Mitchell Carroll.

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than were found in the smaller dwellings.

Toward the fourteenth century, the rooms of houses
generally began to be numerous, and the houses were
often built around a court, the additions being chiefly to
the number of offices and chambers. Wood continued
to be the usual material for their construction. A new
apartment was added to the house — ^the parlor, so called
because it was the talking room. It was derived from
the religious houses, in which the parlor was the recep-
tion room. As furniture was scanty, the rooms of the
medieval house were almost bare. Chairs were very
few, and seats in the masonry of the wall continued for
centuries to be the principal accommodation of the kind;
benches for seats and places of deposit of personal or
household articles were usually made of a few boards laid
across trestles. In the thirteenth century, the beds in the
chamber cam^" •^o be partitioned off by curtains, which
showed an ad\ ance in modesty, as it was customary to
sleep wholly undressed. Throughout the JWiddle Ages,
the comforts of the houses were quite primitive; even the
houses themselves were generally without architectural'
grace and frequently very unsubstantial. When watch-
men were appointed in the towns, they were provided
with a " hook " with which to pull down a house when on
fire, if its proximity to others threatened their destruc-
tion. As there was an absence of luxury in the houses
and their furnishings, much value was placed on plate,
which came to be a sign of wealth and social distinction.
Dress, also, aided in marking distinctions between the
wealthy and those in less fortunate circumstances, as did
the luxuries found upon the tables of the former.

This fact of the general character of the discomforts of
living, without regard to rank or condition, gave occasion



Il8 WOMAN

for sumptuary laws — "the toe of the peasant pressed
closely on the heel of the lord, and the gulf that parted
them was the number of dishes upon their table, the qual-
ity of the cloth they put on, and the kind of fur they might
wear to keep off the cold."

Glass began to be introduced into dwelling houses in the
time of Henry 111., but was regarded as a great luxury.
Pipes for carrying the refuse water and slops from the
houses to sewers or cesspools were one of the great sani-
tary reforms of the reign of Edward I. The same able
monarch made the use of baths popular among his people.
The floors of the houses continued to be covered with an
armful of hay, or a bundle of birch boughs or of rushes,
although during the fourteenth century some of the
wealthier farmers and persons of the trading classes and
the nobility had begun to use imported carpets and hang-
ings. Table linen and napkins were also coming into
service. The use of forks was confined tr r'^yalty.

When the fine ladies went abroad in i,,iir vehicles or
were carried in their chairs, they had to plow through
streets deep with mire and filth; so much so, that it was
not unusual for coaches to stick fast and depend upon the
aid of some friendly teamster to extricate them. The
sanitation of the dwellings was little better than that of
the streets. The stench of the houses of the poor was so
great that the priests made it an excuse for failure to pay
parochial visits to them. The better class of houses were,
of course, kept much cleaner.

The impression that food in the Middle Ages was coarse
and not elaborate is not borne out, as we have seen, by
the facts; for, from Anglo-Saxon times down, the people
were very fond of the table, and in the higher circles
elaborate banquets stood as one of the most usual re-
sources of a hospitality which had to make up for its



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES II9

barrenness in other ways by the bounties of elaborate
feasts, so that we are quite prepared for Alexander Neck-
am's list of l<itchen requisites. This ecclesiastic of the
latter half of the twelfth century has left us a list of
the things to be found in a well-ordered kitchen. Besides
his list, we have the testimony of cookbooks of the time,
which give directions for making dishes that are both com-
plicated and toothsome. Indeed, the position of cook was
one of importance, and upon him often rested, in great
houses, the honor of the establishment.

In this connection may be given some of the curious
injunctions of the Anglo-Saxon penitentials, which con-
tinued to be quoted throughout the iVliddle Ages, becoming
superstitious beliefs after they had lost their ecclesiastical
character and undergone the changes which, with the lapse
of time, develop folklore. One of the oddest prescribed
that in case a " mouse fall into liquor, let it be taken out,
and sprinkle the liquor with holy-water, and if it be alive,
the liquor may be used, but if it be dead, throw the liquor
out and cleanse the vessel." Another said: " He who uses
anything a dog or mouse has eaten of, or a weasel polluted,
if he do it knowingly, let him sing a hundred psalms; and if
he knew it not, let him sing fifty psalms." These are but
samples of many superstitions with which the thought of
the Middle Ages was tinctured.

