Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Medieval Women – history, historiography and literature.

The Old Testament is full of heroic women; Judith, Deborah and Esther to name but a few but the pages of the New Testament are relatively free of them. As most of you will have heard, medieval society was divided into sections – those who fought, those who worked and those who prayed. The women, omitted from these divisions were subdivided into three categories of their own: Nun, Wife or Whore.

The Anglo Saxon and Medieval Chronicles provide just fleeting glimpses of the women who were so divided. Women had no place in the monastic world and the chroniclers, perpetuating the beliefs of St Paul and Jerome, believed women to be sprung from the loins of Eve, the first perpetrator of human sin. Eve’s temptation had caused the downfall of mankind and as a consequence women were flawed, an evil temptation to lure the otherwise pious menfolk from prayer. Every woman was therefore likely to reform to type and needed to be kept firmly in her place and watched.

Female sexuality was branded as sinful, the only feminine roles acceptable to the church were religious devotion or marriage and the reason they approved the state of marriage was to ensure procreation and to prevent fornication. To avoid the latter the legal age for marriage began at puberty; girls could marry at twelve and boys at fourteen, although betrothal often took place much younger, sometimes while still in the cradle. To prevent women from escaping male supervision those who did not marry were sent into ‘service’ working and earning a living under the jurisdiction of a master.

The Virgin Mary has little to say in the bible, her role is to give life to Christ, nurture him in infancy and attend his death. But, in the medieval period a Marian cult emerged, inflating Christ’s mother to prominence and sanctity. She was promoted by the church, as an aspiration for all females. She was perfect, an untouched mother, fruitful, pure, silent and passive. An unobtainable condition that, quite unsurprisingly, women failed to achieve.

As a result, women in both history and literature appear as either a Mary or an Eve, a saint or a sinner. The chroniclers, unable to justify female accomplishments occurring outside these parameters, either ignored them or gave them only the briefest of notice.

My favourite example of this is Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great. When her husband, Aethelred of Mercia, became ill she ruled the kingdom alone and continued to do so after his death yet, in the chronicles, she is dealt with in just a few lines.

Consequently, one has to dig deep to discover the potent dynastic role that she played. A few modern historians have dealt with her and she is the subject of a handful of, rather bad, novels portrayed as a tragic, saintly figure with over much emphasis placed upon her womanhood. Her reluctance to resume sexual relations with her husband is usually interpreted as a striving for spiritual and bodily purity, it is never once considered that maybe Aetheldred was ugly, smelly or simply no good in bed. I do think the most obvious answer should be considered first.
It is more likely that her abstinence stemmed from a desire to unite the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia after her death. In addition to declining sexual relations with her husband she also made sure her only daughter did not marry and provide Mercia with an heir. Kathleen Herbert in her study ‘Peace weavers and Shield maidens’ says, ‘Æthelflæd made sure it happened, putting the strength of her will on the side of her own family, perhaps even using her own body to bar an independent Mercian dynasty and prepared to sacrifice her own daughter in the same cause. To use the Old English metaphore, Æthelflæd’s peaceweaving, her diplomatic marriage, was ‘of breathtaking brilliance’ but it had a lining of tough, hard-wearing ruthlessness.’[1]

There are just a very few genuine female voices still audible from the Middle Ages. Christine de Pizan, a notable writer and scholar of her day, participated in debates against misogyny and in writing The Treasure of the City of Ladies she presented a strategy that allowed all women, regardless of status, to undermine the dominant patriarchal discourse. Of course, it should be noted that she did not embark upon this crusade until she had the fortune to be widowed and enjoy the relative freedom that the widowed state allowed.

If we look to the surviving letters and personal papers from the medieval age we can obtain a clearer picture of real women, and they are not all pleasant. The Paston letters, a collection of papers from a wealthy Norfolk family reveal the turmoil of family politics in the 15th century. Agnes Paston emerges as a hard nosed, controlling woman whose family, even her sons, trod lightly in her presence. When her daughter, Elizabeth, refused to marry the man her family selected for her, Dame Agnes beat her several times a week, and even twice in a day, forbidding her to speak to anyone.

The prospective groom was Stephen Scrope, a man of fifty who confessed to having ‘suffered a sickness that kept me a thirteen or fourteen years en-suing, whereby I am disfigured in my person and shall be whilst I live'.
I am not surprised that Elizabeth wasn't keen but, after several weeks of seclusion and beatings, she consented, although in the end the marriage did not take place and the beatings she suffered were for nothing. There is no record of whether her eventual marriage was happy or not.
Another Paston, Margery, betrothed herself without permission, to the family steward and, although the Pastons went to great lengths to free her from it, they could find no legal impediment. As a consequence her mother turned her out of the house and refused to have anything to do with her again. Interestingly, her husband, Richard Calle, continued in the family’s employ; good stewards obviously being harder to replace than daughters.

