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sprinkled with flowers," or was striped with cross bars, giving a
checkered effect. The colors most in vogue were red and crimson; "such
honest colors," says the Roman writer, "as a person had no cause to
blame, nor the world a reason to cry out upon." Such were the fabrics
with which the more civilized of the British women arrayed themselves,
and the workmanship of which speaks volumes for their makers'
industry and skill. The women were inordinately fond of ornaments,
and had a plentiful supply from which to select. Their attire was
not complete unless it included necklaces, bracelets, strings of
bright beads, - made of glass or a substance resembling Egyptian
porcelain, - and that which was regarded as the crowning ornament of
every woman of wealth - a torque of gold, or else a collar of the same
metal. A ring was at first worn on the middle finger, but later it
alone was left bare, all the other fingers being loaded with rings.

Among the more primitive of the peoples of Britain, skins continued
to be worn, if, as among the Picts, clothing were not dispensed with
altogether. The women of these fierce tribes were too proud of the
intricate devices in brilliant colors with which their bodies were
tattooed to hide them in any way. These, so Professor Elton is
inclined to think, were the people who introduced bronze into Britain.
They made continual and fierce attacks on their Celtic neighbors and
carried off their women into captivity. And it was because of these
attacks that the Anglo-Saxons were invited into Britain to champion
the cause of the people, after the departure of the Romans had left
the Britons to their own resources.

A period of peculiar interest and uncertainty was that of the Roman
occupancy of the country, with its veneer of civilization and the
introduction of Christianity, all of which was apparently swept aside
by the conquering hordes of Teutons who came into Briton and laid the
foundations for the English nation. It was a time of great changes
in the standards of life and tastes, as well as of the morals of
the British women. With the Romans came their inevitable arts of
conciliation after conquest. Then followed the period of generous
grants of public works - the baths, the theatres, the arena; then the
Roman villa superseded the huts of the inhabitants. All was created
under the ægis of the great mistress of the nations, and included
strong fortifications. Civilization was advanced, but manliness was
degraded. Effeminacy reduced the sturdy morals of the Briton to the
plane of those of their conquerors. The abominable usage of the women
finds expression in the bitter cry that the poet ascribes to the noble
British queen, Boadicea: "Me they seized and they tortured, me they
lashed and humiliated, me the sport of ribald veterans, mine of
ruffian violators."

It is not a part of our work to even sketch the course of the Roman
invasion in its path of blood and fire across the face of Britain, or
the stubborn and sturdy opposition of the natives, the subjugation and
the revolt of tribes - notably the Icenii, who cost the Romans seventy
thousand slain and the destruction of three cities, but whose final
conquest broke the backbone of opposition to the Roman arms. All this
is political history, and cannot concern us excepting in the immense
effect it had upon the women of the land. It was they who bore the
brunt of suffering, degradation, and, too frequently, slavery and
deportation - customary incidents of the fierce spirit of the Roman
conquests. But in spite of the miseries their coming entailed upon
the people, the Roman rule had an admirable effect upon the country
in promoting peace, in establishing regard for law, and in stimulating
commerce. After they had become accustomed to the Roman method of
legal procedure in the settlement of differences, the Britons were no
longer ready to fly at one another's throat on the least provocation.
The breaking up of their tribal distinctions led to a greater
consolidation of the people and removed a cause of strife. But as the
descendants of the defenders of Britain's liberties grew up amid Roman
conditions of life that had permeated the whole population as far
as the northern highlands, where the people proved invincible to
the Roman arms, the habit of dependence upon the Roman legions
for protection enervated the people to such an extent that they
could interpose but faint resistance to the next invaders of the
country - the conquering Angles, Jutes, and Saxons.

