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Monday, January 31, 2022

Medieval Women Part V: Women and Love

 Today I  conclude my mini-series on women in the Middle Ages with a look at cult of courtly love and the controversial topic of how it impacted the status of women.

The “Middle Ages” ought to be called either the “Feudal Ages” or the “Age of Chivalry” since the term “middle" (suggesting something interim or transitory) is an odd designation for more than a thousand years of history.  Feudalism, on the other hand, was a defining characteristic of the Middle Ages, and Chivalry was the secular ethos of that age. It was chivalry that gave birth to a radical transformation of man’s understanding of “love” and with it to a revolution in sexual relations.

To understand the latter, it is necessary to briefly reiterate the importance of Christian beliefs, and then to look more closely at chivalry itself. Christianity impacted the concept of love in two ways: 1) God is defined as Love with Christ as Love incarnate, and 2) it elevated women into souls, making them spiritual beings, equal to men in the eyes of God. Thus Christianity values love, including love for women, while making a clear distinction between love (which is divine) and lust (which is a mortal sin.) Love for the Virgin was an expression of the former, and extremely important in the history of the Medieval Church.  Yet chaste love for a living woman was also valued and cherished. Such feelings are well-illustrated by a letter from the 6th Century poet and priest Venantius Fortunatus to the fifty-year-old Queen Radegund, then living as a nun in the convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. Fortunatus writes:
Honored mother, sweet sister
Whom I revere with a faithful and pious heart,
With heavenly affection, without bodily touch,
It is not the flesh in me that loves
But rather the desire of the spirit… (Pernoud, p.35.)

Chivalry, on the other hand, introduced for the first time the notion that a man could become more worthy, more “noble,” through love for a lady. Love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature. Other characteristics of chivalry, as defined in handbooks on chivalry such as that written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull, were nobility [of spirit not birth], loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness. Simplified, chivalry entailed upholding justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. Yet regardless of the exact definition, the inspiration for knights striving to fulfill the ideal of chivalry was love for a lady.

Critically, the chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide or my favorite Yvain, Or the Knight with the Lion (both by Chrétien de Troyes) or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. The notion repeated so often nowadays that courtly love or the love of the troubadors was always about adulterous love is nonsense.  Nevertheless, the tradition of the troubadours did put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.

Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues.  A lady was to be loved and respected for her beauty, her graces, her kindness, and her wisdom regardless of her status, and a knight was to be loved for his manly virtues, not his lands or titles. 

Even more important, however, is the fact that regardless of which of the partners was the social superior, the lady always took on the role and status of “lord” to her lover. The term of address that a lover used in addressing his lady was “mi dons” ― literally “my lord.” The term denoted the knight’s subservience to his lady, his position as her “man” ― her vassal, her servant, her subject. In art, knights are shown kneeling before their lady and placing their hands in hers ― the gesture of a vassal taking the feudal oath to his lord. (I couldn't find an example of this exact gesture on the internet, but here are two images of knights keeling with folded hands before their ladies.

Last but not least, courtly or chivalric love was not a means to sexual conquest. For lovers who had the luck to be married, it certainly included physical love, and in many of the adulterous romances consummation was also achieved. Yet physical love was not the objective of courtly love. The objective of love was to become greater ― more courageous, more courteous, more generous, more noble, in short, more chivalrous than before. In this sense, courtly love reflected religious love because it was first and foremost love of the spirit and character rather than the body. 

All of these features set courtly or chivalric love apart from the erotic love of the ancients, the Arabs or the modern age.  Sadly, people still confuse “chivalry” with superficial gestures of courtesy (such as opening doors) and women in the name of “liberation” reject the concepts that first truly liberated them.

For more on this fascinating, complex and hotly debated subject, I recommend:

Barber, Richard W. The Knight and Chivalry. The Boydell Press, 1995.
Hopkins, Andrea. Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. Quarto Publishing, 1990.
·                 Pernoud, Regine. Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. Ignatius, 1989.


For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.




Monday, January 24, 2022

Medieval Women Part IV: Women and Education

After wealth, education is arguably the most powerful means of empowerment. As I noted in last week’s essay on women and economic power, professional skills were mobile and endowed women with independence and self-respect.  Today, however, I want to look at abstract learning, “book-learning,” rather than practical, professional skills. It is still common to impute ignorance to people in the Middle Ages generally, and even more common to assume that women were not generally literate.

