MIA: Library: Mary Beard, Woman as a Force in History, 1946
Woman as a Force in History. Mary Beard 1946
Force of Woman in Mediaeval Economic and Social Life
AFTER the dissolution of the Roman Empire, nearly all the economic activities connected with the production of food, clothing, and shelter were carried on in rural villages and their outlying fields everywhere in Western Europe. Whether the village was a free community or property belonging to the estate of a great feudal lord or lady, it was largely self-sufficing; its inhabitants supplied nearly all their needs for the maintenance of life. Furthermore, the industries of households and fields were not like the modern “heavy industries.” Women could handle nearly all of them alone or with some aid from men.
Thus there was no sharp division of labor as a rule. Men and women worked together for the most part. If the major responsibilities for spinning, weaving, and cooking were women’s tasks, if wood-cutting and ditching were generally men’s tasks, men and women commonly worked side by side in the fields and to a considerable extent in all the processes of transforming raw materials into commodities for use. Whether the toilers on the land were bond or free, men and women labored under similar conditions and enjoyed similar liberties of choice such as they were. Though women gave birth to the children, both parents had the services of children to help them in their work. In the records of mediaeval rural life that are available in our age, no specially onerous burdens are found to have been laid on women as women by men as men. On the contrary the records show a sharing of the toilsome tasks on about the same terms.
In the rude castle or grand establishment of the feudal lord, the mistress of the household was usually no languid lady or mere attendant ministering to the wants of an imperious male. The manuals and other documents which treat of domestic economy in the middle ages show the lady discharging onerous duties connected with the management of a large household, besides instructing boys and girls in the etiquette of their class and often in reading and writing. When the lord was absent at war, as frequently happened, or was dead, the lady’s burdens were multiplied. It is true that the work in fields, forests, and barns was directed by a bailiff or seneschal, but the cautious wife or widow scarcely dared to leave everything to him even there. And she was warned against doing so in a thirteenth century instruction book written about 1240 for Margaret, widow of the Count of Lincoln. The Countess was therein advised not to trust such matters entirely to the seneschal, but to learn what the estates were producing, so that she could manage her household with due reference to the output of agricultural and other commodities and to her total income. The castles, with their villages and cottages, belonged to a self-sufficing economy, mainly at all events, though some commodities, principally luxuries, might be imported from the outside world.
After the flood of barbarian invasions subsided and large areas of fairly settled life were more secure, commerce was renewed, and cities rose in all parts of Western Europe. In the cities, specialization became a feature of economy. Some merchants dealt in woolen goods, others in silks, metal wares, or spices. Similarly, in the crafts, metalworking was separated from woodworking, tanning from leatherworking, and so on through the long list of craft occupations.
But neither merchandising nor manufacturing was taken out of the urban household. The merchant’s shop and warehouse were a part of the family establishment. The crafts remained, as of old, domestic industries carried on by members of the household, if now with the aid of apprentices. In manufacturing at the several stages, women, married and single, participated – if with varying degrees of freedom and subject to various regulations according to time and circumstances, including in some cases the desire to protect women from injury.
In this urban economy, as barter diminished and money transactions took its place, a new class of men and women was formed, known as the bourgeoisie, and it was destined, in widening areas, to challenge, win concessions from, dominate, bore within, or overthrow the landed nobility and become itself a governing elite. In this connection the law of personal property and practices under it or running parallel to it, as adjustments were made to meet the growing power of business enterprise, comes into review as a test of the doctrine that women were members of a subject sex, nothing, or of no force, in mediaeval economy.
While the ownership, barter, purchase, and sale of town lots and buildings, with rights in the same, continued to be financially important, transactions connected with the ownership of tools, other implements, stocks of goods, and money gained in volume and in significance for the life and position of multitudes, especially after the discovery of precious metals in the new world. Money was to become a giant power and in time to break the rigidities of status, that is, the fixed position of all classes of men and women in the feudal hierarchy. Freer enterprise and civil liberties were in the process of creation.
Membership and Activities in Gilds
Meanwhile, in the mediaeval period, manufacture and distribution were strictly regulated by merchant and craft gilds in large regions of Europe and the British Isles. The gild system of economy was more local than international in emphasis. It was everywhere social – not individualistic in the correct sense of that very modern word. It became a fundamental institution of urbanism as towns and cities emerged from the economy of agriculture. Though commerce was in some measure separated from production, it was likewise widely controlled by rules formulated by associations, or gilds, of merchants.
Beside the merchant and craft gilds, yet made up of members of those gilds in part, rose religious and benevolent gilds concerned with the morals, manners, health, and general welfare of communities. They provided social insurance for their fellowship in the form of provisions for sickness, poverty, and burial. They were solicitous about prayers for the unfortunate and Masses for the dead. They erected standards of decent behavior for men and women prone to remain in or revert to a state of barbarism. They upheld religious conformity in matters of faith and raised funds for supporting church institutions such as hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the aged or other needy folk. In the social work women were active and prodders, thus continuing and developing the humane interests which had been among the interests of women from the dawn of human time.
Fundamental to the operations of the religious and benevolent gilds was the productive economy of the city. And that was ordered under the rules of craft gilds, nearly everywhere in Western. Europe for centuries. It was protected by the ordinances of city authorities who had rights of self-government incorporated in charters, obtained from the Crown or from a local landlord, lay or clerical, the possessor of the territory in which the town or city was located. In the local government, gilds were often so authoritative as to be almost indistinguishable from the government itself. Gilds of weavers, fullers, dyers, smiths, cordwainers, cloth workers, grocers, tanners, clock makers, bakers, fishmongers, glaziers, glass blowers, lace makers, and merchants but illustrate the long list of organizations engaged in producing, promoting, buying, and selling various lines of manufactured goods.