A considerable treatise might be written upon the super-
stitions of the English women; it would contain astonish-
ing disclosures as to the effect of the unreal world of
fairies, goblins, and the like upon woman's development
and status during the Middle Ages. She was undoubtedly
influenced in her daily life, in almost all her duties and
undertakings, by the terrors with which her superstitions
filled her. The legacy of a pagan system was slowly
thrown off, and, with all the credulity of the religion of



I20 WOMAN

the times, it is to the credit of the Church that, by its
proscriptions as well as by its healthier teaching, supersti-
tion in many of its forms lessened its hold upon the minds
of the people. And yet it was needful, if historical fact
denotes a social necessity, that these superstitions should
culminate in a belief in witchcraft, and woman, because of
her credulity, become the scapegoat of the gnomes and
witches which existed in her simple faith. Even so cul-
tured a person as Augustine, one of the most prominent
of the Church Fathers of his time, declared it to be inso-
lent to doubt the existence of fauns, satyrs, and suchlike
demoniac beings, which lie in wait for women and have
intercourse with them and children by them. It was this
belief which extended into a labyrinth of darkness and
superstition throughout the Middle Ages. The reasoning
of the Church was perfectly simple: if the miracles of the
Apostles and of Christ were of divine agency, then the
marvels performed by magicians before the astonished
eyes of the heathen were to be accredited to Satan.
The Church never doubted the existence of malignant
spirits, but bent its endeavors toward persuading the
people to give up converse with them. If a woman gave
herself over to Satan or any of his minions, the only
resource was to put her to death. Horrible as were the
witch burnings of the Middle Ages, the Church sincerely
believed that it was exorcising the Devil from the lives of
the people; and by the terrible examples it made of those
who were accounted as having sold themselves to the Evil
One, it believed it was placing a deterrent upon others
who might be minded to yield themselves to diabolical
possession. The Church was but sharing the universal
belief of the times, and, as the guardian of the spiritual
interests of mankind, it sought the purification of society
by ssveie measures which, it felt, were alone suited to



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES 121

the gravity of the subject. From this belief in devil
possession arose a veritable system of Christian magic;
charms, amulets, exorcisms, abounded; thus, white magic
was opposed to black magic.

But when the belief in witchcraft led to papal promulga-
tions against it and against all who dared entertain doubts
upon the subject, and when it led also to the appointment
of tribunals for the trying of "witches," there was placed
in the hands of malice and ignorance a power from which
no woman, however exalted in rank or pure in character,
was secure, provided only she incurred the enmity of
someone bent upon effecting her ruin.

The genesis of the belief lies even back of the prevail-
ing superstitions of the times, and is to be found in the
lower regard in which the female sex was held. As we
have said, chivalry did not cover with its £egis all women,
but only those of a certain class; in the Middle Ages, the
opinion held of women in general was not flattering to the
sex. The descriptions of witch trials and the processes
for the extortion of confessions; the indignities of many
sorts to which women were subjected; the horrors of a
system which virtually made one become an informer
upon her neighbor, lest she be anticipated by charges
preferred against herself; the whole dreary round of the
subject and its literature: all these are too uninviting to
permit of detail. It is sufficient for our purpose to say
that throughout Europe — ^for the delusion was so wide-
spread — certainly not less than a million persons were
burned, or otherwise put to death, as witches during the
Middle Ages. So great a holocaust had to be offered up
by women as a sin offering for their sex!

The state of education had much to do with the manners
and opinions of the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries there was a feeling of the necessity



122 WOMAN

for extending and improving education. There was spread
abroad a degree of popular instruction. It was not an
uncommon thing for ladies to be able to read and write.
Among the amusements of their leisure hours, reading
began to have a very much larger place than formerly.
Yet, popular literature — the tales, ballads, and songs —
was still communicated orally rather than in writing,
though books were more extensively circulated. Often
persons of wealth and culture had extensive libraries.
Excepting in the case of those who followed or desired to
follow the career of scholars, the women were less illiterate
than the men.