It is amid conditions of Roman conquest and control that we are now
to consider more in detail the status of the British woman. Scattered
along the borders of the woods, between the pasture lands and the
hunting lands, could be found the homesteads of the Britons, before
the rise of the Roman city. Each of these edifices was large enough to
hold the entire family in its single room. They were built, generally,
of hewn logs, set in a row on end and covered with rushes or turf. The
family fire burned in the middle of the room, and, circling it, sat
the members of the household at their meals. The same raised seat of
rushes served them at night for a couch. Under the prevailing tribal
custom, three families, or rather three generations of the same
family, from grandfather to grandson, occupied each dwelling. After
the third generation the family was broken up, though all the members
of it retained the memory of their common descent. It is not clear
whether or not a strictly monogamous household was the type of family
life. Certainly it is probable that such was not the case among the
backward races of the interior. As to the advanced sections of the
population, against the statement of contemporary observers that it
was the practice of the British women to have a plurality of husbands,
there is only the argument of improbability to be urged. The custom
of several families living under the one roof and in the same room may
have led the Romans into an erroneous conclusion.

Little is known as to the laws of the Britons in regard to the
regulation of family. In the matter of divorce, if the couple had
several children, the husband took the eldest and the youngest, and
the wife the middle ones, although the merits of such a peculiar
division do not appear. It would seem as if in the case of the
youngest child, at least, the mother was the proper custodian, or at
any rate the natural one. The pigs went to the man, and the sheep
to the woman; the wife took the milk vessels, and the man the
mead-brewing machinery. This was at variance with the later custom
of England, for well on through the Middle Ages, both as a family
employment and a public industry, brewing was accounted woman's
occupation. To the husband went also the table and ware. He took
the larger sieve, she the smaller; he the upper, and she the lower
millstone of the corn mill. The under bedding was his, and the upper
hers. He received the unground corn, she the meal. The ducks, the
geese, and the cats were her portion, while to his share fell the hens
and one mouser.

The slight estimation in which women were held as compared with the
value put upon men is indicated by the fact that a woman was legally
rated at half the worth of her brother and one-third that of her
husband. If a woman engaged in a quarrel, she was fined a specific
sum for each finger with which she fought and for each hair she pulled
from her adversary's head.

Among the customs in which women were concerned, those relating
to marriage show that the assumption of family responsibility was
regarded as a permanent relation, and their nature does not agree with
Cæsar's description of the loose ties of matrimony among the Britons.
It is entirely unlikely that the wives of the men were held by them
in common. As has been already stated, such group marriages, if they
existed, were localized among the rudest of the races of the country,
whose general civilization had not elevated them to the point of
appreciation of pure family life. Such, perhaps, were the small dark
races descended from the Neolithic tribes and held in little esteem by
the Celts. Among the Celts it was customary for the father of a bride
to make a present of his own arms to his son-in-law. As will be seen
later by a description of one of their dinners, the Celts preferred
feasting to all other occupations, and their festivities were
accompanied by the utmost conviviality. A wedding was an occasion for
the most extravagant feasting, all the relatives of the contracting
parties, to the third degree of kindred, assembling to eat and drink
to the happiness of the newly wedded pair. The ceremony took place at
the house of the bridegroom, and the bride was conducted thither by
her friends. If the parties were rich, the pair made presents to their
friends at the marriage festival; but if they were poor, the reverse
was the case, and presents were made to them by the guests. At the
conclusion of the feast, the bride and bridegroom were conducted to
their chamber by the whole company, with great merriment and amid
music and dancing. The next morning, before rising, it was the rule
for the husband to make his wife a present of considerable value,
according to his circumstances. This was regarded as the wife's
peculiar property.

