Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 4: Women and Love

Today I  conclude my mini-series on women in the Middle Ages with a look at cult of courtly love and the controversial topic of how it impacted the status of women.

The “Middle Ages” ought to be called either the “Feudal Ages” or the “Age of Chivalry” since the term “middle" (suggesting something interim or transitory) is an odd designation for more than a thousand years of history.  Feudalism, on the other hand, was a defining characteristic of the Middle Ages, and Chivalry was the secular ethos of that age. It was chivalry that gave birth to a radical transformation of man’s understanding of “love” and with it to a revolution in sexual relations.

To understand the latter, it is necessary to briefly reiterate the importance of Christian beliefs, and then to look more closely at chivalry itself. Christianity impacted the concept of love in two ways: 1) God is defined as Love with Christ as Love incarnate, and 2) it elevated women into souls, making them spiritual beings, equal to men in the eyes of God. Thus Christianity values love, including love for women, while making a clear distinction between love (which is divine) and lust (which is a mortal sin.) Love for the Virgin was an expression of the former, and extremely important in the history of the Medieval Church.  Yet chaste love for a living woman was also valued and cherished. Such feelings are well-illustrated by a letter from the 6th Century poet and priest Venantius Fortunatus to the fifty-year-old Queen Radegund, then living as a nun in the convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. Fortunatus writes:

Honored mother, sweet sister

Whom I revere with a faithful and pious heart,

With heavely affection, without bodily touch,

It is not the flesh in me that loves
But rather the desire of the spirit… (Pernoud, p.35.)

Chivalry, on the other hand, introduced for the first time the notion that a man could become more worthy, more “noble,” through love for a lady. Love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature. Other characteristics of chivalry, as defined in handbooks on chivalry such as that written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull, were nobility [of spirit not birth], loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness. Simplified, chivalry entailed upholding justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. Yet regardless of the exact definition, the inspiration for knights striving to fulfill the ideal of chivalry was love for a lady.

Critically, the chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide or my favorite Yvain, Or the Knight with the Lion (both by Chrétien de Troyes) or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. The notion repeated so often nowadays that courtly love or the love of the troubadors was always about adulterous love is nonsense.  Nevertheless, the tradition of the troubadours did put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.

Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues.  A lady was to be loved and respected for her beauty, her graces, her kindness, and her wisdom regardless of her status, and a knight was to be loved for his manly virtues, not his lands or titles. 

Even more important, however, is the fact that regardless of which of the partners was the social superior, the lady always took on the role and status of “lord” to her lover. The term of address that a lover used in addressing his lady was “mi dons” ― literally “my lord.” The term denoted the knight’s subservience to his lady, his position as her “man” ― her vassal, her servant, her subject. In art, knights are shown kneeling before their lady and placing their hands in hers ― the gesture of a vassal taking the feudal oath to his lord. (I couldn't find an example of this exact gesture on the internet, but here are two images of knights keeling with folded hands before their ladies.

Last but not least, courtly or chivalric love was not a means to sexual conquest. For lovers who had the luck to be married, it certainly included physical love, and in many of the adulterous romances consummation was also achieved. Yet physical love was not the objective of courtly love. The objective of love was to become greater ― more courageous, more courteous, more generous, more noble, in short, more chivalrous than before. In this sense, courtly love reflected religious love because it was first and foremost love of the spirit and character rather than the body. 

All of these features set courtly or chivalric love apart from the erotic love of the ancients, the Arabs or the modern age.  Sadly, people still confuse “chivalry” with superficial gestures of courtesy (such as opening doors) and women in the name of “liberation” reject the concepts that first truly liberated them.

For more on this fascinating, complex and hotly debated subject, I recommend:

Barber, Richard W. The Knight and Chivalry. The Boydell Press, 1995.
Hopkins, Andrea. Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. Quarto Publishing, 1990.
·                 Pernoud, Regine. Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. Ignatius, 1989.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 3: Women and Education

Today I continue my mini-series on opportunities for women in the Middle Ages with a look at women's access to education.

After wealth, education is arguably the most powerful means of empowerment. As I noted in last week’s essay on women and economic power, professional skills were mobile and endowed women with independence and self-respect.  Today, however, I want to look at abstract learning, “book-learning,” rather than practical, professional skills. It is still common to impute ignorance to people in the Middle Ages generally, and even more common to assume that women were not generally literate.

