History Podcasts

The Most Powerful Women in the Middle Ages, Part 2: Catherine of Sienna and Isabella of Castile

The Most Powerful Women in the Middle Ages, Part 2: Catherine of Sienna and Isabella of Castile

Female rulers dominated the Middle Ages. But it wasn't just the queens or empresses who wielded enormous power. This episode is the second of a three-part series at the lives of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages, and we will first look at the life of Catherine of Siena, the Catholic Mystic who almost single-handedly restored the papacy to Rome in the 1300s and navigated the brutal and male-dominated world of Italian politics. Then we will explore the life of

Catherine was the 23th child of a poor family and unable to write until three years before her death at 33. She spent years as a low-ranking member of a religious order and primarily spent her days in solitude and prayer. However, by the end of her life Catherine had travelled throughout the Italian peninsula as a diplomat and negotiated peace between princes.

She wrote dozens of letters to Pope Gregory and convinced him to restore the papacy in Rome. She authored “The Dialogue,” a treatise on a fictional conversation between a saint and God, which influenced theologians and the lay religious for centuries. She was named a joint Patron Saint of Italy along with Francis of Assisi in 1939 and a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

In addition to Catherine, we will also explore the life of Queen Isabella I of Castile and Leon (1451-1504), the reformer, Catholic monarch, and inquisitor. Isabella became Queen of Castile as a politically inexperienced 23-year-old caught in a political tug-of-war between her half-brother and the Spanish nobles. Upon her death in 1504, she had successfully united Spain's kingdoms, completed the Reconquista, stabilized the economy, and commissioned an idealistic Genoese sailor to find a shorter sea route to India by crossing the Atlantic in 1492.

Funding such trips to the New World was a significant reason that Spain became a global power in the next century. These brighter moments are contrasted by the darker ones in her 28-year reign. She and her husband Ferdinand compelled all Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity, expelling those who refused. This policy laid the legal infrastructure for the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition in the coming century.


The Most Powerful Women in the Middle Ages: Queens, Saints, and Viking Slayers, From Empress Theodora to Elizabeth of Tudor