Of Six Mediaeval Women (1913)/Introduction


The recent researches of scholars and students have brought the study of mediæval times within the range of almost any one who cares to live in imagination in the past. No part of this study has been more advanced and made more informing to us than that which regards the individual. This is specially true of womankind, of whom we have learnt somewhat, in some instances from their own writings, and in others from allusions to their work in those of contemporary and later writers, and also, incidentally, from the vast storehouse of didactic literature, which is so suggestive in itself, reflecting through successive centuries, as it seems to do, the standard of conduct of the large majority. But on this subject—a very large one, and only partially explored—light can only be thrown gradually. For this there are various reasons. One is that, until comparatively recent times, the small details of everyday life which go so largely to make up a woman's life, have generally been taken for granted by writers. Then the few mediæval historiographers and chroniclers were principally engaged in recounting the deeds of kings and feats of arms. Then again, although probably many MSS. of the time still lie undiscovered in libraries, those that are known to us are scattered far and wide. Furthermore, self-advertisement was not a mediæval fashion. It is perhaps difficult for us nowadays to understand a spirit of self-effacement. Self-esteem, which may develop for either good or ill, has perhaps always existed in the human breast, but certainly since the time of the Renaissance, when it seemed to have its own special revival, it has grown apace, and is to-day like unto the Mustard Tree of Holy Writ. But it is not proposed to contrast this our modern attitude with the impersonal one, if so it may be called, of the Middle Ages, because, whilst there were many humble, zealous workers then, just as there are now, it is possible there were other and perhaps more potent factors to account for this apparently humble attitude. In mediæval days, the subject of a narrative or didactic work was considered so important, that an author would scarcely venture on any independent treatment of a theme for fear of incurring censure for a contempt of authority, or, if he did so venture, he would probably deem it wiser to do so anonymously, or by ascription to some departed celebrity, who was obviously not in a position to gainsay him. The writer was of much less interest than his ideas and sentiments. Then again there was the intense localisation of life. Localities were very independent of one another. Each was complete in itself, and within it there was no need for self-advertisement. It was the same in the wider life of associated religious communities, such as Benedictines, Cluniacs, and Cistercians, who had so much to do with the building of abbeys and cathedrals. Within a fraternity, the specially gifted craftsman was known, and wherever work was going on within the Order, was made use of as needs be, not as Brother This, or Brother That, but simply as scribe, or as artificer in Madonnas or gargoyles, or whatever else was wanted. The glorification of the community as a whole, and not the advertisement of the individual, was the desired goal. This self-effacement was not so much humility, though of course that too existed, as the special form which communal feeling took at that time. Now if this suppression of the individual was true of men, how much more true must it have been of women, who seldom ventured beyond town, or castle, or convent walls. In truth, women hardly appear on the scene, and English women least of all. It is only women who were prominent through their high official positions, either political or religious, such as Blanche of Castile, or St. Catherine of Siena, or the Abbess Hildegarde, or women like the Blessed Angela of Foligno,[1] or Julian, anchoress of Norwich,[2] or some other of the devout women of mediæval Italy, who interpreted the mysteries of divine love to mediæval society, having in fact, as it were, religious salons, from whom the veil has been withdrawn, and even amongst such as these it has sometimes been only very slightly lifted. With these saintly and political women must be mentioned the women doctors of Salerno—Trothula, Abella, Mercurialis, and others—who played so important a part both as professors and practitioners when this school of medicine was at its zenith in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and who left behind them, as evidence of their learning, treatises which are of interest to-day as showing mediæval methods in medicine.

Still, even so, the records are scanty. In order, therefore, to form some idea and estimate of women generally in the Middle Ages, we must perforce fall back on reasoning from the known to the unknown, and, by studying the few who are recorded in written history, judge of that great majority who, though nameless, have yet so largely helped to make up the world's unwritten history. Just as many a flower blooms and dies unseen, so many a woman must have lived her life, serviceable to her special environment, but wholly unrecorded. Just as, in the course of ages, the seeds of some humble plant have been carried by wind or water from some lonely region to one less remote, and made to serve a purpose by adding to the sum-total of beauty and usefulness, so the thoughts and deeds of many an unremembered woman have doubtless passed into the great ocean of thought, encircling us to-day, and influencing us as a living force.