The wives of the ancient Britons had not only the usual domestic
duties to perform, but much of the outside work as well. Being of
robust constitution, leading lives of simplicity and naturalness,
maternity interfered but little with the round of their duties. The
period was not wholly without its anxieties, however, as is shown by
the custom among British women of wearing a girdle that was supposed
to be conducive to the birth of heroes. The assumption of these
girdles was a ceremony accompanied with mystical rites, and was a part
of the Druidical ritual. The newborn babe was plunged into some lake
or river in order to harden it, and as a test of its constitution;
this was done even in the winter season. The early British mother
always nursed her children herself, nor would she have thought of
delegating this duty to another. The first morsel of food put into
a male infant's mouth was on the tip of the father's sword, that
the child might grow up to be a great warrior. As is frequently the
case with primitive peoples, the Britons did not give names to their
children until the latter had performed some feat or displayed some
characteristic which might suggest for them a suitable name. It
follows from this that all the names of the ancient Britons that have
been preserved to us are significant. The youth were not delicately
nurtured, and after passing through the perils of childhood, when the
care of a mother was imperative, it is probable that the mother had
little to do with the training of her boy. Accustomed almost from
infancy to the use of arms, as he grew older the boy added to his
training athletic ordeals and feats of daring. Among the games to
which he was accustomed was jumping through swords so placed that it
was extremely difficult to leap quickly through them without being
impaled. Youth was democratic, and, without any distinction, the
children of the noble and the lowly, equally sordid and ill clad,
played about on the floor or in the open field.

The Britons were noted for the warmth of their family affection. The
mother was sure of the dutiful regard of her children and did not lack
affectionate consideration from her husband. The aged were treated
with a reverence in striking contrast to the heartlessness with which
in earlier times the old were deserted to die or were put to death - a
custom not unusual among primitive peoples. It is pleasant to think of
the British matron inculcating into the minds of her children respect
for age and the claims of relationship.

The law of hospitality was sacred to the ancient Briton. When a
stranger sought entertainment at the home of one of them, no questions
were asked as to his identity or his business, until after the meal.
Indeed, it was frequently the case that such arrivals were made the
excuse for a great feast, to which a number of friends were invited.
The women soon had the preparation under way, and in due time the
meat was roasting at the spit and the pot swinging on the crane over
a roaring fire. While the mothers were employed in these occupations
and in making bread, their daughters poured the fresh milk into
the pitchers and filled the metal beakers and earthen jugs with
home-brewed beer and mead. While the men exchanged stories of their
hunting exploits and deeds of valor in battle, the women carried on
a constant buzz of suppressed speculation and remark concerning the
guests. When the meal was ready, the women set it before the men upon
fresh grass or rushes. The bread was served in wicker baskets. The
guests and their hosts seated themselves upon a carpet of rushes, or
upon dog or wolf skins placed near the open fireplace. While the
men voraciously seized the steaming joints and carved from them long
slices of meat, which they ate "after the fashion of lions," the women
plied them with the beakers of foaming beverage, and the bards sang,
to the music of harps, the boastful exploits of some local chieftain.
It was a strange thing if the feast and conviviality did not end in
a fight over some question of precedence or disputed statement. When
such a combat did occur, it was usually a contest to the death. Nor
were the fierce-tempered women passive during such encounters, but, as
we have seen, were ready to aid the men of their family with frenzied
attack. Such a feast as we have described presented a weird and
picturesque sight under the flaming light of the torches made of
rushes soaked in tallow.

One of the favorite domestic employments of the British women, though
one which we may imagine fell largely to the lot of the younger women
and the girls, was the making of the wickerware for which the ancient
Britons were famous. Baskets, platters, the bodies of chariots, the
frames of boats, and even the framework of the houses, were made of
this light and serviceable material. Withes peeled and woven by the
supple fingers of the young British women into fancy baskets found
a ready market at Rome, and commanded high prices, being generally
esteemed as a rare work of ingenious art. During the hours required to
weave an article of this sort, the women would fall into a responsive
song, picked up perhaps from some passing minstrel.

Weaving, spinning, dyeing the fabrics thus made; the milking of the
cattle, the grinding of the meal; the making of the garments for the
family; the manufacture of pottery, to which may be added a share of
the outdoor work, were some of the matters which made the life of the
British woman far from an idle one. And yet, with it all, the young
women found leisure to tarry at the spring for the exchange of
laughing remarks, as they dropped something into its clear depth - as
an offering to the divinity who they fully believed resided therein
and who held in keeping their future and their fortunes - before they
drew from it the water for the bleaching of the linen that they had
already spread out in the sun.

