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Women Without Virtue Need Not Apply! The Medieval Nine Worthy Women

Women Without Virtue Need Not Apply! The Medieval Nine Worthy Women

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In the 14th century, the nine worthies were a list of nine men who were identified as paragons of chivalrous behavior, which included courage and honor in battle. The nine worthies consisted of a triad divided along faith lines: three Pagans, three Jews, and three Christians. Later, lists were created of nine worthy women. The nine worthy women were not as standardized as their male counterparts and were not always divided along the same Pagan-Jewish-Christian rubric either, but they generally represented what was considered virtuous for a woman in the Medieval worldview.

Nine Worthy Men

The Three Good Pagans: Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, from the woodcut series by Hans Burgkmair, 1519.

The Three Good Pagans: Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, from the woodcut series by Hans Burgkmair, 1519. ( Public Domain )

The nine worthies first appeared in a heroic song written by Jacques De Longuyon called Les Voeux du paon in 1312. The song mentioned three Pagans, three Jews, and three Christians who were drawn from history, scripture, and legend that were believed to represent a paragon of the Medieval idea of chivalry. The Pagans were Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Hector of Troy. The Jews were David, Joshua, and Judas Maccabeus, and the Christians were King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon - who had been made the first king of Jerusalem after the city was captured by the crusaders.

Capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders.

Capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. ( Public Domain )

Chivalry in the Middle Ages was a code of conduct which developed under the influence of the Church in response to the number and intensity of violent conflicts between knights and nobles. It was essentially an attempt to increase moral behavior within the Medieval aristocracy. Chivalry required bravery, honor, honesty, and courteous behavior, particularly toward women. Chivalry was a code of conduct to be followed at all times, not just during battle.

The nine worthies were chosen by the Medieval culture because they were believed to generally embody these chivalric values in their behavior. The Pagan and Christian worthies that were historical figures were embellished to some degree and, in some ways, bore more resemblance to their portrayal in Medieval chivalric romance tales than historical reality. The three Jewish worthies were not individualized and were seen in more archetypical terms, possibly because two of them were already Biblical characters and thus generally well-known. The identity of the nine worthies varied to some degree from region to region, but most lists included the same nine men.

Thirteenth century carving "Nine Good Heroes."

Thirteenth century carving "Nine Good Heroes." ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

And Virtuous Women

Later, in the 14th century, nine worthy women or “lady worthies” began to be added alongside the typical nine male worthies. The female worthies were less standardized and did not always fit well into the Pagan-Jewish-Christian rubric of the male nine. They also tended to be less individualized and in art were often depicted as generic Amazon warriors.

One list, made by Eustache Deschamps, included Penthesilea, Tomyris, and Semiramis, the queen of the Amazons, a Scythian warrior queen, and a legendary Mesopotamian queen. Another list by Thomas III of Saluzzo contained a list of all Pagan women, mostly queens and Amazons. This may reflect the fact that women warriors were typically thought of in Amazonian terms - as women who had given up their femininity to emulate men. The reason that no Christian women were chosen on these lists may have been because it was not thought proper by the lists’ authors for Christian women to be portrayed as warriors.

Penthesilea as one of the Lady Worthies.

Penthesilea as one of the Lady Worthies. ( Public Domain )

Splitting the List into Three

One example of the nine worthy women that does fit the same pattern as their male counterparts was a set of woodcuts made by the German craftsman Hans Burgkmair which included the traditional nine male worthies in addition to nine female worthies - three Pagan, three Jewish, and three Christian. The three Pagan women were Lucretia, Veturia, and Virginia. The three Jewish women were Esther, Judith, and Jael, and the three Christian women were Helena the mother of Constantine, Saint Bridget of Sweden, and Saint Elizabeth of Hungary.  

Although this list is one of the closest to that of the nine male worthies, there are some differences. Of the Pagan worthy women, Virginia and Lucretia were both considered worthy not because of great feats in battle but because of their devotion to chastity. Veturia was the only one considered worthy because of a feat related to war. She saved Rome from defeat at the hands of its enemies, though not by fighting a battle.

The Three Heathen Heroines.

The Three Heathen Heroines. ( Public Domain )

The Three Jewish women on the other hand, are all known for heroic feats which saved their people, though not necessarily through directly fighting in battle either. Esther saved the Jews from extermination at the hands of Haman. Judith slew the Babylonian general Holofernes, and Jael slew the Canaanite general Sisera.

The Three Jewish Heroines.

The Three Jewish Heroines. ( judith2you)

The Christian worthy women were saints who devoted their lives in some way to serving God, serving those in need, and renouncing the world - though Saint Helena is an exception in that she remained a queen.

The Three Christian Heroines

The Three Christian Heroines. ( CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

Reflecting on the Past

The fact that most of the women worthies were not judged by accomplishments related to war seems to reflect the general view in the Middle Ages that women were generally not supposed to fight or be directly involved in combat. As a result, women were typically not considered virtuous because of bravery in battle, but for reasons that were more stereotypically feminine - such as chastity or compassion. When women were involved in battle it was through an indirect role such as convincing two sides to stop fighting or quietly assassinating a sleeping general to which they had access.

Chivalry nowadays is not considered as important and the world visible to Western civilization no longer fits into three categories based on religious beliefs, Christian, Jewish, and Pagan. Nonetheless, these lists do offer a window into the ancient Medieval view of what it meant to be virtuous and feminine.

Statues of nine female worthies.

Statues of nine female worthies. ( Heraldica)

Top image: Statues of nine female worthies with their coats of arms in the castle of Pierrefonds, near Paris, France. ( Heraldica)

By Caleb Strom

References

Schaus, Margaret C., ed.  Women and gender in medieval Europe: An encyclopedia . Routledge, 2006.

“The Nine Worthies” by Francois Velde (2006). Heraldica. Available at: http://www.heraldica.org/topics/worthies.htm

“Chivalry” by Linda Alchin (N.D.). Medieval Life and Times. Available at: http://www.medieval-life-and-times.info/medieval-knights/chivalry.htm

“All That: The Nine Worthies” by Kali Harlansson of Gotland (2001). DragonBear. Available at: http://www.dragonbear.com/9worthies.html

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