Thus we have the women who figure in history, and whom we must take as types of the influential woman of the time, and the women whom history has not so honoured. Of the former, even when only portrayed in outline, we can learn something, but how are we to learn anything of the latter, whether living in the seclusion of religious houses or in the world? Of those living in religious houses, we know from records that, besides attending to their own spiritual and mental education and tending the sick, they conducted the cloister schools and taught in them needlework, the art of confectionery, surgery, writing, and drawing. They also wove, and embroidered, and added their mite to the sum-total of beauty by transcribing and illuminating MSS. of the Gospels and of the lives of the Saints. But sometimes such a limited sphere of activity was enlarged, and it is to an anonymous Anglo-Saxon nun of the eighth century, to whom the experiences were related, that we owe one of the earliest and most interesting accounts extant in Northern Europe of a journey to Palestine.

To learn something of those living in the world, who were the inspirers, the helpmates, and the companions of men in everyday life, we must turn to the poems and romances. These form the key to the domestic life of the time. Though ordinary life may be somewhat idealised in them, still it is ordinary life on which they are based. Moreover, many of the MSS. in which they are written down contain miniatures — a legacy of exceeding worth to the student. But if we seek some knowledge of mediæval life from miniatures, it is not necessary to confine our researches to MSS. of romances. Transcripts of the classics, of the moralised Bible, and of other religious works also supply many pictures of everyday life, adapted quite regardless of incongruity, for one of the characteristics of the Middle Ages was a profound incapacity to picture to itself anything but itself, or to reconstitute in any way, as we do to-day, times and scenes not its own. This was owing partly to its vitality and its youthfulness, which grasped at anything and everything without discernment, and partly to its lack of reliable material. The whole aspect of life, too, was changed and enlarged, and for the moment over-charged, for the flood-gates of the East, hitherto only partially opened, had been rent asunder by the traveller and the crusader.

Before we attempt to arrive at some idea of the manner of life of the women of the Middle Ages, it will be well, if possible, to modify what seems to be a general and perhaps a distorted impression of these women of bygone days, as regards their want of loyalty in their domestic relations, and all the deceit and cunning such a want led to. Without attempting to justify what is fundamentally wrong, let us go if we can into the region of fact, and in that region there is quite enough romance without introducing it from outside.

In the first place, so much more, as a rule, is heard of vice than of virtue. "La voix de la beauté parle bas: elle ne s'insinue que dans les âmes les plus éveillées." Then the standard of life in those days was very different from what it is to-day. Manners and customs which were accepted facts of everyday life then, would strike us as strangely rude and repellent now. Take, for instance, the attitude towards his queen of a king we have all been taught to revere—Arthur, the semi-saint, and the so-called pattern of courtesy. When Guinevere deserts him, and some of his knights are slain, his remark not whispered into the ear of a confidant, but uttered aloud in the presence of all around him—is, "I am sorrier for my good knights' loss than for the loss of my fair Queen, for queens I might have enow." Such a sentiment, expressed in public, does not seem quite up to our modern standard of courteous, or even civilised, conduct, and yet here we have the sentiments of the Prince of Chivalry, as conceived by the poets of the thirteenth century. So it is obvious that before passing judgment upon the standard of life of the mediæval woman, we must endeavour to arrive at the truth by thinking and living in imagination on the same plane, as near as may be, as she did.