The religion of the Britons, before the introduction of Christianity,
was an elaborate system of superstitions and of nature worship. It
was in the hands of a priestly order - the Druids. A mother was glad
to resign her boy to the training of this mystical brotherhood, if
he showed sufficient talent to warrant his reception therein. It is
not necessary to describe particularly the system. It was made up of
three orders, the Druids proper, the Bards, and the Ovates. Over the
whole order was an Archdruid, who was elected for life. An order of
Druidesses, also, is supposed to have existed. When Suetonius Paulinus
landed at Anglesey in pursuit of the Druids (A.D. 56), women with hair
streaming down their backs, dressed in black robes and with flaring
torches in their hands, rushed up and down the heights, invoking
curses on the invaders of their sacred precincts, greatly to the
terror of the superstitious Roman soldiery.

At some of their sacred rites the women appeared naked, with their
skin dyed a dark hue with vegetable stain. It was the custom of
the Druids, who had the oversight of public morals, to offer, as
sacrifices to the gods, thieves, murderers, and other criminals, whom
they condemned to be burned alive. Wickerwork receptacles, sometimes
made in the form of images, were filled with the miserable wretches,
and were then placed upon the pyre and consumed. The prophetic women,
standing by, made divinations from the sinews, the flowing blood, or
the quivering flesh of the victims. The defeat of the Druids and the
felling of their sacred groves by the Romans gave the death blow
to the system, which under the influence of Christianity completely
disappeared.

The diffusion of Roman civilization colored the beliefs of the British
women. The destruction of the native shrines whither they used to
resort to make a propitiatory offering or to draw divinations for
direction in some matter of personal or domestic concern, and the
establishment of the fanes of Rome, which abounded throughout the
country to the limits of the Roman conquest, converted the local
deities into Roman divinities. Under new names, the old gods of the
woods and streams continued to receive the homage of the Romanized
British matrons and maidens.

But with the introduction of Christianity and its extension even into
parts of the country where the sword of Rome had failed to penetrate,
there was a more radical change wrought in the life of women. They
have always instinctively recognized the fact that the Christian
religion is their champion, and in its consolation the women of the
Britons found much to alleviate their common distress and to elevate
their status. In the trying hours that came with the inroads of the
fierce and barbarous Teutons, when they were carried off by the savage
Picts to a base servitude, and when, after the reassertion of the
Christian religion among the English, the coming of the Danes next
brought a fresh abasement for their sex, the Christian faith was the
sustaining and the reconstructive force of the lives of the women of
the country. With the advance of Christianity passed the customs of
pagan burial. The dead were no longer cremated, nor were they buried
in the tumuli with the objects of their customary association interred
with them to be of service in the spirit world.

One of the most apparent results of the Roman conquest, in its
relation to the domestic life of the people, was the supersedence
of the rude British dwellings by the Roman villa. This open style
of house, suited to the sunny skies of Italy, had to undergo
modifications to adapt it to the more rigorous clime of Britain. About
an open court, which was either paved or planted in flower beds, the
rooms were arranged, all of them opening inwardly, and some of them
having an entrance to the outside as well. These connected rooms were
usually one story high, with perhaps an additional story in the rear.
The windows were iron-barred. The front of the villa was adorned with
stucco and gaudily painted. In the homes of the wealthy, the inner
court became an elaborately pillared banquet hall, with tessellated
work in fine marble and with the pavement figured in symbolical
devices. In it were placed the family shrines and statuary. Or else
it was fitted up with the baths which were such a feature of Roman
life. In later times, the walls blossomed out into decorations of
mythological subjects: the foam-born Aphrodite, Bacchus and his
panther steeds, Orpheus holding his dumb audience enthralled by his
melody, Narcissus at the fountain, or the loves of Cupid and Psyche.

