Mitchell Carroll.

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possession of any class.

The monasteries were not only centres of culture, but
were also the great distributing centres of charity, the
nuns being looked upon as the especial friends of the poor.
We hear little of complaint against the character of these
houses at this time, and it is clear that the rules for their
direction had become efficacious for the establishing of a
discipline sufficiently rigid, on the whole, to ensure exem-
plary character. Many penances and mortifications were
imposed on the nuns, besides others which were volun-
tarily assumed. In a book of rules published at this time
appears the following, which seems to indicate that even
sunshine savored too much of worldliness for the occupants
of the religious houses: "My dear sisters, love your win-
dows as little as you may, and let them be small, and the
parlor's the narrowest; let the cloth in them be twofold,
black cloth, the cross white within and without." It may
be, however, that it was not too much sunlight that was
to be avoided, but men, who sought to converse with the
nuns at their windows. This indeed appears to be the
true meaning of the recommendation, as is indicated by
another enjoinment: "If any man become so mad and un-
reasonable that he put forth his hand toward the window
cloth, shut the window quickly and leave him."

Besides the nuns, whose office dedicated them to acts
of charity, many of the noble ladies found pleasure in
alleviating the afflictions of the poor. In their care of the
distressed they were incited to acts of humility by the very
high value that the Church placed upon the performance
of such deeds. Matilda, the good wife of Henry I., had
the training of the monastery in developing her benevolent



102 WOMAN

instincts, and set an example to the ladies of her court by
establishing the leper hospital of Saint Giles; there she
herself washed the feet of lepers, esteeming such lowly
service as done unto Christ. In a hard and cruel age, the
gentler sentiments common to womanly nature, especially
when under the influence of Christian feeling, poured them-
selves out in a wealth of affection upon those who were
stricken and left helpless by the hardness of the times.



5Cf)e ffiKomen at t^e JHdrtile ^es



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES

There was an almost total lack of central authority or
of legal restraint throughout the land during the long con-
flict between Stephen and Matilda, wife of the Count of
Anjou, whom the feudal party, in violation of their vows
to Henry I., refused to accept as queen; and to the other
terrors of war were added the depredations of a host of
mercenary soldiers brought over from the continent. To
quote the chronicler William of Newburgh: "In the olden
days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did that
which was right in his own eyes; but in England now it
was worse; for there was a king, but impotent, and every
man did what was wrong in his own eyes." The Peters-
borough continuation of the English Chronicle gives as dark
a picture of the state of affairs: "They filled the land full
of castles and filled the castles full of devils. They took
all those they deemed had any goods, men and women,
and tortured them with tortures unspeakable; many thou-
sands they slew with hunger — they robbed and burned all
the villages, so that thou mightest fare a day's journey
nor ever find a man dwelling in a village nor land tilled.
Corn, flesh, and cheese there was none in the land. The
bishops were ever cursing them, but they cared naught
therefor, for they were all forcursed and forsworn and
forlorn. . . . Men said openly that Christ slept and

105



I06 WOMAN

His saints. Such and more than we can say we suffered
for our sins." Such grim experiences of unlicensed feu-
dalism did much for the social education of the English
people, and similar lawlessness was never repeated in the
history of the country. Out of the furnace through which
England passed, the English character emerged, purified
of some of its dross of Anglo-Saxon sluggishness and
Norman arrogance, and finely representative of the tem-
pered elements of both peoples. A sense of solidarity was
awakened.

The feudal system found its expression in various forms
of homage and of fealty, upon which it was founded. It
embraced, among many services and liabilities, some that
related to women. On the death of a tenant leaving an
heiress under fourteen years of age, the lord upon whose
lands the tenant had dwelt, and to whom he owed the
military and other services of his lower position, became
the guardian in chivalry to the maiden, and had charge of
her person and her lands until she was twenty-one —
unless, on reaching the age of sixteen, she availed herself
of her right to " sue out her livery " by the payment of a
half-year's income of her estate. Moreover, he was en-
titled to dispose of her in marriage to any person of rank
equal to her own. In case the young lady did not approve
of the selection made for her, and rejected her guardian's
choice or married without his consent, she had to forfeit
to him a sum of money equal to what was called the value
of her marriage — a sum equal to what the lord might have
expected to receive if the marriage as planned by him had
taken place. During her wardship the lord had the right
to her land, and might assign or sell his guardianship over
her. These rights which the lord held over the person
and possessions of his ward applied, in the later feudal
period, equally to male and female.



