During this year’s Helen Damico Memorial Lecture series hosted by the Institute for Medieval Studies at The University of New Mexico, speakers will examine the many myths and misconceptions about the roles that women played during the Middle Ages.

The third annual Helen Damico Memorial Lecture Series, which is the 37th edition of the IMS Spring Lecture Series, founded by Damico at UNM, will be from Monday-Thursday, April 24-27, at 6 p.m. at Woodward Hall 101. This event is free and open to the public. Paid parking is available in the Cornell Parking Structure at Central and Stanford Avenues.

This four-day event is centered this year on the topic Medieval Women. The Institute continues to honor Damico with this topic as she was a forerunner in the scholarship of women from medieval history and fiction. Four of the country’s leading medieval scholars will offer presentations that span the fields of art history, literature, history, law, and medicine.

"The Helen Damico Memorial Lecture Series hosted by the Institute for Medieval Studies this year brings four scholarly experts from around the country to UNM to present lectures on Medieval Women," said IMS director Justine Andrews. "Our lecture series appeals to anyone interested in history and especially those who are fascinated by the complex relationship between the Middle Ages and our own time. The role of women in society is one that is perpetually discussed, and our four experts will reflect on medieval women's relationship to the law, artistic patronage, race, and home health. I think this year's series is of particular interest to those who are concerned about the contested rights and position of women in our time. Often the Middle Ages are reflected on when considering women's roles in society. Our four experts will present their research and some of the surprising realities for medieval women."

Cultural, regional, and religious restrictions certainly created boundaries to women’s activities and rights, but those boundaries could often be crossed, according to Andrews.

“Women gave testimony in courts of law and their rights could be supported by legal writ,” Andrews noted. “Women were written about as actors whose gender and race created spaces of intersection and agency. Women ruled kingdoms and households with equal acumen. Women were models of both romantic and religious ideals. These varied roles of women in the Middle Ages are not always dissimilar to those of modern women. As women’s rights today continue to be debated and legislated, these lectures present medieval precedent for the agency, strength, and importance of women always. We hope you will join us!”

The speakers and their topics: 

Illuminating Women in the Medieval World

Christine Sciacca is currently the curator of European art from 300-1400 CE at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where she recently curated a new permanent gallery focused on the medieval Mediterranean and the temporary exhibition People of the Book. She is the author of Illuminating Women in the Medieval World.

Power in Patronage: When Medieval Women Made Books examines how, in the Middle Ages, women of great wealth and social status often exercised their power and influence through the objects they commissioned, especially books. Sciacca introduces several women book patrons, including a duchess, a middle-class woman, and a community of nuns in Europe, as well as a woman from Ethiopia, who commissioned manuscripts for their personal use, and who shaped the history of medieval book production as we know it today. 

Marie Kelleher is professor of History at California State University, Long Beach. Her primary research areas are medieval Spain, the Mediterranean world, gender, and medieval law. She is the author of The Measure of Woman: Law and Female Identity in the Crown of Aragon, which was awarded the American Historical Association’s 2012 Premio del Rey.

Her presentation is on Constança’s Oath: The Past, Present, and Future of Medieval Women through Law. One oft-repeated phrase used to encapsulate medieval women’s legal standing is this: “Women were basically property.” But what do we mean by this? And to what degree is this true? This talk will explore how historians use legal sources to gain a better understanding of the status of women in the later Middle Ages: To what degree did they enjoy full legal personhood? What role did cultural ideas about gender play in their encounters with the law? This talk will also explore how our answers to those questions are always changing: the “past, present, and future” of the title are about how changes in the way we “do” history — the types of sources we consult, the particular women we look at, and even how we frame our questions — has the power to change what we know. 

Meriem Pagès, is professor of English at Keene State College and currently serves as the director of the Medieval and Renaissance Forum. Her primary research interest is the representation of Islam and Muslims in medieval Europe. She is the author of From Martyr to Murderer: Representations of the Assassins in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Europe.

Saintly Women/Unholy Infidels: Gender, Race, Religion, and Thomas Becket’s Mother will examine how, in early lives of "national" English saint Thomas Becket, his mother is identified as an Anglo-Norman lady of no particular distinction. Within a hundred years of Thomas's martyrdom at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral, however, another origin story emerged for the great man. In this new, fantastical version of Thomas's conception and birth, his mother is no longer presented as a typical Anglo-Norman lady but, rather, as a non-Christian princess who falls madly in love with Thomas's father, Gilbert Becket. While Gilbert remains an English pilgrim captured on his way to the Holy Land in all of the different versions of the legend, Becket's foreign mother is alternatively labeled as pagan, Muslim, or Jewish. Examining this fascinating medieval English text—and its many manifestations—gives us the opportunity to examine the sites where gender, race, and religion intersect in late medieval English literature and, even more broadly, to consider anew the question of the emergence of the concept of race in premodern literature.

Jennifer Borland is professor of Art History and the Director of the Center for the Humanities at Oklahoma State University. She is the author of Visualizing Household Health: Women, Art, and Knowledge in the Régime du corps.

Borland will speak about Women and Household Health Care in the Illustrated Régime du corps. In several copies of the Régime du corps, a late medieval French health guide, a wide range of health care practices are depicted in the manuscripts’ illustrations. These scenes show us household health as it was facilitated by women practitioners and servants within the domestic sphere, bringing attention to forms of caregiving, labor, and knowledge that are often left out of histories of medieval medicine.


In 1986 Damico established the Institute for Medieval Studies, which she directed until 2002. In 1991 she established the English Department’s flourishing MA and Ph.D. Concentrations in Medieval Studies, and in 1992 she developed the Institute’s Outreach Program to New Mexico Secondary Schools, which sent graduate students to promote Medieval Studies in local high schools and hosted a seminar on campus for high school teachers. The outreach program has been held up as a national model and was featured in a special issue of the journal Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching.

In her scholarship, Damico was well known for her work on Old English and Old Norse literature, and above all for her studies of Beowulf, the great classic of Old English poetry, Graham noted. In 1984 she published Beowulf's Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition, a book that has been acclaimed for drawing attention to a key female figure in the poem—Wealhtheow, queen to the Danish ruler Hrothgar—and relating the poet’s presentation of her to the Valkyries of Old Norse literature.

Damico passed away in 2020.