Mitchell Carroll.

Woman: in all ages and in all countries online

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of triumph and of death; a monument to the Norman, but,
unwittingly, a monument to the defeated Saxon as well.

We are reminded by this historic tapestry of the pathetic
story of Edith of the Swan's Neck. King Harold had been
slain on the battlefield by a Norman arrow which had
pierced his brain. His mother and the Abbot of Wal-
tham had successfully pleaded with Harold's victorious
rival for permission to bury the king within the abbey.
Two Saxon monks, Osgod and Ailrick, were deputed by
the Abbot of Waltham to search for and bring to the
abbey the body of their benefactor. Failing to identify on
the field of Senlac (Hastings) the bodies denuded of armor
and clothing, they applied to a woman whom Harold, before
he was king, had had for a companion, and begged her to
assist them in their search. She was called Edith, and
surnamed la belle au cou de cygne. Edith consented to aid
the two monks, and readily discovered the body of him
who had been her lover.

The queen who conceived and furthered the execution
of the Bayeux tapestry was representative of the best
type of Norman womanhood. Her devotion to her hus-
band was proverbial, and his faithfulness to her has never
been questioned. Intrigues among persons who could not
brook the moral atmosphere of a court such as Matilda
maintained were common enough, and the envious breath


of scandal even sought to shake the confidence of her royal
husband in her; but all such attempts were unavailing.
Matilda became in every sense the consort of William, and
thus marl<ed a forward step for the womanhood of the
country. Without such recognition of the wife of Wil-
liam I., England would never have had the brilliant and
versatile Elizabeth or the wise and womanly Victoria to
number among the great examples of high worth which
make the list of England's notable women one of the chief
glories of her history. As the manners of the court affect
the standard of the nation, that the tone of the times was
not lower in an age of turbulence, when moral standards
were debased, must be to some extent accredited to the
example of the queen.

When Matilda died, the country was still rent by fierce
hatreds and passionate outbursts; the unplacated Saxon
had been little influenced by her. It was reserved for
another Matilda, the wife of Henry I., to aid in healing the
breach, and, by uniting the discordant elements, put the
country in a position for the development of those arts of
civilization which only can flourish in an atmosphere of
peace. When Matilda, then a religieuse, was adjudged by
the Church authorities not to have taken the veil, or to
have assumed the vows that would have severed her from
the world and committed her to a life of virginity, she
reluctantly heeded the clamor of the Saxon element of the
people, and yielded to the importunities of Henry to be-
come his wife and the country's queen. So was secured
to the land a queen in whose veins ran Saxon blood and
who had received an Anglo-Saxon education. Through
her influence, many salutary laws were enacted to relieve
the disabilities of the people. The wives and daughters of
the Saxons were secured from insult; the poor and honest
trader was assured equity in his business transactions,


and other matters of equal import owed their enactment
to the kindly disposed queen. In this manner were
allayed animosities which had continued to smoulder under
a sense of repeated injustices, and with the growth of
mutual confidence there came about an identity of aspira-
tion and effort on the part of the two elements of the
population. Intermarriage facilitated this happy tendency,
and the perseverance of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, modified
indeed by Norman admixture, did much for its furtherance.
Thus, the two peoples gradually fused into one nation.
That Matilda did much to secure this desirable end entitles
her to be regarded as the mother of reconciliation.

The Norman ladies of rank came under the influence of
the queen, and it was not uncommon to find them, like
the Anglo-Saxon ladies, engaged in the profitable concerns
of the poultry yard and the dairy, instead of giving them-
selves up to court intrigues. The two Matildas represent
the best element of the noble womanhood of the day;
neither of them was faultless, and the first was charged
with an act of vindictiveness toward a Saxon who spurned
her love that ill comports with the accepted estimate of her
amiability and worth; but while not impeccable, yet both
reflected in their lives the signal qualities which, when
illustrated in times adverse to them, ennoble the sex.