The heating arrangements of these houses were ample and convenient,
and the edifices themselves were frequently added to by succeeding
generations. In the country districts, the houses were provided
with large storerooms, plentifully supplied with provisions, and
were garrisoned against the attack of enemies. The best of these
Roman-British houses were imposing structures of vast dimensions. The
women, when surrounded by the luxuries of Roman life, gave themselves
over to pleasure and frequented the theatres and the public baths,
and entertained in lavish style. They generally adopted the graceful
Roman dress, and thus cleared themselves of the charge of loudness,
extravagance, and meanness of attire that the earlier Roman writers
brought against them. After the introduction of Christianity, when
Roman civilization had become completely domesticated, it was no
unusual thing for a Roman to have a British wife, or for British
matrons to be found on the streets of Rome itself. The morals of the
people were not proof against the contamination of Roman standards.
The women, who were brought into closest touch with the Roman
populace, imbibed their views and followed their example. Yet among
the people who lived the simpler life of the country districts, and
to whom Christianity most forcibly appealed, the standards of their
race were largely maintained. The manner of life of the women of the
wild northern tribes was, as we have seen, unaffected by the Roman
occupancy of the country. Finding themselves unable to conquer these
fierce people, the Romans, for their own security, had stretched
across the country a great wall to facilitate defence; but they had
soon to protect their coasts from other warlike races, who, first
in piratical bands and then as migrating nations, brought terror and
annihilation to the native Britons.




CHAPTER III

THE WOMEN OF THE ANGLO-SAXONS


To attempt a portrayal of the miseries entailed upon the women of the
Britons by the forays of the barbarians, which followed the withdrawal
of the Romans from the country, would be to rehearse the distresses
which were but usual to warfare at that period of the world's history.
We can pass over the savagery of human passions, inflamed by the
heat of strife, and come to the more congenial and, indeed, the
only important task of considering the life of woman, not under the
exceptional conditions of war, but in the normal state of existence.
Even during the Roman occupancy of the country, the British women had
experienced the terrors of the barbarians. In spite of the massive
wall, the lines of forts, and the system of trenches, by which
that military people had sought to arrest the inroads of the Picts
and Scots, those unconquered tribes of the north often swept with
resistless force far into the peaceful provinces, bringing desolation
into many homes and carrying off the women, to dispose of them in the
slave markets of the continent.

More terrible still had been the descent upon the British coasts
of the piratical Saxon rovers, whose frequent incursions had given
to those tracts that were open to their attacks the significant
appellation of the "Saxon shore." In spite of the measures of the
Romans against these marauding bands from over the seas, they were
a source of continual terror, especially to the women of the coast
settlements, to whom their name was a synonym of all those distresses
which forcible capture and enslavement imply.

When the Roman forces withdrew, a danger that had been occasional and
limited to localities now became a menace to the whole people. The
invasions of the Picts and Scots became so frequent, and their ravages
so dreadful, that the Britons, who for generations had been dependent
upon the arms of the Romans for protection, felt unable to cope alone
with the situation that faced them. In their extremity they hit upon
the expedient of pitting barbarian against barbarian, hoping thus
to gain peace from the northern terror, and at the same time to rid
themselves of the menace of the pirates. To this end the astute sea
rovers were engaged to discipline the northern hordes. But when these
"men without a country" had fulfilled their obligation, they preferred
to remain in the fertile and attractive island rather than return to
their own vast forest stretches and there seek to combat the pressure
that had set in motion the Germanic peoples.

In this way began, in the fifth century, the conquest of Britain by
the Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons: a conquest as inevitable as
it was beneficial; a conquest so stern as practically to sweep from
existence a whole people, excepting the women, who were spared to
become the slaves of the conquerors, and such of the men as were
needed to fill servile positions. The conquest of a Christian nation



Online LibraryBartlett Burleigh JamesWomen of England → online text (page 3 of 29)