Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into 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.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Chattels — or What Medieval Women were NOT

OK. I admit it. I’m going to get on my soap-box. This is a rant. But I’ve had enough. I’m sick and tired of hearing that women were “mere chattels” in the Middle Ages. It is NOT true. It is true that they did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as 21st century women in advanced, post-industrial, Western societies, but they were not at any time in medieval Europe (800 – 1500 AD)  “chattels.”

Let me start by reminding you what the word chattel means. Webster’s Dictionary, Second College Edition, states that a chattel is: “a movable item of personal property, as a piece of furniture, an automobile, a head of livestock.” In short, a chattel is by definition property, an object without rights. It is something that can be disposed of, sold, or destroyed by the owner. Humans who are property are called slaves. Women in Medieval Europe were not slaves—of their husbands or anyone else. Period.

I could end this essay here, but the persistence of the misconception induces me to go a little farther.

The Christianization of Europe led to the gradual elimination of slavery across Western Europe. Former slaves were transformed into “serfs,” whose mobility and freedom was greatly inhibited, but who also enjoyed rights. Most simply and importantly, serfs could not be bought or sold—not even female serfs. Female serfs were not chattels—of their lords or their husbands.

    Furthermore, nothing — absolutely 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 are viewed with respect and coveted not only as sexual objects but as contributors to a man’s status and fortune (e.g. ancient Sparta.)
Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the richest heiresses in history.

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 bequeath kingdoms) to the bottom, where peasant women could also inherit and transmit the hereditary rights to their father’s lands, mill or shop. Middle class women such as guildsman’s wives could inherit whole businesses. This made them very valuable as wives.

Widows were particularly well protected. Beyond what they personally inherited they had a right to a share of their deceased husband’s property. For noblewomen that could be vast estates, for poor women maybe little more than some furnishings and bedclothes, but the point is that their situation reflected their husband’s estate not their sex.

Women could learn and engage in trades and business. Skills even more than property foster 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. Women in the Middle Ages could learn a variety of trades from brewer and baker to silk-maker, weaver, dyer and more.

4   Medieval society was hierarchical. A woman’s status was dictated by her class more than her sex. A woman of the nobility had more respect and power than a man of the middle classes, and a middle class woman had more respect and power than a peasant man. Women of higher social class could command, control, and indeed oppress men of lower status. 

Women who ruled kingdoms — whether Eleanor of Aquitaine or Melusinde of Jerusalem — and wielded power over noblemen, knights and bishops were not “chattels.” Women who wrote theology and corresponded with popes and emperors and controlled the wealth and inhabitants of religious communities like Hildegard von Bingen were not “chattels.” Women who pursued trades and ran business, amassing fortunes while holding authority over journeymen and apprentices were not “chattels.”

Another factor in the increased status of women in the Middle Ages was the spread of Christianity. In fact it can be argued that Christianity itself was the single most important factor in increasing the status of women in Europe. 

Stop! Forget all the feminist literature you’ve read (or have heard other people talk about without bothering to actually read) which characterizes the “Church” as a patriarchal, misogynous and sexist institution. I don’t want to talk about “equal rights,” ordaining women, or any other issue that agitates modern women. Let’s go back to basics:

Nothing degrades or devalues women more than polygamy. Fatima Mernisse (a Muslim Professor of Sociology) notes: “Polygamy…enhances men’s perception of themselves as primarily sexual beings and emphasizes the sexual nature of the conjugal unit. Moreover, polygamy is a way for the man to humiliate the woman…. ‘Debase a woman by bringing in another one in [to the house].’”[1] The Christian Church diligently opposed polygamy and succeeded in eliminating it from Christian society before the start of the Middle Ages.