Returning to the employments of the ladies of the cas-
tles, the most typical of these as illustrating the manners
of the times, next to the industry of the bower, was the
hospitality of the hall. The hostess took her place beside
her lord, by virtue of her recognized equality of position,
and directed the movements of the servants, who were
kept busily employed passing around the dishes — the meat
being served upon the spits, from which the guests might
carve what they pleased. No forks were used at the
table, fingers answering every purpose. On very great


occasions the piece de resistance was a boar's head, which
was brought into the hall with a fanfare of trumpets, the
guests greeting its appearance with noisy demonstrations.
Another delicacy, which a hostess was always pleased to
serve to persons of consequence, was peacock. The pres-
ence of this bird was the signal for the nobility to pledge
themselves afresh to deeds of knightly valor. Cranes
formed another of the unusual dishes generally found at
these state banquets. As the dinner proceeded, the thirst
of the company was assuaged by copious draughts of ale
or mead and of spiced wines. That such festivities inva-
riably developed scenes of hilarity and disorder was in the
nature of the case, and it was not a strange thing to see
the valorous knights, under the mellowing influence of
too frequent potations, indulge in such disgraceful acts as
throwing bones about the room and at one another, until
these bone battles passed into more serious fracases. The
woman of refinement had reason to dread these carnivals
of gluttony and debauch; and when they became too offen-
sive, she sought the seclusion of her private apartments.

All the while the minstrels played their instruments
and sang their songs, often improvising from incidents in
the careers of those present, or taking for a theme some
vaunting sentiment to which a cup-valorous knight gave
expression. No bounds of propriety were observed in the
theme or in its treatment by these paid entertainers.

As the dishes were brought in, amid the rude songs and
coarse jests of these jongleurs, another company, even
more reprobate than they, gathered about the hall door
and sought to snatch the dishes out of the hands of the
servants. These were the ribalds or letcliers — a set of
degraded hangers-on at the castle, lost to all self-respect
and ready for any base deed that might be required of
them. To them was allotted the refuse of the feast.


A vivid picture of a wedding banquet of the times is
afforded in a scene from the earlier career of Hereward,
the last of patriotic leaders of the Saxons. The daughter
of a Cornish chief had been affianced to one of her country-
men, who was notoriously wicked and tyrannical; but she
herself had pledged her affections to an Irish prince. Here-
ward, who was a guest in the country of Cornwall, became
an object of hatred to the Cornish bully, who picked a
quarrel with him and in the encounter was slain. This
awakened a spirit of vengeance among his fellows, and it
was only through the assistance of the young princess
that Hereward was enabled to escape from the prison
where he had been confined and to flee the country. He
carried with him a tender message from the lady to her
Irish suitor. In the latter's absence she was again be-
trothed by her father, and sent a messenger to notify her
lover of the near approach of the wedding. He sent forty
messengers to her father to demand his daughter's hand
by virtue of a promise one time made to him. These
were put in prison. Hereward doubted the success of the
lover's embassage; and having dyed his skin and colored
his hair, he made his way, with three companions, to the
young lady's home, arriving there the day of the nuptial
feast. The next day, when she was to be conducted to her
husband's dwelling, Hereward and his companions entered
the hall, and, as strangers, came under especial observa-
tion. He saw the eyes of the princess fixed upon him as
though she penetrated his disguise; and as if moved by the
recollections his presence awakened, she burst into tears.

As was the custom of the times, the bride, in her wed-
ding costume, assisted by her maidens, served the cup to
the guests before she left her father's home; and the
harper, following, played before each guest as he was
served. Hereward had registered an oath not to receive


anything at the hands of a lady until it was proffered by
the princess herself. So, when the cup was offered ta
him by a maiden, he refused it with abruptness, and de-
clined to listen to the harper. His rude conduct raised a
tumult of excitement and indignation, whereupon the prin-
cess herself approached him and offered the cup, which he
received with courtesy. The princess, entirely confirmed
in her suspicions as to his identity, threw a ring into his
bosom, and, turning to the company, craved indulgence
for the stranger, who was not acquainted with their cus-
toms. The minstrel remained sullen, whereupon Here-
ward seized his harp and played with such exquisite skill
as to awaken the astonishment of the company. As he
played and sang, his companions, "after the manner of
the Saxons," joined in at intervals; whereupon the prin-
cess, to help him in his assumed character, presented him
the rich cloak which was the reward of 'the minstrel.
Suspicions as to his real character were not, however,
entirely allayed; and these were increased by his request
to the father of the bride for the release of the Irish mes-