Admittedly, literacy was not as widespread or common in the Middle Ages as it is today. There was no requirement to attend school, and for the poor, the need to work from a very early age made schooling a luxury. It was possible to learn a trade by watching and listening to a master, rather than reading texts. Thus for a significant portion of society at the lower end of the social scale, reading and writing was neither a necessity nor particularly valuable. 

Yet, as with everything in feudal society, class more than gender determined whether a person was likely to be literate or not. Among the classes that valued and required higher levels of education, women were as likely to be educated as their brothers and husbands.  Indeed, some historians argue that in the early Middle Ages among the upper classes women were more likely to read and write than their husbands and brothers. Men, they hypothesize, were too busy fighting, leaving women to provide basic education to children while also maintaining control of the estates by doing the book-keeping and correspondence.

For merchants or skilled craftsmen running a business, the support of wives in keeping the books, conducting correspondence, collecting arrears, etc. was vital.  Recognizing this, burghers ensured that their daughters were sufficiently literate and numerate to carry out these tasks ― or they risked having unmarriageable daughters.

Noblewomen, likewise, needed to be literate and numerate in order to manage their own and their husband’s property. In fact, even in the later Middle Ages the everyday management of a household and estate generally fell to the lady of the house, since men were often engaged in warfare and politics, activities that took them away from their estates, sometimes for extended periods. The higher their status, the higher the level of educated expected. Noblewomen could usually correspond in both their own language and Latin. They were frequent patrons of the arts, owners of books, and in some cases authors as well. It is no coincidence that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb shows her reading a book, while her daughter Marie of Champagne was the patroness of Chrétien de Troyes and it was to her that he dedicated some of his greatest works such as Yvain, or The Knight with the Lion.

Finally, women who chose a religious vocation chose a lifestyle that revolved around reading, writing, copying and illustrating Holy Scripture and more. The most highly educated women of the Middle Ages were, therefore, often found inside convents. Furthermore, by their work copying and illuminating manuscripts, nuns played a key role (along with monks) in preserving knowledge both sacred and secular, and in their role as educators, they were instrumental in spreading literacy to others.

The latter point is particularly important because it was only the wealthy that could afford to retain tutors for the education of their young. (Household accounts, incidentally, sometimes list women as tutors.) Thus education often fell to parents, who might not have the necessary time, inclination or talent for the task. Yet, it is evident that starting at least by the 6th century AD convents and monasteries across Europe offered education to children. Interestingly, the sexes were not always segregated when very young; little boys were often entrusted to the care of nuns and only later sent to monasteries or given secular education as pages and squires.  Alternatively, particularly bright girls might be sent to monasteries to learn more or be trained in particular skills such as singing or illumination. Also notable is anecdotal evidence of education in the convents being affordable as there are references to poor children attending them.  

The most dramatic evidence of female education in the Middle Ages, however, is provided by the large number of women who were authors of important works. A certain noblewoman, Dhuoda, for example, wrote an extensive and erudite treatise on education in or about 842; the book is full of biblical and other references that indicate this “ordinary” noblewoman was herself very well read (and incidentally very busy). In 965, a certain Hroswitha composed a long epic poem of Otto I. In the 12th century, there was Heloise, famous, unfortunately, more for her affair with Abelard than the fact that she was accounted a brilliant scholar in Latin, Greek and Hebrew before she even met him.  Indeed, Abelard claims to have wanted to seduce Heloise because of her learning ― as well as writing that he never really loved her, only lusted after her. In her letters to him, Heloise espoused a radical feminism that rejected both marriage and children. In the 15th century, there was the poet Christine de Pisan who in the early 15th century took on the University of Paris, mocking their misogyny.