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES 107

Such was the relationship of the ward to her lord, and
the same system of knight service which gave him these
rights in orphaned minors gave him, as well, the right to
collect a fee upon the marriage of the daughters of any of
his tenants. Such a system, while it deprived the young
woman of absolute freedom in her selection of a husband,
did not of necessity work great hardship, as each fair
young woman had her knight dedicated to her by the
solemn vows of chivalry, from whom her troth, once
given, was not apt to be easily wrested. Upon the merits
of the system itself we are not called upon to pass judg-
ment; but certainly chivalry, which was its finest prod-
uct, was responsible for the introduction into the English
character of splendid ideals of womanhood, which found
expression in a deference amounting almost to worship.

Yet the picture has a reverse side as well, and it is only
by considering both aspects of the age that its real mean-
ing as regards its effect upon the womanhood of the time
becomes clear. This other side of chivalry is well ex-
pressed by Freeman, than whom no one is better qualified
to speak. He says: "The chivalrous spirit is, above all
things, a class spirit. The good knight is bound to endless
fantastic courtesies towards men and still more towards
women of a certain rank; he may treat all below that rank
with any degree of scorn or cruelty. . . . Chivalry
is short in its morals very much what feudalism is in law:
each substitutes purely personal obligations, obligations
devised in the interest of an exclusive class, for the more
homely duties of an honest man and a good citizen."

The extravagant reverence and regard paid to women
of the higher ranks of society did not have a firm basis in
inherent moral principle either in them or in their worship-
pers, so that it was an easy passage from idealized woman
to materialized woman. Life cannot long subsist on the



I08 WOMAN

perfervid products of a social imagination. As a revulsion
of noble minds from coarseness and as a protest against
tyranny and vice, chivalry fulfilled a high mission; but,
unfortunately, its exalted admiration of woman fell to a
physical appreciation of its subject. Not her womanhood,
but her graces of person came to evoke the passionate
devotion of the knight. An admiration fantastic and ro-
mantic, expressing itself in all sorts of extravagance, a
worship of mere physical beauty — ^such was the nature of
chivalry in its later expression. Instead of an idol, woman
became but a toy.

In no respect was this sentimentality better illustrated
than in the nature of the knightly devotion of the time.
When not in the camp, the life of the knight was an idle
one, and was spent for the most part in sentimental
attendance upon ladies at court or castle. It was there
that his deeds of prowess won rewards rather more gen-
erously than discreetly given by the lady to whom he had
pledged his devotion; so that, with all the circumstances
of outward respect for women, surpassing in ostentatious
display that shown by any other age, it is a painful fact
that in no other age was there such license in the associa-
tion of the sexes. It is a striking comment upon the man-
ners of the times that "gallantry" should have come to
signify both bravery and illicit love. Chastity was not
one of the ornaments of the age of chivalry.

In curious contrast to the attitude of chivalry — a product
of the Church — ^toward women was that of the Church in
its official character and expression. The knight elevated
woman to the plane of angels, while the priest went to the
other extreme. Saint Chrysostom's definition of woman
as "a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable
calamity, a domestic peril, a deadly fascination, and a
painted ill," continued to be the orthodox view of the



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES lOQ

Church. Woman was to be avoided as a temptation by
all those who valued the security of their souls; and yet
it was the Church, more than any other social force, which
gave to woman the dignity and worth that she achieved.

