Royal and aristocratic women in the middle ages


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In the early and high middle ages royal and aristocratic women were often both politically and economically powerful. Because of the mainly feudal organization of society during these centuries, women could be lords or vassals. If the ladies were liege lords, then they controlled their vassals just like the men. As land was the source of status and wealth, and as women could claim ownership in land, then they too were able to reap the benefits. While women generally did not fight in the wars, they could hire stand-ins, which process became formalized with the scutage fee, a monetary payment in lieu of forty days in arms for a lord.

In the late Middle Ages, as nation states developed with their bureaucracies, high-born women lost much of their power, except for some specific women who ruled in their own right. These upper class women throughout the one thousand years of the middle ages, acted in a variety of capacities, and it is difficult to generalize as they had different personalities and circumstances. We can point to the areas where their contributions were evident, with land and its connections determining their power. Women could inherit land in their own right, and by marriage increase their holdings with their dowry. If a young child became king when his father died, then his mother would often-times be regent. These women, by endowing land, giving benefices to churches, hospitals, and other charitable organizations, thus they could affect which place was economically viable. Many of these women defended their castles both economically and militarily if their husbands were gone. Management of the estates ensured that these women gained valuable administrative experience including financial and judicial matters.

A woman's ability to carry out her prescribed role as an aristocrat, usually meant that she had acquired schooling either in a convent, was tutored at home, or occasionally she learned with boys in local schools. Religious schools produced virtually all the great intellectual women of the middle ages. Unfortunately, with the establishment and then dominance of universities for education, women's educational level declined because they were not allowed in the universities. Interesting thought, it has been found that noble women in the middle ages were more educated than noble men. These ladies learned to read and write, and to read prayer and poetry books. Heloise, who died in 1163, was extremely well-educated. Usually she is dismissed as the lover of the famous scholar Peter Abelard, who was castrated for his seduction of Heloise, whom he was tutoring as the time. Later Heloise entered a convent, eventually becoming an Abbess, thereby utilizing her private education. Queens were more educated generally than the rest of the nobility, and these queens usually knew numerous languages including Latin. Eleanor of Aquitaine, is a wonderful example of a highly educated queen, who together with her daughter Marie of Champagne, are given credit for the establishment of the courtly love literature.

The ideas of courtly love and by extension courtly love literature are still with us today, but it was during the high middle ages, in the twelve and thirteenth centuries that these ideas originated. Much scholarly research and subsequent debating of the components has ensued. While women invented the genre, it would not have been successful without the men's participation and acceptance. Basically the idea was that a man would seek the love of a woman through writing poetry, and courting her with courtesy and restraint. In order to win the love of his adored lady he must endure all the trials she imposed on him. In return, the lady would compose love songs. Usually the woman was married, so this was an adulterous affair. In the course of the medieval crusading movement, many husbands were gone from home, and this gave a single knight the opportunity to woe his ladylove, but he was the vassal and she the lord. At knightly tournaments, a favor of his ladylove was worn by the competing knight, usually a scarf. Courtly love can be also seen as a protest against the sexual standards of the Church, and a chance for women to elevate their image by demanding respect and courtesy. Many courtly romances such as the stories of Tristan and Isolde and Guenivere and Lancelot were composed during these years, and reinforce the popularity, profusion, and infusion of this literature on society. Eleanor of Aquitaine patronized authors of courtly romances and poetry. Her daughter, Marie of Champagne, was the patroness of the Poet Chretien de Troyes and Andreas Capellanus, who recorded the rules of courtly love in great detail, after Marie established the famous charter. Troyes was the poet who gave King Arthur his round table, knights, and most all the other additions, that were not part of the sixth century Celtic King Arthur's tales. Both ladies were models and inspiration for other courts of Western Europe.

In the fourteenth century, Alighieri Dante, author of The Divine Comedy, has his ideal courtly love lady, Beatrice, lead him through all ten heavens to the highest one, where he was granted a short glimpse of divinity. Perhaps this work is the ultimate statement of the concept of courtly love.

To support the similarities between both genders of the aristocratic class, they had the same leisure-time activities, hunting, playing chess and backgammon, dancing, singing, and recitation of poetry and stories. Noble women knew how to ride horses well. They even bred falcons, and according to the scholar John of Salisbury, women were better at breeding falcons than men. Falcons were used to hunt with, and many illuminated manuscripts depict women with bows and arrows aimed at their prey.