And what was the relation of women to the economic gilds? Were they excluded from membership and treated in the charters, government ordinances, and practices as persons belonging to a sex having no place or force in gild management and leadership? The early age of the gilds is commonly called “the dark age.” Was its darkness a pall over women? How shall we answer this question so germane to the whole theory of woman’s nothingness, her passivity, in the long past?
We might drop the question after reading the article on “European Guilds,” in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, as a foolish one to raise. The article was written by a distinguished Belgian scholar, Henri Pirenne, accredited master of the sources and secondary writings on the subject of gilds. He says nothing about women in connection with European gilds.
This is the more remarkable when we note that A. E. R. Boak, who writes the section on “Late Roman and Byzantine” gilds for the same Encyclopaedia, says positively that “women as well as men were considered as belonging to the gilds even when they could not personally carry on the professional duties of the members.”
Like Henri Pirenne, another writer on the subject for the Encyclopaedia, Louis Massignon, furnishes no information as to the participation of women in the later Islamic gilds. Nor does Vera Anstey give information in her section on Indian gilds with respect to the women of India who for centuries worked at handicrafts, as they still do. Since the long-enduring gild system of China was in part certainly associated with household industries, one may infer that women in families engaged in spinning and weaving, for example, and were naturally members of such gilds; but Harold M. Vinacke gives no positive assurance one way or the other in his account of Chinese gilds. G. C. Allen, dealing with Japanese gilds, is no more helpful with regard to the relations of women to such organizations.
If one expects the Encyclopaedia Britannica to display more interest in women’s relations to gilds, one will be disappointed in reading the article on “European Gilds,” written by Charles Gross, one of the greatest scholars in that subject. Though he was a specialist in this “field,” at no point in this article does he even hint that women had any place whatever, equal or subordinate, in European gilds. In the bibliography attached to his article, Gross cites the work by J. T. Smith, English Gilds, but surely he had never read it carefully. Otherwise how could he have escaped observing the voluminous data there assembled on women’s activities in English gilds?
In the volume edited by Smith is a wealth of material showing the extent and nature of the fellowship which women enjoyed with men in numerous English gilds. This volume is a collection of original documents, largely fourteenth-century records, published by The Early English Text Society, giving essential facts about the constitution, membership, proceedings, rules and by-laws of gilds functioning during the middle ages in England. They were taken from the English Public Record Office in London where they had been shelved for several centuries undisturbed. Though the analytical introduction to this collection of sources throws little or no light, not even twilight, on the participation of women in gild affairs, the documents themselves shed strong daylight an this matter.
The majority of these documents were reports from local governments and gild authorities prepared in response to an act of Parliament calling for information on the nature, government, and practices of gilds composed of “bretheren and sisteren” in every shire of England in the year 1389. The types of gilds represented are of many patterns.
A large majority cited in the documents belonged to the class of social and religious organizations. But numerous craft gilds are also described in the records; for example, barbers, pelters, tailors, carpenters, tilers, merchants, saddlers and spurriers, shipmen, scholars, bakers, cordwainers, and fullers. The gilds covered in the reports were scattered among towns and counties: London, Norwich, Lynn, York, Beverly, Kingston-on-Hull, Chesterfield, Lincoln, Stamford, Worcester, Stratford-on-Avon, Coventry, Birmingham, Cambridge, Exeter, Bristol, and Reading, for instance.
While in some of the records the details are lacking, Smith’s English Gilds contains accounts of the structure, membership, functions, and proceedings of about eighty-five gilds. In at least seventy-two of them women were members on an equal basis with men. That is surely a large proportion. In some of the other gilds a slight qualification was placed on widows; they were accepted if their husbands had been gild men. Lest the idea of sheer generosity or friendship for the deceased be adjudged the reason for admitting widows to gilds, let it be remembered that, in innumerable cases, widows carried on the craft in which their husbands had been active, being directly familiar with it as a household industry at which they had themselves labored or in connection with which they had borne responsibilities for training and directing apprentices.
The reports of only nine gilds in this collection are in such form and language as to warrant the conclusion that they were composed entirely of men. There were no women, apparently, in the Gild of Young Scholars at Lynn, who may have been preparing for the priesthood. No women are mentioned as members of the gilds of shipmen at Lynn, smiths at Chesterfield, fullers at Bristol, tailors, cordwainers, and bakers at Exeter. But widows of gild men who had belonged to the organization of tailors at Exeter were admitted in later years.
Women were full and equal members of the following craft gilds, listed in this collection: barbers, furriers, carpenters, saddlers and spurriers at Norwich; fullers, tailors, and tylers at Lincoln; joiners and carpenters at Worcester. At Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the town burgesses compelled all gilds to combine, women as well as men were members, and daughters as well as sons of gild members were eligible to membership.
To the religious and benevolent gilds women also belonged. Of twenty-two founders of the Gild of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Kingston-on-Hull, twelve were women; of the forty-three founders of the Gild of Corpus Christi, eighteen were women. On the roll of the Gild of St. George at Norwich were the names of fifty women most of whom, but not all, were wives of gild men.
Few of the documents in this collection give clues to the proportion of men and women in the membership of the gilds. Actual names are so rarely inserted as to make an estimate impossible. But a large number of cases in the records are full enough to give some distinct information respecting the role of women in the gilds to which they belonged. It seems to be a fact that their rights, privileges, and responsibilities were the same as those of the men. Women took part in the proceedings, helped to elect officers, were under the same penalties for neglect of duties, and discharged the obligations imposed on all gild members. Evidently also they were outspoken in asserting their opinions and strenuous in arguments, for frequently the rules of a gild forbade disorderly or contumacious debates and expressly stated that the “sisteren,” no less than the “bretheren,” must keep the peace and will be punished by fine of the gild if they fail to comply with the rule.
