Uncovering Women's Role in Religion (02:23)
Humans have always looked to spirituality to explain the mystery of life. Host Bettany Hughes will explore how women have historically shaped our relationship with the divine.
Empress Theodora I (01:58)
The 6th century female ruler of the Christian Byzantine Empire is reviled among Catholics but revered by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Host Bettany Hughes visits Istanbul to investigate her life.
Relocating an Empire (01:10)
Theodora was born in the 6th century AD in modern day Istanbul. As barbarians overran Western Europe, the Roman Empire’s center moved east to the new Christian capital of Constantinople—modeled after Rome.
Cult of the Virgin Mary: a Radical Christian Development (01:36)
Born around 500 AD to a prostitute, Theodora was at the bottom of Constantinople society. Dr. Haluk Cetinkaya sheds light on her childhood experience: she would have seen Virgin worshippers carrying icons to protect the city.
Using Brains and Beauty (02:23)
In 6th century Constantinople, young Theodora became the mistress of a wealthy man. After being rejected, she converted to Christianity. Later she was enlisted in Justinian's spy network and gained access to the imperial heir.
Overcoming Adversity to Rule Byzantium (01:04)
Imperial heir Justinian fell in love with his spy Theodora and persuaded his uncle to change the law so they could marry. After climbing the social ladder in Constantinople, she was now the most powerful woman in Christendom.
Elevating Women Through the Cult of Mary (02:59)
In 431 AD, Byzantine leaders gathered in Ephesus, Southern Turkey, to settle fundamental issues of Christianity. Historian Kate Cooper discusses the debate over the Virgin's divine status; eventually she was decreed the mother of God.
Ruling by Divine Right in Byzantium (01:03)
Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora presided over their court in Constantinople as if they were Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Host Bettany Hughes explores a chapel containing a mosaic of her only known contemporary image.
A Growing Christian Empire (01:06)
Empress Theodora spread the Virgin cult throughout Byzantium—building the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople and consecrating churches in Egypt and Greece. An Istanbul excavation reveals her influence spanned Europe, Asia and Africa.
Justinian and Theodora's Radical Reforms (01:21)
Inspired by Christian ideals, the Byzantium rulers gave rights to dispossessed members of society—including women. They also established the foundation of the modern Western legal system.
Crushing a Rebellion in Byzantium (02:27)
Host Bettany Hughes discusses an attempt to overthrow rulers Justinian and Theodora in 6th century Constantinople. Christian inspired social reforms had angered the rich and powerful; the Empress held her ground and saved the throne.
Theodora's Legacy (00:39)
The 6th century Empress drew on old goddesses and the cult of the Virgin to shape religious and political policy in the Christian Byzantium Empire. Her reforms paved the way for modern society.
China's Only Female Emperor (01:36)
Host Bettany Hughes meets historian Liu Yang to learn about Wu Zetian, a woman barely known in the West. Successors found her rule so controversial that they left her memorial stone unmarked.
A Chinese Ruler’s Early Childhood (01:06)
Born in 624 AD into nobility, Wu Zetian lived in a society based on Daoism and the hierarchical ideas of Confucius. Her family practiced Buddhism, a religion gaining ground in China—it would later influence her choices in life.
A Noble Woman in 7th Century China (02:17)
Xian was the biggest city in the world when Wu Zetian began serving in the Forbidden Palace at 13. Excavations reveal its power and influence—30,000 courtiers lived in the royal complex alone.
An Unexpected Reprieve (01:41)
Wu Zetien began an affair with the crown prince of China; when the Emperor died she was banished from the court as a childless concubine. She took refuge as a Buddhist nun; after a year the Empress Wang summoned her to the palace.
Rise to the Throne (01:09)
The Chinese Empress brought Wu Zetian to the palace to distract the Emperor from a rival concubine. Wu seized the opportunity, produced an heir and imprisoned Empress Wang to die a lonely death.
Using Religion as a Weapon (01:15)
After becoming Empress of China, Wu gained access to previously restricted festivals, leading ceremonies on behalf of female deities to promote her divine right. When the Emperor died, she turned to her childhood faith of Buddhism.
Political Legitimacy through Faith (02:05)
Chinese Empress Wu Zetian used Buddhism to promote her divine right—demonstrated in a statue of Buddha she modeled after herself. Professor Valerie Hansen explains that the religion's flexibility allowed Wu to harness it for her own use.
Pragmatic Devotion to Buddhism (01:54)
Chinese ruler Wu Zetian sent monks to India in search of sacred Buddhist texts to legitimize her divine rule. She used them to declare herself Emperor of China and establish a new dynasty in her family's name.
A Royal and Sacred Act (01:45)
At the height of Wu Zetian's power a new technology emerged in China: the printed word. Professor Timothy Barrett discusses the ruler's religious and political motivation behind commissioning Buddhist texts.
An Era of Harmony (01:27)
Wu Zetien's support for Buddhism established the religion in the far East. She creating a peaceful empire by governing according to Buddhist principles; we visit a monastery where prayers written by the ruler are still recited.
Legacy of China's Only Female Ruler (00:34)
Wu Zetian's determination to change China under her rule resulted in enemies slandering her name after death. However, her contribution to Buddhism and the written word is still relevant in the 21st century.
A Medieval Champion for Social Progress (01:44)
When the Roman Empire withdrew from Britain in 410 AD, Germanic invaders reintroduced pagan gods and brought conflict. The niece of an Anglo-Saxon king in Northumbria, Hilda helped bring back literacy and Christianity to her country.
Bringing Faith and Books to Barbarians (01:24)
When Hilda was a child in the 7th century, literate monks from Ireland led a mission to reintroduce Christianity in Britain—believing knowledge should be for all. Professor Sarah Foot discusses their impact on Anglo-Saxon society and culture.
Gaining Status through Religion and Literacy (01:03)
Inspired by Irish missionaries to Britain, Hilda founded an abbey at Whitby. She was responsible for the community's welfare and education—a powerful position for a woman in 7th century England.
Influencing Medieval Leaders (01:05)
Abbess Hilda educated a monk named Bede who later wrote the first history of England. Historian Peter Darby points out that she set an example for women in the church—and her learning program set a precedent for education models.
Synod of Whitby: Presided by an Abbess (01:48)
Hilda orchestrated a critical event in English history: a debate between Irish monks and Romans over Easter in 644 AD. By adopting the Eastern date, Britain joined the global Christian movement—opening opportunities for cultural development.
Women's Changing Role in English Christianity (01:10)
Abbess Hilda's position gave her political power as well as educational influence—reflecting a 7th and 8th century golden age for women in the church. After the 9th century, nuns were cloistered and lost their wider influence.
Women Lose Educational Rights in Britain (00:37)
When universities were established during the 12th century, nunneries and monasteries no longer served as learning centers. Higher education was restricted to men until the 20th century.
Light and Female Leadership (01:25)
Theodora, Wu Zetian and Hilda drew on the power of religion and embraced new ideas to rewrite world history during the dark ages.
Credits: War of the Words: Divine Women (00:46)
Credits: War of the Words: Divine Women
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