In considering the dress of the women of England during
the Middle Ages, the sumptuary laws passed for its regu-
lation are of interest in themselves as affording a view of
the dress of the several classes of society, and they also
serve to illustrate upon what simple lines the distinctions
of society were drawn.

In the thirty-seventh year of the reign of Edward HI., 8
curious complaint was submitted to Parliament by the
Commons against general extravagance in the use of
apparel; whereupon an act was passed in regulation of
the matter. One of the provisions of this act, as it re-
lated to women, prescribed that the wives and children of
the grooms and servants of the lords and of tradesmen
and artificers should not wear veils costing more than
twelvepence each. The wives and children of the trades-
men and artificers themselves should wear no veils ex-
cepting those made with thread and manufactured in the
kingdom; nor any kind of furs excepting those of lambs,
rabbits, cats, and foxes. The cloth for their dresses was
also to be of a prescribed kind. The wives and children
of esquires — gentlemen under the estate of knighthood —
might not wear cloth of gold, of silk, or of silver; nor any



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES 123

ornaments of precious stones, nor furs of any kind; nor
any purfling or facings upon their garments; neither
should they use esclaires, crinales, or trosles — certain forms
of hairpins, and suchlike ornaments.

In the case of knights of a certain income, their wives
and children were prohibited from wearing miniver or
ermine as linings for their garments or trimming for their
sleeves. The lower classes were restricted to blankets
and russets for their attire, and these were not to cost
more than twelvepence per yard, unless the income of
the man was above forty shillings. It is not probable
that these enactments were rigidly enforced, and when
Henry IV. came to the throne he found it necessary to
revive the prohibiting statutes of his predecessor. A num-
ber of such sumptuary laws were passed during succeed-
ing reigns, but it is not probable that they were ever
really effective. Nor were the satires and witticisms of
the poets and other writers of the day more effectual than
legislation in correcting the extravagances and vices of
dress. Whether the poet or the moralist pointed their
shafts against them, the dames and the dandies of the
time continued to dress as pleased them.

Some of these criticisms so sum up the dress of the day,
that to quote them is to see the fine lady attired in all her
bewildering array of beautiful stuffs. William de Lorris,
in his celebrated poem, the Romance of the Rose, has drawn
the character of Jealousy, and represents him as reproach-
ing his wife for her insatiable love of finery, which, he
tells her, is solely to make her attractive in the eyes of
her gallants. He then enumerates the parts of her dress,
consisting of mantles lined with sable, surcoats, neck
linens, wimples, petticoats, shifts, pelices, jewels, chaplets
of fresh flowers, buckles of gold, rings, robes, and rich
furs. Then he adds: " You car-v the worth of one hundred



124 WOMAN

pounds in gold and silver upon your head — such garlands,
such coiffures with gilt ribbons, such mirrors framed in
gold, so fair, so beautifully polished; such tissues and
girdles, with expensive fastenings of gold, set with precious
stones of smaller size; and your feet shod so primly, that
the robe must be often lifted up to show them." And in
a subsequent part of the poem the ladies are advised,
satirically, if their ankles be not handsome and their feet
small and delicate, to hide them by wearing long robes,
trailing upon the pavement. Those, on the contrary,
who were more favored in this respect were advised to
elevate their robes, as if it were to give access to air,
that the passer-by might see and admire their trim feet
and ankles.

Such were some of the adornments of the fine ladies of
the thirteenth century. It is instructive to turn to Chau-
cer's Canterbury Tales and study the costumes of some of
the characters as they are interpreted by Strutt. This
will afford a view of the dress of typical persons in the
ordinary ranks of life. The Wife of Bath is drawn by
Chaucer at full length as a shameless woman, pert, loqua-
cious, and bold, whose favorite occupation is gossiping and
rambling abroad in search of fashionable diversions, in the
absence of her husband. She had the art of making fine
cloth. Her dress materials were expensive, for she had
kerchiefs, or head linen, which she wore on Sunday, so
fine that they were equal in value to ten pounds; and
her stockings were made of fine red scarlet cloth, and
"straightway gartered ' upon her legs"; her shoes were
also new, and to them she had a pair of spurs attached,
because she was to ride upon horseback; she wore a hat
as broad as a buckler or a target; and she herself informs
us that upon holidays she was accustomed to wear gay
scarlet gowns.



