Medieval Women Philosophers

Really wonderful blogpost by Christina Van Dyke on the difficulties and rewards of adding medieval women philosophers to one’s courses.

As I rolled up my sleeves and went to work, I discovered that although female contemplatives in the Middle Ages might not have thought of themselves as engaging in philosophy per se–and although what they wrote often tends not to fit neatly into our contemporary conceptions of even just philosophical theologyif you take a step back and think of philosophy as the love of wisdom, perennially addressing the issues that human beings have wondered about “Since the dawn of time,” it turns out that medieval women have a wealth of things to say about classic philosophical debates involving, say, self-knowledge, love, human nature, ethics, God, and the meaning of life.

These women weren’t writing in a vacuum, either: they engaged with and influenced intellectual, theological, and cultural movements across (what’s now modern-day) Europe. We’re not just talking Heloise (who, of course, is best known for her affair with Abelard)–Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Sienna, and Julian of Norwich are just a few of the female contemplatives whose advice and counsel were actively sought out by the leading intellectual and ecclesiastical figures of their day…

I will grant you right now that this is going to take some work, and probably some anxiety that this isn’t philosophy. Just remember–Anselm’s Ontological Argument is part of a prayer, for heaven’s sake. The list of people we consider medieval philosophers is already a pretty motley crew by modern standards. That fact is, as far as I’m concerned, one of our subfield’s greatest strengths. Broadening the scope of who gets included in that crew gives us more to talk about with people in different fields, as well as deepening our knowledge of the full range of medieval perspectives on philosophical issues.

2 thoughts on “Medieval Women Philosophers

  1. I think looking at Eileen O’Neill’s wonderful essay “Justifying the Inclusion of Women in Our Histories of Philosophy: The Case of Marie de Gournay in Alcoff and Kittay’s Blackwell’s Guide to Feminist Philosophy, would be very helpful. She is making this case for Marie de Gourney, and it is really masterful.

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