"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity… But the tale of history forms a very strong bulwark against the stream of time, and checks in some measure its irresistible flow, so that, of all things done in it, as many as history has taken over it secures and binds together, and does not allow them to slip away into the abyss of oblivion."
—Anna Comnena, The Alexiad
Saying that European women had it rough in the Middle Ages is kind of like walking into a burn ward and telling everyone that fire can get kind of hot from time to time. Unless you were really into being married to a stranger by age fourteen, producing an endless stream of hopefully-male children, crippling boredom, and/or dying of some godforsaken incurable plague, the life of the average woman — particularly the nobility — wasn't exactly the medieval equivalent of Xena Warrior Princess decapitating people with a hollowed-out Frisbee and a couple of well-placed face kicks. It was tough, thankless, and didn't offer the kinds of opportunities for career advancement that we've come to expect from equal-rights workplaces these days.
Well the Byzantine Princess Anna Comnena wasn't the sort of kick-ass chick that was going to put up with any of the patriarchal bullcrap that seemed to be flying around all over the place in these days. Born in Constantinople in 1083, the first-born child of Emperor Alexios Comnenos wanted more for herself — she went on to be the first female historian, and now stands as one of the primary and best resources for understanding not only the events of the First Crusade, but also for the inner workings of the Byzantine court in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Anna received a decent education, but was forbidden from reading things like classical poetry because the stories were filled with sex and violence and, according to the folks in charge, reading them would have instantly turned her into a murderous harlot who shivved people in the eyes when she wasn't off having affairs, getting addicted to drugs, and producing illegitimate bastard children (parents haven't changed much in the last millennium). Well, the Princess of Byzantium wasn't just going to sit around like some chump when she knew that there were all of these head-crushingly epic violence-and-humping stories stashed a few feet away in the palace library, so she secretly went out and educated herself in the awesome — studying badass crap like history, mythology, religion, poetry, and philosophy and defying cultural conventions by spending most of her spare time hanging out with knights, noblemen, and warriors from across Europe and discussing their violent and ridiculous exploits whipping nuts across the known world.
Of course, there's only room for so much social mobility when you're an Eastern Roman Princess, and in 1097 the 14 year-old Anna was married off to a war hero/amateur historian known as Nicephorus Bryennius. Obviously, the Emperor wasn't just going to marry his daughter off to just any no-name assclown with a suit of chain mail, and Breyennius, for his part, was actually a pretty hardcore dude in his own right. He was known for his loyalty and devotion to the Empire, and had won some particularly mega mad props from the Imperial Court for his actions in putting down a massive rebellion and personally stabbing the eyes out of the rebel leader's head with a really sharp stick that may or may not have been on fire at the time. Either way, you can be pretty sure this guy wasn't the sort of person you went around playing practical jokes on or anything like that.
Emperor Alexios eventually kicked it in 1118, dying of a moderately-terminal case of what physicians nowadays like to refer to as "being old as hell." To Anna's shock and horror, her kid brother John was appointed to succeed Alex as the ruler of the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the Western world — not her. That was it. There's a reason why the word "Byzantine" is a synonym for backstabbing someone in the ass when they least expect it, and Anna exemplified that perfectly. She and her mother organized a coup designed to overthrow John and install Anna's husband Nicephorus Breyennius on the throne, but unfortunately for the conspirators, Nick didn't have the stones to go through with it — right when the slighted Princess was about to seize power as Empress by jamming the pointy end of a serrated dagger into a fleshy section of the emperor, her husband ratted her out as a traitor and had her arrested. I guess Breyennius' unwavering loyalty to his lord is admirable, but Anna seemed to disagree nonetheless. She ran out, cracked Nick in the face with her pimp-slapping hand, kneed him in the junk, and told him that apparently they had "mistaken their sexes" (which, as we all know, is the eloquent medieval way of calling someone a total pussy). I guess we know who wore the pants in that family. When Nicephorous got sick and died a few years later while besieging the Turks at Antioch, Anna didn't seem to mind all that much.
Rather than having his power-hungry sister executed for treason and attempted backstabbery, John forced her to become a nun instead (this was almost as painful). Never one to fade into obscurity just because her douchebag brother suddenly forced her to become holy, Anna put her 30 years in the nunnery to good use — she sat down and wrote, by hand, the definitive work on the history of her father's court — the Alexiad.
The fifteen-volume work provides a unique first-hand account of the First Crusade, and some of the descriptions of badass weapons and tactics utilized by the Crusader knights Anna met have proven invaluable to anybody who attempts to study that particular stretch of time. It is the only surviving first-hand account of the Crusades from a Byzantine standpoint, as the Empire in Constantinople attempted to deal with the influx of six money-grubbing mercenary armies into their land. Anna, for her part, makes sure to tell the stories as badass as possible, spending pretty much every spare moment using venomous language to talk about how the Crusaders were godless, power-hungry barbarian thugs who were total suckbags and were, in her words, "nursed and nourished by manifold Evil." She writes a glowing review of her father's work, painting him as a great and holy man who did the best he could for his people, and conveniently glossing over the parts about him trying to manipulate the Crusaders to carry out his will or ordering his royal assassins to go out and stab his enemies to death in their sleep. In addition to being a valuable gold mine of information about this period, it's also a work of propaganda that makes the government-run communist Chinese news agency look like a weekly email update from Amnesty International. At least she knew where she stood, and I can respect the fact that she didn't pull any punches for the sake of international diplomacy. She died in 1153 at the age of 70.
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Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian Renaissance philosopher and author whose primary claim to fame was that he was a total dickhead. In his political treatise The Prince, Machiavelli suggests that anybody in a position of power should pretty much constantly plot bastardly things against their enemies and rule with an iron fist capable of crushing the balls of any dumbass jerks who try to step to them. Nowadays his name is synonymous with devious, underhanded political maneuvering, which is pretty cool if you're down with that sort of thing.
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The Muslim Berber Ibn Battuta was a fearless adventurer who pioneered the fine art of writing travel guides. This guy spent 30 years riding across the 13th century world on a camel (which is awesome, by the way), and detailing his journeys in Europe, Africa, Persia, India, and China in one incredibly-long story.
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Egil Skallagrimsson was a Viking warrior-poet who is renowned amongst scholars for composing some of the greatest and most iconic examples of medieval Icelandic poetry ever produced. As a side note, Egil once got into a duel with a bloodthirsty Norse berserker, broke the dude's shield with an axe, tackled him, and tore out the guy's jugular with his teeth.
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Barker, John W. "Anna Komnene." Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing. Ed. Kelly Boyd. Taylor & Francis, 1999.
Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. McMillan, 1914.
James, G.P.R. Memoirs of Celebrated Women. Oxford, 1876.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Castles. Greenwood, 2005.
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Ben Thompson graduated cum laude from the honors program at Florida State University with degrees in history and political science, and has run the war hammer of a website, badassoftheweek.com, since 2004. Even though he's never flown a jetpack over the Atlantic Ocean or punched someone so hard that his head exploded, he is considered by many to be the world's foremost expert on badassitude.
Books mentioned in this post
Ben Thompson is the author of Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live