Finding that he had endangered his safety and the suc-
cess of his plans by his indiscretion, Hereward slipped
away unobserved, and, with his companions, lay in am-
bush the next day along the road by which he knew the
bride would be conducted by her father to her new home.
As the bridal procession passed, and with it the Irish pris-
oners, Hereward rushed out upon the unsuspecting com-
pany; and while his companions released the prisoners, he
seized the lady and bore her away in true knightly fashion.
It may well be believed that the bride was soon united in
wedlock to the husband of her choice.

One other circumstance in the history of this man,
whose life was a series of bold undertakings, serves to


illustrate the superstitions of the times. When King Wil-
liam had besieged the island of Ely, which was the head-
quarters of Hereward and his large following of Saxon
warriors, and had failed to subdue them, he gave heed to
the counsel of one of his courtiers, to have recourse to a
celebrated witch for aid in the destruction of his foes.
Hereward, to spy upon his adversary and discover his
plans, disguised himself as a potter, and stopped at the
house of the old woman whose magic was to be used
against him; that night he followed her and another crone
out into the fields, where they engaged in their curious
rites. From their conversation he learned of the scheme
against him, which was to have a platform erected in the
marshes surrounding the island; the hag was to repeat
thrice her charm, when he and his followers would be de-
stroyed. Accordingly, when the platform was erected and
the besiegers drew as near as they could, expectantly await-
ing Hereward's destruction, he and his companions, under
the cover of the brush, crept close to the platform and,
taking advantage of the favorable direction of the wind, set
fire to the reeds. The witch, who was about to repeat
her charm for the third time, leaped from the platform in
terror, and was killed, while in the panic many of the
soldiers lost their lives by fire or by water. The scene
here depicted bears a remarkable similarity to the weird
rites of the ancient British Druidesses, and doubtless rep-
resents a continuance of the mysteries of that order, which
came down in forms of magic and witchcraft through many

This glimpse of the witchcraft that was to become more
prominent, or at least with which we become more famil-
iar at a later period, will suffice to show that the plane of
general intelligence was not yet high. Education was
limited to subjects that have no special interest for us


to-day. Such as it was, it was accessible to the lower
classes as well as to the upper. There were schools con-
nected with the churches and the monasteries. Appar-
ently, there was no distinction in the subjects pursued by
the sexes, excepting in the case of the nobility, whose
sons were trained for the positions they were to occupy.
It would appear that some priests were so zealous for the
prosperity of their schools that they sought to entice schol-
ars from other schools to their own. A law to correct the
practice provided "that no priest receive another's scholar
without leave of him whom he had previously followed."
Latin was in the list of the studies pursued by the ladies,
but few could read in the vernacular.

At that day there was the same tendency that is famil-
iar to-day, — to cast alleged feminine inconsistencies into
the form of adages. One of these proverbs is found in
the instructions of a baron who was counselling his son on
his going out from the paternal roof: "If you should know
anything that you would wish to conceal," says this gen-
eralizer from a personal experience, "tell it by no means
to your wife, if you have one; for if you let her know it,
you will repent of it the first time you displease her."

The amusements that were popular in the Anglo-Saxon
days continued during the Norman period, but hunting
and hawking, by reason of the stringent game laws, were
sports practically limited to the upper class. The lady
kept her falcons and knew well how to set them on the
quarry, and with the men she could ride in the hunt to
the baying of the hounds. It is interesting to note that
with women the usual method of riding was on a side-
saddle; seldom are they found seated otherwise in the
representations of riding scenes. Among all classes dan-
cing seems to have been in favor. The exercise was
more graceful and intricate than the dance of the Saxons.


