Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe. A Sourcebook. Ed. by Emily Amt (New York-London: Routledge, 1993), 1-7.
This book is a collection of primary sources for the study of women’s lives in Europe during the Middle Ages, from about 500 to about 1500 A.D. [now: C.E.] Its purpose is to present firsthand information about women’s everyday lives and activities and the conditions in which they lived, and to show the reader on what sorts of evidence historians base their conclusions about these aspects of history. For readers who have little background in medieval history, some general information about medieval Europe may be helpful.
Until the fifth century A.D., much of western Europe lay within the Roman Empire, a vast collection of territories including parts of the Middle East and North Africa. In Europe itself during the centuries of Roman rule, much of the native Celtic population had become highly Romanized in its culture, political allegiance and legal practices. In the last few centuries of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes which had long lived on the eastern fringes of the European provinces moved into the Romanized lands in large numbers. This wave of “barbarian” invasions, along with severe political and economic problems, gradually killed off the Roman Empire, which was replaced by a number of Germanic successor kingdoms, including those of the Franks in Gaul (modern France), the Visigoths in Spain, the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Burgundians in and around what is now Switzerland, and the Anglo-Saxons in England.
The Germanic tribes brought with them a very different society from that of Rome. Whereas Roman civilization was highly urbanized, for example, the Germans had until then seldom settled even in villages. The Romans had a long history of written legislation; the Germans used a system of customary law which had not yet been written down. Different practices regarding marriage and family can be seen in the extracts from Roman and Germanic law in this book (8, 10-11). l Centuries of contact between the Germans and the empire, however, had wrought changes on both sides, and now, as the Germans settled in what had long been Roman territory, further mingling of the two cultures occurred. The Germanic kingdoms which were established inside the old boundaries of the now defunct empire were by no means entirely Germanic in their ethnic makeup or their culture.
Even more influential than Roman tradition in this process of change was the religion of the late Roman Empire. Christianity had originated in Palestine, where a small group of Jews believed that the Jewish carpenter Jesus, who had been executed by the Roman authorities early in the first century A.D., was the “Christ,” the son of God and savior of humanity. Although Christians were persecuted at first by both the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman government, their religion survived and spread. In the year 313 it achieved official sanction from the Roman emperor Constantine, and in the late fourth century it became the official religion of the empire. The cultural initiative of the late Roman Empire passed from pagan writers to Christian theologians such as St. Jerome (4) and St. Augustine of Hippo (5), who explored the details of Christian belief and laid the foundation for church law. It was the Christian church, too, which filled the vacuum in leadership during the fifth century, as the Roman world faced widespread military, political and economic crises and the Roman government crumbled. Bishops began to provide the services for which the government had once been responsible; in particular, the bishop of Rome came to assume a prominent role in Italy, so much so that as the “pope” he was eventually recognized as the leader of the church throughout the western Mediterranean regions. Clergymen and monks also preserved what ancient learning survived the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, and throughout most of the Middle Ages the church maintained a near monopoly on literacy and education.
The church was eager to convert the pagan Germans to Christianity. It accomplished this through intensive mission work and through alliances with Germanic kings, queens and nobles, who saw advantages to themselves in allying with the existing authority in their new territories. Christian beliefs, including ideas about women, marriage and family, had already mingled with Roman traditions. Now Christian views were adopted by the Germanic settlers as well. Thus the three main ingredients of medieval European civilization had come together: the Roman, the Germanic and the Christian. Part I of this book presents examples of these three traditions. The rest of the book is about the new civilization that arose from their combination.
The period from the fifth century to the eleventh is often designated the “Early Middle Ages.” This is the time sometimes known as the “Dark Ages” in part because of the collapse of Roman civilization, with the loss of much classical knowledge, but also because relatively few historical sources remain to tell us of the events of these years [but we should no longer use this term today because historical research has revealed a considerable degree of transition and continuity well into the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries]. The documents which do survive include the laws which the Germanic kings were now having written down (10-11) and the works of historians such as Gregory of Tours (29, 43). Much of the essential character of medieval Europe was already apparent in this early period, especially in religious matters. Monasteries and convents, for example, came to play a key role in economic and cultural life, and many noble families dedicated sons and daughters to the religious life, in which they lived according to a monastic “rule” such as that of Caesarius of Arles (61). Women were encouraged to be nuns, but their other options in the church- serving as deaconesses or in partnership with husbands who were priests – were closed off by the decisions of church councils (60). These councils established “canon law” or church law, which regulated the lives of members of the clergy and many aspects of private life for lay people. For most of the laity, canon law was enforced by the local priest, who heard one’s confession regularly and assigned penance for one’s sins. Thus the church gradually succeeded in imposing on secular society its standards of behavior in areas such as marriage.