Certainly, literacy was not as widespread or common in the Middle Ages as it is today. There was no requirement to attend school, and for the poor the need to work from a very early age made schooling a luxury. It was possible to learn a trade by watching and listening to a master, rather than reading texts. Thus for a significant portion of society at the lower end of the social scale, reading and writing was neither a necessity nor particularly valuable. 

Yet, as with everything in feudal society, class more than gender determined whether a person was likely to be literate or not. Among the classes that valued and required higher levels of education, women were as likely to be educated as their brothers and husbands.  In the early Middle Ages among the upper classes, some historians argue, women were more likely to read and write than their husbands and brothers. Because their men were too busy fighting, women were expected to provide a basic education to children, and maintain control of the estates by doing the book-keeping and correspondence.

For merchants or skilled craftsmen running a business, the support of wives in keeping the books, conducting correspondence, collecting arrears, etc. was vital.  Recognizing this, burghers ensured that their daughters were sufficiently literate and numerate to carry out these tasks ― or they risked having unmarriageable daughters.

Noblewomen, likewise, needed to be literate and numerate in order to manage their own and their husband’s property. In fact, even in the later Middle Ages the everyday management of a household and estate generally fell to the lady of the house, since men were often engaged in warfare and politics, activities that took them away from their estates, sometimes for extended periods. The higher their status, the higher the level of educated expected. Noblewomen could usually correspond in both their own language and Latin. They were frequently patrons of the arts, owners of books, and in some cases authors as well. It is no coincidence that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb shows her reading a book, while her daughter Marie of Champagne was the patroness of Chrétien de Troyes and it was to her that he dedicated some of his greatest works such as Yvain, or The Knight with the Lion.

Finally, women who chose a religious vocation chose a lifestyle that revolved around reading, writing, copying and illustrating Holy Scripture and more. The most highly educated women of the Middle Ages were, therefore, often found inside convents. Furthermore, by their work copying and illuminating manuscripts, nuns played a key role (along with monks) in preserving knowledge both sacred and secular, and in their role as educators they were instrumental in spreading literacy to others.

The latter point is particularly important because it was only the wealthy that could afford to retain tutors for the education of their young. (Household accounts, incidentally, sometimes list women as tutors.) Thus education often fell to parents, who might not have the necessary time, inclination or talent for the task. Yet, it is evident that starting at least by the 6th century AD convents and monasteries across Europe offered education to children. Interestingly, the sexes were not always segregated when very young; little boys were often entrusted to the care of nuns and only later sent to monasteries or given secular education as pages and squires.  Alternatively, particularly bright girls might be sent to monasteries to learn more or be trained in particular skills such as singing or illumination. Also notable is anecdotal evidence of education in the convents being affordable as there are references to poor children attending them.  

The most dramatic evidence of female education in the Middle Ages, however, is provided by the large number of women who were authors of important works. A certain noblewoman, Dhuoda, for example, wrote an extensive and erudite treatise on education in or about 842; the book is full of biblical and other references that indicate this “ordinary” noblewoman was herself very well read (and incidentally very busy). In 965, a certain Hroswitha composed a long epic poem of Otto I. In the 12th century, there was Heloise, famous, unfortunately, more for her affair with Abelard than the fact that she was accounted a brilliant scholar in Latin, Greek and Hebrew before she even met him.  Indeed, Abelard claims to have wanted to seduce Heloise because of her learning ― as well as writing that he never really loved her, only lusted after her. In her letters to him, Heloise espoused a radical feminism that rejected both marriage and children. In the 15th century, there was the poet Christine de Pisan who in the early 15th century took on the University of Paris, mocking their misogyny.

