Hard time to be a woman?

Of late I have read quite a few posts on Facebook bemoaning the tough lot women had in the Middle Ages. Well yes, their lives could be very hard. But so could those of medieval men. It’s important not to generalise too much.

There were certainly men who valued their wives very highly. We need scarcely mention King Richard II, so upset by his wife’s death that he had the whole palace where she died demolished. What about Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel? He actually renamed a castle after his young wife, calling it Castle Philippe (Castle Philippa.) Then there was Sir John Mohun, Lord Mohun of Dunster, who valued his wife to the point that he gave her jointure in his whole estate. (She proceeded to sell the reversion, thus stripping their daughters of their heiress status.)

We can also mention William Beauchamp, Lord Bergavenny. He was another who gave his widow, Joanna Fitzalan, jointure in all his lands. Their son died before his mother and never inherited his father’s lands.

What about Joan Beaufort? Again, her husband Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, left her a huge jointure. She was able to use this to largely disinherit the eldest son of his first wife in favour of her own son.

Then consider the huge dowries that fathers and brothers were required to provide. Thomas Earl of Kent paid £4000 so that his eldest daughter, Alianore, could marry the Earl of March. It was of course an excellent way of providing for her, given that March was next only to John of Gaunt in value of estates. But if Kent had not valued Alianore, if he had seen her as a mere pawn to be used for his benefit, would he really have stumped up £4000 to advance her? Be aware, £4000 was big bucks back then. The minimum endowment for a dukedom was an annual income of £1000. An ordinary person might have to live on £4 a year or less.

To near-quote Mr Knightly, men did not want silly wives. There were good reasons for this. Except for the bottom tier of society, men were often away from home. Even merchants had to be away for weeks on business. Simple county gentlemen would have to serve on juries, and might well find themselves appointed JPs or Coroners. They might well also be in the service of a lord, or even the King, and spend months away in another household or undertaking estate management duties. They might be MPs or Sheriffs. At some time or another they would almost certainly have legal business in Westminster. More important men might even be on the King’s Council. All of them might have to perform military service. At times this could involve being away in another country for (literally) years.

Who acted as deputy in their absence? Their wife. And she might have to undertake a whole range of tasks from dealing with a sheriff’s writ to defending their house from attack. She could not text, phone or email for advice or instructions. She might be able to send a letter, but a reply could take weeks to arrive. So, inevitably, she would have to take executive action on her own initiative more often than not. Small wonder then that many men valued their wives and saw them as partners in whatever the ‘family business’ might be.

It is true, of course, that women had few life choices. Broadly they could:

  1. Marry. (Probably for advantage not love.)
  2. Become a nun. (This required a dowry too)
  3. Serve in some other woman’s household as a waiting-woman or carer of children. (This was a career path some followed, but for the higher ranks it was not really an option beyond youth.)
  4. Run a business. (Not open to higher ranks. Often if not invariably coupled with Option 1.)
  5. Persuade the family to grant her a manor or two and live as Femme Sole. (Not an option open to all, but I did come across a case lately, to my surprise.)

But it must be borne in mind that their brothers had little choice either. For the typical son of a noble, it lay between being a knight and being a priest. And the priest option was only really open if you were not either an heir or a spare. It was no use telling Daddy you wanted to be an architect. You were stuck with it.

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2 comments

  1. So being loved should be enough for any woman? Who needs rights or freedoms if your husband will name a castle after you? Multiple pregnancies, domestic abuse written into the law, ‘deputising’ for your male relatives and not being regarding as ‘silly’ if you managed to do it all flawlessly. Can’t imagine what they could have to moan about. Was this article written in 1950?

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    1. Women had very limited choices in the middle ages. So did men. There were virtually no ‘rights’ for anyone, male or female, except within the very strict limits society allowed. These depended more on your social status than your gender. Multiple pregnancies were the norm for women up until about 1920, after which science and changing moral rules began to set them free. This issue was by no means confined to the middle ages and the only alternative was celibacy, which some medieval women *chose* for themselves, either as nuns or as widows. On the other hand, some medieval women took on huge responsibility, either as wives or widows, and some ran independent businesses as a ‘femme sole’. A tough life? Yes. But it was equally tough for men. That is the point of the article, apart from pointing out that some women, at least, were highly valued by their fathers and husbands.

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