The political face of early medieval Europe was dominated by the Franks, and in the eighth century the Frankish kingdom under Charlemagne (768-814 A.D.) and his descendants conquered and ruled many neighboring kingdoms. The resulting “Carolingian Empire” included much of what is now France, Germany and Italy. Among their other activities, the emperors promulgated new rules for the administration of the empire and their own estates, some of which survive to inform us about everyday life in Carolingian Europe (44). In this new realm cultural energy reached a height unknown since the days of Roman power. The rich intellectual life of the royal court produced many of the written works of the period, but relatively isolated individuals such as the noblewoman Dhuoda could also be well educated (30).
While the Carolingian Empire flourished, however, the west was beginning to suffer invasions by three new groups: the Scandinavian Vikings, the Muslim “Saracens” from North Africa, and the Asian Magyars. Under these onslaughts and other stresses in the ninth and tenth centuries, imperial government once again collapsed, and Europe entered another period of political fragmentation. This time, the surviving political units were small kingdoms, duchies and counties, ruled by local nobles who could offer some degree of protection to their followers. The bond between a lord and each his followers, or vassals, became an important one in many parts of western Europe in these years. Noblemen put themselves under the lordship of more powerful men who could grant them estates called “fiefs” (from the Latin feud um) in return for loyalty and military service. Such “feudal” relationships dominated many aspects of life for the ruling classes in the centuries to follow.
The period from the eleventh century through the thirteenth is often called the “High Middle Ages.” Underlying much of the history of these years was a widespread economic revival in Europe which had begun long before the eleventh century in some parts of the continent and continued throughout the High Middle Ages in others. New technology, a slightly improved climate and expanding frontiers gradually raised the standard of living and produced surpluses which formed the basis for a commercial boom. Towns flourished as centers of trade, and the town-dwelling population, which made its living in trade and industry, grew. The use of money as a medium of exchange increased, along with banking and written record-keeping (53-55). Townspeople organized themselves into guilds: the merchant guild, which often served as a sort of town government, included only the wealthiest citizens, while each industry had its own craft guild, which set standards and regulated the industry, and to which all practitioners of that trade belonged (51). Towns were often able to use their wealth to buy a certain amount of independence from their lords.
Christianity in the High Middle Ages was characterized by an increasing variety of activities and outlooks. In the eleventh century the church struggled overtly with secular authorities for ecclesiastical power and independence, and in the twelfth century canon lawyers like Gratian (18) codified church policy and reasserted its pre-eminence in many areas of life. In 1095, the increasingly militant church launched the first of the Crusades, papally sanctioned holy wars against the Muslims of the Holy Land and Spain and against heretics in Europe. The Crusades would last through the thirteenth century, and one of their unintended effects was the widespread persecution of the Jewish minority in Europe (70). Another characteristic of high medieval religion was dissatisfaction with the wealth, worldliness and soft living that critics perceived in many monasteries and convents. New “reform” orders of monks – and less often of nuns – were founded in the late eleventh century, only to become so worldly themselves that a new wave of reform was called for in the early thirteenth century. From this second wave came the Dominican and Franciscan orders, including the Poor Clares (64). Large numbers of Christians also turned to less formal religious movements, such as that of the Beguines (67) and their male counterparts, the Beghards. Mysticism, the direct communication of the soul with God, was practiced by such- respected individuals as Hildegard of Bingen (63) and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Some groups, such as the Waldensians (79), found that their spiritual enthusiasm led them into beliefs and practices condemned by the church; and this upsurge in heresy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries caused the church to found the Inquisition to deal with Christians who had strayed from the fold (80).
Many of these religious developments centered on towns and cities, and so too did the new forms of higher education. The cathedral schools of the twelfth century and the universities of the thirteenth century were urban institutions. While women participated fully in the religious revival of these years, they were excluded from formal higher education once the university became the standard seat of learning. The universities also guarded their monopoly on certain fields like medicine carefully (25). In other spheres of culture, however, noblewomen played a prominent role, serving as patrons and producers of music and poetry and shaping the codes of chivalry and courtly love, which softened the hard-working and unromantic lives of the nobility.
Medieval writers commonly divided the members of society into three “estates” or “orders”: those who fought, those who prayed, and those who worked. While the estates were often described in terms of men only, in reality women belonged to or were attached to each of them. The “fighters” were the knights or noblemen, whose wealth, power and status derived from their lands; for this reason they were willing to swear allegiance to the lords who gave them fiefs and let their heirs inherit them. The women of this estate did not normally fight, but they shared in the other jobs of the nobility, running households and estates; and the concern with land shaped every noblewoman’s life in fundamental ways, such as the choice of a husband. The praying estate consisted of the clergy and the monastic community, and while women were excluded from the former, they made up a sizeable and often active portion of the latter. The third estate, the workers, did not mean everyone who worked for virtually everyone, including nobles, monks and nuns, did work in medieval society but those whose position in society was defined by their manual labor: artisans, servants and the peasantry. Artisans might work for themselves or as employees; servants worked for employers or their lords. Peasants worked the land, raising their own food and supporting their lords. There were many degrees of social status within the working estate, even among the peasantry. Some peasants were free, but most were serfs or villeins, who were not slaves but were legally bound to the land and required to perform certain work for their lords. Serfs might hope to achieve freedom through manumission (45) or by running away to a town, where the law often granted them freedom if they remained for a set length of fume, often a year and a day. Women participated fully in the working life in industry, domestic service and agriculture.
