Searching for Female Troublemakers in the Medieval Chroniclers’ World 

Lisa Demets, Ghent University/Utrecht University

The Excellent Chronicle of Flanders (the ‘Excellente Cronike van Vlaenderen’ in Middle Dutch), a group of nineteen fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century chronicle manuscripts, is one of the sources historians and medievalists use most frequently to study Flemish political and cultural history in the late Middle Ages. This chronicle is an exceptionally rich source, exactly because it offers a ‘bottom up’ vision of Flemish history – from the international Burgundian politics to everyday life in medieval Bruges –written through the eyes of inhabitants of the late medieval Flemish towns. Still, the Excellent Chronicle is a Flemish history narrated through a male lens. During my Ph.D. research on these remarkable chronicle manuscripts, I encountered rebellious nobles, insurgent citizens and steadfast burgomasters who wrote and rewrote Flemish history during periods of revolt and political crises against central authorities. Yet none of these writers was a woman. These chronicle manuscripts circulated in the so-called “Rederijkerskamers” or “Chambers of Rhetoric” (all-male cultural and literary societies typical for the Low Countries), and also in the Our Lady of the Snow religious confraternity, a guild-structured organization with a social, devotional, and cultural role in Bruges’ urban society. Moreover, Our Lady of the Snow was one of the few Bruges confraternities with an exceptionally high number of female members: almost half of the members were women. Still, none of the wives and daughters of these insurgent citizens in late medieval Bruges seemed to have had the opportunity nor the chance to claim their historical narrative. 

I knew it would take some creativity to reveal the stories of late medieval insurgent women hidden in male-centered Flemish chronicles. At first, I was inspired by the story of a remarkable political woman, Gertrude de Scuetelare, a burgomaster’s wife, upon whom I stumbled quite accidently while transcribing a manuscript of the Excellent Chronicle now preserved in the Public Library in Bruges.[1] During the Bruges revolt of 1436-1438 against the Burgundian Duke Philip the Good, Bruges was struggling with a factional war, resulting in the murder of the Bruges first burgomaster, Morrisis of Varsenare and his brother Jacob. An anonymous male writer adapted the original chronicle text to narrate the story of Gertrude: in his eyes, she was the mastermind behind the murder, a political trickster, a self-centered, jealous, malicious woman, only thinking about her family’s gain and not the general welfare, the “common good,” of the medieval town. A letter the Duke wrote to Gertrude pardoning her, however, points to an actual role this woman played in the shadows of urban politics and moves beyond the usual discursive commonplaces one finds in chronicles . 

This classical and biblical topos of the ‘angry jealous wife’ as a discursive strategy was of course omnipresent in medieval Flanders, and as I have shown in the article , “Spies, instigators and Troublemakers: Gendered Perceptions of Rebellious Women in Late Medieval Flemish Chronicles,” in particular in the urban political world. The case of the city hall in Leuven, in the Duchy of Brabant, where aldermen passed by a diptych in the council room by the famous ‘Flemish’ primitive Dirk Bouts, the Justice of Emperor Otto III (1473), is exemplary. The diptych belongs to the genre of the justice panels in the Low Countries typically warning aldermen to be impartial and righteous. According to this legend, Otto III ordered the beheading of a count on the advice of his wife. The countess promised to prove his innocence by means of trial by fire, holding a glowing rod of metal in her hand. Realizing his mistake, Otto III condemned the empress to death at the stake. This example reminded the Leuven aldermen not only of their duty to judge fairly, but also to be careful with advice from family members, and particularly from influential women trying to interfere in politics. 

Figure 1: The Justice of Emperor Otto III by Dirk Bouts © Wikicommons, Fine Arts Museum, Brussels

Apart from the aforementioned negative exempla of women on the political stage, I found it rather surprising how many insurgent female actors were presented in a more neutral way in late-fifteenth-century urban chronicles. During political uprisings, wars, or urban conflicts, we generally find these women in two roles. First, they appear quite actively in defense of the city during a siege. Although in popular culture and medieval-inspired Hollywood films today, women and children are often portrayed anxiously hiding in the dungeons, the medieval chronicles shed quite a different light on the course of medieval sieges. In one Excellent Chronicle manuscript, owned by the burgomaster of Nieuwpoort, Jacob Meeze, a detailed account was written on the role of women in the siege of Nieuwpoort from June 20-28, 1489. The Nieuwpoort women were involved in preparing kettles full of tar, and used large pestles, kitchen tools, against intruders. Although medieval women were not allowed to use iron weaponry —and this idea echoes the nowadays caricature of a housewife and her frying pan— medieval pestles were one-meter-long clubs or bats and could perfectly injure someone quite severely.  

Figure 2: A wooden pestle (92,5 cm), ca. 1350, found near Ypres (Belgium) © Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed

A second role, and one that scholars have analyzed for World War II and, lately, for early modern women, is women operating as spies and informants.[2] In various narratives of previous conflicts in these Flemish chronicles, we read how women acted as informants and news disseminators. Apparently, women were important political allies to anonymously enter the city and sustain communication networks. However, late fifteenth-century Bruges chroniclers such as the notary and rhetorician Rombout de Doppere, pointed to the danger of female spies in the Bruges networks of the Habsburg archduke Maximilian of Austria, carrying letters to his supporters in Bruges during the Flemish revolt (1482-1492). These women were arrested, but never severely punished according to De Doppere, making it a recurrent activity. 

Figure 3: ‘And there are good Monetanen (i.e. supporters of Maximilian of Austria) who daily send women carrying letters: one should punish those [women], in order for things to change.’ In 1490, Rombout de Doppere pointed to the female spies of archduke Maximilian in his diary, rewritten in an Excellent Chronicle manuscript around 1510 © Douai, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS. 1110, fol. 483v.

As a historian myself, I know how the relation between women and history writing is still a problematic one today: women historians often lack the authority to speak on the distant past. In public media in Belgium and elsewhere, the narratives of ‘great men’ re-enter and re-dominate our collective memory. Their histories are, moreover, often narrated by male public speakers. The latest discussion in France on the commemoration of Emperor Napoleon shows how we should pay more attention to the narratives of the voiceless, the victims and the outcasts in our perception of history and commemoration of historical events. Although our vision of medieval history is still troubled by the male gaze, it is still possible to go beyond the discourse and give a new voice to insurgent women in their roles as spies, instigators and overall troublemakers. 

[1] Bruges, Public Library, Ms. 437. She is also mentioned in the work of Jan Dumolyn on the Bruges revolt of 1436-1438: Jan Dumolyn, De Brugse opstand van 1436-1438 (Heule: UGA, 1997). 

[2] See in particular the fascinating research of Nadine Akkerman on early modern spies in the highest political echelons: Nadine Akkerman, Invisible Agents. Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).