The Amazing Countess was a strong force in Italy for many years. She was brilliant and could speak several languages, and she was also a key figure in the long and complicated Investiture Controversy.It was Matilda who convinced Pope Gregory VII to meet the excommunicated Emperor Henry IV and restore him to the Church. In the years that followed she was one of the papacy’s best allies, often taking to the field at the direct head of her forces to defend first Gregory and then his successor Pope Urban II against Henry IV and his own successors. Through decades of political dynamics and military maneuvering, it was Matilda who came out on top. In the year 1111, Emperor Henry V crowned her Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy, a title she would hold until her death in 1115.
In one of the best books that a lot of people have never heard of, the Gesta Danorum, by the 12th-century monk, Saxo Grammaticus, the story of Lagertha is told. Born into the family of King Siward of Norway, she and other female relatives were forced into prostitution by King Frø of Sweden when he defeated Siward. (King Siward’s grandson)The dead king’s grandson, Ragnar Lodbrok went to war against Frø to avenge Siward, and several of these abused women took arms alongside Ragnar’s forces. Lagertha is described as an Amazon among them, hewing her foes and leading them all to victory. Ragnar eventually courts her as his wife killing a bear and a hound with a spear and his bare hands. I guess it’s a Vikings thing. He eventually divorced her in favor of a political marriage to a Swedish princess, but Lagertha still came to his aid when he was in need and saved his life when he faced civil war in Denmark. And then, when her second husband proved unworthy, she cut him down with the point of a spear that she concealed in the folds of her dress. After that, she ruled over vast lands in her own authority (and as a badass, still) until the time of her death.
(For the sake of transparency, I should admit that Lagertha might well be a fiction. There is good reason to believe that her story and her name are the result of a series of misreadings of tales about the minor Norse deity, Thorgerd. But there’s a chance she was real.)
Born Jeanne Fourquet or Laisné, this peasant girl earned her name in history by wielding only a hatchet. On June 27, 1472, just over four decades after the death of fellow Frenchwoman Joan of Arc, Jeanne lived in the town of Beauvais, which was besieged by the forces of the Duke of Burgundy. That day, the Burgundians made a vicious assault, and according to the stories they managed to make their way onto the battlements of the town. In declaration of the impending victory, a Burgundian planted a flag upon the battlement—a deeply symbolic act of victory, as the Americans who raised the flag on Iwo Jima can attest. In that perilous moment, with the future of her city in doubt, Jeanne took in hand an axe and rushed the flag. She smote the man, tore down the flag, and the tide of the siege was turned.
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