Unveiling Centuries of Remarkable Women – Connecting Heart and World

Justine Durrell wrote about the lives of remarkable and surprising women from the past – highlighting their grace, challenges, and creativity to engender their living presence in your life.


Portrait of Veronica Franco by Jacopo Tintoretto?

Throughout history a certain cadre of women, usually living on the fringe of society, earned their keep through the art of sensuality. In the west, the profession reached a pinnacle during the Renaissance with a bevy of Italian women known as cortesanae honestae, or honest courtesans. Created by, and responding to, the needs of the societies out of which they emerged, courtesans flourished first in Rome and later in Venice. Veronica Franco was one such woman using her beauty and wit to inspire the spirit of love. Intelligent and literary, she published letters and poetry, which offered an astute and unique perspective on women’s liberty in sixteenth century Venice.


Image by michael thompson (2009)

Hidden in the mists of Jamaica’s rain forests, Queen Nanny/Grandy Nanny directed the defensive exploits of African survivors of the slave trade who escaped plantations and formed resistant communities in the most inaccessible areas of the island. Fusing with the dense vegetation of the rugged Blue Mountains, Nanny masterminded both practical and spiritual techniques to support her band of ‘Maroons’―a Spanish term meaning “fugitive or gone wild.” Not surprisingly, her feats were handed down almost entirely through oral tradition, raising questions as to the validity of the more supernatural aspects of her legend. Yet, her enduring word-of-mouth story propelled her across two centuries to allow her to take her place as one of Jamaica’s National Heroes.

Historically, the indigenous Caribbean Arawaks occupied and farmed Jamaica’s island. Then in 1494, Christopher Columbus sailed in and 150 years of Spanish colonization decimated the peaceable Arawaks through abuse and disease. As the Arawaks died out, the Spanish turned to trafficking African slaves to provide labor for their cattle plantations. In 1655 Great Britain invaded and forced out the Spanish. As the new colonizer, the British cleared land for sugar plantations and demanded more ships of enslaved Africans. Just enough chaos prevailed during the clash between Spain and Britain to allow hundreds of daring slaves to escape into the dense forests. Those fugitives formed two main groups of Maroons―the Windward on the east side of the island and the Leeward on the west.


Eleanor, Unknown Artist

A high-spirited woman of unimaginable breadth, Eleanor of Aquitaine, married Henry II of England and together they created a vast domain stretching from the Pyrenees in the south, to Scotland in the north. An accomplished traveler and horsewoman, Eleanor traversed this domain and beyond, into Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Reggio. Ambitious, worldly, and politically astute, she navigated a pathway for herself and her children through a male-dominated world that reverenced war and religion. She birthed ten children and filled her courts with young people, high-ranking clerics, music, poetry, beauty, and fun. She outlived two husbands and eight of her ten children. Her extraordinarily bold life echoed for centuries thereafter in her descendants who became kings, queens, dukes, and countesses.


Shoen Uemura’s “Composition of a Poem” (1942)

Chiyo-ni, one of Japan’s most remarkable female poets, grew up in a village at the foot of one of the country’s three holy mountains. The fertile agricultural area had four distinct seasons and in spring the winter snowpack overflowed the rivers and streams with crystalline water. Guided by the image of the translucent water and the chime of the local Buddhist temple bell, Chiyo-ni pursued the way of haiku―merging the mundane moment with the eternal.

Takahashi Hiroaki’s “Snow on Ayase River,” woodcut print (1915)

but for their voices
the herons would disappear―
the morning’s snow