On the Continent, likewise, women were frequently members of the gilds to which men belonged and often had gilds of their own for the promotion and protection of their special crafts. To Georges Francois Renard, well-known French writer on economic subjects, we are indebted for information about Continental women. In his Guilds in the Middle Ages (1919), he says: “It was in Flanders, in Italy, in the ‘Imperial Towns,? in the trading ports, wherever, in fact, the central authority was weak or distant, that they [the gilds] received the strongest impetus. They prospered more brilliantly in the Italian Republics than at Rome under the shadow of the Holy See.”
And those which prospered did so usually with the direct aid of women. If in many Continental towns women could not become gild masters in cases where gild membership conferred political rights and military duties, otherwise women were not excluded from the gilds. “It would be a mistake,” declares Renard, “to imagine that the woman of the Middle Ages was confined to her home, and was ignorant of the difficulties of a worker’s life. In those days she had an economic independence, such as is hardly to be met with in our own time. In many countries she possessed, for instance, the power to dispose of her property without her husband’s permission. It is therefore natural that there should be women’s gilds organized and administered like those of men. They existed in exclusively feminine crafts: fifteen of them were to be found in Paris alone towards the end of the thirteenth century, in the dressmaking industry and among the silk-workers and gold-thread workers especially.”
Yet women were not restricted to their separate gilds. The mixed gilds of Paris in the thirteenth century were about eighty in number. In these Paris gilds, as in English gilds, a master’s widow had the right to carry on her husband’s workshop after he had died. Yet men were not always generous in this relation to women and at times men tried to wrest from women some of their craft rights. The bakers of Pontoise are named by Renard as offenders; they wanted to get a monopoly of bread-baking and they argued that women were not strong enough to knead the bread themselves.
But a French Parlement refused to prohibit the customary baking by women and declined to back up the men’s opposition to the women. A French parliamentary decree even accorded some gild women rights frequently denied to English widows; it ruled that a widow could retain her membership in a gild even if she took as her second husband a man who did not work in her craft.
In France some legislation of another kind was enacted as a precedent for modern “protective legislation” for women. For instance a prohibition was ordered against women’s working in the craft of “Saracen” carpet-making. The purpose was to prevent injury to mothers during pregnancy.
Respecting inner management, Continental gilds ranged, according to Renard, from more or less democratic forms among the humblest craftsfolk to autocratic government by powerful personages, commercial and political, especially in the merchant gilds. Some of the latter even forbade their paid representatives in branch houses outside their homeland to marry, the idea being to hold their loyalty to the domestic interest. As time passed, Florentine merchants handling woolen goods sought the good offices of the Church in teaching working women to be humble of spirit and careful about dressing too elegantly in wool, thereby “wasting” material which could be more profitable to merchants if sold in the better markets.
Glimpses of Economy and Gilds in Florence and Venice
The attitude of rulers was often crucial to the prosperity and government of merchant and craft gilds. For example, Matilda (1046-1115), Countess of Tuscany, sole heir to the richest estate in all Italy, took a genuine interest in the fortunes of the gilds in her leading city, Florence, protected them, and promoted their prosperity. Her mother, Beatrice of Bar, had given much thought to her education and Matilda was talented as well as an eager student. She spoke Italian, French and German readily, and wrote many letters in Latin, having need of Latin particularly in her dealings with the Holy See. She assembled a library of considerable size.
She supervised an edition of Justinian’s Pandects. She has been noticed by historians mainly for her support of the papacy against the temporal power impersonated by Henry IV whose penance before Gregory VII was in large measure brought about by her manipulations. But she did not lose sight of economic strength in Tuscany and she was both adept in winning cooperation from the merchant gilds and sagacious in guarding the security of the craft gilds.
“That women were not disqualified by their sex from enjoying the rights of membership in the Guilds is proved by many entries in the articles of matriculation and the records of association,” declares J. Edgcumbe Staley in a volume on the Guilds of Florence. And he goes into detail in the case of Donna Santa, wife of Palmerio of San Ambrogio, who in 1294 sought and obtained membership in the company of Belt and Girdle Makers after she had paid the entrance fee and had sworn to observe its rules and regulations.
He tells far more about women in connection with Italian gilds in his fascinating volume entitled The Dogaressas of Venice, with whom the fortunes of the gilds were so intimately associated. In the story of these gilds the vitality and the weakness of the gild system were dramatically enclosed. Venice rose from the marshes by the sturdy labor of fisherfolk and refugees from mainland cities who had fled to its tiny islets for safety from barbarian invaders then plunging pell-mell into Italy, looting or occupying all the best land. Women helped to make the bags for the earth which was used to create and extend the little islands by filling up the swamps. Women helped to build the bridges which enabled the people to move from isle to isle. And when the “Queen of the Adriatic” won her triumphant place as a great imperial city, women continued to help in directing Venetian affairs.
“In the election of a Doge of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, the personality of his spouse had often as not considerable weight in the decision of the Lords of Council,” says Staley, by way of introduction to his notable study of Venice. Though the Doges sat extensively for their portraits, less than a dozen of the Dogaressas seem to have been immortalized on canvas. Great painters were commissioned to portray divine Venuses rather than mortal wives. But the wives could have ordered artists to paint them. Why didn’t they do this as much as the Doges had themselves represented in paint?
Staley offers this as explanation: “Women of every age and clime care very little about the Fine Arts so called; they are themselves the finest of the Fine Arts, and their sympathy goes out rather to the artistic Crafts, in search of objects to add, if may be, to their own charms.” If extreme as a generalization respecting women’s indifference to the Fine Arts, and pointedly so in view of Isabella d’Este’s patronage of the Fine Arts at the time when the Venetian ladies were making themselves works of art, certainly the Venetian Dogaressas were firm and energetic sponsors, promoters, and defenders of Venetian crafts.