Then again, it is largely owing to certain stories in the Middle Ages that the women of those times have been defamed. If we consider the sources and the transcribers of these stories, we shall perhaps find a reason for their distorted outlines, filled in with so much imperfectly understood detail. Many of these tales originated in the East, and particularly in India, where the conditions of domestic life led to and favoured intrigue, and many of them also were mere allegory, in which the Eastern sought to hide great truths. These the less meditative Western interpreted literally, mistaking the outward form for that which it concealed. So in passing to the West, Eastern ideas and Eastern exaggeration, misconstrued, became caricature. Moreover, the compilers of these stories were often monks or minstrels who vied with each other for popular favour, the monk introducing into his legends material which he hoped would rival the often shameless outpourings of the minstrel, whilst the minstrel, for his part, tried to adorn his story with some moral. Naturally neither class of such purveyors was in the least capable of judging woman with respect, or indeed of judging woman at all.

On the other hand, however, it must be remembered that there are stories that tell a very different tale, a tale of self-sacrifice and devotion in face of grievous trial, as, for instance, that of Eric and Enide, sung by Chrétien of Troyes, and made familiar to us by Tennyson's poem of "Geraint and Enid." It is impossible that such a conception should have been the mere outcome of the poet's imagination, since a poet, whilst he may transform, focuses and reflects the ideas of his time. In truth, we find mediæval literature, if we try to estimate it reasonably, gives a quite pleasing impression of womankind, whether we turn to some of the royal ladies who presided over brilliant Courts, where learning was encouraged and poets made welcome, or to the lady of lesser degree, who reigned supreme in her castle, at any rate when her lord was away, as was often the case in time of war or during attendance at Court, or to the abbesses who governed the religious houses they were set over, to their material and mental well-being, proving thus their genius for administration, and, in many instances, their rare intellectual attainments. A record in a chartulary of the Benedictine nunnery of Wherwell in Hampshire, now in the British Museum (Egerton MS., 2104), and accessible to all in translation in the second volume of the Victoria History of the County of Hampshire, may be mentioned in passing, since it gives such a charming picture of mediæval convent life. It recounts the life and work of the Abbess Euphemia, who presided over the house from 1226 to 1257. Amongst her many good deeds, it is told of her that "with maternal piety and careful forethought, she built, for the use of both sick and sound, a new and large infirmary away from the main buildings," and that, besides caring thus for the bodily wants of her community, "she built there a place set apart for the refreshment of the soul, namely a chapel of the Blessed Virgin." The writer adds that "in numberless ways she provided for the worship of God and the welfare of the sisters," and that "she so conducted herself with regard to exterior affairs, that she seemed to have the spirit of a man rather than of a woman." The account is altogether delightful and informing, and should be read by any who would go in spirit to a mediæval convent. It is therefore not surprising that in the late Middle Ages a regard and reverence for womanhood gradually arose—a regard and reverence for woman not merely as the weaker vessel, but as the principle of all good and of moral elevation. This attitude was also in large measure due to the inevitable fusion of the cult of the Virgin and the cult of woman, which in the thirteenth century developed into a faith. Then was it that religion and chivalry, in combination, formed the solvent that disintegrated the layer of selfishness—the outcome of the worship of brute force—that had settled over man's nobler instincts, and by their appeal to his better nature decided the position that woman, not only as an individual, but also as a class, was thenceforth to take in the civilised world.

Let us now turn, first to the woman of the Romances and then to the woman of History. Each completes and is completed by the other. For the woman of the Middle Ages there were practically only two alternatives—to enter into the bonds either of Holy Matrimony or of Holy Church. In both Cases the vows were, as a rule, taken early, especially in the case of marriage, so that the woman of the Middle Ages knew little of the joys of girlhood, with all its romantic castle-building and fondly fostered illusions. From playing with dolls, the child of twelve or even younger often suddenly found herself transformed into a wife. Although the Church had decreed that no girl should be wedded before the age of fifteen, this mandate was often ignored in noble families, where, through death, large fiefs had been left without a male representative and protector. In such a case the over-lord considered it necessary to assert his authority, and compel the marriage of some young girl of perhaps only twelve, so as to secure for her vassals and retainers a qualified leader, and for himself the needful and pledged military service. Still these marriages of convenience were often really happy arrangements, for the girl-wife had been trained to altruism, and its principles were the very essence of her daily life. Love, moreover, is a subtle sprite, and just as surely as he can spread his wings and fly away, so he can come, as if at unconscious bidding, and make for himself a dwelling-place.