Christine de Pisan with her Son

My personal favorite among the women of letters of the Middle Ages was Hildegard von Bingen. She was born in 1098 and died in 1179. She joined a convent at eight, took the veil at 15 and was abbess from 1136 onwards. She had visions, as she describes them:

Through God’s goodness, my soul sometimes surges up to the heights of the heavens and the air and sometimes wanders among different peoples, although they live in far regions and unknown places…I see them only in my soul, and the eyes of my body remain open, for I have never fainted in ecstasy. I see them awake night and day…The light that I see is not local, but infinitely more brilliant than the light that surrounds the sun.” (Cited in Pernoud, p. 43)

Yet for all her mystical visions, she remained a highly practical woman who wrote books on “simple” and “composite” medicine, books on linguistics, and also composed music (which can be found on the internet today.)  Furthermore, returning to my thesis on women wielding political power (See Women and Political Power), she corresponded with all the important rulers of her day from Pope Eugene III to Friedrich Barbarossa and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Hildegard, in short, was recognized as an intellectual and spiritual giant event by individuals themselves revered for their learning, power and spirituality.

The heroines of these award-winning novels set in the Middle Ages reflect their respective class in terms of their level of education -- from Dowager Queens to serving girls.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 2: Women and Economic Power

Today I continue my mini-series on opportunities for women in the Middle Ages with a look at women's access to economic power.

Nothing gives women more power and status than wealth. In societies where women cannot own property (e.g. ancient Athens) they are not only powerless to take their fate into their own hands in an emergency, they are also generally viewed by men as worthless.  Where women can possess, pass-on, and control wealth, they enjoy independence, respect and are viewed (and coveted) not only as sexual objects but as contributors to a man’s status and fortune (e.g. ancient Sparta).

Medieval women across Europe could inherit, own and dispose of property. The laws obviously varied from realm to realm and over time, but the fundamental right of women to inherit was widespread and reached from the top of society (women could in many but not all realms bequeath kingdoms) to the bottom, where peasant women could also inherit and transmit the hereditary rights to their father’s lands, mill or shop. 

Significantly, it was not only heiresses that enjoyed property and the benefits thereof. On the contrary, every noblewoman received land from her husband’s estate at marriage called a “dower.” 

A dower is not to be confused with the dowry. A dowry was not an inheritance. It was property that a maiden took with her into her marriage.  Negotiated between families before a marriage, dowries were usually land. Royal brides brought entire lordships into their marriage (e.g. the Vexin), but the lesser lords might bestow a manor or two and the daughters of gentry might bring a mill or the like to their husbands. Even peasant girls might call a pasture or orchard their dowry. The key thing to remember about dowries, however, is that they were not the property of the bride. They passed from her guardian to her husband. 

Dowers on the other hand were women’s property. In the early Middle Ages, dowers were inalienable land bestowed on a wife at the time of her marriage. A woman owned and controlled her dower property, and she retained complete control of this property not only after her husband’s death, but even if her husband were to fall foul of the king, be attained for treason, and forfeit his own land and titles.

Whatever the source of a woman's wealth, in Medieval France, England and Outremer, women did not need their husband’s permission or consent to dispose over their own property. There are thousands of medieval deeds that make this point. While it was common to include spouses and children on deeds, this was a courtesy that increased the value of the deed rather than a necessity ― and that principle applied to men as well as women.  Thus many deeds issued by kings and lords, included wives and children as witnesses as a means of demonstrating that the grant or sale was known to their co-owners/heirs. 

Middle class women could inherit whole businesses, and as widows they ran these businesses, representing them in the respective guilds. Indeed, most wives were active in their husband's business while he was still alive. Manuscript illustrations show, for example, a women bankers (collecting loans, while the husband gives them out), and "alewives" -- including women in helmets bringing refreshment to archers engaged in a battle! (I could not find that picture on the internet, but here's another allegorical picture of women fighting.)

More important, however, women could learn and engage in trades and business on their own. They could do this as widows, as single, unmarried women (femme sole) or as married women, running a separate business from that of their husbands. The skills acquired, even more than property, fostered economic independence and empowerment because property can be lost — in a fire, an invasion, from imprudence and debt — but skills are mobile and enduring, as long as one remains healthy enough to pursue one’s profession. Furthermore, once qualified in a trade, women took part in the administration of their respective profession, both as guild-members and on industrial tribunals that investigated allegations of fraud, malpractice and the like.  In short, there was no discrimination against qualified women engaged in a specific trade.

