Mitchell Carroll.

Woman: in all ages and in all countries online

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turn the stroke of a sword." Some of their clothes are
described as " woven of gaudy colors and making a show."
They were versed in the art of using alternate colors in
the warp and woof so as to bring out the pattern of stripes
and squares. Diodorus says of some of their patterns
that the cloth was covered with an infinite number of little
squares and lines, "as if it had been 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 per-
son 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, cloth-
ing 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 in-
clined 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 in-
evitable arts of conciliation after conquest. Then fol-
lowed the period of generous grants of public works — the
baths, the theatres, the arena; then the Roman villa super-
seded the huts of the inhabitants. All was created under
the segis of the great mistress of the nations, and included
strong fortifications. Civilization was advanced, but man-
liness was degraded. Effeminacy reduced the sturdy
morals of the Briton to the plane of those of their con-
querors. The abominable usage of the women finds ex-
pression 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 con-
quests. 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 re-
gard 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 distinc-
tions led to a greater consolidation of the people and re-
moved a cause of strife. But as the descendants of the
defenders of Britain's liberties grew up amid Roman con-
ditions of life that had permeated the whole population as
far as the northern highlands, where the people proved in-
vincible 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 resist-
ance 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 house-
hold 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, occu-
pied 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 state-
ment 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 rela-
tion, and their nature does not agree with Csesar's descrip-
tion 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 civiliza-
tion 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
6f 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, assem-
bling 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 pres-
ents 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 cir-
cumstances. This was regarded as the wife's peculiar

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 sup-
posed to be conducive to the birth of heroes. The assump-
tion 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 primi-
tive peoples, the Britons did not give names to their chil-
dren 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 rever-
ence 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 mak-
ing bread, their daughters poured the fresh milk into the
pitchers and filled the metal bt«kers and earthen jugs
with home-brewed beer and mead. While the men ex-
changed stories of their hunting exploits and deeds of valor


in battle, the women carried on a constant buzz of sup-
pressed 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 vora-
ciously 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 dis-
puted 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 keep-
ing 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 super-
stitious 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 con-
sumed. The prophetic women, standing by, made divina-
tions 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 exten-
sion 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 Chris-
tianity 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 con-
quest, 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 audi-
ence 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 fre-
quently 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 luxu-
ries of Roman life, gave themselves over to pleasure and
frequented the theatres and the public baths, and enter-
tained 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 in-
troduction of Christianity, when Roman civilization had be-
come 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. Find-
ing 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.

Eiiz Wiomm of t^e ^nglos^oxons



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, in-
flamed by the heat of strife, and come to the more con-
genial 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 uncon-
quered 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 incur-
sions 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

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

Online LibraryMitchell CarrollWoman: in all ages and in all countries → online text (page 3 of 30)