To get any true insight into the life of the woman of the Middle Ages, we must study the small everyday affairs, and to this end go, in imagination, to some castle, and see how the day is passed there by its lady. Perhaps it is a day in late spring. The watchman on the tower, heralding the day, has sounded his horn, and soon all the castle is astir. Leaving her curtained bed, she first offers a short prayer at the small shrine hanging close by with its flickering light. Then the bath, the water scented with aromatic roots and covered with rose-petals, is taken. Mass and the morning broth follow, and the day is considered fitly begun. The poor, or any sick and sorry folk, are the first to be considered, or perhaps there is some wounded knight, who has sought shelter within the protecting walls of the castle, for whom soothing potions or healing salves have to be compounded. This latter service was generally the work of the lady of the castle, who as a rule possessed sufficient surgical knowledge to bind a broken limb. To beguile the weary hours of convalescence, she sings to the lute, tells stories, recounts legends, or reads aloud a romance lately bought from some wayfaring packman. Little is it to be wondered at that the convalescence is protracted, or that the knight delays his departure from day to day, sometimes to his own and the lady's undoing.

Beside such varied ministrations, the woman of the Middle Ages rode to the chase, went out hawking, snared birds with nets, ferreted rabbits, spun, wove, and embroidered. Embroidering was a really formidable occupation, for the great hall, and each room, had its special hangings, and on fête-days every inch of wall-space was covered. One set would picture an Arthurian legend, and others again were made bright with flowers, lilies, roses, and columbines. The lady and her maidens—often girls of noble birth, whom it was customary to send to some castle to complete their education—worked at the countless yards such decoration involved, and chatted the while, it may be, of some coming marriage or tourney, or perchance one among them would tell a story, and so time passed merrily enough. Then for the educated woman, of whom there were many, Latin verse offered a wide field of delight, and the woman of the Middle Ages read and loved her Virgil just as we of to-day read and love our Shakespeare. When the daylight had faded, there was always chess-playing, dancing the carole, and singing, and by the thirteenth century little pastoral ballets, in which a knight, and a shepherdess and her lover, took part, began to be produced for the diversion of castle-folk. For daily entertainment, every castle of any pretension had its own minstrel or minstrels, whilst in the smaller castles a wandering singer was warmly welcomed. Sometimes the lady gave audience to a poet, who read his latest idyll, a minstrel, to the accompaniment of his viol, singing the interspersed lyrics. Such a scene may be found depicted in miniatures, and suggests how such a story as "Aucassin and Nicolette," and many another, partly in prose, partly in verse, was rendered. One such miniature shows a lady reclining on a couch, with a lordling seated beside her, the poet, with his small parchment leaflets, declaiming his story, the minstrel waiting to take up the theme in song. It is of interest to note that in this particular miniature the gown of the lady is ornamented with heraldic devices. By such means we are enabled not only to identify the person represented—since portraiture, even if there was anything worthy of the name, was in a very rudimentary condition—and thus arrive at the approximate date of the picture, but also to verify a custom, and a stage in social life. It was not until the end of the twelfth century, when some sort of heraldic system became necessary owing to the introduction of the closed helmet, that armorial bearings, hitherto mere personal badges, became attached to noble families. By the thirteenth century, when the bourgeoisie had become rich, they were worn by the sumptuously attired wife of the lord to distinguish her from the equally sumptuously attired wife of the wealthy burgher.

Such, in mere outline, was the daily life of the mediaeval lady. Descriptions of the lady herself seem to be mere replicas of an admired and fixed type, for there is in them such a sameness of delineation, that we can only imagine that poets sang of qualities that pleased, and did not attempt to individualise. All are good and gracious, beautiful, and slight of figure, with delicate hands and tapering fingers, small feet, fine and glossy hair, and grey eyes, laughing and bright. Only occasionally are these attractions varied and enhanced by the telling of beauty unaided by paint and hair dye.

