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.
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.
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.