First Advisor

Susan Karant-Nunn

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in History






Saint Perpetua - 203, Dhuoda, Saint Hildegard (1098 - 1179)



Physical Description

1 online resource (3, ix, 131 p.)


In her fourth letter to Abelard, Heloise asks the question, "Oh what will become of us obedient ones?" The question presents a paradox. By putting her question in writing, Heloise violates the code of silence imposed on medieval women. The medieval church and the literate aristocracy agreed with Sophocles and Aristotle: silence is the adornment of women. Gender roles in medieval society were unambiguous. Men, by nature, belonged in the public, political arena where they directed the affairs of the world, in part, by thinking, speaking, and writing. Obedient to male authority, a woman's natural place was in the private, domestic domain where she was expected to perform the duties of daughter, sister, wife, and mother in muted obscurity. In spite of these restrictions, a few women put pen to parchment during the Middle Ages. This thesis examines the writing of three of these women, Perpetua, Dhuoda, and Hildegard of Bingen. Like Heloise, they considered themselves obedient even though they created texts in which they made their ideas and experiences available to readers in the male-dominated public discourse community. Research indicates that, because they were born into upperclass families, Perpetua, Dhuoda, and Hildegard probably enjoyed an education comparable to that of upperclass men. Although the curriculum available to each of these women included reading and writing Latin, researchers agree that writing was not considered an appropriate activity for medieval women. In addition to the cultural belief that good women were obedient and silent, it was also assumed that women were intellectually inferior to men and therefore not equipped to be competent writers. Research into theories about the process of thinking and writing has demonstrated that once such cultural assumptions are embedded in the human meaning-making system they are rarely questioned. These assumptions are perpetuated because the process of defining experience and developing ideas involves recombining patterns and metaphors provided by other writers and thinkers who usually share these beliefs. Perpetua's, Dhuoda's, and Hildegard's texts indicate that they accepted these cultural assumptions about women and did not question the fact that patterns and metaphors created by female writers were not available to them. Nevertheless, it is evident throughout the writing of all three women that they possessed genius and skill equal to that of men with similar intellectual gifts and educational opportunities. Yet the texts written by these women are often dismissed as less significant than texts written by men. Further research in rhetorical theory led to the realization that Perpetua, Dhuoda, and Hildegard have often been considered inferior writers, not because they were, but because the reader knows that he or she is reading a text written by a woman. Readers of these texts traditionally have assumed that these authors were obedient because they accepted their subservient position to men and the belief that women were, by nature, less intelligent and capable than men. This has led to the assumption that if the author acknowledges her inferiority she must indeed be a less competent artist than her male counterparts. Such readings have resulted in assessments of theses texts that ignore the complexity, art and significance of the work. This thesis demonstrates that the reader willing to suspend these assumptions in the process of reading Perpetua, Dhuoda, and Hildegard may find writing that is anything but the work of obedient, submissive women. He or she may also find authors whose thinking and writing skills equal those of male writers and whose opinions, observations, and experiences are more than marginal glosses on their historical context


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