It is hardly necessary to speak, save very generally, of woman's dress, for much has already been written on the subject. For everyday use, garments of wool or linen, according to the season, and with much fur in winter, were worn. At weddings or tournaments, or on any other kind of fête-day, the ladies vied with each other in rich cloth of gold and silver, in silks woven with threads of gold and patterned with conventional design, and in all kinds of iridescent silken stuffs from the East. From Mosul, on the banks of the Tigris, whence the material we call muslin takes its name, was brought a fine silk gossamer, something like our crêpe de Chine. This was used for the finely plaited underdress seen at the neck and foot of mediæval costume. Perhaps the best representation of this, although stone seems hardly the most favourable medium for the delineation of so delicate a fabric, can be seen in the long slim figures of the queenly ladies standing in the niches on either side of the west door of Chartres Cathedral.

But when we have contemplated this gorgeous and dainty apparel, and all the other personal luxury that accompanied it, such as enamelled and jewelled gold circlets for the head, jewelled girdles with each jewel chosen for its own special virtue, carved ivory combs, tablets and hand-mirrors, and the like, we are forced to wonder how all this refinement and beauty could go hand in hand with so much that is unpleasing. If we turn to consider the manners of the men, we find the same contrasts—on the one hand the maximum of gallantry and courtesy, and on the other a corresponding churlishness and brutality. Metaphorically and actually, the lance and the battle-axe were still rivalling each other in the warfare of daily life. Although the battle-axe must eventually yield to the lance, still strange extremes have flourished side by side all down the ages. Turning to but comparatively recent times, the coarseness we associate with much of the reign of Charles II. stands out in glaring contrast with the delicate, graceful poetry that found expression then. And coming still nearer to our own days, we think of the unseemly manners in the reigns of George III. and IV. and the dainty miniatures such as those painted by Cosway, and wonder how these could exist together. Might we not just as well wonder why the olive tree has a gnarled, distorted stem, whilst its delicate, symmetrical leaves, of the tenderest green grey, glisten in the sunshine like silvery shells fresh from ocean's bed?

Renan, amongst the many thinkers on life's mysteries, tells us that "Life is the result of a conflict between contrary forces." But to philosophise is useless, and it is still more useless to question life's seeming anomalies. We can only bow in silence before "what Time in mists confounds."

As has been already said, it is only a general idea of the women of the Middle Ages that can be gleaned from the Romances. For something to bring us into more real touch with them, and to reveal more of their personality, we must consider some who have made themselves known to us through their work, since history, until we come to the fourteenth century, is almost silent about them. Thus it is that as we study these women, it almost seems at first as if we were looking at some faded frescoes in a dimly lighted church. But just as the half-obliterated figures take form and life as our eyes grow accustomed to the dimness, and our minds get attuned to the days that knew their living representatives, so these women of whom we are speaking may live again for us if only we treat their works as human documents, and not as archæological curiosities. The following pages tell of six such women who lived between the tenth century and the first half of the fifteenth—Roswitha, a nun of Germany; Marie de France, a lady at the Court of Henry the Second of England; Mechthild of Magdeburg, mystic and beguine; Mahaut, Countess of Artois, a great-niece of St. Louis; Christine de Pisan, an Italian by birth, living at the Court of Charles the Fifth of France; and Agnes Sorel, the Mistress and inspirer of Charles the Seventh.

In trying to evoke the women of these days of long ago, it is hardly possible to do more than portray them in outline. Yet even so, if the outline be true, we may remember, for our consolation, that it has been said that we shall never, except in outline, see the mysterious Goddess Truth.

  1. The Book of the Divine Consolation of the Blessed Angela of Foligno. The New Mediæval Library.
  2. Revelations of Divine Love recorded by Julian, Anchoress of Norwich, 1373.