A Woman’s Lot was not a Happy One

In Stronghold there are a few female characters although, sadly, no ladies in charge of a castle’s defence. Unlikely as it may seem this is something that happened occasionally. In general, however, a woman’s lot, particularly a poor woman, in medieval times was not a happy one.

A woman’s life was above all one of obedience to men. She was expected to obey her male relatives until she married and then obey her husband for the rest of her life. If a wife disobeyed her husband, he was allowed to beat her, but not if he was drunk or in a temper.

The Church taught that men were better than women. Priests based this idea on St Augustine’s teachings. They preached that a woman’s vanity was a sin and so she should not wear makeup, dye her hair or otherwise enhance herself. If she did, she would go to Hell although, of course, many women ignored this. The main reason women felt they could ignore some of the Church’s teachings was that they actually had a lot of responsibility whether rich or poor and things could well grind to a halt without women to run them.

Most women from poor families worked in the fields or were tradeswomen, running shops, brewing ale or being bakers or spinners. Many had more than one job as women were paid far less than men and so could not earn enough to live on without. Peasant girls would start working with their mothers at the age of about 8 sewing, cleaning, cooking and tending livestock but during times such as harvest, they often joined the men in the fields.

Noblewomen were often sent to live with other noble families as children to learn how to manage a large household, give orders to servants & keep accounts. They would need to know this as they often had to run large estates for their husbands while they were away on government business, war or even after their death. Occasionally they had to organise the castle’s defence if it was attacked during the lord’s absence.

The lady of a castle had a very busy life. She was served by ladies-in-waiting and chambermaids and spent much of the day overseeing their work as well as supervising the kitchen staff. She also kept an eye on her large group of spinners, weavers, and embroiderers in the upper rooms of the keep, who had the responsibility of keeping everyone clothed. In addition to the young noblewomen the lady was training, she was often responsible for educating the young pages who, at the age of 7, came to the castle to learn religion, music, dance, hunting, reading and writing before moving to train under a knight at the age of about 14. Troubadours and minstrels would entertain them and, in more enlightened castles, friars would read to them and sometimes tell them of the latest philosophical and scientific teachings.

Births for both the rich and poor took place at home with a midwife in attendance. Midwifery was primitive and a married woman’s life expectancy was only 24. If a woman managed to survive her childbearing years she would probably live to the age of 50 or 60, but a 30 year old medieval woman would look more like a woman of 60 today. The offspring of rich families were baptised at the church on the day of their birth as so many died very young. The mother wasn’t allowed to attend as she was considered impure for a while after giving birth. In a peasant family or a rich family when the baby wouldn’t live to get to the church, the midwife would baptise it. Baptism was very important in medieval times as people believed the baby would live in limbo (ie nowhere) for ever without.

Girls were brought up to expect to be married. Since women outnumbered men in medieval times, they often married men of lower status than themselves. When agreeing to a marriage, the bride’s family would give a portion of land called a dowry. The man’s gift to his future wife was the dower which also usually consisted of land. Peasant dowries might consist of a little land, money or livestock. The poorest girls would marry without. Because the redistribution of wealth was a major consideration in marriage, a girl with a larger dowry would be under more pressure to marry well than a girl with little. Once married, the woman lost legal competancy and was not considered responsible for her own actions.

Marrying for love played some part in peasant marriages, but girls from rich families were virtually always married to men for political convenience. Adultery for women was punishable by humiliation or even death whereas men’s mistresses and illegitimate children were often discreetly overlooked.

Unmarried landowning women were as powerful and had the same rights as men. On marriage, though, all her rights were forfeited to her husband until his death when she was entitled to a third of the lands to support herself. Other unmarried women from wealthy families became nuns so that they could become educated or lead a quiet and devout life. It was also an escape from childbearing and male dominance. Some nursed the sick and helped in the community.

Despite all the restrictions and hardships of women in medieval times, a few still managed to make an impact on their world and are still known of today.

Hildegarde of Bingen lived from 1098 to 1179 near the town of Mainz in Germany. At the age of seven, she became a nun and learned to read in Latin. She had many visions when suffering from migraines and, at the age of 43, became Abbess. She is known today for her correspondence with the most important people in the church, for her book of visions, two books on natural history and medicine and a morality play. She is also known for her music, chants for which she wrote both the words and music, rich in mystical imagery.

This is a sample of her music – O Magne Pater performed by Sequentia, an ensemble for medieval music with the women’s vocal ensemble directed by Barbara Thornton. This excerpt is taken from their CD – Saints (BMG 05472 773782).

Julian of Norwich (1342?-1416?) was a nun who thought herself ignorant but had a great knowledge of spiritual writings. She herself wrote in English which was considered dangerous for someone of the Church. She had a series of visions when she was ill at about the age of 30 which haunted her for the rest of her life and twenty years afterwards she wrote a theological analysis of them entitled Revelations of Divine Love.

Empress Matilda (Maud) was born in 1101, the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I. She was married at the age of 12 to the German Emperor but after his death 11 years later was recalled to England. After her brother’s death she was heiress to the English throne and remarried Prince Geoffrey of Anjou. Unfortunately she was unable to travel home on her father’s death in 1135, probably due to pregnancy, so could not take up the throne which fell to her cousin Stephen. She invaded England and began a long Civil War against Stephen, personally commanding her army. After three years, she won the Battle of Lincoln and captured Stephen. She was declared Queen of England and travelled to London where she quickly alienated people by her arrogant manner. She couldn’t get a coronation organised and had to escape. Her half-brother was captured and was exchanged for Stephen in 1141. In 1148 she returned, defeated, to Normandy although her son would become Henry II six years later. She died in 1169.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to Louis VII of France at the age of 15 adding her vast land possessions to France. He took her on a Crusade with him where she is said to have led an army of 300 of her ladies. He ended the marriage after she had an alleged affair with her uncle in the Holy Land although others said it was because she disagreed with her husband’s planned campaign to take Jerusalem which later failed. Somehow she managed to get back her lands from the French throne and she returned to Europe and married the soon to be crowned Henry II of England. She had four sons and, when she found Henry had a mistress, led them in a rebellion against their father. She was imprisoned for treason at the age of 50, but was released after 15 years. After Henry died in 1189, she ruled England until 1194 whilst Richard I was away on the Crusades. She then travelled all over Europe, through the Alps and the Pyrenees to find wives for her sons and to visit her grandchildren. She died in 1204 in France.

Joan of Arc was born in about 1411, the daughter of a French farmer, and believed as a teenager that she heard angel voices telling her to help the Dauphin, the future Charles VII, by leading the French army against the invading English and Burgundians. Charles sent her to raise the siege at Orleans which she did successfully, despite being injured by a crossbow bolt, chasing out the English and allowing Charles to be crowned at Rheims. She was later captured by the Burgundians who sold her to the English who put her on trial for witchcraft and wearing a man’s clothes. She was found guilty and burnt at the stake in 1431.

Written and researched by GillB

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