Christine de Pisan with her Son

My personal favorite among the women of letters of the Middle Ages was Hildegard von Bingen. She was born in 1098 and died in 1179. She joined a convent at eight, took the veil at 15 and was abbess from 1136 onwards. She had visions, as she describes them:

Through God’s goodness, my soul sometimes surges up to the heights of the heavens and the air and sometimes wanders among different peoples, although they live in far regions and unknown places…I see them only in my soul, and the eyes of my body remain open, for I have never fainted in ecstasy. I see them awake night and day…The light that I see is not local, but infinitely more brilliant than the light that surrounds the sun.” (Cited in Pernoud, p. 43)

Yet for all her mystical visions, she remained a highly practical woman who wrote books on “simple” and “composite” medicine, books on linguistics, and also composed music (which can be found on the internet today.)  Furthermore, returning to my thesis on women wielding political power (See Women and Political Power), she corresponded with all the important rulers of her day from Pope Eugene III to Friedrich Barbarossa and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Hildegard, in short, was recognized as an intellectual and spiritual giant event by individuals themselves revered for their learning, power, and spirituality.

The heroines of these award-winning novels set in the Middle Ages reflect their respective class in terms of their level of education -- from Dowager Queens to serving girls.

 For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.





Monday, January 10, 2022

Medieval Women Part II: Women and Politics

 Building on last weeks' entry, which confronted the common myth that women were "mere chattels" of their husbands in the Middle Ages, over the next four weeks I will look more closely at the opportunities for women in the medieval world, starting today with a look at women's access to political power.

Non-historians are inclined to assume that progress is linear.  Since women did not obtain the right to vote in major democracies until the early 20th century, the assumption is that before the 20th century women had no rights. Yet, as the noted French historian Régine Pernoud argues eloquently in her book Women in the Days of the Cathedrals (Ignatius, 1989) women enjoyed much greater power in the Middle Ages than in the centuries that followed. Pernoud attributes this retrogressive development to the Renaissance and the attendant fascination with all things “antique.” The focus on Rome ultimately led to the re-introduction of many elements of Roman law, a legal tradition that was extremely misogynous.

The higher status of women in the Middle Ages as compared to antiquity and the renaissance and early modern periods stems from the two principles that formed the basis of medieval society: 1) Christianity and 2) Feudalism. Christianity, as I discussed in length in my essay on “Women as Chattels,” accorded women unprecedented status because it eliminated polygamy and divorce, while elevating women from sexual objects to spiritual beings. Feudalism raised the status of women because power derived through hereditary titles to land.  

Simplified: in feudalism bloodlines were more important than gender. What this means is that although the hierarchy gave precedence to the first born son over his brothers, and to sons before the daughters, it nevertheless gave the daughters precedence over cousins and illegitimate children of either sex, much less individuals without any blood relationship to the hereditary lord. Bonds of marriage, furthermore, were considered “blood-ties,” meaning that wives were given very powerful rights over property, which in turn gave them control over the vassals, tenants, servants and serfs that went with the land. In practice, the feudal focus on blood-ties and land meant that in the absence of a male, whether temporarily or permanently, females exercised the same authority as the absent male. In other words, in a hierarchical society such as feudalism, class trumped gender. Thus, while women were to a degree subject to men of their own class, they nevertheless had a higher standing and more power than men of any lower class. 

At the pinnacle of feudal society, queens were anointed and crowned because they were expected to exercise authority over the entire kingdom, and so the blessings of the Divine were deemed essential. This was not a nominal nor ceremonial power. When a king died leaving a minor child as his heir, it was normal for the child’s mother to act as regent.  In France the custom goes back at least to 1060, when, at the death of Henry I, his wife Anna became regent for their son Philip I.  In England, an example of this is when Isabella of France served as regent for Edward III after his father’s death but before he attained his majority.  Even when a king was not dead, circumstances might hand power to his wife. In England, Marguerite of Anjou ruled during the frequent periods of mental illness exhibited by Henry VI.  When Louis IX of France went on crusade to the Holy Land in 1249, he left his mother as his regent ― a function she had fulfilled during his minority as well.  Indeed, when Louis IX was taken captive by the Saracens, he negotiated a ransom with the caveat that, since he was a prisoner, his queen was reigning and only she could confirm the terms of the agreement. 