Marital and family customs for the noble women were predicated on their families' position and wealth. Aristocratic women's marriages were arranged for political purposes, and generally the girl was younger at her wedding than for the peasants. Often times these marriages were contracted while the infants were still in their cradle and some even before their birth. The Church tried to set the rule that betrothals could not be earlier than the age of seven. Many young girls after the betrothals lived with their inlaws in a foreign land while awaiting the age of consummation, twelve for girls and fourteen for boys. Here again the nobility often thwarted the church's dictates, and there are many examples of weddings and consummations at eleven. King John of England married Isabella when she was eleven, taking her from her betrothed. This had tremendous consequences on John's lost of French land, for his lands were declared forfeit by the French King as John was his vassal.

Some of the rituals around weddings were established during the Middle Ages, and have carried forward to today. When Pope Innocent III c. 1204 decreed there was to be a waiting period between the betrothal and wedding ceremony, this led to a two-ring tradition. The custom of one ring given during the betrothal had prevailed for thousands of years. Diamond rings for the engagement ceremony were first used in medieval Italy. Their durability symbolized enduring love. The same words that are used in wedding ceremonies today began as least by the eleventh century: I take Alice to be my wife, to have and to hold, etc. Special wine made from honey called mead was consumed for thirty days, from one full moon when the wedding took place to the next full moon. Thus the word honeymoon developed.

Christine de Pisan, was a famous female writer. Born in Pisa, Italy, but she moved to Paris when her father became physician for the French King. She educated herself in depth, reading works of history, philosophy, theology, and morality. As was usual for a girl in her social class, she was married at fourteen. Ten years later she was left with three children to raise on her own when her husband died. Christine then took up writing to support herself, perhaps the first woman to do so. Early on her writing took on distinct feminist characteristics, and she is considered by many to be the first feminist. In her poems and ballads she complained of the popular habit of disparaging women. She attacked men for their false protestations of love and devotion, while bragging of their conquests. Fifteen books came from the pen of Christine including one about Joan of Arc, and she was the first person to write about Joan. Then Christine wrote two vastly popular books with her contemporaries, The City of the Ladies, a compilation of stories of famous women, and to point out their virtues, while counteracting the negatives things males said about females; and A Medieval Woman's Mirror of Honor, giving practical advice for living an honorable and noble life. She focused on three virtues: reason, rectitude, and justice, avoiding typical feminine Christian virtues like faith, hope, and charity. Christine included in her writings, information on women in the merchant, peasant and noble classes, and about females in all stages of life: girlhood, motherhood and widowhood. Throughout all her writings, her major thesis was that if women were educated as men were, then they could do anything that men could do.

