Garsenda

Garsenda (c. 1180-1242) was a powerful countess of thirteenth-century Provence and Fourcalquier (now part of southern France). She was also a lover of art and music, a poet, and a generous patron of the artists in her court. Garsenda was born into a noble family in the Alpine region in the south of France. She was the heir to her grandfather’s county, Fourcalquier. When she was in her early teens, her grandfather, William IV, made a treaty with Alfonso II, a young nobleman in line to inherit the county of Provence: he would marry Garsenda, bringing together the two territories....

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Queen Anna Nzinga

During the medieval period, the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms (in present-day Angola) had not yet been settled by Europeans, and were continually facing invasion by their European neighbors in the North. Anna Nzinga, who would come to rule the Angola territory, was born in central Africa in 1582. She was noted as an intelligent and inquisitive young girl, determined to understand the world around her, despite that being difficult for a woman in a male-dominated society. This did not stop her from being involved in her brother, Ngola Mbandi’s, reign as King of Ndongo. Throughout her...

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Amina Sukhera

When most people think of the medieval world, they imagine lavish European courts and iconic films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but cultures were flourishing in all areas of the settled world. While the most powerful European nations were sailing and exploring beyond their known world, regions of the African continent were facing their own territorial hardships and social developments. One of the women who best embodies this period is Amina Sukhera. Amina was born around 1533 in the African kingdom of Zazzau (present-day Nigeria), bearing a name that meant trustworthy and honest,...

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Shangguan Wan’er

The most popular portrayal of the medieval period is of grand knights fighting on horses or (mostly white-washed) European populations suffering from the plague. But this depiction glosses over some of the most interesting people – and regions – of this era. Take Shangguan Wan’er, who is often referred to as China’s First Prime Minister. She was the granddaughter of the famous poet, Shangguan Yi, and born in 664 to Shangguan Tingzhi and his wife. When she was quite young, Wan’er’s father was executed, and she and her mother were taken by the Imperial state....

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Empress Wu Zetian

Empress Wu Zetian went from concubine to the only female ruling Empress of China in seventh century C.E. Unusually, Wu Zetian’s father encouraged his daughter to learn to pursue an education. She learned to read and write. She also learnt to play music, write poetry, and speak publicly. She was also reportedly very beautiful. At age fourteen, she was selected to become the concubine of Emperor Taizong. He called her Mei-Nang,  meaning beautiful girl. She was first put in charge of the royal laundry, but after Taizong discovered her intellect, he made her his secretary. During her years...

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Hua Mulan

Hua Mulan is a legendary female Chinese warrior made famous by the “Ballad of Mulan.” We don’t know exactly when Mulan lived, as our main source is this Chinese ballad. However, we think she lived during the Northern Wei dynasty, which lasted from 386 – 534 C.E. Mulan was trained in warrior skills, including sword fighting, archery, and kung fu. When officials arrived at her hometown with a list of men called up to fight in the army, Mulan’s father was on the list. He had been injured years before in a previous war and could no longer fight. Mulan decided to take her...

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Tomoe Gozen

Tomoe Gozen was an extraordinary and rare female Japanese warrior who fought in offensive battles. Tomoe Gozen lived during a period of great instability in Japan. The Genpei War had laid waste to the country and the age of the samurai had begun. We do not know exactly when she was born, but we do have accounts of her military career and love life. She was the lover of Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka, most likely one of his concubines, although in some accounts she is described as his wife or female attendant. The same Lord Kiso no Yoshinaka was so impressed with her skills as a warrior that he made...

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Taira no Tokuko

Taira no Tokuko was adopted by the Emperor of Japan, Go-Shirakawa, in 1171 at the age of 17. A year later she married the Emperor’s fourth son, Takakura. This arranged marriage brought  their two fathers-in-law together to support each other. Takakura and Taira no Tokuko had a son in 1178, Prince Tokihito. A year later, Kiyomori, Chancellor of the Realm, rebelled against the Emperor. Takakura was forced to abdicate, and his son took the throne under the name Emperor Antoku. Five years later the Taira and Minamoto fought their last battle. The Taira were defeated and many members of the...

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Hōjō Masako

Hōjō Masako was the wife of the first Shogun, or military dictator, of Japan. She held great power throughout her life and ruled from the background. Hōjō Masako was born in the Inzu province of Japan in 1157. She fell in love with her husband, Yoritomo, when he came to stay with her family. He had been exiled from the capital by a rival clan of his family. Masako persuaded her father to allow them to marry in 1180. After their marriage, Yoritomo had the support to start his military and political campaign against the rival clan in power and the Emperor. After several years, he formed the...

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Anna Comnena

Widely considered to be Europe’s first female historian, Anna Comnena (1083-1153) grew up a princess of the Byzantine Empire. She was a strong and wilful woman who acted in a way that caused her male contemporaries and subsequent historians to feel a mixture of horror and begrudging admiration. She was the eldest child of Alexius I Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantine, and is thought to have been her father’s favorite. She was brought up in a family of strong women — her grandmother, Anna Dalassene, co-ruled with her son, Anna’s father, when he was away on campaign. Her mother,...

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