“In Venice,” Staley says, “the ‘Fragilie,’ or Trade-Guilds, were directly under the patronage of the Dogaressas, and we shall find their personal attributes in the beautiful and fragile glass of Murano, and the delicate and chaste point-lace of Burano, in the lovely and costly ornaments of the goldsmiths, in the superb brocades of silk and velvet and the splendid tissues of gold and silver of the costumiers, and in the endless fascinating adjuncts of the toilet and the table.”
If this implies that the Dogaressas were themselves fragile, that is a great error. In truth they could love dainty or ponderous products of the workshops and be very hardy themselves; they could and did love the handicrafts and yet were exceedingly public-spirited and energetic in other affairs for a long span of time; they could be foolish and many were; they could be very wise and several were unmistakable stateswomen. Some were viragoes, strong-willed and iron-hearted, richly endowed at marriage with goods and chattel slaves to whom they clung despite the anger of popular resentment against slavery – an innovation which came in the wake of princesses from Byzantium and other Eastern places.
The wife of one Doge introduced the bull fight to Venice. Another introduced the Greek fork, refined Greek cooking, dainty table manners, and eunuchs to carve and serve delicacies in the menu. Costly wines and liqueurs from Syria and the further East succeeded, in the mansions of the governing elite, the heavy beverages to which the people of the lagunes had been accustomed. The change was fostered by brides from the East. Perfume became a Venetian obsession derived from the newcomers. Extravagance stamped the living of the ruling household as Venice grew in economic wealth.
Venetian products, staples and luxuries, found markets far and wide and her craft gilds grew in number and strength. And it was with the support of reigning ladies that the city became honored from the Near East to England as “the nursery of the Fine Arts and the boudoir of the Graces, as well as the Patroness of the Crafts.” Eventually it was feared as the center of great Sea Power.
According to Staley, “As the First Lady of the Commonwealth the Dogaressa had many responsibilities which were greatly expanded when her Consort was away. If she had no position with respect to the Council of State and had nothing whatever to do with politics, there were numerous duties which devolved upon her. The patronage and direction of charities of all kinds – whether eleemosynary or educational – the maintenance of the Ducal hospitalities, the reception of ambassadors, the claims of family, and the encouragement of the arts and crafts gave her Serenity much to devise and do.”
While the sixth Grand Doge Giacomo Tiepolo was absorbed around 1242, in settling factional disputes and jealousies and carrying on naval and military expeditions, his spouse, Valdrada, Staley tells us, gave her whole time to the patronage and support of the trade corporations. All the Dogaressas who came after her gave them attention if not in every case to the same degree; but the tendency towards love of imported finery, set in motion by foreign brides brought home to Venice by merchants and fighting men, gained momentum, to the irreparable injury of Venetian economy and independent life.
That women had money of their own to spend and for self-indulgence if so inclined is indicated in Italian archives. In the time of the Doge Tiepolo a compilation of laws, “II Statuto di Giacomo Tiepolo,” or “Il Statuto Veneto” as it was also called, was made and designed for the “amelioration and moralisation of manners.” According to these laws, “the husband was required to render an account to his wife of his use of her dowry, and the capital sum remained in her power to will as she chose. An unfaithful wife forfeited her dower, but a widow enjoyed her husband’s patrimony till her second marriage or death. If ever a couple decided to renounce secular life and enter Religion, the united property was shared equally, each being free to do what he or she liked with the money. Children, if any and under age, were provided for equally by each parent.”
But sometimes the doge and his consort were thrifty and deeply interested in promoting home industries. In 1340-1341, for instance, the Dogaressa Agnese and her husband, a poor man elected to the supreme office in one of the democratic uprisings of the city, supported the development of the local silk industry, while discouraging the importation of Oriental brocades and tissues. Foreign trade was stopped for a time. This Doge was in power only one year, however; he was not political-minded.
His successor, Messir Giovanni Sorenzo, was a warrior and belonged to an old and wealthy family. Under his patronage and that of his wife, Franchesina, the importation of mirrors from Germany and hanging-lamps from Greece was checked, the Venetian glass industry reached the height of its reputation, and the cost of living for the general public was held within practical bounds, though in the palace splendor characterized official entertaining. In this regime the arsenal was so extended that it could fully equip 40,000 men.
For a hundred and fifty years, up to the fifteenth century, under the solicitude of the Dogaressas, the fine Venetian crafts “attained both perfection in the details of their several interests, and also a dominant position in the social economy of the State.” Moreover the Fine Arts and Literature were beginning to be cultivated after long neglect. Venice was also renowned for its naval exploits. But all was not as sound as outward appearances might suggest.
Intercourse with the East brought in its train terrible plagues which lowered the physical vitality of Venetians. Commercial opulence led to a decline in industrious habits. Fun-loving nabobs founded the Company of the Tights, Compagnia della Calza, to which women associates were freely admitted. With the tight-fitting pants and petticoats went the garish use of pearls and other gems, rings and chains, short cloaks of elegant materials lined with furs, and all the splendor of spectacular pageantry. Imposing ceremonies attended the inauguration of Marina Nani-Foscari in 1427 as Dogaressa when the jewelled Corno was placed on her head. The fashion of “conspicuous waste” was making history in Venice.
At the middle of that century, the fifteenth, Venetian grandeur was so astounding as to amaze even such a visitor as the Duchess Beatrice d’Este of Milan. She had come on a diplomatic errandto draw Venice into the league with Milan against Charles VIII of France. Her retinue was so large and numbered so many princes and ambassadors of high social position that three palaces were placed at her disposal. That was the time of Doge Agostino Barbarigo. His spouse, Elizabetta, a member of the Banco family, one of the proudest ruling houses in Venice, entertained the guest and her entourage superbly.