Admittedly, in the 14th Century, in order to preclude an English king claiming the throne of France, French jurists invented the so-called “Salic Law” that excluded women from the succession in France. This law stands in contraction to the laws that had been in place since the middle of the sixth century, when the edict of Neustria (ca. 580) ruled that daughters could succeed to the main manor (hereditary domain) if there was no son and sisters could succeed if there were no brother.  Notably, the same edict ruled that all other property (acquired by purchase or marriage) must be divided equally between all heirs regardless of gender. (Pernoud, p. 163).  Furthermore, the prohibition against women succeeding to the crown did not apply to other kingdoms from England and Castile to Jerusalem. 

Even more significant, across most of Europe women could be barons in the sense that they could both give and receive feudal oaths. The importance of this cannot be over stated: feudal oaths were the very basis of feudal society, they were the mortar that held society together, the social contract that made feudalism function. The recognition of a woman as a vassal and a lord ― not in her capacity as a man’s wife or daughter but in her own right ― entailed recognizing her as a fully independent legal entity. This was unthinkable under Roman or Athenian law, and, sadly, was not the case in the France from the 16th  to the 20th century!

As noted above, women were lords in the absence of males capable of representing their particular barony/fiefdom, but the essential point is that they were recognized as being capable of holding a title and the lands that went with it. Eleanor of Aquitaine held the Duchy of Aquitaine in her own right, and her vassals (powerful and militant barons for the most part) paid homage to her ― not to either of her royal husbands. The same is true of countless other women in the Middle Ages from Countesses of Flanders and Burgundy in France to Joan, Countess of Kent, in England. There were many, many others. In depth studies of specific lordships in France such as Troyes in the Champagne, for example, show that women held 58 of a total of 160 fiefs held directly (as opposed to being property of a higher lord, administrated by an appointee). (Pernoud, p. 180.) This suggests that women inherited at a rate of slightly better than one out of three. 

Not only did women hold the titles, they controlled the lands and commanded the men and women that went with them. One of my favorite stories is that of the “Keeper of the King’s Forrest” and Constable of Lincoln in 1217 ― a certain Nicholaa, who Austin Hernon has brought wonderfully to life in his well-researched novel The Women Who Saved England.  She defended the castle of Lincoln against forces attempting to put the King of France on England’s throne during the minority of Henry III. She withstood multiple assaults, commanding the men of the garrison in person. But there are literally countless cases of women holding and defending castles against siege and storm.

Last but not least, no description of political power in the Middle Ages would be complete without noting that the emergence of nuns and convents in the 5th century AD opened completely new opportunities for women. Convents were centers of learning, music, and illumination (something I’ll discuss in more length in my essay on women and education).  The Order of the Hospital also offered women careers in social work and medical care ― not to mention an opportunity to travel to the Holy Land. Critical to understanding these institutions is to note that they were self-governing, so that women were not subject to any men inside the community, and ― often completely overlooked ― in many double foundations (monastery and convent side-by-side) the Abbess ruled over the men as well as the women. What this means is that monks entering the monastery took their vows to the abbess ― not the abbot. Finally, although such power is indirect, many abbesses enjoyed great influence outside the walls of the convent. As women of recognized learning and wisdom, some of the greater abbesses such as Agnes of Poitiers, Mathilda of Fontevrault, or Hildegard von Bingen, corresponded with popes, emperors and kings. 

Maria Comnena, Byzantine Princess and Queen of Jerusalem, was certainly a woman with political power. She is the female protagonist of my Jerusalem Trilogy and also plays a significant role in “The Last Crusader Kingdom.

 For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.





Monday, January 3, 2022

A Closer Look at Medieval Women Part I: Wives as Chattels

 Over the next weeks, I will examine the status and opportunities for women in medieval society in more detail.  I open this series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that women, particularly wives, were mere "chattels" in the Middle Ages.  It is a topic I have taken on before and revisit here.

"Tree of Affinity" Manuscript Illustration from Fitzwilliam Museum MS262     
It is still common today to find people (even novelists writing about the Middle Ages!) claim that "women were mere chattels in the Middle Ages." The persistence of this notion is incomprehensible to me as it was very patently NOT true. Indeed, as the noted French historian Regine Pernoud makes exquisitely clear in her comprehensive book on the subject, Women in the Days of the Cathedrals (Ignatius, 1969) women in the Middle Ages enjoyed substantially more status and legal rights than women in the so-called Renaissance and Early Modern periods -- indeed until the 20th century.

