Medieval Woman-power

Last week’s post focused mainly on the noble lady in a noble household. Though her main raison d’etre was the production of heirs—male, one hoped—it wasn’t the only reason for her existence. Many ran their households, with husbandly acquiescence. After all, he might be gone for months or years at a time—at war, trade, scientific pursuits, or Parliament, for example.

To say that they, and all wives, were merely breeding hens is to minimize them, though a Durham tower-webwife’s usefulness depended on her intelligence, her tact and talent, and her husband’s willingness to take her on as a partner in his endeavors, whatever their station in life.

Likewise, although the nobility (and the landed gentry, ie, the non-titled wealthy) married for advantageous matches (dowries could include money, spices, titles and lands), it’s not fair to say that there were no love matches or even matches in which affection between husband and wife grew.

Such partnerships—both in the care of one’s manor or business, and of affection—are evidenced in the correspondence between John and Margaret Paston (as part of the extensive documents and correspondences known as the Paston Letters), and 200 years earlier, in the correspondences of and histories surrounding Simon de Monfort and his wife, Eleanor of England (daughter of King John and his queen consort, Isabella of Angouleme).

As John Paston, lawyer from Paston, a small Norfolk village near Norwich, spent much time in London in the mid-1400s, Margaret looked after his business in Norfolk; and many of the Letters were written by Margaret to her husband. (The Letters continue through other generations of Pastons, as well.)

tower1Simon de Montfort’s marriage to Eleanor was a love match that, though sanctioned by her brother King Henry, was nonetheless a source of gossip for their peers and of friction between Simon and his king. Even though he was Earl of Leicester, Simon was not of royal blood, and his marriage to Eleanor was a reach well above his station. For her part, Eleanor pretty much coerced her brother into sanctioning the marriage, telling him she was already pregnant by Simon. She wasn’t. What she was, however, was a widow who’d taken a vow of lifelong chastity at 16, the age of her widowhood, a vow that she broke at age 23 for Simon. While he sought and won dispensation for Eleanor from the Pope, Simon was never truly forgiven by her brother King Henry, and the betrayal remained the incendiary spark for many of Henry’s rash decisions regarding Simon and Eleanor.

In any case, Eleanor looked after his castles when Simon went on Crusade, did what she could to smooth over the difficulties between her brother and her husband and later between her husband and nephew, Prince Edward (later Edward I). She raised Simon’s sons and daughter, held his castles against wartime attacks, and stood beside her husband in his war against her royal sibling and her nephew.

That’s not to say that women of the working class weren’t valuable partners. In fact, as the plague had killed many a man, in post-plague years widows stepped in to perform more of the male tasks on family farms. They stepped into their husbands’ business roles in order to save them for those sons who were still too young to assume them. Many of these women had at least temporary guild memberships, and some of them remained partners and guild members, though many were transitioned out upon the majority of their sons.