Women in the Middle Ages

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9780060923044: Women in the Middle Ages

Correcting the omissions of traditional history, this is "a reliable survey of the real and varied roles played by women in the medieval period. . . . Highly recommended."-- Choice

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About the Author:

Fiances and Joseph Gies have been writing books about medieval history for thirty years. Together and separately, they are the authors of more than twenty books, including Life in a Medieval City, Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval Village, The Knight in History, and Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel. They live near Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Frances and Joseph Gies have been writing books about medieval history for thirty years. Together and separately, they are the authors of more than twenty books, including Life in a Medieval City, Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval Village, The Knight in History, and Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel. They live near Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Women in History

Traditional history, all about politics, wars, and revolutions, has devoted few pages to women because few women were prominent in those male-dominated activities. The handful who were received patronizing credit for behaving like men--a woman led an army with "a man's courage," an able queen ruled "as if she were a man."

Modern history, with its accent on the economic, social, and cultural, is beginning to give woman her due. Yet many problems need to be overcome before a picture of the past as a cooperative adventure of both sexes will emerge.

Attempts to do justice to women of the Middle Ages have encountered special difficulties owing to the character of the sources commonly used. The writings of Church Fathers, theologians, and preachers have been repeatedly cited, with little consideration of the accuracy of their description of conditions, or of their audience and influence. By a similar method of investigation one might conclude that modern Catholics never practice birth control. Law books and manuals have also been misleading. William Blackstone's eighteenth-century pronouncement that women throughout ancient and medieval history were totally bereft of legal rights and even legal identities was until recently uncritically accepted. Finally, literary works--romances, poems, moral essays, tales--have been taken literally, without allowance for artistic exaggeration or satiric intent.

Apart from the problem of sources, the test of common sense has been difficult to apply to ideas about medieval women because the period is so remote to us, more remote not only than the modern era but even than the classical world. Its social institutions--feudalism, the manorial system, the guilds--seem oddly foreign and artificial. The very domicile of the ruling class, the grim and forbidding castle, seems legendary rather than historic, while armor, tournaments, chivalric codes, the ritual and trappings of knighthood, have a science-fiction outlandishness. The people, men as well as women, seem unreal, like the stiff decorative figures in the illuminated manuscripts and stained-glass windows, rather than our own flesh-and-blood forebears.

Finally, the time frame is confusing. The Middle Ages lasted a thousand years; during which large changes swept the European landscape: the people's migrations, infusing new ideas as well as new blood into the politically disintegrating Roman Empire; calamitous economic decline and vigorous revival; technological innovations with far-reaching effects; social upheavals that created new class relationships. Women's lives were changed along with men's. Few generalizations can be made about women's role that will fit the whole dynamic millennium.

For the early Middle Ages, documentation is limited because of the very nature of the epoch. The next chapter briefly summarizes what is known about woman's situation in that fascinating and, to the historian, frustrating era-the period of the migrations, the barbarian kingdoms, and the economic slow down known as the Dark Ages. T he remaining chapters in the first section describe some of the changes which took place at the end of the Dark Ages, and the principal attitudes toward women that prevailed.

The second, and main, section of the book explores what it was like to be a woman in the high Middle Ages--the period from about 1100 to 1500--by examining the lives of individual women in those centuries. The information comes principally from real-life sources: chronicles, tax rolls, legal and manorial records, private account books, diaries, letters.



What are the elements that affect a woman's life? Recent works in women's history have tended to focus on the status of women relative to men. But the first and most important consideration in evaluating the quality of life in the Middle Ages applies equally to men and women: the technological and economic level of a low-energy but expanding society, influencing work, housing, food, -clothing, health, security, comfort, and self-fulfillment.

A second basic element, affecting only women, is the state of obstetrical practice. Throughout the ages, until antisepsis and improvements in obstetrical techniques arrived in the nineteenth century, childbirth was a mortal hazard. Rich or poor, women suffered and were injured in labor; often they died. A medieval gynecological treatise, The Diseases of Women, from the medical school at Salerno, reflects the problems and horrors of childbirth in the whole pre-industrial era, during which doctors and midwives had few aids other than potions and poultices. Nevertheless, amid prescriptions for rubbing the woman's flanks with oil of roses, feeding her vinegar and sugar, powdered ivory, or eagle's dung, placing a magnet in her hand or suspending coral around her neck, the Salernitan text also gives sound advice, for example on breech delivery: "If the child does not come forth in the order in which it should, that is, if the legs or arms should come out first, let the midwife with her small and gentle hand moistened with a decoction of flaxseed and chick peas, put the child back in its place in the proper position."

Although abortion, with its own dangers, was practiced from very ancient times, contraception, by various methodsmechanical, medicinal, and magical-found limited use and even less effectiveness: Women had babies, successfully or otherwise.

Several other special criteria apply to the quality of a woman's life in any historical setting.

First, simple survival: in many times and on different continents, women have been victims of infanticide as a technique of selective population control. The reason, although usually rationalized in terms of the female's alleged weakness of physique, character, and intellect, is transparently economic: the contribution in work of a daughter was often outweighed by the cost of raising her and giving her a marriage portion: investment in a daughter went mainly to the profit of a future husband.

Second, conditions of marriage: the question of consent; the relative age of consent for men and women; monogamy versus polygamy, which emphasizes woman's biological role at the expense not only of her personal, but of her social and economic roles; the seclusion of women in harems or gynaeceums, or their "privatization" at home, where they were segregated from the male spheres of business, politics, and religion; attitudes toward adultery and divorce, where a double standard nearly always prevailed.

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