Gender Roles in Medieval Society
- Marriage practices varied between Italy and England (even within England) from the 11th to 14th centuries.
- Marriages practices varied based on social and economic (birth) status; gentry (about 1% of the population) had different practices than the common class
- In general, most women had no public social role.
- Marsilius of Padua in estate lists defines the people of the estate as everybody except the children, slaves, aliens, and women.
- Since the role was overwhelmingly private, it was asocial, internal, and emotional. The only way these women had to define themselves was in relation to their husbands. 92% of women married at this time.
- The only exception was women with religious callings. They could use service to Christ as a means of self-fulfillment.
- In England the nuclear family becomes the social unit, unlike in Italy or southern Europe where it was still more of a clan system.
- The Church taught by the beginning of the 12th century that marriage was not validated by a service but by the consent of two parties.
- Words of the present
- Words of the future
- The Church wanted to be assured that these agreements were not coerced, especially as the legal age for girls was twelve and for boys fourteen.
- The two could not be too closely related
- The two could not already be married
- Parents did not give up authority easily, so preferable marriages were public ones
- The banns were read for three weeks prior to the ceremony.
- The service was performed at the church door.
- The property arrangements were made at the church door, as priests were among the few educated enough to actually write the contract.
- Exceptions to this were the nobility where the primary concern tendedto be transmission of patrimony
- Children could be betrothed at birth
- Children could be married by proxy
These practices were motivated out of the fear of the father’s death, which would leave the child as ward of and the property at the discretion of the lord, who could, in turn, sell the marriage rights.
- There was tension in the conflicting views that one should choose a spouse carefully for the economic and companionship concerns and the idea that one should choose a spouse based on love or true love.
- This led to two conflicting views of marriage
- That marriage traps men into an unholy alliance with a sexual being, so that the husband should be constantly vigilant to retain his authority
- That husbands and wives were “equal and partners,” sharing a “social love” of mutual friends. Each has a duty to satisfy and fulfill the other.
- Was marriage satisfying to medieval women?
- Only about 50% of widowed women remarried
- Women were in a sense brainwashed by the culture into believing that marriage could ideally provide happiness
- Religious women saw their union with God as the ideal marriage (only barely asexual).
- The visionary union between male deity and female holy woman was imagined with remarkable physicality. Christ joined with women mouth to mouth and heart to heart, sometimes fusing with them.
- Catherine of Siena says she married Christ not with a ring of gold or silver but with the ring of his foreskin, the circumcision being a symbol of accepted suffering.
- Margery Kempe found her marriage intolerable as it interfered with her relationship with Christ, finally, after twelve children, getting her husband to commit to a life of abstinence
The Medieval Sex Life
- The Church governed sexual practices throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages
- Sex between married couples was illegal on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays
- Sex was illegal for the 40 days before Easter and Christmas
- Sex was illegal within the three days prior to one’s acceptance of communion
- Only one sexual position was allowed (missionary), and penalties would be prescribed for any variations
- Sex was not to be enjoyed; it was for procreation only
Woman’s Place in Medieval Society
- Many women worked domestically growing and harvesting grain, spinning wool, making ale, etc.
- Their husbands controlled their earnings because they were, largely, femme couverte de baron. If they were married they had no legal status of their own.
- Husbands were responsible for legal suits brought against their wives
- Men were allowed to inflict “moderate chastisement” upon their wives to keep them in their place. A civil law allowed that a husband could “beat [his wife] violently with whips and chains.”
- A few women could be legally declared femme soles, whether married or not, which allowed them financial control of their businesses.
The Idea of Love
in the Middle Ages
- From the 5th to 11th centuries, the frontier age of western Europe, women played a vital and expanding role in laying the foundations of our modern society.
- In the era following the end of the Roman Empire in the West, invading Germanic tribes intermarried freely with the conquered Romans, forming families that united different cultures.
- Recognized marriage alliances eased the process of social integration, and women’s roles in the family helped speed assimilation.
- Women held positions as administrators, educators, and religious leaders.
Early Christians did not want to offend contemporaries by maintaining an equal social position for Women. There is the attitude that the Weaker Sex requires restriction and support in the Early Christian writings.
In the 6th century, Roman Empresses still had a great deal of power and could come from humble origins (like Theodora).
In the 9th century, status and wealth begin to lose ground to prejudice against the sex, and women are given important legal rights in their familial capacities--but they begin to be limited socially. While these patterns were always in flux, the social distinctions were becoming more rigid, and upward mobility (for both sexes) began to become more difficult, if not impossible.
- Courtly Love developed during the 1100s in France, and it became an ideal, both literary and real, throughout Europe for the rest of the Middle Ages.
