During the olden days of yore, when I was writing my graduate thesis, I studied quite a bit about medieval maidenhood. I can tell you why marriages were not made in infancy and that many medieval women could read, and had businesses of their own. It is something that one of the most popular saints in England during the Middle Ages was martyred because she proved her Christian beliefs against 50 pagan philosophers, on account of her great knowledge and clever use of logic. Being intelligent is what got her into trouble in the first place.
She is usually pictured with a book and a wheel (the instrument intended to kill her but which ended up breaking to splinters; they had to cut off her head in the end), like she is in the illustration below. Her name is Katherine, and she is the one on the far left. Another of the most popular saints is to the right: Margaret. Margaret was eaten by a dragon, and apparently the dragon (which here looks like a bad-tempered cat) choked on the crucifix she wore, and it split the dragon in two. The woman in the middle is Mary Magdalene, with the phial of oil she used to bathe Christ’s feet.
The golden background represents eternity (van Gogh thought it meant love, which I suppose it is easily mistaken for) and you can see the heavenly city of Jerusalem along the borders. The miniature dragon and tiny wheel are simply to show that the past suffering of the saints are instrumental but incomparable to the glory that meets them in heaven.
Anyway, it is Katheryne's vita that I am going to read next, as soon as I finish Chaucer, who can't seem to keep his mind out of the gutter at this point in the Tales. I'd love to visit her monastery, as well--I'm beginning to enjoy the idea of a pilgrimage despite Chaucer's best efforts to ruin it.