History for the curious

imgresFrances and Joseph Gies, Women in the Middle Ages (1978)

A brief review here.

Gies and Gies, famous for their intelligent books on Medieval Europe, provide a guide to the lives of women from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance. The black-and-white illustrations come from codices and manuscripts in libraries in Germany, England, France, Italy, and the US — many now available online in color.

Heidelberger Universitatsbibliothek, Manesse Codex, f. 395r

Lovers go for a walk in the woods, Heidelberger Universitatsbibliothek, Manesse Codex, f. 395r

After busting a few myths in a brief introduction to general principles (e.g., Eve vs. Mary, Feudalism), the Gies focus on individuals: an abbess, a queen, a peasant, a merchantman’s wife, etc. We learn about marriage and family, inheritance, literacy and education, travel, work and play across all classes, all set within a millennium that saw a remarkable technological shift:

Medieval innovations revolutionized industry, architecture, agriculture, and intellectual life, while alleviating and enhancing daily living with the spinning wheel, water mill, windmill, wheelbarrow, crank, cam, flywheel, lateen sail, rudder, compass, stirrup, gunpowder, padded horse collar, nailed horseshoe, three-field system, Gothic engineering, distillation, universities, rhymed verse, Hindu-Arabic numbers, the modern theater, movable type, and the printing press.

Woman carding wool, British Library, MS Royal 10 E VI, f. 138

Woman carding wool, British Library, MS Royal 10 E VI, f. 138

Set next to recent technological advances, all this in 1000 years may seem like change at a glacial pace. Yet the impact of each invention or adoption was felt within single generations, and I can imagine the people feeling as if they were riding a wild horse.

The Gies make the point that “only in the peasant and artisan classes, where toil was demanded of all, did the [women] … share work and responsibility with husbands and brothers on a nearly equal basis.” Small recompense for short life spans and unending labor, but the point here is that only the wealthy could afford to “put women on a pedestal”, thereby diminishing their roles in daily life.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
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2 Responses to History for the curious

  1. calmgrove says:

    I think the Welsh Laws of Hywel Dda, codified in the 10th century, were supposed to be more enlightened towards women’s rights than elsewhere, but I’ll have to do a bit more research before I can quote chapter and verse — in translation, of course!

    Still, small recompense for the majority of women living during this period, and even smaller comfort for modern women denied basic rights by oppressive regimes.

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      The Gies’s book helped me see women had more freedom than we thought. Interesting factoid: side-saddle riding for women was created in the 15th C; before that they rode astride. Another example of how we’ve created expectations of femininity out of wholecloth!

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