While the Duchess d’Este was executing her mission successfully, she was also writing to her husband, Duke Lodovico il Moro about the Venetian scene. Staley said she compared the older nobles and their ladies to “great dolls” or “Stately Deities” and commented on the abbreviated dress and unguarded manners of the girls. She noted that “they are clothed in pearls and gold chains from head to toe, but little else ... cloth of gold is as common here as fustian is with us.” The Duchess was herself acclaimed as a beauty and her imperious temper was beyond dispute. What she might have seen at Venice, but perhaps without recognizing it, was the ebbing of economic strength from all the pores of the Adriatic city, while battles at sea were being lost in steady succession.
A new form of preeminence, nevertheless, was to add to the laurels of Venice, when it became a center of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century, under the sponsorship of Donna Giovanna Dandolo, wife of the Doge Pasquale Malipiero. Service books for the churches had been printed from wooden blocks in Venice as early as 1441, but the venture into printing with the newly invented molded type began about 1469, and then classical works, Bibles, and pretentious books on Morals were offered in the shops. The first illustrated book ever seen in print anywhere, we are told by Staley, was turned out in Venice in 1480 – Hypnerotomachio, or The Dream of Love. Many of the early books carried expressions of gratitude to Donna Giovanna Dandolo for her leadership in publishing; and her family, the Dandolo, was kept long in memory on account of Giovanna’s practical interest in writers. For two centuries after her death, Venice was the chief center in Europe for books, publishers, and printers.
If Giovanna Dandolo, was “Empress of Printing,” she was also “Queen of Lace.” Her interest in the craft girls who made the lovely Burano lace, designed by a young Italian, named Bella, from a coral model, spread the renown of this lace far and wide and helped to extend the fame of other kinds, notably Honiton, Valenciennes, and Alençon.
Setting her course sternly against the introduction of foreign goods, Dogaressa Cristina, though a great spendthrift, insisted that the workers in the crafts at Venice must improve both the materials which they used and the manner of conducting their industries. As the fifteenth century drew to its close, however, at public slave auctions in the Rialto foreign boys and girls were being sold as workers in the trade gilds, especially to carpet-weavers, makers of cloth of gold and silver tissue, and armorers. The same practice appeared at Florence, and Madonna Alessandra, negli Strozzi of Florence recorded in her Letters that swarthy Tartars with dark hair were in demand in her city as “best for work and the most simple in their ways,” whereas in Venice, “fair-skinned, auburn-haired Circassians” were preferred for their skill in making artifices of the toilet.
Marriage with slaves was forbidden to Venetians but extra-legal associations paved the way for the rise to power of courtesans from alien peoples. From their ascent to high places, concern with the promotion of Venetian domestic economy, with the protection of men and women who worked in the crafts, with security on the home front, lost caste. Even the verve of “gallant companies” of La Calza (The Tights) weakened after defeats were suffered by Venetian arms.
“What sort of a wife has he got?” Staley says this was “the constantly recurring question” which, upon the death of a doge, was brought up in the Council of Forty in respect of his successor. Individuality and initiative in the consort were prized for a long time; and when they diminished, shadows dosed in on the lagunes, the elegant gardens, the handsome palaces, and the workshops of men and women skilled in industrial arts.
Cloth of gold from India, porcelain and glass from Sevres, earthenware from Birmingham also helped to destroy important local gilds. By 1547 the great gild of glass workers of Murano was facing annihilation. Its members were being invited to come to distant lands for employment but the very idea of deserting Venice was abhorrent to them and to the whole community besides. Nevertheless these craftsfolk could not live by tradition alone. So the masters of the gild described their plight to the Dogaressa Alicia Giustiniani-Donato, who had tried to hold back the tide of disaster to Venetian industries by giving employment to builders, decorators, and painters. Through her influence in 1550 parties of Murano glass-blowers were granted the privilege of going to England, Flanders, Spain, and France. Henry VIII had been collecting fine specimens of Murano glass. He welcomed these workmen and set them to teaching the English how to make that glass.
In 1569 when the harvests failed in Italy and in neighboring countries, famine and plague multiplied the woes of the Venetians. Their celebrated arsenal burned that year. Philanthropy was the only offset to dire misery. But philanthropy could not check the ravages of the plague. More substantial succor was given to Venice, in its agonies of disease, by Loredana Marcello-Mocenigo, a woman of wealth and noble family, a writer and a classical scholar – a “new woman” interested in intellectual attainments, whose botanical researches proved of value to physicians during the plague. She herself died of the plague in 1572 but her formulas and recipes for healing were applied to other sufferers with excellent effects.
As the century advanced, spurts of renewed vigor and signs of strength marked great State banquets and festivities on the Canal, especially during visits of illustrious foreign rulers, princes of state, and powerful women of merchant-prince families. In 1597 when Morosina Morisini-Grimani, possessor of a combined noble and commercial family tree, made her entry as Dogaressa, her coronation exceeded anything yet witnessed in Venice. “Every craftsman and craftswoman” in Venice went to work with might and main, contributing magnificence to this occasion. Sumptuary and other restrictions were lifted. “The Forty and Ten raised no barriers” against splendor. Poets, orators, and publishers welcomed commissions to laud the First Lady. Four hundred noblewomen attended her. Noble lords paid respects to her and she bestowed upon each a fine gift. Charitable, as well as “elegant, refined, and witty,” she went out on t he balcony of her palace and showered coins on the populace below in the Piazza. Within doors the Doge and Dogaressa dined foreign princes and ambassadors on forty-seven courses of food, finishing the feast with “apples of Paradise.” For days and days the banqueting went on. In the rejoicing no one seems to have been overlooked; crowds of working men and working women were invited to share the viands served at the court.