Divorce is pre-industrial societies disproportionately benefits men and harms women. I understand that modern (Western) women want the right to divorce, but modern women in advanced, western societies have the benefit of birth control, education, equal opportunity, and many other hard won rights. In the Middle Ages, when women did not enjoy all those privileges/rights, divorce was (and in many non-Christian societies still IS) used overwhelming by men, almost never by women. Divorce enables men (but not women) to discard partners who have grown old, fat, less attractive or simply failed to produce children. In the absence of polygamy, which allows men to simply add another wife to replace the one they’ve grown tired of, divorce is the best way for men to ensure their personal satisfaction with their sexual partner at little personal cost.  The fate of most repudiated wives, on the other hand, was (and is) dismal. 

The Christian Church’s insistence on marriage as a life bond was a truly revolutionary innovation that dramatically increased the status and financial security of women. If a man could not simply toss a woman out and get a new wife, he had no choice but to try to come to terms with the wife he had. His wife was elevated from interchangeable sexual partner to life-time partner. Yes, I know a bad marriage can be hell, but a woman in the 6th, 7th or 8th century couldn’t just move to a new city, get a new job and start a new life. Her only option was going back to her own family (if they’d have her) and generally becoming the resented and humiliated “reject,” kicked around and abused by her sisters, sisters-in-law etc.  And, yes, men, particularly wealthy and powerful men, in Christian kingdoms in the Middle Ages still found ways to set aside their wives, but the Church’s stance made it more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was a whole lot better than what had gone before—and still prevails in many parts of the non-Christian world. 

Last but not least, contrary to what you have heard people say, the Roman Catholic Church was not always and unremittingly misogynous. Yes, I know, you can find all sorts of quotes to prove the contrary. But “the Church” is not in fact monolithic or static. An 11th century French bishop went on record saying: “Of all the things that God has given for human use, nothing is more beautiful or better than a good woman.”[2] The 13th Century Master-General of the Dominican Order went even further and catalogued women’s virtues, noting that God made woman not from “slime” (as He made man) but from a rib, and pointing out that God made woman not from a man’s foot that he might “esteem her his servant” but from his rib so she would be his “helpmate." He also noted that at Christ’s resurrection, it was a woman to whom He first appeared — a hugely important theological point, by the way.[3]
Most important, the mother of Christ was venerated above all other saints in the Middle Ages. The rosary evolved, and Mary’s status as an intermediary between man and God was propagated. Medieval Catholicism thus gave to a women a status unknown in any other religion: Mary was revered not for her fertility or her ability to satisfy man’s lust, but for her virtues: love, generosity, kindness, forgiveness etc. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary inspired imitation, and soon there were a host of other female saints revered for their piety and devotion to God even onto martyrdom. 

On a more mundane level, however, the Medieval Church offered women places of refuge from the violent world around them. Convents offered women an opportunity to pursue scholarship and avoid the often wretched life of wife and mother. Abbesses were usually aristocratic women with excellent connections to the powerful families of their society. As such they could be politically influential, and carried on correspondence with everyone from the pope to kings and emperors.  Some transcended their roles in exceptional ways, such as Hildegard von Bingen, who is revered to this day as a composer, writer and philosopher. But even less exalted and less well-connected women in religious orders could do things like run orphanages and hospices that were above and beyond the purely domestic or commercial activities of their secular sisters.

So, in conclusion, were medieval women equal to men? No. Did they have the same rights and privileges? No. Could they do everything that men did? No. Were they often victims of violence and injustice? Certainly. But the world is not made up of black and white, pure good and pure evil, perfect equality or pure oppression. European women in the Middle Ages enjoyed far more status, freedom and economic empowerment than hundreds of millions of women living in the world today. Please don’t refer to them as “chattels.”

Thank you.

[1] Fatima Mernisse, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, Indiana University Press, 1987, p. 48.

[2] Toni Mount, The Medieval Housewife and Other Women of the Middle Ages, Amberley, 2014, p.78.

[3] Ibid.

In all my novels I attempt to portray women in roles reflective of their historical place in the society of the age described. The Balian trilogy contains a number of strong female characters, both good and bad.

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1 comment:

  1. Great post! I often find myself bristling at "medieval women were chattel" for the same reason. Aristocratic women sometimes were so influential they attracted political enemies, something powerless people don't have.