apparently Theophilos was not a fan of witty retorts, so he gave the apple to Theodora, whom he married. The anecdote first appears in the chronicles of Symeon the Logothete, written in the 10th century.
Works and sainthood
After her dismissal, Kassia went on to fulfill her childhood’s dream: she became a nun. Like other aristocratic ladies, she founded her own monastery in Constantinople and became the abbess. And there she kept writing and philosophizing, according to Leo the Grammarian. The dichotomy of evil-good woman, Eve-Mary, that showed up in her conversation with the emperor keeps appearing in her writings, with Kassia admitting the sinfulness of humans, but also believing in contrition and redemption. She also praises monastic life and the strength of the women martyrs of Roman times.
This great writer penned poems and hymns. And she also composed the music for her hymns. In the 14th century, Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos considered her the 11th most influential composer in the history of the Church.
49 surviving hymns are attributed to her, scholars are sure that at least 23 of them are truly hers. One of them, Hymn of Kassiana, is part of the official Byzantine rituals. It is sang on Holy Wednesday, and many Orthodox church goers think of it as the most moving of songs.
Murasaki Shikibu. Japan, c. 973 – 1014.
Some consider The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki, to be the first novel ever written. Since the title of ‘first’ tends to draw contenders, others settle for the honor of calling it the first modern novel or the first psychological novel. In any case, most agree that it is one of the finest works in World Literature, and Japan’s best.
The Tale of Genji takes place in the Imperial Court and follows the love life of Genji, a prince, who is the favorite son of the Emperor. But since Genji is illegitimate, his father names one of his legitimate sons as his heir and, to protect Genji from intrigues, strips him from all royal titles.
Genji falls in love with three forbidden women: first with his stepmother, then with a young girl, and finally with the mistress of his brother, who is now emperor.
The beautifully written long novel keeps a slow pace as it explores the inner world of its characters and portrays life at court, with its traditions, conflicts, and vanities. Although it is fictional, scholars believe the main characters -there are more than 400 in total- are based in real people, some of whom Murasaki would have met in court during her time as a lady-in-waiting for Empress Shoshi.
Murasaki belonged to the powerful Fujiwara family that, at the time, governed Japan. Her father was a provincial governor and a scholar; and her great-grandfather was a member of the elite and a renowned poet named Fujiwara no Kanesuke (877-933). Murasaki herself received quite an education, she even learned Chinese, a language that only noble men were supposed to know, and which allowed her to read Chinese literature and poetry.
This great writer was born around 973 in Kyoto, in her father’s house, which stood next to the Imperial Palace. When she was a teen her father was given the position of governor of Echizen, so Murasaki accompanied him to the province and lived there for several years. In 998 she married an older relative, Fujiwara Nobutaka, who died in 1001. It is probably then that Murasaki started writing The Tale of Genji, which would take her years to finish. The empress called her to her service in 1006, so perhaps Murasaki kept polishing her novel while she was in court.
While some of Murasaki’s poetry has also survived -along with a diary she kept during her first two years in court, in which she talks about the superficiality of court life-, her lasting fame comes through her novel.
Heloise d’Arbenteuil. France, c. 1098 – 1164.
Moving to Paris
Heloise was born in France. Not much is known of her family or childhood years, except that she spent them in a convent in Argenteuil where she learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and the classics.
When Heloise was about 19, she went to live with her uncle Fulbert in Paris. The uncle was a canon of the cathedral St. Etienne (the future Notre-Dame), and was proud of his niece’s well-known intellectual achievements.
But someone else was to take an interest in the girl prodigy: Peter Abelard, a scholar in his thirties that was considered the best philosopher in Paris. He heard of Heloise’s intellectual reputation and, according to his own account, after seeing the beautiful girl, he fell madly in love. After that, he did everything in his power to get close to her. Since he too worked for the church, he befriended Fulbert. Soon, he convinced the canon to rent him a room in his house, and when Fulbert asked if Abelard could be Heloise’s teacher, the philosopher happily accepted.
Scandal and crime
For two years Abelard and Heloise carried on a secret relationship in her uncle’s house. Abelard wrote that he could not think of philosophy anymore, that all he could write were love poems. Fatefully, his students started circulating those poems around Paris. Eventually, Fulbert hears the gossip and evicts Abelard from his home. But it was late, Heloise was pregnant. She notifies her lover who helps her escape and sends her to Brittany, where Heloise has the baby.
Abelard tries to appease Fulbert by secretly marrying Heloise –he could not marry publicly without loosing his teaching position. But by then medieval Paris is scandalized by the affair, by the escape, and by the baby. And Fulbert has had enough and takes his revenge. He hires a criminal that sneaks into Abelard’s house at night and castrates him with a knife.
In the aftermath, both Heloise and Abelard renounce the world and go into monasteries. For twelve years they loose contact. Then they start corresponding. The first letters are full of passion on both sides, admitting that they are still in love. The next ones are more measured as they both believe their love to be sinful, and that their energies should be directed towards the spiritual life they have chosen. In the last ones they are quite prudent, intent on not tempting the other, and they mostly speak of philosophy, theology, and the adequate rules for monastic life.
Li Qingzhao. China, 1084 – c. 1155.
During the Tang and Song dynasties educated Chinese composed poetry and shared it at social events. Most of the women composed their verses in a poetry form called ci. And Li Qingzhao outdid them all. Her verses are considered among the finest ever written in ci. Her writing is elegant and original, full of metaphors that create vivid pictures for the reader. Since her poetry deals with personal feelings, it connects with people across time. Li is considered China’s greatest poetess, and her work has been inspiring both poets and romantics for the last 1,000 years.