Already, however, Venice had entered upon that long, though slow, descent which ended in her extinction as an independent republic at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Mediaeval Women Rampant
Just as women took part and carried full loads of work in agriculture, domestic industries, and trading, just as they participated in the activities of craft, trade, and social gilds or corporations, so they shared and expressed themselves in all the forms of social life in town and country. In everything human their qualities and force were expressed – from religious and secular festivities, sports, games, and riots to the discussion of religious and moral questions and the management of charitable undertakings. In castles and cottages, in fields and in gild halls, on village greens and in churchyards, in towns and on city streets, in taverns and at market fairs they sought release from the rigors of earning a livelihood, from burdens of domesticity, or responsibilities belonging to the status of their class, whatever it was.
When knights held tourneys to display and test their prowess, it was largely for the purpose of winning the plaudits of the lady spectators. Jongleurs, strolling actors, and troubadours singing songs of heroism and love helped to divert lords and ladies in castles, “country bumpkins” in rural communities, and crowds in towns. At fetes, banquets, and in robust enjoyments such as “pagan routs” following dances around the pole on May Day, women were present in force to eat, drink, dance, shout, and carry on in many ways that testified to exuberance of spirit. Their gustful tempers found outlets in arguments over matters private, public, and religious; in disputes about property, trade, marriage arrangements, and family difficulties; in quarrels about tastes, habits, and manners high and low.
Like many men of the time, many women were muscular and tough. In speech and deeds they were often libertarian, if not libertine, as the documents clearly show. Even de la Tour Landry’s Le Livre du Chevalier (The Book of the Knight of the Tower), written in 1371 for the instruction of his daughters in good manners for girls of the upper class – contained so many stories now to be regarded so obscene that no modern publisher could reprint it in the United States or England without the risk of prosecution. Robert Briffault’s The Mothers is full of materials on the likeness-of-kind which characterized innumerable men and women of the middle ages. In such source materials actual women come to life out of ghosthood and proclaim the fact that they were not uniformly demure or subject to men, priestly or secular. Although the word “emancipation” was not in vogue, liberties were taken as the mood dictated.
In the code of chivalry modern literary commentators have seen the nursery of private and public virtues such as service to others without price, protection of the weak by the strong, kindness to the poor by the rich, and especially the devoted championship of feminine chastity against wicked and cruel males. Thus Professor F. J. C. Heamshaw, an Englishman, in an essay on “Chivalry and Its Place in History,” taking the English gentleman as a standard of measurement, declared that in England chivalry “set that tone which has been perpetuated in the great Public School tradition.” And what could be better than “the old School tie"? At the opposite pole chivalry has been represented as a hypocritical fraud covering brutality, savagery, and gross lechery so shocking to refined sensibilities in modern times as to defy description for publication in the English-speaking world. If the records which alone furnish us positive knowledge of chivalry are consulted, it must be said that the “truth” lies somewhere between the extremes and on the whole closer to the description of chivalry as brutality and lechery than to the description of it as purity and gentility.
With no intention of playing up the grossness of human nature in some of its aspects, indeed with regret that such aspects exhibit themselves, the student must admit that women of the chivalric age were not all quiet Griseldas passively watching the exploits of pure-hearted knights. A single extract from the English chronicler, Knighton of Leicester, describes a scene that scarcely fits either the Public School tradition or the Ladies’ Academy tradition of chivalry: “In those days 113481 there arose a huge rumour and outcry among the people, because when tournaments were held, a band of women would come as if to share the sport, dressed in divers and marvellous dresses of men – sometimes to the number of 40 or 50 ladies, of the fairest and comeliest (though I say not, of the best) among the whole Kingdom. Thither they came in party-coloured tunics, one colour or pattern on the right side and another on the left, with short hoods that had pendants like ropes wound around their necks, and belts thickly studded with gold and silver – nay, they even wore, in pouches slung across their bodies, those knives which are called daggers in the vulgar tongue; and thus they rode on choice war-horses or other splendid steeds to the places of tournament. There and thus they spent and lavished their possessions, and wearied their bodies with fooleries and wanton buffoonery, if popular report lie not.”
Yet, in Knighton’s view, God was not to be mocked: “But God in this matter, as in all others, brought marvellous remedy; for He harassed the places and times appointed for such vanities by opening the floodgates of heaven with rain and thunder and lurid lightning, and by unwonted blasts of tempestuous winds.... That same year and the next came the general mortality [the Black Death] throughout the world.”
Anyone who desires more precise details bearing on the nature and actions of mediaeval women can find them luxuriant in G. G. Coulton’s Mediaeval Panorama and his four volumes of documents, Life in the Middle Ages. In the pages of these works mediaeval women stand out as they were seen and heard by their contemporaries. At one point a woman and her daughters are lustily engaged in a general brawl with relatives and neighbors. In another passage a woman is described as “an animal prouder than the lion, the fiercest and proudest of the brute creation; more wanton than the ape; and more venomous than an asp; more false and deceitful than the syren.” Women display their independence by drinking and merrymaking and singing in taverns. A woman is cited as a leader of village dancing. Perverse women wash clothes on Sundays and Holy Days. A woman steals her husband’s money and runs off with a monk. Women are found dancing under the leadership of the Devil. A stout woman merchant smashes a knight with a sword. Two women beat each other up in a jealous rage. Women are so accustomed to swearing that they could hardly speak a word without an oath.
Not even in churchly affairs were mediaeval women all meek and silent. The records testify that many of them were quite otherwise. Illicit relations of women and priests were disclosed by witnesses at official inquests. Rebellious nuns defied men’s orders. Wicked women cast spells. Women were unmannerly in churches. Women joined men in tossing a priest into a pit. Women crowded into the cloisters of a noble monastery, along with men, and made hubbub there.