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES 12$

The Carpenter's Wife, the heroine of the Miller's Tale,
has her dress partly described: the collar of her shift was
embroidered both before and behind with black silk; her
girdle was barred orstriped with silk; her apron, bound
about her hips, was clean and white, and full of plaits.
The tapes of her white headdress were embroidered in the
same manner as the collar of her shift; her fillet, or head-
band, was broad and was made of silk, and "set full high";
probably meaning with a bow or topknot on the upper
part of her head. Attached to her girdle was a purse of
leather, tasselled or fringed with silk, and ornamented with
latoun — a kind of copper alloy of which ornaments were
made — in the shape of pearls. She wore a brooch or
fibula upon "her low collar," as broad, says the poet, as
the boss of a buckler; her shoes "were laced high upon
her legs."

In addition to these characters of Chaucer, it may be
added that the country Ale-Wife is thus described by a
contemporary writer: "She put on her fairest smocke;
her petticoat of a good broad red; her gowne of grey,
faced with buckram; her square-thrumed hat; and before
her she hung a clean white apron."

The subject of public entertainment in the Middle Ages
brings to light curious practices. In the towns, the burghers
were not willing to entertain strangers gratuitously, not-
withstanding the Scriptural injunction to do so, reinforced
by the reminder that thereby some have entertained angels
unawares. The custom of offering entertainment to trav-
ellers was, however, still practised in the country districts,
but the Anglo-Saxon notion of three days as a reasonable
limit for the tarrying of wayfarers seems still to have ob-
tained. Aside from the public inns, rich burghers opened
their homes, with their superior comforts, to royal per-
sonages and to rich barons, for an honorarium. They



126 WOMAN

frequently practised extortion upon their accidental guests,
and had arts to allure such to their homes. While having
the appearance of great exclusiveness, they nevertheless
employed persons to be on the watch for travellers. These
would approach such strangers, engage them in conversa-
tion, and, on pretence of being from the same part of the
country, offer guidance and advice to the stranger, who
was usually glad to be directed to an "exclusive" place
for entertainment. In some of these places, as well as in
the public inns, the guest would be beguiled into contract-
ing gambling or other debts beyond his ability to pay in
money, whereupon his belongings were seized, although
their value might be greatly in excess of his obligation.
The manners and morals of the women in these private
places of entertainment were not always commendable.

The tavern was the place of resort for a large part of the
middle class and practically all the lower class of medieval
society. Even the women spent much of their time gossip-
ing and drinking in such places, where they found great
latitude for carrying out low intrigues. The tavern was,
in short, the great rendezvous for those who sought amuse-
ment of any sort. It was the ordinary haunt of gamblers.
In one of the fabliaux, a young profligate is represented
as turning into a tavern before which the tavern boy is
calling out the price of the beverages on tap there. After
inquiring the price of the wines, and receiving the informa-
tion from the host, the latter goes on to enumerate the
attractions of his house: "Within are all sorts of com-
forts; painted chambers, and soft beds, raised high with
white straw, and made soft with feathers; here within is
hostel for love affairs, and when bedtime comes you will
have pillows of violets to hold your head more softly;
and, finally, you will have electuaries and rose-water, to
wash your mouth and face." He orders a gallon of wine,



THE WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES 1 27

and immediately afterward a belle demoiselle mal<es her
appearance, for such in those times were reckoned among
the attractions of the tavern. It is soon arranged that she
shall share his apartment with him, and then a general
carousal ensues in which he loses all his money and has
to leave even his clothes in payment of his bill. These
alewives were looked upon as past masters in deceit, and
were heartily despised by those who did not fall into their
clutches. In a carved miserere in Ludlow Church, repre-
senting Doomsday, one of these characters is depicted as
about to be cast into the jaws of hell, carrying with her
nothing but the finery of her enticement and her short ale
measure. The amusements of the times, excepting those
of a grosser order, or such as have already been mentioned
in the previous chapter, centred around the nobility and
persons of position; so that their consideration can be de-
ferred for the time being and be taken up in connection
with the sports and pastimes of the ladies of rank, as
treated in the chapter following.



frte aSomen of tte JKanors



VI

THE WOMEN OF THE MANORS

The limited means of travel and communication caused
the lives of the women of the early English manors to be
secluded and, in a sense, protected the wives and daugh-
ters of the titled nobility. The manor house was a world
to itself, a centre of law, of society, of industry, and, oft-
times, of culture.

