Friday, 25 April 2014

W is for Women

This month, I’m going through aspects of medieval history that are relevant to writers. It feels a bit weird having “women” as one of my categories here, since I don't want to create the impression that all the other categories didn't apply to them. I’ve been envisioning both men and women with almost every other category with the possible exception of knights (and if there were female knights, I’d love to hear about it). All the issues I’ve been talking about affected everyone’s lives.

Yet there are some separate things we need to consider in addition to all the things that applied to everyone. Every medieval society I’ve studied was extremely male dominated, while history was kept by largely male religious orders, writing about battles full of men. That tends to mean that direct evidence for women in the historical record is even rarer than the already limited records for men.

It also meant often quite restrained lives for many women. It is hard for us to underestimate just how oppressed many women of the period would have been. They were often tightly controlled by male relatives, or by their lords in the absence of such. Their opportunities for education and personal freedom were often very limited. Most could not own land in their own right (unless they were widows, for which see below). Marriages among the nobility were often arranged, and a noble daughter was to many noble families essentially an asset to sell off to the highest bidder. Even though the witch trials hadn’t come around yet, ecclesiastical courts tended to round on women who spoke up as heretics, particularly if they ever dared to preach. They also roundly condemned any women found having sex outside of marriage, while doing relatively little about the levels of violence and sexual violence they faced from day to day from men.

Yet having reminded everyone of just how bleak life could be for women in the period, I would also quickly like to remember that there were women who achieved considerable recognition/notoriety in the period. A few I’ve already mentioned include Eleanor of Acquitaine, who married two kings and kept her own court that promoted most of the arts we take for granted. There was the Empress Matilda, who challenged for the English throne for many years. There was St Hilda, who founded Whitby Abbey and taught many respected figures. And there were the countless unnamed widows who found that in that one situation, they suddenly had control of their own lands, and made full use of them. Women could, and did, play a full role in medieval life, and they certainly should in your stories.

3 comments: said...

It's always inspiring to read and hear about these women achieving great things back in a time when they had so little in the way of freedom. Puts us all to shame really!

Part of why I love Fantasy is the ability to take a real world inspired setting, such as medieval times, but change certain things about it. When you mentioned female knights, the first thing I thought of was the Game Of Thrones character Brienne of Tarth. As you say, I doubt there were female knights, which makes it really interesting to look at what kind of person would want to become a female knight in an alternate medieval world, and what her life would be like.

Ruby Manchanda said...

great reflections

Glenda Funk said...

Although I teach senior English and include Chaucer in the curriculum, I don't consider myself an expert on the Middle Ages. That said, the Wife of Bath is my favorite pilgrim in "The Canterbury Tales," and I think Chaucer preferred her, too. I include a lesson on the estates, and we generally have a good discussion about women as we discuss what women really want when we read the Wife's tale. I found your blog via A to Z challenge. Thanks for stopping by my little corner of the blogosphere.