The Church stood for order and even for progress; it
summed up in itself all the knowledge and the culture of
the times. In the midst of the turmoil and dangers of war
and strife, it afforded to women the one haven to which
they might flee for security. But its protection was bought
at the price of authority over the lives and consciences of
its adherents. The lives of women were spent in a round
of narrow experience and of duty, and the feasts of the
Church, with their processions and ceremonials, furnished
to them merely an agreeable break in the monotony of
their existence. This was especially true of the lower
classes. In an age when belief in supernatural appearances
and interferences formed part of the common credence of
the masses, the emotional sensibilities of the women were
easily appealed to by the priests. By taking advantage
of this ignorance, the Church was enabled to hold in abso-
lute control the lives of the simple and credulous women.
Women did not hesitate to yield to the Church their free-
dom of thought and of action, their minds and consciences
alike being at the disposal of their ecclesiastical directors;
but when the Church taught men to respect their wives,
and raised its voice and exerted its influence against the
tyranny which placed women in subjection to their male
relatives, it was indeed befriending them in a way that
hastened the acquirement by them of the real equality
which they now enjoy with the other sex.

The relation of women and the Church was not without
its anomalies. This is shown curiously in the contrast
between the Mariolatry of the age and the attitude of the
Church toward the sex of which Mary was the exalted



no WOMAN

type. The women were not esteemed fit to receive the
Eucharist with uncovered hands; they were forbidden to
approach the altar; their married state was yet, in theory
at least, considered a condition of sin, for, even among the
women of the laity, virginity and celibacy were regarded
as almost a state of especial sanctity. But the Church
was entirely consistent in its attitude toward women in
that it made no distinctions as to class or condition. Queen
Philippa, wife of Edward III., while on a visit to Durham
Cathedral, after having supped with the king, retired to
rest in the priory. The scandalized monks sought an
interview with the king and made vigorous protests, so
that the queen was obliged to rise, and, clad only in her
night apparel, sought accommodations in the castle, be-
seeching Saint Cuthbert's pardon for having polluted the
holy confines with her presence.

Ecclesiastical law operated disastrously against women
in declaring for a celibate priesthood. In Anglo-Saxon
times the priests married; but the Council of Winchester,
in 1076, took a stand against the marriage of the clergy,
and forbade priests to take to themselves wives, although
it permitted the parish clergy who were already married
to continue in the marital state. In 1 102, however, it was
declared that no married priest should celebrate mass, and
in 121 5 the Lateran Council definitely pronounced against
marriage of priests. Many of the clergy had by no means
shown a docile spirit in relation to this invasion of what
they considered the domain of their personal rights; when
forced into submission, they evaded the ordinances by
taking concubines. Even in the fifteenth century, it was
not uncommon to find married priests. In the document
entitled Instructions for Parish Priests, those who were too
weak to live uprightly in the celibate state were counselled
to take wives. Concubinage, as a substitute for the



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES III

interdicted marriage, continued to be practised down to
the sixteenth century, nor was this form of illicit living the
worst vice of the clergy. Debauchery spread throughout
the country, until in the sixteenth century it is said that
as many as one hundred thousand women fell under the
seductions of the priests, for whose particular pleasures
houses of ill fame were kept. From the laity, complaints
became general that their wives and daughters were not
safe from the advances of the priests. In 1536 the clergy
of the diocese of Bangor sent to Cromwell the following
remarkable plea against taking away their women from
them: "We ourselves shall be driven to seek our living
at all houses and taverns, for mansions upon the benefices
and vicarages we have none. And as for gentlemen and
substantial honest men, for fear of inconvenience, and
knowing our frailty and accustomed liberty, they will in
no wise board us in their houses." All the literature of
the Middle Ages leads to but one conclusion — that the clergy
were the great corrupters of domestic virtue among the
burgher and agricultural classes. The morals of the lords
and ladies of the upper strata of the aristocratic class were
of no higher grade; the offenders, however, were seldom
the priests, but the gallants of that privileged circle. The
lower rank of the aristocracy, — the knights and lesser
landholders, — which, with the decline of feudalism, came to
be more strongly defined as a separate class, appears
to have preserved the best moral tone of any of the
classes of mediaeval society.