On account of the bad state of the roads and the lack of
the modern convenience of quick transmittal of informa-
tion, the turmoils and upheavals of the cities left the
manors unaffected by more than a ripple of their excite-
ment. The manor had its own social and administrative
system, which provided for the performance of duties by
the various elements of the manorial establishment. In
times of wide social disorder, the manor, by reason of its
isolation, was often subject to attack; then the courage
and fortitude of its female occupants were called forth to
the uttermost. Women whose names might otherwise
have passed into obscurity have been enrolled among
England's heroines by reason of just such circumstances;
one such, whose fame carries us back to the Wars of the
Roses, was Lady Joan Pelham, wife of Sir John Pelham,
Constable of Pevensey Castle. While Sir John was in
Yorkshire with the Lancastrian Duke Henry, fighting
against Richard IL, Pevensey Castle was fiercely attacked

131



1 32 WOMAN

by Yorkist forces. The continuance of the siege brought
on a scarcity of provisions; in this strait, Lady Joan ad-
dressed a letter to her husband, which, besides displaying
the courage of a noble English lady, has the additional
interest of being the earliest letter extant written by an
English woman of quality. It reads as follows:

"My Dere Lorde:

" I recommande me to yowr hie Lordeshippe wyth hart
and body and all my pore myght, and wyth all this I think
zou, as my dere Lorde, derest and best yloved of all earth-
lyche Lordes; 1 say for me and thanke yhow me dere
Lorde, with all thys that I say before, off your comfortable
lettre, that ze send me from Pownefraite that com to me
on Mary Magdaleyn day; ffor by my trowth I was never
so gladd as when I herd by your lettre that ye warr
stronge ynogh wyth the grace off God for to kepe yow
fro the malyce of your ennemys. And dere Lorde iff it lyk
to your hyee Lordeshippe that als ye myght, that smythe
her off your gracious spede whych God AUmyghty con-
tynue and encresse. And my dere Lorde, if is lyk zow
for to know of my ffare, I am here by layd in a manner
off a sege, wyth the counte of Sussex, Sudray, and a greet
parsyll off Kentte; so that I ne may nogth out, nor none
vitayles gette me, bot wyth myche hard. Wharfore my
dere if it lyk zow, by the awyse off zowr wyse counsell,
for to sett remadye off the salvation off yhower castell &
wt. stand the malyce off ther sehures foresayde. And
also that ye be fullyehe enformede off there grett malyce
wyker's in these schyres whyche yt haffes so dispytffully
wrogth to zow, and to zowl contell, to zhowr men, and to
zuor tenaunts ffore this cuntree, have yai wastede for a
grett whyle. Farewell my dere Lorde, the Holy Trynte
zow kepe fro zour ennemys and son send me gud tythyngs



THE WOMEN OF THE MANORS 133

off yhow. Ywryten at Pevensey in the castell, on Saynt
Jacobe day last past.

" By yhowr awnn pore,

"J. Pelham,
•' To my trew Lorde."

While her position gave her equal rank with her hus-
band, it also laid upon the lady of the manor the cares
natural to her station. A great lady had always her
bodyguard of maidens, and the lord his following of pages,
these young people being thus provided for that they
might receive the training of gentility and courtesy which
were the essentials in the character of the noble persons
of the times. These maidens, who were intrusted to the
care of the lady of the manor, had to be trained in all
domestic accomplishments as well as in polite attainments.
It is singular that this custom of sending children from
home was often interpreted by foreigners as an evidence
of a lack of parental affection; and, indeed, it did at times
furnish a means of easy riddance of daughters whose
tempers were incompatible with those of their parents, or
whose self-will — or the selfish policy of the household —
made it desirable for the parents to sever the tie which
lacked the strength of affection. Thus, in 1469, Dame
Margaret Paston writes to her son. Sir John Paston, re-
garding his sister Margery: "I wuld ye shuld purvey for



Online LibraryMitchell CarrollWoman: in all ages and in all countries → online text (page 9 of 30)