The following blog entry is part of Battle Castle’s interactive fiction game set against the history of the fall of the great city of Constantinople. Do you want to be part of the story and experience the world of siegecraft, castle engineering and medieval warfare in a deeper way? Become an initiate at the Akademia Gnosi and learn from the Masters of Constantinople. Then choose to fight for the city and all it represents or preserve the knowledge protected within. Join us at www.mastersofconstantinople.com.
* * *
While it’s undeniably true that women had fewer opportunities than men and had more limits placed on their agency, women were nonetheless able to exert a considerable degree of influence on the domestic sphere- the household. Married women had a host of responsibilities in their households that required them to make important decisions and wield considerable influence over their families and by extension society. In times of war, these responsibilities could expand to include tasks that, during times of peace, only men were thought capable of.
Unsurprisingly, the primary obligation of married women was the production and raising of children regardless of their social status. Most married women were pregnant between 4 and 8 times and their lives, and would lose at least one child. High infant mortality rates meant that families were usually large. Childbirth also took a toll on mothers; many women died in childbirth before the age of 40. For instance, King Edward I of England and his first wife Eleanor of Castile had only 6 of their 14 children reach adulthood. As Good Christians it was the responsibility of all mothers of any class to raise their children properly in the Christian faith, and in this capacity most children received their first educations from their mothers.
The burgess wife of the growing middle class had less access to political influence than aristocratic women did (as we’ll see) but she did perform an equally impressive set of tasks within the household. Take, for example, the late thirteenth century text, The Goodman of Paris. Written by an elderly Parisian merchant to his much younger, fifteen year old wife, the text describes the virtues of the ideal wife and delineates her duties in running the household. She was responsible for various religious and moral duties; in particular, she was responsible for the early education of her children in the Christian faith. Other tasks could include managing servants, hiring workers, caring for animals like horses and livestock, and securing the household by locking up at night.
The difficulties of childbirth could afford women sympathy in the eyes of the church. The fifteenth century preacher St. Bernardino’s Sermons on Wives and Widows included the following pleas to Christian husbands: “Wherefore, as you see that your wife endures travail on every side, therefore you, O husband, if she fall into any need, be sure you help her to bear her pain. If she be with child or in childbirth, aid her so far as it lies in you, for it is your child also. Let all help her in any way they may. Mark her well, how she travails in childbirth, travails to suckle the child, travails to rear it, travails in washing and cleaning by day and by night. All this travail, see you, is of the woman only, and the man goes singing on his way. There was once a baron's lady who said to me: "Methinks the dear Lord our Master does as He sees good, and I am content to say that He does well. But the woman alone bears the pain of the children in many things.---bearing them in her body, bringing them into the world, ruling them, and all this oftentimes with grievous travail. If only God had given some share to man if only God had given him the child-bearing!"
Aristocratic women might also be involved in military training throughout the Middle Ages; powerful families controlled warfare and political power privately, and preparation for life in the court happened almost entirely in the home. Boys learned fighting from men of household, while the lady of the castle taught them to sing and dance and how to behave in the king’s court. The aristocratic woman would also play a significant role in the life of the court. As the managers of elite households they were especially important in preserving alliances between powerful families in court visits. Elite wives had to be good hostesses, and in noble households girls underwent a thorough education in etiquette and proper court behavior. When their husband went away on military campaigns, often for months and even years at a time, her responsibilities expanded to include those the absent male would have been responsible for. In this regard, noble wives could under certain circumstances perform the same tasks as men, and were regularly trusted to perform them well.
Erler, Mary C. and Maryanne Kowaleski. “A New Economy of Power Relations: Female Agency in the Middle Ages.” In Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages, 1-16. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
McLaughlin, Megan L. “The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare, and Society in Medieval Europe.” Women’s Studies 17 (1990), 193-209.
Hodgson, Natasha R. Women, Crusading, and the Holy Land in Historical Narratives. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007.
Jennifer Lynn Jordan is an author and medieval blogger. She is also a doctoral student in medieval history and teaching fellow at SUNY Stony Brook.