Furthermore, women in the Middle Ages could learn a variety of trades. Some trades were dominated by women, for example, in England brewing, in France baking, and almost everywhere silk-making.  However, women were also very frequently shopkeepers, selling everything from fruit and vegetables (not very lucrative) to spices and books.  In addition, women could be, among other things, confectioners, candle-makers, cobblers and buckle-makers.  Women could also be musicians, copiers, illuminators, and painters, though I have not come across references to women sculptors. More surprising to modern readers, medieval records (usually tax rolls) also list women coppersmiths, goldsmiths, locksmiths and armorers.  A survey of registered trades in Frankfurt for the period from 1320 to 1500 shows that of a total 154 trades, 35 were reserved for women, but the remainder were practiced by both men and women, although men dominated in 81 of these.

Notably, in the early Middle Ages women could be medical practitioners. All midwives were women, of course, and sisters of the Hospital provided most of the care for women patients, but women could also be barbers (who performed many medical procedures such as blood-letting), apothecaries, surgeons and physicians. A female doctor, for example, accompanied King Louis IX on crusade in the mid-13th century. Women learned these trades in the traditional way, by apprenticing with someone already practicing the profession, who was willing to take them on.  It wasn't until the 14th century that universities imposed the exclusive right to certify physicians -- while excluding women from universities. 

All my novels set in the Middle Ages strive to show women as active participants in society and the economy. A woman confectioner is an important secondary character in “Envoy of Jerusalem,” for example.
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, March 30, 2018

St. Helena, the True Cross and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Today, on Good Friday, I interrupt my mini-series on opportunities for women in the Middle Ages to a look at the woman who located the site of Christ's grave and tell the story of the church erected on that site: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Helena was a historical figure, the mother of the Emperor Constantine I "the Great." According to most accounts she was born in roughly 248 AD in comparatively humble cicumstances, either in northwestern Anatolia or (less probably) in what is now the South of France.  She married the Roman officer Constaninius Chlorus, allegedly a man of equally humble background. However, Constaninius was an ambitious man and made a successful career. In 305 on the brink of becoming Caesar he ensured his elevation by repudiating Helena to marry Theodora, the daughter of Emperor Maximian.

On his father's death in 306, Helena's son Constantine was acclaimed "Caesar" by the Western legions, and he spent the next 18 years fighting rival emperors Maxentius and Licinius. In 324, he finally became sole emperor in East as well as West. Before his death in 337, he undertook major reforms of both the Roman Army and the imperial administration. He introduced a sound currency that was to last roughly a 1,000 years as the "gold standard" of coinage used around the Mediterranean. Last but not least, he  established a new imperial capital on the Bosporus in what became known as Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Yet long before his final victory over Licinius, Emperor Constantine raised his mother to the rank of Empress and had coins minted with her likeness on them. Furthermore, in 313 he (jointly with Licinius) issued the Edict of Milan that granted religious tolerance to Christianity. At about this time, Helena converted to Christianity and began to actively support the Christian church.

Helena used her status as Empress to finance the construction of a number of churches, notably in Rome and Trier, and is credited by Church chroniclers with great acts of charity for the poor and destitute. In 326, when she was already approaching 80 years of age, she  undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  

We know that at about this time, people living in the Holy Land began to revere a relic which they believed was the cross on which Christ had been crucified.  According to the Church historian Rufinius writing in 403, this object was discovered after Empress Helena ordered excavations in the environs of the Temple to Venus, known to have been erected on the site of Christ's crucifixion by Roman emperors intent on eradicating the worship of Christ. Early accounts say that she and the Bishop Marcarius undertook the excavations, discovering under the porch of the Roman temple ancient quarries or tombs. According to Rufinius (writing less than a century after the alleged events), they found three crosses in one of these. Taking pieces of each, they brought these to a sick woman, who on contact with the third recovered miraculously. Thereafter, that cross was revered as the cross on which Christ had been crucified. It as divided into several pieces, and these were distributed to various churches, only one being retained in Jerusalem.

Empress Helena also located the site of the Nativity and was responsible for the construction of a great church on this site as well. (See: Church of the Nativity)   Roughly one decade later, Empress Helena died and shortly afterwards was canonized as St. Helena.

