Sunday, April 4, 2010

Medieval Society

Medieval Society
Status of Women
Under English Common Law:
- The “femme sole” or unmarried woman or widow was on equal par with men. She could hold land, do homage, make a will or contract.
- The lands of a married woman became her husband’s for the duration of the marriage – but if a child was born, then her lands became her husband’s for life.
- A widow was entitled to one third of any lands and her husband could not bar her right of dower.

Land: gave importance to a woman’s status; and if she brought land into her marriage as her dower, which if considerable when widowed, gave her more influence and consideration for a future marriage.

“Neither the Divine Law nor the Law of Nature, nay nor the Civil Law, put any woman under the subjugation of men, but only such as have husband’s; and no shew of reason can be given for excluding women from the inheritance of their Ancestors, or from the administration of it.” (Source: Concerning the Right of Succession to the Kingdom og England by T Craig, 1703).

Typically, childhood ceased at the age of 14yo. Girls could be apprenticed & bound by law until 18yo or until they married; boys till they were 24yo.

Service was a common experience regardless of status, from 12yo to 40yo.

Apprenticeships were usually for a term of between 7 to 10 years, and a premium was paid to be taught a trade or craft. Service in husbandry (agrarian or domestic labour) was for an agreed upon period and small wage.

Marriage was often delayed as wages were low and it took considerably longer to save for a dowry.

Espousals / Engagements
A ceremony of an exchange of vows was done before witnesses. This ceremony was often referred to as “handfasting” or “to be made sure”. The rite was invoked as a way of mediating the timing of a marriage or to sanction a match in the face of opposition. Pre-marital sex was more usual in the lower classes, who also had more opportunity to “arrange” marriages of their own choosing.

Often arranged and solemnized during childhood. A child was held capable of consent from the age of 7yo. However, the marriage was void if the girl was under 12yo and the boy under 14yo. Repudiations were often obtained. Under English Common Law – if 9yo at the time of her husband’s death, a wife could claim her dower, regardless of the age of her husband (Source: The History of English Law by F Pollock & FW Maitland, Vol II, 2nd Ed. Cambridge 1968).

Women could often be married off without their consent – a woman could purchase the right to marry where she chose from their lord, and considerable income could be acquired by the king or magnate from fines paid by heiresses or widows for this.

Child marriages – for the higher ranks of society – was the rule rather than the exception.

There was no place in feudal society for women who did not marry. Unmarried women could find a place in the household of a great magnate in attendance upon a woman of higher rank.

Dowering of poor girls was one of the most recognized forms of medieval charity.

Adult Women
Marriage effectively turned women into a “non person”, dependent upon her husband as she had been previously upon her father or other male relative. Brides among the nobility were 2 to 10- years younger than their lower class counterparts.

Circumstances affected the economic and social position of women, which in turn effected child-rearing.

A woman had “no legal stake in the physical and economic resources of the household; no lawful way out of an unsatisfactory union; and few if any career options in lieu of marriage”.

Widows kept their social status, prestige and dignity of their married state. They had freedom to engage in certain economic activities – although their marriage settlement governed their economic situation. Middle to lo status women could rely on their right at common law to one third of a husband’s land and goods after his death.

Whilst young widows were likely to remarry, they were always fearful of poverty especially if there were children from the marriage. There was always the need for gainful employment for widows received the bulk of poor relief – although their moral conduct was often scrutinized and support withheld if considered of immodest behavior.

Aristocratic Women
A women’s political influence over her husband depended upon: her relationship with her husband; the existence of any sexual rivals; and her own ability.

Female Monarchs: marriage posed a problem for a queen regnant. Should she remain unwed with no heirs or marry and be subject to her husband. Equal power was hard to sustain – does she become subordinate to her husband upon marriage. If there are children, does her husband rule for the child or does she take on a group of advisors and counselors.

For many women, the issue is over the right to inherit – and many women promoted their son’s claims rather than assert their own personal right.

Queens Consort: had a duty to provide a male heir. Her political power fluctuated with the monarch’s sexual interest and with the women’s fecundity. It was an opportunity to influence policy by advising & counseling; to gain advancement for her family; and to support religious goals.

Mistresses: gained patronage, influence and financial rewards. However, they were dependent upon the favour of the monarch and could be readily discarded and replaced. They often used their positions to gain titles and advancement for themselves and their families.

Court Ladies: marriage did not debar women from obtaining positions of office at court. Ladies obtained positions though lineage, family and favour. Women were dependent upon others for favours & mutual obligations, and thus developed a system of networking through courtiers and kin. Some held formal offices at court for which they were paid – and access to the monarch was dependent upon their position.

Medieval Household
A woman was expected to take on her husband’s responsibilities during his absence at court or war. She would raise his ransom if a captive of war. She would execute his will if widowed. She was responsible for the upbringing of their children, who were commonly raised within the nursery.

The woman was responsible for ensuring the “rights” under feudal law were observed. She would ensure rents & incomes were received from tenants; pay officials; dispense alms, undertaken pious and charitable works & benefactions; and keep household accounts.

The women of the household were responsible for providing clothes for the family and household. Most medieval manors contained a bakehouse, brewhouse, buttery & dairy, salting tubs and herb garden.

Organisation and forward planning were important in providing stores for the household, especially over winter. And she would be responsible for hiring “occasional workmen”, deal with tradesmen, and govern her servants.

Working Women
Women needed to earn a living, especially if unmarried or if extra income was necessary if married. Women usually worked as their husband’s assistants in his trade. The most common trades occupied by women were brewing and spinning. Domestic service provided the main source of employment for unmarried women. Often, widows carried on the trade of their husbands and some guilds provided exceptions to their regulations to acknowledge these women.

Other types of trades undertaken by women were merchants – often wool or shipping.

Children could be apprenticed from a very young age – beginning in the home. Most females were apprenticed under other women, lived within the household, and learnt both trade and housekeeping.

The apprenticeship was for a set period of time – and they would be released upon payment or at the end of their service.

Married women who carried on a trade separate from their husbands were treated, under law, as single women: eg: she was responsible for her own debts and dispute resolution.

Peasant were expected to manage their own household and share in the husband’s labours (especially in agriculture and animal husbandry).

Young women were taught piety, good manners and housecraft within the family home. Nobleborn ladies were expected to have a skill in: music & song, conversation, literacy.

Education was acquired by instruction within schools in nunneries; from the example for ladies in great households; and from apprenticeship and craft.

Not all nunneries had schools; some were small and poor. Fees were charged for tuition, and women were possibly taught French & Latin, pious devotions, spinning and needlework.

Young women in great households were in a position to make a good marriage. Whilst under the roof of a great lady, young women were expected to maintain good manners, be obedient and respectful, and possibly receive education under a tutor of chaplain.

All women, regardless of rank were expected to have a knowledge of “family medicine” – but only within the household.

Nunneries often provided a career for noble girls. Abbesses and Prioresses were often drawn from noble families. Lower status women rarely entered convents as they could not afford the “dowry” for admittance, and girls were required to work in agriculture and industry.

Nunneries provided: spiritual facilities for prayer; education; a place of boarding for widows or a refuge for women & children during the absence of a husband; a place for retirement for noble widows, who sometimes brought their own maids & servants and household goods; and boarders provided a source of income for many small establishments.

Nunneries also acted as centres for alms-giving – although they were usually too poor to offer much else.

Nunneries acted as landlords and employers through ownership of farms, estates, and they employed staff – builders, carpenters and craftsmen.

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