The few records we have looked at here, largely recorded by men, the medieval women are so imbibed with the social ethos of the day that they do not provide a glimpse of how women were but only of how they were supposed to be. And it is little different in the literature.
Medieval literary females emerge either as unlikely saintly figures, peace weavers or mothers, women who obey. Women like Wealhtheow in Beowulf who “went her rounds / queenly and dignified, decked out in rings / offering the goblet to all ranks, / treating the household and the assembled troop” (Beowulf 620-624).
The poet shows Wealhtheow fulfilling her prescribed role as queen but we do not get to know her.. She remains an object, valued maybe, and beautiful to look on but her thoughts and feelings are irrelevant.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the evil women of literature. Shakespeare’s Queen Marguerite wife to Henry vi, the ‘she-wolf’ who had the temerity to step outside her prescribed role to fight for her son’s crown. Lady Macbeth who subverted the ideal of feminine nurture to tempt her husband to regicide, taking life instead of giving it. The beautiful lady at Bertilak’s castle in Sir Gawain and the Green knight who enters Gawain’s chamber to tempt him with her sexual charm. Queen Guinevere who, although possessing all the attributes expected in a medieval queen, commits adultery, betrays Arthur and brings down the kingdom. Ultimately, of course, in Beowulf we have Grendel’s mother, a grotesque parody of maternity, fighting for her offspring with loathsome determination, revealing quite graphically the depths to which women can stoop, given the provocation.

It is not until the 18th century that literary female figures begin to emerge as properly rounded, intelligent, forward thinking people. This new portrayal of women coincides with both the advent of the narrative novel and female writers.

Initially women were depicted from a male perspective, the literary tradition of either saint or sinner remaining largely unchanged. The virtuous Pamela Andrews in Samuel Richardson’s Virtue Rewarded, a Mary figure who refuses the violent overtures of her employer until he offers her marriage, contrasts very nicely with the Eve-like erotic adventures of Mrs Fanny Hill.
Amongst others, Jane Austen depicted the life and social niceties of the 18th -19th centuries from a female perspective, revealing that there was really very little else, other than marriage, to occupy the female mind. Her satirical descriptions of the society in which she lived reveal her conscious realisation, and proof, that there should be more to women than previously thought.
Even Dickens, one of my favourites, had his stereotypes, silly women, helpless angels and evil harridans and it is not until one of his last novels, Our Mutual Friend that Lizzie Hexham provides a more credible figure who takes control but even she, I find, is quite unconvincingly ‘nice.’
It is not until the Bronte’s that we find complex female characters, in control of their own destinies, self-motivated, strong women with whom we can still identify.

History, historiography and literature has done much to obscure what medieval women were really like, they only show us what they were supposed to be. We can see from the Paston Papers that there were rebels, just as there will always be and they demonstrate quite graphically what punishment these women could expect.

The real question is whether human nature has changed very much. I don’t think it has. Social expectations may have tried to force a woman down a particular path but that doesn’t mean that they all went easily or willingly. It is perfectly possible that, in many instances, she skipped over the fence and took the back path to discover her own desires.

When I am writing fiction I remove my historian’s cap and put on my fiction one. My novels are to entertain, I want them to appeal to modern day female readers and so I step away a little from the records and largely ignore the masculine precepts within them and consider how I would have reacted in the circumstances. Would I willingly share the bed of an obnoxious bully, bear his children, accept his authority even though he be a fool? I can think of nothing more likely to drive me to infidelity and we have proof that women did ignore the inevitable consequences and jump in with both feet.

Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife’s personal creed was, ‘No other will than his’ but that didn’t stop her from creeping from the decrepit old king’s bed and into the arms of Thomas Culpepper. It is a shame she wasn’t clever enough to get away with it.

Everyone alive today knows that sexual attraction is an extremely powerful thing. When the blood is hot, the right man (or woman’s) arms can negate even the threat of eternal damnation. It does so now and it did then. So, if we are to believe that medieval women were never tempted, never gave in to sexual desire or broke free of the patriarchal restrictions placed upon them to get what they wanted, then we are talking about a species apart.

[1] Herbert, Kathleen, Peace-weavers and Shield-Maidens (Swaffham: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006)

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