Among the young people of the lower classes it was the
chief amusement, and was attended by much mirth and
boisterousness. Games of chance were popular among
both sexes, and chess was a favorite pastime.

The art of the Anglo-Saxon gleemen and maidens under
the Normans was represented by two classes of public
entertainers, the minstrels and the jongleurs. The min-
strels confined themselves for the most part to music and
poetry; while the jongleurs were the jugglers, tricksters,
and exhibitors of trained animals. But the distinction was
not sharply drawn, although in general the minstrels were
considered to afford a higher form of entertainment than
did the jongleurs. Both sexes were represented in these
bands of itinerant amusement purveyors. Companies of
them were more or less permanently attached to the reti-
nues of the great barons, for the whiling away of the
long evenings and the entertainment of the guests. The
sentiments of the songs and stories of these people were
full of suggestiveness and coarseness. The merry and
licentious lives of the disreputable traffickers in amuse-
ment brought them under moral reprobation, even in that
rude age. They drew into their ranks many persons of
depraved life, who, when the times improved, contributed,
by their abandon, to create sentiment against all profligate
strollers. Yet these minstrels represented the beginnings
of music and of vernacular literature after the conquest of

In the matter of dress there was a marked departure
from the Anglo-Saxon costume, which varied little. Just
as long as England was not in touch with continental ideas
and customs, the women of the country wore the costumes
of their ancestors. That dress is cosmopolitan never
entered into their conceptions, any more than it does into
those of any of the Eastern nations who in modern times


have been brought suddenly into the stream of European
customs and manners. But with the coming of the Nor-
mans, national conservatism yielded to comparison with
the fashions of other peoples, and fashion assumed the
sceptre that it has continued to wield over the English
woman. The changes in dress were at first slight, but by
the end of the twelfth century they had become sufficiently
marked to be the target of witticism and the subject of
satire. The foibles of the women were little regarded by
the writers of the time. The dress of the men was not
passed over in like silence, however; it drew from the
censors of the day the severest strictures on account of its
flaunting meagreness and its Improprieties in the eyes of
its monkish critics. The same condemnation was visited
upon the practice of the men of dyeing their hair or other-
wise coloring it, wearing flowing locks, and painting their
faces. Such fashions were styled reprehensible and effemi-
nate. It would have been instructive to subsequent gen-
erations if these censorious critics had not been so gallant
toward women, and had given to us the spicy descriptions
of feminine attire that, in their indignation, they have
afforded us of that of the men. Had they but realized that
it was the sex whose sins of dress they passed over so
lightly, with charity or indifference, that was to follow
the inconsequential wake of fashion into the wildest vaga-
ries of costume and adornment, they would have let the
men have their brief day, and massed their strictures
against those who were to elevate fashion to an art and
make of its following a devotion. As it is, for our knowl-
edge of the dress of the weaker sex we are dependent
upon the illuminations, whose brilliant coloring and faith-
fulness of detail left little for the text to elucidate. That
the new styles were not received with approbation by the
clerical artists is clear enough from the caricatures and


exaggerations of them that appear in their drawings. The
inordinate length of the sleeves, reaching as they did, in a
long, mandolin-shaped pocket, to the knees of the wearer,
made them surely hideous enough to draw out the indig-
nation of those who had artistic sensibilities to be shocked.

That the notion of fashionable dress as Satanic is very
old is shown by one of the representations of his infernal
majesty, where he is portrayed dressed in the height of
feminine fashion. One of the sleeves of his gown is short
and full, while the other, in caricature of the style of the
day, is so long that it has to be tied in a knot to get it out
of the way. The gown, also, being of impossible length and
fulness, is disposed of by the simple expedient of knotting.