That women were not always expected to treat priests with respect, no matter what the clerics did, is indicated in a story told by Thomas of Chantipre in Brabant, a distinguished Dominican preacher and suffragan bishop of the thirteenth century. Once when Thomas was in Brussels, a comely maiden of lowly birth told him that a priest had tried to ravish her, that she had bloodied his nose; thereupon the priest informed her that for this she had to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Thomas could scarcely withhold his laughter but he solemnly instructed her that, if this or any other priest made improper approaches to her, “then thou smite him sore with thy clenched fist, even to the striking out, if possible, of his eye; and in this matter thou shalt spare no order of men, for it is as lawful for thee to strike in defense of thy chastity as to fight for thy life.”
In the numberless mediaeval records which indicate men’s ideas of women, all kinds of formulas appear again and again. Thus, women are cleaner and better than men; by their virtues they lift men above masculine grossness, vulgarity, and brutality; they bear the heavy burden of civilizing men. Again, women are inherently sinful and wicked, the originators and abettors of evil; they are forward in their insolence; they have commerce with the Devil, resort to magic, and in general must be subdued to the ordinances of the priests if not of other men; they should be humble and obedient to their husbands; and it is not meet for them to invade man’s domain. Also, repeated again and again and again in mediaeval documents was the idea that women had been better, if not ideal, “in the good old days,” but were now given to luxury, assertiveness, display, love of worldly goods and pleasures. Hence it would appear that the newest clichés are not so new after all.
Such citations, illustrations, and facts (and all that might be added to them) certainly do not show that the women of the middle ages were all on the side of civilization – or all against it. The number of men who actually fought in the endless battles and wars of the time doubtless outnumbered women; and men do seem in the light of archives to have been on the whole more brutal, cruel, and gross. Yet women, as queens or in other posts of power, ordered men to battle; women marshaled troops; women often fought side by side with men; and, besides being guilty themselves of innumerable cruelties, women aided and approved the worst. In short, mediaeval women conformed to no “type,” in respect of mentality, possessions, activities, tastes, interests, or, to use that now-popular but misleading word, “status.” They were certainly not all tame in the “man’s world,”
All mediaeval women were not cowed when marriage arrangements and settlements were made or by marriage itself. Apart from legal texts, decrees, commentaries, and decisions, mediaeval documents relative to women and marriage are bewildering in number and variety. They include letters, copious extracts from chronicles, passages from royal and ecclesiastical official inquests, sermons, chivalric romances, miracle plays, ballads, tales, books for ladies, and snatches of gossip and recollections. Although a large number of them refer principally to women of the upper classes, others give glimpses into the life and practices of peasants and serfs toiling under the jurisdiction of overlords, male and female. Anyone who pores for only a few weeks over these records will shrink from making any single generalization purporting to cover the marital practices of the middle ages, particularly on “the position of woman.”
Beyond all question the weight of documentary evidence is against any simple conclusion that men handed women around like chattels; that boys were free to make their own choices of mates, while girls were helpless creatures at the disposition of men. After the rise of the centralized state, no one, male or female, was actually “free,” save perhaps the king or queen as highest lord, and even members of royal families had to be on guard against actions likely to stir up revolt among underlings. As a matter of fact, fathers and mothers of the middle and lower classes, as well as lords and ladies, took part in arranging the marriages of both boys and girls under the almost universal rule of “convenience.” The boy apparently had no more choice than the girl. There are records indicating that boys and girls sometimes made vigorous protests without avail; other records show that their protests were effective. But the general rule of marriage for convenience long prevailed.
Whether fathers or mothers , men or women, usually dominated in the making of matches is a matter buried in the silence of unrecorded history, but there is abundant proof that women were active in the business and were no less circumspect or ruthless than men at the business. Women looked about for marriageable boys and girls to be convenient mates for girls and boys in their own families. Maidens were inclined to be shrewd and insistent – that is, “practical” – in marrying men with property, when they had any chance of selection, as they often did. Mothers were zealous in procuring for their daughters men who had property and in making sure that the property was good, and carefully guarded by proper legal titles. In other words, the marriage of convenience was no one-sided affair in which fathers and sons “had their own way” with the women concerned in it.
In a book of illustrations for sermons designed to teach moral lessons, a Franciscan friar, who had been a fellow-student of Roger Bacon, wrote, about 1275, a story of a greedy woman who was punished for demanding a mate who had money. “A certain great lady,” he said, “being left a widow by the death of her husband, and wooed by many for marriage, one of her many suitors was comely to see, doughty of his body, practiced and renowned in arms, but poor. When, therefore, he besought her instantly, seeking to bend that lady’s mind to consent to the marriage, seeing also that his body pleased her while his poverty (according to the way of the world) displeased her, she gave him one day the following answer: ‘Beloved sir, how could I, being such a lady as I am, take thee who are so poor a man and of so slender substance? ... If thou hadst a fief I would gladly take thee.” Thus rebuffed the suitor went away, found a rich merchant on a public road, slew him, stole his money, and returned to the lady loved. Though he confessed to her that he had got his sudden riches by murder and robbery, she accepted him, with his ill-gotten gains, as her husband. Then after many years both met a terrible fate. While the story may be fanciful in some respects, it undoubtedly reflects a conception of human conduct deemed probable in such times.
