WIP Inspired Treks - Pozzuoli, Naples

Marginally off-course in terms of English medieval history, my historical WIP also ventures into Napolese territory of the same period. Pozzuoli, or the old Roman port of Puteoli, is probably somewhere you haven’t heard of – if you have, then you may well have been there and understand just what a gem it is.

Obviously, on the radar when in Naples is Vesuvius:


and Heculaneum (this being the best one of the two suffocated areas IMHO):

Many people who visit the Naples area head down to the Amalfi Coast and stay in the nice hotels and do whatever else is down there (I didn’t go that far down), but if you want to wander around what was once the Amalfi coast of the Roman era, then stay in Pozzuoli or Baia, because of this Roman temple-cum-new cathedral (Cathedral Basilica San Procolo Martire):

or this sunken temple (Macellum Temple of Serapis):

or this really effing loud volcanic sulphur chute (Phlegraean Fields/Solfatara):

and a Roman town newly excavated from Vesuvius’ temper tantrum, beneath the medieval Pozzuoli, are places you should not miss. There’s also a cemetery within a cavern, with thousands of skulls and bones and offerings on show (Cimitero Delle Fontanelle). This place doesn’t mess about.

Beneath the old town above are catacombs of the old Empire, on top of that a Roman temple turned into a cathedral, and the streets where a woman named Maria Puteolana (or Maria “of Puteoli”) once walked in, or perhaps even lived. Though there is a street in Pozzuoli named after her, Maria Puteolana is still even a myth to many in Pozzuoli, and probably (but don’t quote me) most Napolese, or Italians at least, have never heard of her. I did talk to a guy from Pozzuoli online once who seemed to think she was still only a myth, but there is one hard piece of evidence that Maria indeed existed, and we have the father of Humanism to thank for it: Francesco Petrarch.

In a wonderful book called Voice of the Middle Ages there is one letter from 1342 in which Petrarch, writing to Cardinal Colonna, mentions a “mighty woman of Pozzuoli” and goes on to describe her dedication to soldiering, her refusal to choose comfort over preparedness, and her willingness of sleep, food and water deprivation, to ensure her town was protected at all times. Pozzuoli suffered badly in local wars once King Robert of Naples died, and Maria decided to fight against this, it seems.

‘Sometimes alone, often with a few companions’ she raids the enemy, and is forthright and unwilling to withdraw.'

It was the second time Petrarch met Maria (who he describes as of ‘prime’ age–depending on your medieval location this could mean anything from 16 to 23 as a rough estimate, but from the strong build of her I would guess the older of the range), but the first time she was ‘weaponless’. Upon seeing her best all her comrades in a show of strength, Petrarch became a believer in the possibility of the existence of the Amazons and other warrior women he’d heard of.

I went to Pozzuoli on the basis I would experience at least a little of Maria’s world. She features in my HWIP, rather than stars, but her fictional input is invaluable. I’d be as enthusiastic about Maria as Petrarch was if I’d met her (and of course, when discovering her now), however, her existence certainly defies the norm and does not mean there were hundreds and thousands of undocumented warrior women out there in the era or any other, who just haven’t been discovered yet. Indeed, the hundreds of women warriors or leaders (more of the latter who were vastly figureheads) in history who we do know about, nowhere near match or outweigh the male majority, and unfortunately in this day and age there are some very wanting notions about just why that was, and how involved with warfare women maybe should have been in history. Very few were involved comparatively, from my reading, and not a great many women were too bothered about that, much like today. 

Despite this, I’m actually a firm believer that many more women were battle-ready pre-Plantagenet, rather than active, in England at least, purely because of the volatile nature of the country, and Europe (or Christendom). You’d want your family to be able to protect themselves, and your stuff, if necessary. When there was no need, people (primarily  women) concentrated much more on building better lives, than protecting what they had. Men took war duties on almost entirely, but women did not stop being interested in protective duties (nor were necessarily stopped, for example Agnes de Hotot), indeed they were expected to understand at least some of it.

‘The father of Agnes Hotot, the great heiress who married Dudley, having a dispute with one Ringsdale about the title to a piece of land, they – the litigants - resolved to meet on the disputed ground, and to decide the affair by single combat. On the day appointed f or the encounter at the lists it so happened that Sir John Hotot was laid up with the gout; but his daughter Agnes, rather than that the land should be lost by default, armed herself cap-à-pie, and, mounting her father’s horse, went and encountered Ringsdale, whom she unhorsed after a stubborn contest. When he lay prostrate on the ground, she loosened her throat-latch, lifted up the vizor of her helmet, and let her hair down about her shoulders, thus discovering her sex.’

It was Agnes, actually, that led me to this HWIP, and was not so much the notion of a warrior woman existing, but exactly how she managed to become one, like the story of Agnes above. Please note, this story, as far as I know, is just that, except that Agnes did marry Dudley in real life, and her likeness was used on the Dudley's crest for a very long time, so it clearly resonatd in their family. Women didn’t, on any substantial level, teach anyone warfare (in that era at least, unless you count Christine de Pizan’s book on chivalry), and so it must have been a man or men who taught these women. My HWIP is an exploration of these ideas, inspired by the warrior women who did exist, and were remembered for their extraordinary achievement. It is also an exploration on why becoming a warrior is not the prime goal for any woman earning her stripes, something sadly lost when writing many female characters nowadays. Ti saluto, Maria!

And, bloody hell, there are a lot of friggin lizards about down there.