In the dress of Satan, as an exponent of the iniquity of
feminine attire, there also appears unmistakable evidence
of a tight bodice of stays, the lacing of which, after draw-
ing his majesty's waist into approved dimensions, hangs
carelessly down to view and terminates in a tag. As stays
were not commonly worn, and as a writer at a little later
time is found vehemently inveighing against them, it is
fair to conclude that their presence on Satan is to indicate,
in the eyes of the better element of the day, the indelicacy
and impropriety of their use. Ridiculous and unsightly
as were the long sleeves and other novelties of dress, the
particular displeasure with which they were regarded by
the element whose views the ecclesiastics reflected must
be attributed somewhat to their foreign origin. Although
they were introduced into the country by the Normans,
the long sleeves, at least, appear to have originated in
Italy. Down to the twelfth century, there was sufficient
conservatism remaining to deprecate the introduction of
foreign novelties, just as in Elizabeth's days the econo-
mists strongly protested against bringing into the country
"foreign gewgaws."


The girdle remained a part of the dress of the women,
although it was not so much in evidence as in the Anglo-
Saxon time. It was probably worn under the gown, and
in some cases may have been dispensed with. That queens
and princesses, however, wore very fine girdles, orna-
mented with pearls and precious stones, is abundantly
attested by the contemporary writers.

The mantle was the most changeful article of dress at
this period. Sometimes it was worn in the old way, being
put on by passing the head through an aperture made for
that purpose; but more often it was worn opening down
the front and fastened at the throat by an embroidered
collar clasped by a brooch. Again, it was fastened in a
similar way at the throat, but covered only one side of
the form, falling coquettishly over the shoulder and hang-
ing down the side. A particularly pleasing effect was ob-
tained by having it fasten at the throat by a collar, whose
rich, gold-embroidered border continued down the front to
the waist. Sometimes the garment was sleeveless, and
again it was worn with short sleeves, or sleeves long
and full. For winter wear, it covered the form entirely
and terminated in a hood. These mantles were often of
the finest imported textiles, embroidered in elegant figures
and with richly wrought borders, and were lined through-
out with costly furs.

The kerchief, like the mantle, quite lost its conventional
style in the period we are describing, and was often omitted
altogether. It was usually worn over the head, and hang-
ing down to the right breast, while the end on the left side
was gathered about the neck and thrown over the right
shoulder. Sometimes it was gathered in fulness upon the
head and bound there by a diadem, though otherwise worn
as just described. Toward the end of the twelfth century
it became much smaller, and was tied under the chin.


looking very much like an infant's cap. The women's
shoes were very much the same as those worn by the
Anglo-Saxons. It is quite likely that the stockings were
close-fitting and short, as was the style among the men.

There were different ways of wearing the hair, but the
most usual was to have it parted in front and flowing
loosely down the back, with a lock on either side falling
over the shoulders and upon the breast; this was the style
for young girls especially. Another fashion was to have
it fall down the back in two masses, where it was wrapped
by ribbons and so bound into tails. Young girls never
wore a headdress of any sort. On reaching maturity, it
was usual for the women to enclose their hair in a net,
with a kerchief cap drawn tightly over it.

The ornaments in use need no particular description,
because of their similarity to those worn during the
Anglo-Saxon period. Crowns were, of course, the chief
adornments of queens on state occasions; circlets of gold,
elegantly patterned, formed the diadems of the noble ladies;
and half-circlets of gold, connected behind, constituted the
distinctive headdress of women of wealth. Rings, armlets,
and necklaces, as well as the generally serviceable brooch,
were in use.

Turning from the fashions of the wealthy to the condi-
tion of the poor, what a difference appears! The age was
one of sharp contrasts; for while gayety reigned in the
high circles of court and castle, wretchedness was more
usual in the hovels with their mud walls and thatched
roofs, to which nature may have added the gracious garni-
ture of herbs, mosses, and lichens. But it would be too
much to assume that the persons of humble estate were
not happy in their own way. Lacking the luxuries of the
table and the fine attire of the ladies of the castles, life
still had for them many elements of pure joy. But while


the women of the lower ranks would have contrasted well
in the matter of morals with the women of the nobility,
yet no more then than now was virtue the exclusive

Online LibraryMitchell CarrollWoman: in all ages and in all countries → online text (page 7 of 30)