From 500-1050 medieval queens were often major figures in royal administrations, and had important duties and responsibilities. Now historians are re-evaluating queens in the high middle ages, and are coming to recognize that much of the queen's power and status or the early Middle Ages remained but in a modified form. The queen was still recognized as an important adjunct to her spouse. Centralized monarchy, bureaucracy and professional administrations were responsible for the changes in the queen's position. Didactic literature was written by churchmen to instruct the queen in her various roles. In order to be a queen, she must be of noble birth, and bring wealth, property, and position to the political marriage to further her consort's rule. Churchmen also stressed the importance of the queen interceding with the king on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and ill. Queens endowed monasteries, nunneries, hospitals, and public works. Matilda, wife of Henry I of England built the first public lavatories in London. Another important recognized contribution of medieval queens was their patronage of arts and letters. In the end, though, the primary responsibility or duty of the queen was to produce a male heir. Queens were active in the rearing, educating, and arranging of the marriages of their children. The medieval queen through her personality and ability could directly influence affairs in her realm and beyond. Like their masculine counterparts, queens displayed a wide variety of governing styles and skills. Three royal ladies will be highlighted that epitomize medieval queens: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Blanche of Castile, and Isabella of Castile.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, 1122-1204, was the most powerful, wealthy, and famous of the medieval queens. As wife of two kings and mother of two kings, she was famous during her lifetime and now. Unforgettable was Katherine Hepburn's performance as Eleanor in the classic movie, Lion in Winter. Eleanor was heiress to her father's vast Duchy of Aquitaine, and before his death he had arranged for her marriage to the future Louis VII of France. Vivacious and flirtatious, Eleanor was incompatible with her pious and serious husband. While on the second crusade, it was rumored that she committed adultery with her uncle and dressed her ladies-in-waiting as naked Amazons, but then rumors always abounded after Aquitaine's Duchess. There is evidence that she orchestrated the annulment to Louis VII after convincing the Pope to grant it. Several months later Eleanor wed Henry Plantagenet, who two years later became King Henry II of England. While she had only two daughters by Louis, she had five sons and three daughters by Henry. John, who later will be king of England, was born when Eleanor was forty-five years old. During the early years as Queen of England, she was often involved in affairs of state as a competent administrator, advisor, skillful negotiator, and regent when Henry was away on the Continent. During her long lifetime, three times the average medieval woman's lifespan, she personally covered the gamut of possibilities for queens. After more than a decade of marriage to Henry, Eleanor was fed up with his numerous adulterous affairs, and she put her energies into inciting her children against their father, which found a favorable field, as Henry had denied his sons sharing some of his power, and they wanted to force their father to do so. Her important part in this rebellion saw Eleanor placed under house arrest for nearly fifteen years. She lived in various castles in England or in France. Finally when Henry died in 1189, her eldest and favorite son, Richard, succeeded to the throne and she was free. As Richard was gone from England to take care of French affairs, and go on the Three Kings' Crusade, Eleanor was a strong regent. She even secured literally and figuratively a king's ransom when Richard was captured on his way home from the Holy Land. Richard's reign lasted only ten years, and then Eleanor aided John's accession over his deceased elder brother Geoffrey's son, Arthur. Eleanor was always able to keep the loyalty of her Duchy, and this usually made the critical difference in power politics. By 1200 eight of Eleanor's ten children had predeceased her, but she was still alert and politically astute to journey personally over the Pyrenees in winter to visit her daughter at the Court of Castile, and arrange the marriage of her younger granddaughter to the future King Louis IX of France. Eleanor died in 1204 at the Abbey of Fontevrault, a double monastery long patronized by her and her kin. She is buried by the side of her son Richard and her estranged husband Henry.

As Eleanor of Aquitaine's granddaughter, Blanche of Castile, was a strong and powerful queen, regent and queen mother too. At the age of twelve she wed Louis, the dauphin, (heir to the French throne), and both were crowned king and queen later when his father died. Blanche gave birth to twelve children, but only three sons lived to adulthood. Her eldest surviving son, Louis, was only twelve when his father died. Assuming the regency and guardianship, Blanche was subjected to baronial power battles that she successfully handled until her son could assume authority, but no official date marked the end of her regency. St. Louis, as her son became called, did nothing without her apparent assistance according to her. The various pious acts that Louis did reflected well on his mother's upbringing. While her son was on a crusade for four years, Blanche even met with the Pope to address French problems. When her son married in 1234 she officially became the dowager queen, but evidently her role was not altered. When Blanche died she too donned a nun's habit like her grandmother Eleanor, but this time under her royal vestments, reversing Eleanor's process. A contemporary noted writer, Matthew Paris, concluded that Blanche "was a woman in sex, but a man in counsels." Many modern historians state that Blanche may be counted among the kings of France.

Definitely counted among the kings of Spain was Isabella of Castile (1454-1504). Even after her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon, and their joint-rulership of most of Spain, Isabella was deemed the more powerful of the two. As a master strategist, Isabella forced herself onto the throne at the expense of her step-brother. Unification of her kingdom of Castile with her husband's was accomplished not only politically, but through military means, and Isabella was a leader on the battlefield too. Camped out at times in unbearable circumstances, even pregnant and fighting, Isabella was a warrior queen, giving birth to five children, but enduring many miscarriages. Noticing the ill treatment for the wounded, she was the first to organize their treatment, an early M.A.S.H. unit. Extremely well-educated herself, she insisted on a classical education for her daughters, one who became the wife to Henry VIII of England, Catherine of Aragon. Isabella founded new universities and subsidized scholars in various fields, including having the Bible translated into a polyglot edition of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Known also as Isabella the Catholic, she so strengthened the Church in Spain albeit through the inquisition, that the Protestant Reformation did not gain a foothold. The last of the Jews were evicted under her aegis as well as the Muslims or Moors. Her willingness to sponsor Christopher Columbus came through the vision of expanding Spanish influence and economic power. With Isabella controlling domestic affairs primarily and Ferdinand responsible for foreign relations, the Queen and King ruled effectively for a long time, only hampered by some of the nobility trying to maintain their power base. Following her death and continuing to today, have been serious attempts to canonize Isabella as a saint.


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