A great deal of light is thrown upon the manners and
thought of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by a body
of literature which arose during those centuries. The
estimation in which the classes of society were held is
indicated by one of these fabliaux. A party of knights
passed through a pleasant and shady meadow, in the midst



112 WOMAN

of exquisite scenery; they were enchanted by the spot,
and wished for meat and wine that they might tarry there
and dine on the grass. There followed them a party of
clerks, whose feelings were also aroused by the beauty
of the place; and, in accord with the frivolous character
given them throughout the fabliaux, they exclaimed:
"Had we fair maidens here, how pleasant a spot for
play!" After they had passed on, there came a party of
villains, who, with their grosser ideas, thought not of the
beauty of the place at all, but proceeded to indulge them-
selves in carnal pleasures and to use it for mean purposes.
These fabliaux show us that Cupid disdained conven-
tional restraint then as now; for in them the marriage of
persons in different classes often furnishes a theme for
the story — this, too, notwithstanding the sharp caste dis-
tinctions which existed. Usually, the maiden is possessed
of more beauty than wealth and belongs to the poor-knight
class; she is wedded to a peasant or villain who has become
wealthy. The husband turns out to be a brute; the lady is
crafty and cunning. He beats and abuses her, according to
the instincts of his boorish nature; she, on the other hand,
proves faithless as often as opportunity presents. The
writers never visit condemnation upon her, for her hus-
band is considered as undeserving of the possession of
such a prize. It is a curious commentary on the manner
of the times that upon the same manuscript, written by
the same person, z^p^&zx fabliaux of this sort and stories
of holy women dying in defence of their chastity. This
contradiction runs throughout the literature of the period —
the praise of virtue and the narration of gross immorality
without an effort to condemn it. One of the most peculiar
facts of the age is the extreme to which was carried the
adoration of the Virgin and the strange things she is made
to do and to countenance. In the mythology of the Middle



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES II3

Ages — ^for so we must class most of the medieval stories
of the saints and of the Virgin — to ardent and imaginative
temperaments the Virgin tooi< the character of Venus, and
is frequently represented as the patroness of love. One
of the religious stories tells us that some young men, while
playing ball in front of a church, approached the porch of
the edifice, upon which was a beautiful statue of Our Lady.
One of them laid down his ring, which he had received
from his lady-love. Then, to his amazement, he saw the
image, which was "fresh and new," fix its eyes upon
the ring. He became enamored of it, and, after due obei-
sance, he addressed Our Lady thus:



" ' I promise duly,
That all my life I'll serve thee truly;
For never saw I maiden fair
Whose beauty could with thine compare,
So courtly and so debonaire :
And she who gave this ring to me,
Though fair and sweet herself, than thee
A hundred times less fair, I trow.
Shall yield to thee her empire now.
Tis true I've loved her long and well.
As many a fond caress can tell ;
But now, forgotten and neglected.
Her meaner charms for thine rejected,
I give her ring — a lasting token
Of faith which never shall be broken,
Nor shared with maid or wife shall be
The love I proffer unto thee.' "



With this address, he placed the ring upon the finger of
the image. Our Lady appeared flattered by the conquest
she had made, and bent the finger on which the ring had
been placed in order that it might not be withdrawn.
The lover was astounded by the miracle, and was advised
by his friends to retire from the world and to devote him-
self to the adoration and service of the Blessed Virgin.



114 WOMAN

Neglecting this advice, he allowed love to resume its place
and led to the altar the maiden who had given him the
ring. But Our Lady was not to be deprived of her adorer,
and when he laid himself upon the nuptial couch she im-
mediately threw him into a profound slumber, and when he
awoke he found her lying between him and his bride:

" She showed him straight her finger, where
Was still the ring he'd given her;
And well became her hand that ring
Upon her soft skin glittering.
' Instead of love, thou'st shown,' said she,
' But falseness and disloyalty.
And ill hast kept thy faith to me.
Behold the ring thou gavest, for token
And pledge of love fore'er unbroken,
And call'd me a hundred times more fair
Than ever earthly maidens were.
I have been ever true, but thou
Hast taken a meaner leman now;
Hast left for stinking nettle the rose.
Sweet eglantine for flower more gross.' "

