Medieval Women Were Not Waifs

A new exhibit at the Getty offers a revealing look at women from the Middle Ages.

With an understandable weariness, the exhibition’s creators acknowledge, both on the introductory museum label and catalogue book jacket, that most people imagine medieval women as damsels in distress, being rescued perhaps by a dragon-­hunting St. George. One has to meet the popular mind, fattened by dismissals of the Middle Ages (“a world lit only by fire”), where it unfortunately lags. But to slay this myth as surely as St. George speared his dragon, the curators unfurled manu­scripts of a different, lesser known legend, that of St. Margaret. Consumed by a dragon, Margaret ripped her way out of his stomach herself with a crucifix. Like Jesus, it seems, Margaret could be born (from a dragon at least) without the help of a man.

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