A Brief History
On July 10, 1040, Lady Godiva is supposed to have ridden naked on horseback to force her husband, the Earl of Mercia, to lower taxes.
Before and since Lady Godiva’s legendary ride, many other women have made great impressions on culture, society and history mainly because they were in the buff. This article lists Medieval women (those who lived from about 476-1517) famous for being naked or who, at one point in their lives, had famously been naked. The order they will be presented in is not a ranking, but merely a chronological listing. Please let us know in the comments below if these women’s nakedness was a sign of them being powerful or powerless.
For the other articles in the History and Headlines series on naked ladies, please click here.
1. Lady Godiva – 1040
Although her nude ride is stuff of legends, Lady Godiva did in fact exist and was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, in what is present-day England. Since the couple were generous benefactors to religious houses, there are many records of them. The legend of the nude ride was first recorded in the 13th century, two hundred years after it was supposed to have taken place. Feeling sympathy for the people of Coventry who were suffering greatly because of the high taxes imposed by her husband, she begged him to lift the taxation. When he laughed and told her he would only do it if she rode on horseback through the streets without clothes, she took him at his word and mounted a horse clothed in only her long hair. Her husband probably fearing that other men would see his wife naked issued a proclamation that everyone was to stay indoors with the blinds shut. One man by the name of Tom, however, disobeyed that order and spied on Lady Godiva as she rode past his shop. To this day, such voyeurs are called “Peeping Toms.” In the end, the Earl of Mercia is said to have been impressed by his wife’s courage, and lowered the taxes.
2. Agnès Sorel as the Virgin Mary (1422-1450)
The favorite mistress of Charles VII, the French king for whom Joan of Arc fought, Agnès Sorel is considered to be the first officially-recognized royal mistress and filled a role later known as “maȋtresse en titre,” the chief mistress of the King of France. She bore the king three daughters, and her strong hold over him and the subsequent power she exercised earned her many enemies at court. Her death at 28 was widely suspected to be a result of murder, and forensic tests conducted in 2005 on her exhumed bones determined the cause of death to be mercury poisoning. The high levels of mercury in her system, however, especially in the skin and hair, could have accumulated from the excessive use of metal-containing cosmetics. She also seemed to have been suffering from parasites, and mercury was often used to purge these from the body. Whatever the reason why she was exposed to such toxic concentrations of mercury, one thing is sure and that is that her beautiful and semi-nude image was recorded for posterity by the contemporary painter Jean Fouquet in his work of art Virgin and Child surrounded by Angels. In this painting, the Virgin Mary is depicted as a young, sexy, pale-skinned woman in tight, figure-defining clothes and with gravity-defying breasts that strangely resemble the silicone-enhanced breasts of today. It is a display of innocence combined with sexiness and motherhood, and Agnès Sorel appears in it as the Queen of Heaven, sitting on her throne. Maybe that is how the king wished to remember her. It also seems that her amazing and unnatural-looking breasts are one of first representations of what plastic surgeons would later strive to recreate.
3. Simonetta Vespucci (Botticelli’s Venus) – late 15th century
Simonetta Vespucci was an Italian woman of the Renaissance who was renowned for being the greatest beauty in Florence where she attracted the attention of the famous painter Sandro Bottecelli and became his muse. Though she died young, her image continued to inspire Bottecelli and he used her likeness for his some of his most famous works, including his Birth of Venus nine years after her death. In this famous painting, Simonetta is depicted as Venus, rising from the foamy sea and standing on a scallop shell, her strawberry blonde hair flowing about her. As a result of Bottecelli’s devotion, Simonetta is since known as the most beautiful woman of the Renaissance.
Remember, for more ladies famous for being naked, please also refer to our other articles in the series by clicking here.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite Medieval woman? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Carr-Gomm, Philip. A Brief History of Nakedness. Reaktion Books, 2010.
Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton University Press, 1972.