- It celebrated an intensely idealized form of sexual passion in a highly elaborate, sophisticated, and aristocratic code of behavior.
Map of France
•The relative peace and prosperity and the continued contact with Moorish Spain nurtured a civilized culture, based around the courts of Aquitaine, Auvergne, and Poitou.
•At these courts, from the twelfth century onwards, troubadours and trobairitz performed, combining the skills of poets, musicians, and singers.
- What they wrote about rather than how they wrote about it was new.
- They wrote about love, and about the women they loved.
- They celebrated their love in a quasi-religious way.
- They venerated the women they loved, showing them as objects of worship.
- They emphasized the torments suffered by the lover.
- They invented a religious cult of love, with Venus and Cupid as deities.
Courtly Love was revolutionary because it placed women, who had no real legal power in medieval society, in a position of power over their lovers.
The goal could be spiritual (platonic) or earthly (physical consummation).
The goal could be spiritual (platonic)
Or earthly (physical consummation).
- Both the noblewomen and their lovers benefited by this situation.
- The women found status and fame in the songs and stories and received affection from their lovers, which may have been lacking in their arranged marriages.
- The male lovers got status, money, and patronage.
- While cheating on one’s lord with that lord’s wife would be treasonous in feudal society, because legitimacy of the heir was important, during this time in Southern France it was tolerated, after the birth of the heir, because these liaisons produced more sons to be knights and daughters with which to make alliances were beneficial.
- In fact, a way to ensure a neighbor’s loyalty was to make them aware that you harbored their illegitimate child.
The troubadours were soon imitated in Northern France and Germany
- They wrote in many forms, such as
- The Breton Lay, a short story often based on Celtic tales and energized by magical happenings
- The knight-hero tales, longer stories in which the knight would perform his deeds to show his worthiness of his lady, to improve himself , and to achieve his potential as a man and as a knight.
- There was great appeal in the idea that relations between aristocratic men and women could be determined by an irresistible mutual passion rather than by the dynastic, territorial, and financial imperatives that led to arranged marriages.
During the entire period of the Middle Ages this new idea of romantic love was seen as a humanizing and refining influence.
The knight-hero’s quest for love and self-actualization was contrasted to the traditional knight’s function as a warrior fighting for lord, comrades, or society.
- For the first time in post-classical Europe a man’s status as a civilized being, a member of courtly society, was judged by his behavior toward women.
- By the later decades of the twelfth century, the ethos of courtly love was codified and written down.
In the first century B.C.E., Ovid composed The Art of Loving.
This was a how-to book on seduction of women written to a male audience.
Ovid admits that people “fall in love” as the result of strong sexual attraction
Between 1184 and 1186, Andreas Capellanus composed On The Art of Honorable Loving.
Andreas’s book may have been an elaborate intellectual joke, for he takes Ovid’s themes of adulterous love and subjects it to the medieval methods of scholarly analysis.
Andreas sees falling love as a spiritual exercise, almost a duty.
History of the Rules of Love
While medieval readers found the text amusing, they also found it useful.
They co-opted it and used its ideas to structure their society, their literature, and the behavior expected by its noblemen and women.
- Medieval people were fond of codes and rules and lists.
- They left treatises on
- Table manners
- Courtly life
• The code’s existence tells us that they enjoyed debating the rights and wrongs of romantic love and that the society needed it in some way.
-To make sense of something potentially chaotic and destructive
-To impose order on experience
-To provide meaning to life
Characteristics of Love
- 1. Love was both happily painful and deadly joyful
- 2. The pursuit of love was dangerous but necessary.
- 3. To be worthy of love one had to be discreet, faithful, obsessive, generous, and courteous.
Characteristics of Love, continued
- 4. One must seek, suffer, and submit to prove worthy of love.
- 5. For love to remain there must be some obstacle.
- 6. Consummation is the desired goal of love, whether it is spiritual or earthly.
- 7. Jealousy is an indispensable part of love.
Characteristics of Love, continued
- 8. Love is worth dying or insanity.
- 9. By definition, true love may not be able to exist within marriage.
- The culture that nurtured the troubadours was destroyed in the first half of the thirteenth century.
- Pope Innocent III proclaimed a crusade against heretics in 1209.
- For the next thirty years the impoverished from the North had license to wage war on their wealthy neighbors.
- In 1244 the last stronghold of the heretics, Monségur, was taken; all inside were killed.
- The society, laws, language, culture, and the poetry of the Occitania were silenced.
- By then it was too late, however, to stop the spread of the religion of romantic love.
- The troubadours vision of love had spread across the whole of western Europe, and it is has been found in literature and human consciousness ever since.