In later accounts of the finding of the True Cross, Bishop Marcarius was deleted in favor of a traitorous Jew and the sick woman became a dead man brought back to life, but these legends are less important than the fact that a great church financed by and on the order of Emperor Constantine was constructed to mark the cite of the Crucifixion and Resurrection his mother had identified. This became known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Modern archaeologists believe that, given the fact that the site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection had never been lost from sight due to early eye-witness accounts and the later construction of the Roman temple, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built on, or very near, the site of the historical crucifixion and grave of Christ.

The first church on this site was a monumental Greek basilica 150 meters by 75 meters, covering almost exactly the same area as the Roman temple to Venus. This church encircled Calvary, or the site of the crucifixion, while a rotunda beside it covered the site of Christ's grave, reached by stairs leading underground.  

This church was burned to the ground in 614 when the Persians sacked Jerusalem. After the expulsion of the Persians in 628 under Emperor Herakleios, a more modest church was built on its foundations. This second church gradually fell into disrepair during the years of Muslim rule starting in 638, and in 969 Moslem troops set the church on fire causing the dome to collapse. Although repaired by 984, this church was completely leveled by the Caliph el-Hakim in 1009. A new attempt to construct a church on the site of the crucifixion was not undertaken until 1048, but given the status of the Christian community under Muslim rule and their limited resources this was not a significant monument.

Only after the re-establishment of Christian rule in Jerusalem with the First Crusade was it possible to again construct a church worthy of the most sacred site in Christendom.  This was undertaken by the kings of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and was consecrated on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem on July 15, 1149.  This new church covered both Calvary and the Holy Grave. It is essentially this church which we can still see today in Jerusalem. Although it has inevitably undergone periods of decay and reconstruction, it retains the fundamental design and many remnants of the original crusader cathedral. 

The Holy Sepulcher was a central monument throughout the crusader period and is therefore integral to descriptions of life in the Jerusalem Trilogy.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

Friday, March 23, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 1: Women and Political Power

Building on last weeks' entry, which confronted the common myth that women were "mere chattels" of their husbands in the Middle Ages, I plan to look more closely at the opportunities for women in the medieval world in a new four-part mini-series. 
I open today with a look at women's access to political power.

Non-historians are inclined to assume that progress is linear.  Since women did not obtain the right to vote in major democracies until the early 20th century, the assumption is that before the 20th century women had no rights. Yet, as the noted French historian Régine Pernoud argues eloquently in her book Women in the Days of the Cathedrals (Ignatius, 1989) women enjoyed much greater power in the Middle Ages than in the centuries that followed. Pernoud attributes this retrogressive development to the Renaissance and the attendant fascination with all things “antique.” The focus on Rome ultimately led to the re-introduction of many elements of Roman law, a legal tradition that was extremely misogynous.

The higher status of women in the Middle Ages as compared to antiquity and the renaissance and early modern periods stems from the two principles that formed the basis of medieval society: 1) Christianity and 2) Feudalism. Christianity, as I discussed in length in my essay on “Women as Chattels,” accorded women unprecedented status because it eliminated polygamy and divorce, while elevating women from sexual objects to spiritual beings. Feudalism raised the status of women because power derived through hereditary titles to land.  

Simplified: in feudalism bloodlines were more important than gender. What this means is that although the hierarchy gave precedence to the first born son over his brothers, and to sons before the daughters, it nevertheless gave the daughters precedence over cousins and illegitimate children of either sex, much less individuals without any blood relationship to the hereditary lord. Bonds of marriage, furthermore, were considered “blood-ties,” meaning that wives were given very powerful rights over property, which in turn gave them control over the vassals, tenants, servants and serfs that went with the land. In practice, the feudal focus on blood-ties and land meant that in the absence of a male, whether temporarily or permanently, females exercised the same authority as the absent male. In other words, in a hierarchical society such as feudalism, class trumped gender. Thus, while women were to a degree subject to men of their own class, they nevertheless had a higher standing and more power than men of any lower class. 