It is true that they did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as 21st-century women in advanced, post-industrial, Western societies, but they were not at any time in medieval Europe (400 – 1500 AD)  “chattels.”

Let me start by reminding you what the word chattel means. Webster’s Dictionary, Second College Edition, states that a chattel is: “a movable item of personal property, as a piece of furniture, an automobile, a head of livestock.” In short, a chattel is by definition property, an object without rights. It is something that can be disposed of, sold, or destroyed by the owner. Humans who are property are called slaves. Women in Medieval Europe were not slaves—of their husbands or anyone else. Period.

These women -- sold at auction by ISIS -- are "chattels." This was unimaginable in the Christian Middle Ages!

I could end this essay here, but the persistence of the misconception induces me to go a little farther.
Nothing increased the status of women in any period and anywhere in the world so much as the spread of Christianity. In fact, it can be argued that Christianity itself was the single most important factor in increasing the status of women in Europe and around the world to this day.

I'm not talking here about “equal rights,” but about the fundamental fact that nothing degrades or devalues women more than polygamy. Fatima Mernisse (a Muslim Professor of Sociology) notes: “Polygamy…enhances men’s perception of themselves as primarily sexual beings and emphasizes the sexual nature of the conjugal unit. Moreover, polygamy is a way for the man to humiliate the woman…. ‘Debase a woman by bringing in another one in [to the house].’” (Mernissi, p. 48) The Christian Church diligently opposed polygamy and succeeded in eliminating it from Christian society before the start of the Middle Ages.

Divorce in pre-industrial societies disproportionately benefits men and harms women. I understand that modern (Western) women want the right to divorce, but modern women in advanced, western societies have the benefit of birth control, education, equal opportunity, and many other hard-won rights. In the Middle Ages, when women did not enjoy all those privileges/rights, divorce was (and in many non-Christian societies still IS) used overwhelmingly by men, almost never by women. Divorce enables men (but not women) to discard partners who have grown old, fat, less attractive or simply fail to produce children. In the absence of polygamy, which allows men to simply add another wife to replace the one they’ve grown tired of, divorce is the best way for men to ensure their personal satisfaction with their sexual partner at little personal cost.  The fate of most repudiated wives, on the other hand, was (and is) dismal. 

Thus the Christian Church’s insistence on marriage as a life bond was a truly revolutionary innovation that dramatically increased the status and financial security of women. If a man could not simply toss a woman out and get a new wife, he had no choice but to try to come to terms with the wife he had. His wife was elevated from interchangeable sexual object to life-time partner. 

Yes, men, particularly wealthy and powerful men, in Christian kingdoms in the Middle Ages still found ways to set aside their wives, but the Church’s stance made it more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was a whole lot better than what had gone before—and still prevails in many parts of the non-Christian world. 

Last but not least, contrary to what you have heard people say, the Roman Catholic Church was not unremittingly misogynous.

Let's start with the fact that the mother of Christ was venerated above all other saints in the Middle Ages. The rosary evolved, and Mary’s status as an intermediary between man and God was propagated. Medieval Catholicism thus gave to women a status unknown in any other religion: Mary was revered not for her fertility or her ability to satisfy man’s lust, but for her virtues: love, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, etc. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary inspired imitation, and soon there were a host of other female saints revered for their piety and devotion to God even onto martyrdom. 

Christ holds his arm around his mother's shoulders in this lovely mosaic from Santa Maria de Trastevere, Rome
On a more mundane level, the Medieval Church offered women places of refuge from the violent world around them. Convents offered women an opportunity to pursue scholarship and avoid the often wretched life of wife and mother. Abbesses were usually aristocratic women with excellent connections to the powerful families of their society. As such they could be politically influential and carried on correspondence with everyone from the pope to kings and emperors.  Some transcended their roles in exceptional ways, such as Hildegard von Bingen, who is revered to this day as a composer, writer, and philosopher. But even less exalted and less well-connected women in religious orders could do things like run orphanages and hospices that were above and beyond the purely domestic or commercial activities of their secular sisters.

The women in Dr Schrader's novels are medieval women in all their complexity, power, and independence without ever stepping outside the roles and societal norms of the period.

 For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.