In the end, Our Lady forces him to leave his wife that
he may dedicate himself entirely to her service. In other
fabliaux and in the chronicles, Mary is represented under
the guise of the Lady Venus, who often appears in these
romances. In this adoration of the Virgin as a maiden im-
pelled by the same loves and hates as any mortal woman,
it is not difficult to see the spirit of chivalry in its sensual
expression. Surely, if every lady had her knight, the
Blessed Virgin, also, must have her devoted admirers; and
by the height of her position and greater worthiness as the
Queen of Heaven, by so much should she rise above any
other woman in her right to command such adorers.

When we pass from the status of woman in the Middle
Ages to her occupations, the subject becomes narrowed,
not only by the lesser importance of the facts which



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES I15

merely illustrate rather than demonstrate her position, but
also because we shall exclude from our general considera-
tion the women of the manors, the nuns, and, in their
industrial capacities, the women of the guilds. These
important classes demand separate treatment.

After the middle of the twelfth century, it is easier to
study the domestic manners of the people. We can, for
instance, obtain very precise information as to the style of
the dwellings in which they lived. There was a general
uniformity in the houses, however they might vary in
particulars. In the twelfth century, the hall continued to
be the main part of the dwelling. Adjoining it at one end
was the chamber, while at the other end might be found
the stable. The whole building stood in an enclosure con-
sisting of a yard in front and a garden in the rear, sur-
rounded by a hedge and ditch. The house had a door in
the front, and within, one door led to the chamber, and
another to the stable. The chamber, also, frequently had
a door leading out to the garden. There were usually
windows in the hall, the stable and the chamber being
lighted by openings in the partitions between them and
the hall, as well as by slits in the outer walls. The win-
dows themselves were commonly merely openings, which
might be closed by wooden shutters. There was usually
one such window in the chamber, besides those in the
hall, so that it was better lighted than the stable.

From the fabliaux we can obtain very precise ideas of
the distribution of the rooms in the houses of the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries. Thus, in one of the fabliaux, an
old woman of mean condition of life is represented as visit-
ing a burgher's wife, who, from a feeling of vanity, takes
her into the chamber to show her the new bed, a very
handsome affair. Afterward, when this lady takes refuge
with the old dame, the latter conducts her from the hall to



Il6 WOMAN

the chamber adjoining. The outer door of the chamber,
by which egress could be had from the house without
going through the hall, often figures in the stories as aiding
the escape of the lovers of guilty wives, on the unexpected
entrance of the husbands into the hall. It was in the
chamber that fireplaces and chimneys were first introduced
into mediseval houses.

As the grouping of the rooms upon the ground floor
made the house less compact and more susceptible to suc-
cessful attack, the custom arose of having upper chambers.
The upper room was called the solar, because it received
much light from the sun. At first it was but a small cham-
ber, approached from the outside. These outer stairs are
often referred to in the fabliaux, as in the fabliau of D'Es-
tourmi, where a burgher and his wife deceive three monks
of a neighboring abbey, who make love to the lady; she
conceals her husband in the upper chamber, to which he
goes by an outer staircase. The monks enter the hall,
and the husband sees from the upper room, through a
lattice, all that happens. In another fabliau, a lady uses
the solar as a hiding place for her husband, who has dis-
guised himself as a gallant in order to test his wife's faith-
fulness. She penetrates his disguise, and, after closing
the door of the solar upon him, sends a servant to give
him a good beating, as an importunate suitor whom she
desires to cure of his annoying passion. The husband,
too mortified to reveal his identity and disclose his doubts
as to his wife, has no redress but to sustain his assumed
character and to escape down the outer stairs, pursued by
the servants. The chamber soon came to be the most
important part of the house, and frequently its name was
given to the whole dwelling, a house with a solar being
called an upper-storied chamber. The more considerable
manors and castles differed from the ordinary houses only



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES Ii;

in having a greater assemblage of rooms and more details



Online LibraryMitchell CarrollWoman: in all ages and in all countries → online text (page 8 of 30)