Many aspects of life, culture and institutions were similar across medieval Europe, but there were also important differences from region to region, in agricultural and industrial products, in political and social organization, and in the ethnic and religious makeup of the population. The towns of Italy, for example, tended to be freer of outside control than were most European towns, and some of them specialized in Mediterranean trade, which brought eastern luxury goods to the west. The Iberian peninsula comprised Muslim territories in the south along with a number of small Christian principalities in the north, and the warfare between them was a major factor in shaping Spanish society (14). At the same time, Germans were pushing eastward into the lands of the pagan Slavs, bringing new lands into cultivation, on which grain was grown for much of Europe, and which drew surplus peasants eastward as settlers. The German king also claimed the prestigious title of “Holy Roman Emperor” and lands stretching as far south as central Italy; yet the real power in Germany usually lay with the territorial princes and the bishops, and few emperors were able to assert control in Italy. The kings of France, on the other hand, steadily enlarged their territories and their control over their vassals, forming alliances with rich towns and with the church. Wine was already one of the major products of the thriving French economy, and a new market for French wine was one of the results when a Norman French duke conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England in 1066 and replaced the old Anglo-Saxon nobility there with French noble families. England’s greatest export was raw wool, large amounts of which were sold to the towns of Flanders, a particularly important center for cloth making on the northern French coast. Medieval merchants visited fairs across the continent, and while the vast majority of Europeans probably never traveled far from the place of their birth, pilgrims, scholars and soldiers also helped to spread goods, news and ideas.
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, known as the “Later Middle Ages,” are best known for the traumas they brought. Population growth had already begun to slow in the early fourteenth century, before the Black Death, or bubonic plague, killed between a quarter and a third of the entire population of Europe in 1347-49 (28). For the next few centuries, this terrifying disease would continue to break out periodically. The initial plague left behind a land surplus and a severe labor shortage, which enabled peasants and workers to win improved legal status, pay and conditions; their lords and employers then attempted to limit such gains through laws controlling wages and prices. Meanwhile, England and France engaged in a long series of wars known collectively as the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), which battered the French countryside and left England in political disarray. Yet this period of upheaval was also the backdrop to a great deal of cultural activity, such as that in which Christine de Pizan (39) participated at the French royal court, and the literary and artistic developments in fifteenth-century Italy which are known today as the Renaissance.
[AC: The major factors bringing about the end of the Middle Ages were: The invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in ca. 1450; the ‘discovery’ of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492; the conquest of Cordoba by the Spanish crown in 1492, along with the expulsion of the Jewish population from the Iberian Peninsula in the same year; the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, signaling the end of the Eastern Roman empire, and the Protestant Reformation in 1517 by Martin Luther]
The materials in this book are, as much as possible, about ordinary women. Although many of them belonged to the nobility, no queens or princesses are represented, and other famous or exceptional women have generally been avoided. Literary or artistic sources are missing here, even though much of what we know or surmise about the lives of medieval women comes from or is influenced by literature and art. Instead, the material in this book is “historical”: public and private records, letters, laws, regulations and instructional works, historical and personal narratives, and plans and drawings based on archaeological evidence. Whenever appropriate, women’s own writings have been included. Not enough of these survive from the Middle Ages to enable us to build up an accurate picture of life from a purely female perspective, especially because women who wrote were not usually interested in telling us many of the things we most want to know about them. But to hear their occasional voices adds an important dimension to the study of women’s lives.
The modern reader may encounter certain difficulties in reading medieval texts. For example, there are strong religious elements and ecclesiastical biases in many of the documents here, which may be alien or frustrating to the reader familiar with a more secular society. This is in part because medieval Europe was indeed a highly religious civilization, and the modern reader must therefore resist the urge to dismiss the true religious feelings and important religious motivations of the men and women who appear in these sources. Miracles and religious visions were accepted as real by many or most people. The church itself was an integral part of the power structure, controlling vast wealth and wielding great political influence and judicial power.
Religious differences even defined marginal and persecuted groups within society (Jews, Muslims and heretics). The church’s views played a large part in shaping secular laws and social norms, and sex roles and gender constructs are perhaps the areas in which this is most obvious. On the other hand, the religious viewpoint of the sources can sometimes distort our view of even religious subjects. Much of the written material that survives from the Middle Ages was written by churchmen, but this does not mean that churchmen spoke for everyone.
Similarly, the reader should be aware that medieval standards of truth, originality and accuracy were not the same as ours. Supernatural explanations of events were more widely accepted than they are today. Authors of literature and history borrowed freely from other works, and the boundaries between myth, story and history were not clear ones.