Documentary evidence wholly conclusive in nature and showing women’s participation in arranging marriages appears in the famous Letters of the Paston family written in the fifteenth century. One of the letters gives a warm picture of a negotiation. About 1449 Elizabeth Clere wrote to her cousin, John Paston, Jr., with reference to fixing up a match for his sister and the way the mother of the girl tried to rule her with an iron rod. Elizabeth told John that a man, Scrope, was looking for a wife, that she [Elizabeth] had examined his [Scrope’s] legal rights to his property, and that he would make a good match for the girl in question, “without ye might get her a better.” Elizabeth warned John, however, against letting others know about her maneuvers: “Cousin, I pray you to burn this letter, that your man nor none other may see it; for if your mother knew that I had sent you this letter, she should never love me.”
Among the peasants, servile and free, the marriage of convenience was, if possible, still more a matter of sheer economic interest. In the control of overlords, girls and widows were often treated as if they were property, but peasant boys seem not to have fared any better. The overlord wanted strong and husky workers of both sexes, male and female, on his estates, and either he or his bailiff frequently forced the marriage of boys and girls, no matter what they or their parents said or did. For instance, on the manor of Liestal, near Basel, a rule was laid down in 1411 that “every year before Shrove Tuesday, when folk are wont to think of holy matrimony, the bailiff shall bethink him what boys and girls are of such an age that they may reasonably betake wife or husband, so that he may then allot to each his mate, as husband or wife.” If in such cases the girls were regarded as chattels, the same could be said of the boys. The line of subjection was clearly a class line, not a sex line.
In general, marriage ties in the middle ages, particularly during the early centuries, were at best loose and confused, and the conception of marital virtues was low as compared to the highest modern standards. Innumerable marriages were consummated without the blessing of the Church. Extralegal relations of men and women were common. But in the course of time Church authorities, for many reasons, tried to regularize marriages and wedded life. Despite the dissoluteness of many ecclesiastics, a large proportion of the clerics labored to establish more refined and humane relations between men and women. In numerous cases the motive of an ideal was supplemented by the desire to provide means of tracing legitimacy in descent, for the purposes of apportionment of property among legal heirs and heiresses and of preventing marriages between boys and girls who might be too closely related by known or unknown ties of blood. At all events, mediaeval sermons against sinful females, indicating the desirability of their subjection, were accompanied by sermons exalting their virtues and condemning men for masculine grossness, brutality, and irresponsibility.
That husbands were allowed by common and ecclesiastical law to beat their wives cannot be gainsaid. Although numerous cases of wife-beating appear in the records, the actual extent of the practice is unregistered and it is certain that priests often tried to mitigate the abuse. Men were frequently punished for cruelty to their wives.
The origin of the custom and law as to wife-beating is obscure. But from glimpses of mediaeval society afforded by documents, family life was commonly rough and boisterous. Women, as well as men, were free with their fists, assisted by their children and relatives. Miracle plays, pageants, and village tales with striking frequency depict women as outwitting their husbands by shrewdness, if not shrewishness, and it often happened that men resorted to their ancient device, violence, when their psychological resources were not equal to the occasion. Nor is it to be overlooked that wives were sometimes aggressors: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tore three pages out of her clerkly husband’s book and clouted him on the cheek with her fists.
In the Chester Deluge Play, to which Chaucer referred with obvious zest, Noah is exhibited in a dispute with his wife and as conceding that he was defeated. When his wife refused to heed a command, Noah exclaimed: “Good wife, do as thou art bid.” She snapped back: By Christ, no! ere I see more need, Though thou stand all day and rave.
Noah then lamented his plight: Lord, how crabbed are women alway! They are never meek, that dare I say ... Good wife, let be all this trouble and stir That thou makest this place here, For all men think thou art my master (And so thou art, by St. John!)
Closely related to marriage, inheritance, descent, and wills, all through the middle ages, were practices connected with the ownership, use, and disposition of property under or outside the law. In respect of property neither men nor women stood alone. As to property in agricultural land, little or none of it was held outright, save as far as the highest lord or king could be said to have owned a principality or realm. Landed property was everywhere as a rule subject to feudal services, whether nominally in the hands of men or women. And, as we have seen, women, married and single, had extensive rights in property under the law of England in the middle ages.
What the law indicates is confirmed by a large variety of sources entirely apart from purely legal documents. Women made large gifts of land, money, and chattels to church institutions. They founded nunneries, monasteries, hospitals, orphanages, and asylums. They bought benefices for their sons, and places for their daughters in convents. They received property by will or descent from fathers , mothers, brothers, and sisters. Women engaged in trading operations, haggled in the markets over prices, and were denounced by priests for being parties to the practices of usury, pawn-broking, and price manipulations by which consumers were cheated. They bought “finery” recklessly and were criticized by priests for their luxury and pride. With money at their disposal they traveled far and wide through Christendom, as far as the Holy Land. It is impossible to discover the proportionate number of women who so
disposed of property or carried on trade or made long journeys for various reasons. But an abundant documentation destroys the fiction that women as women were in matters of property solely dependent on the rules or whims of men.
Legal records even reveal women of those distant times selling men and women, as men sold men and women, into forced labor. For example, the widow of John the Leech announced in a formulary that “I ... have sold to the Abbot of Bruerne, for twenty shillings, Richard the son of William de Eastend of Kinham ‘ my man, with all his chattels and livestock... . And, that none may
doubt this I have published these deeds present, sealed with mine own seal, for a testimony.” Again, Audrina, widow of Robert de Driby, sold to Henry Cole of Boston, “Agnes, daughter of Hordan Blanet of Baston, and simon Calf her son dwelling at Stamford, with all their chattels and live-stock ... and all claim of serfdom and villeinage which I or my heirs have or might have therein.”
In these, as indeed in other evidences from social and economic life in the middle ages, class lines are sharply marked. But sex lines, such as there were, if prescribed in law, were abundantly defied in practice and in any event cannot be brought within the scope of any single formula on the “status” or the “function” and “role” of women.