Li is not only a master of the ci form, she also wrote widely admired shi poems (a highly regulated type of poetry). Furthermore, the noblewoman penned one of the earliest theoretical writings on ci and an introduction for her husband’s book on art collecting. Li was a history and classics scholar, as well as a calligrapher.
The poetess was born in 1084 in Jinan, province of Shandong, to a literary family that worked for the Imperial court. Both her parents wrote poetry, so Li was already writing verses as a teenager. At 17 she married Zhao Mingcheng, a 21-year-old scholar with an interest in the arts. If one is to judge by Li’s poems at the time, her marriage was a happy one, filled with laughter, friends which they challenged to poetry competitions, and love.
But in 1126 the Jurchen invaded the country and captured the capital. Half a million Chinese fled to the south, including the couple. And in 1129 Zhou died of an illness while traveling to Hu Hou, where he had been appointed governor. Li’s formerly joyous poems became full of grief: “lone . . . cold . . . pain . . . moan,” she wrote, along with: “When there is possession, there must be loss of possession; when there is a gathering together, there must be a scattering…” For the rest of her life, this great female writer will move around China avoiding the Jurchen. She also penned political critiques to the ‘cowardice’ of the ruling Song and their ineffectual attempts to stop the invasion.
Akka Mahadevi. India, c. 1130 – 1160.
While Heloise preferred mortal love to the Divine, Mahadevi held the opposite view. She was in love with the Divine and scorned mortal love: “Take these husbands who die and decay,” she wrote, for “More and more I am in love with my husband known by the name of Chennamallikarjuna (God).”
Married to Shiva or to the king
Mahadevi was born around 1130 in Karnataka, India. When she was about 10, her family introduced her to the worship of Shiva (another name for God). By her teens she had decided to dedicate her life to Shiva.
Legend says, although not all scholars agree, that the local ruler, Kausika, chose her for a wife because he was dazzled by her beauty. Supposedly, she accepted under the condition that the marriage was not to be consummated, ever. The king agreed, but after a while he could not keep his side of the deal. Mahadevi abandoned the palace. And as she was leaving, Kausika demanded she returned all the jewels and clothing he had given her. She obliged. And walked out of the palace naked.
Life of a wandering saint
Whether the royal marriage took place or not, Mahadevi did become a wandering saint that, following an ascetic tradition of India, walked around naked, only covered by her long hair. She walked from place to place singing her poems, until she reached Anubhava Mantapa, a gathering place for mystics and philosophers, where discussions on the equality of all humans, spirituality, and other subjects where held. After a long questioning, the head of the academy recognized her wisdom and purity of thought, and accepted her as part of the group. They gave her the title of Akka (“sister”). Eventually she left the academy and continued to wander. Apparently she spent the last years of her life in a cave, where she attained the goal she was after: enlightenment.
“I am in love with the one / Who knows no death, no evil, no form. / I am in love with the one / Who knows no place, no space, / no beginning, no end,” wrote Mahadavi.
She left some 430 vachanas (type of poems) that are read to this day. Those vachanas, along with two of her short writings, are considered some of the best pieces of Kannada-language literature. Today she is considered a social reformer and is worshiped as a saint in India.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. New Spain (modern Mexico), c. 1651 – 1695.
Juana Inés de la Cruz is one of the great voices in Spanish-language literature. She could easily pen a play, a sonnet, romance, dissertation, or a carol. She could also write about a wide range of subjects, either religious or profane. And she could be funny or serious, write in prose or verse, with erudition or with stripped-down language for popular consumption. She was a prolific writer, a modern compilation of her work fills four volumes.
But her most famous works are the poem Foolish men and a rebuttal called Reply to Sister Filotea. In Foolish men, written in Baroque style, she uses logic and wit to turn the tables and blame men for which, she believes, they usually blame women. Needless to say, it is a poem that modern feminists tend to like.
Juana was born in what is now Mexico -but that in those colonial times went by the name of Viceroyalty of New Spain. Her father was a Spanish captain, and her mother was a criolla –someone of Spanish blood born in the Americas. At three Juana learned to read, at eight she wrote her first piece. She lived in her maternal grandfather’s plantations and spent most of her time in her grandfather’s library, reading and learning.
In 1659 she went to live with her aunt, in the capital. There she learned Latin and became known for her intellect. The vicereine Leonor Carreto, marquise of Mancera, heard about the girl and asked the 14-year-old to be her lady-in-waiting. Juana, witty and charming, was a hit in court. She was supposed to find a husband, but due to what she called her “total disinclination to marriage,” and her love of knowledge, at twenty she decided to become a nun. That way she would have free time to study.
The intellectual nun
Juana lived in the convent of St. Paula in Mexico City, and taught music and drama to the girls that attended Saint Paula’s school. She had a spacious apartment for herself, and her private library was one of the largest of the Americas at the time. In her rooms she received friends from court, including intellectuals and her protectors, the new viceroy Tomás de la Cerda, marquis of Laguna, and his wife Luisa Manrique de Lara, countess of Paredes. Although the great writer did not leave the convent, she remained an unofficial poet of the court, writing plays, poems and all sorts of works for her maecenas. The viceroy and his wife published her work in Spain, where it was met with great success.
Defense of knowledge and legacy
After her protectors returned to Spain in 1688 Juana was attacked by church officials for her lack of religious zeal. The bishop of Puebla published an open letter addressed to her, under the pen name Sor Filotea (“Sister Filotea”), urging her to shy away from mundane knowledge. Juana’s reply is a rigorous argument that defends a woman’s right to knowledge and defends learning as a path to reach God.
Juana remains widely read in Spanish-speaking countries, she is a national icon in Mexico, and is considered the first great poet of the Americas.