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.

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.

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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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