At the pinnacle of feudal society, queens were anointed and crowned because they were expected to exercise authority over the entire kingdom, and so the blessings of the Divine were deemed essential. This was not a nominal nor ceremonial power. When a king died leaving a minor child as his heir, it was normal for the child’s mother to act as regent.  In France the custom goes back at least to 1060, when, at the death of Henry I, his wife Anna became regent for their son Philip I.  In England, an example of this is when Isabella of France served as regent for Edward III after his father’s death but before he attained his majority.  Even when a king was not dead, circumstances might hand power to his wife. In England, Marguerite of Anjou ruled during the frequent periods of mental illness exhibited by Henry VI.  When Louis IX of France went on crusade to the Holy Land in 1249, he left his mother as his regent ― a function she had fulfilled during his minority as well.  Indeed, when Louis IX was taken captive by the Saracens, he negotiated a ransom with the caveat that, since he was a prisoner, his queen was reigning and only she could confirm the terms of the agreement. 

Admittedly, in the 14th Century, in order to preclude an English king claiming the throne of France, French jurists invented the so-called “Salic Law” that excluded women from the succession in France. This law stands in contraction to the laws that had been in place since the middle of the sixth century, when the edict of Neustria (ca. 580) ruled that daughters could succeed to the main manor (hereditary domain) if there was no son and sisters could succeed if there were no brother.  Notably, the same edict ruled that all other property (acquired by purchase or marriage) must be divided equally between all heirs regardless of gender. (Pernoud, p. 163).  Furthermore, the prohibition against women succeeding to the crown did not apply to other kingdoms from England and Castile to Jerusalem. 

Even more significant, across most of Europe women could be barons in the sense that they could both give and receive feudal oaths. The importance of this cannot be over stated: feudal oaths were the very basis of feudal society, they were the mortar that held society together, the social contract that made feudalism function. The recognition of a woman as a vassal and a lord ― not in her capacity as a man’s wife or daughter but in her own right ― entailed recognizing her as a fully independent legal entity. This was unthinkable under Roman or Athenian law, and, sadly, was not the case in the France from the 16th  to the 20th century!

As noted above, women were lords in the absence of males capable of representing their particular barony/fiefdom, but the essential point is that they were recognized as being capable of holding a title and the lands that went with it. Eleanor of Aquitaine held the Duchy of Aquitaine in her own right, and her vassals (powerful and militant barons for the most part) paid homage to her ― not to either of her royal husbands. The same is true of countless other women in the Middle Ages from Countesses of Flanders and Burgundy in France to Joan, Countess of Kent, in England. There were many, many others. In depth studies of specific lordships in France such as Troyes in the Champagne, for example, show that women held 58 of a total of 160 fiefs held directly (as opposed to being property of a higher lord, administrated by an appointee). (Pernoud, p. 180.) This suggests that women inherited at a rate of slightly better than one out of three. 

Not only did women hold the titles, they controlled the lands and commanded the men and women that went with them. One of my favorite stories in that of the “Keeper of the King’s Forrest” and Constable of Lincoln in 1217 ― a certain Nicholaa, who Austin Hernon has brought wonderfully to life in his well-researched novel The Women Who Saved England.  She defended the castle of Lincoln against forces attempting to put the King of France on England’s throne during the minority of Henry III. She withstood multiple assaults, commanding the men of the garrison in person. But there are literally countless cases of women holding and defending castles against siege and storm.

Last but not least, no description of political power in the Middle Ages would be complete without noting that the emergence of nuns and convents in the 5th century AD opened completely new opportunities for women. Convents were centers of learning, music, and illumination (something I’ll discuss in more length in my essay on women and education).  The Order of the Hospital also offered women careers in social work and medical care ― not to mention an opportunity to travel to the Holy Land. Critical to understanding these institutions is to note that they were self-governing, so that women were not subject to any men inside the community, and ― often completely overlooked ― in many double foundations (monastery and convent side-by-side) the Abbess ruled over the men as well as the women. What this means is that monks entering the monastery took their vows to the abbess ― not the abbot. Finally, although such power is indirect, many abbesses enjoyed great influence outside the walls of the convent. As women of recognized learning and wisdom, some of the greater abbesses such as Agnes of Poitiers, Mathilda of Fontevrault, or Hildegard von Bingen, corresponded with popes, emperors and kings. 

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Maria Comnena, Byzantine Princess and Queen of Jerusalem, was certainly a woman with political power. She is the female protagonist of my Jerusalem Trilogy and also plays a significant role in “The Last Crusader Kingdom.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                          Buy now!

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.