Hi, it’s Louise here again, for another exploration of the wonderful world of medieval history... In my March post, you may remember how I talked about the difficulties of writing women in a world which is deeply misogynistic in its thinking. We’ve also heard from several writers who have had to wrestle with this problem on a daily basis.
So we’ve seen the theory, and we've also seen how several authors have approached the problem. Now it's time to set the record straight - what was it like for medieval women in practice?
For my case studies, I’m going to introduce you to three women of the Middle Ages. One of these women - Black Agnes of Dunbar (Norris, 2007, 66) – has grown into the stuff of legends through the centuries, but I think we can safely say that whatever the truth behind her story, the facts can’t be too far away. My second is Christian de Pisan (Leyser, 1995, 284), an Italian-born lady who married a French nobleman at 14 and - after losing her husband at the age of 25 - supported herself by writing. My third example is the simply-named Emma Huntynton, whom I’ll be citing as an example of the broad class of capable widows who, following their husbands’ deaths, continued running their husbands’ businesses (Leyser, 1995, 178).
‘Black Agnes’ is the popular name which has been given to Agnes Randolph, daughter of Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray. In 1338, during the Scots Wars of Independence, she held Dunbar Castle against an English army for 5 months on her father’s behalf, before being relieved by a Scots army. Upon seeing a siege engine known as ‘the sow’ being moved into place, she reputedly uttered the immortal words, “Beware, Montagow [Montague, the besieging Englishman], for I shall farrow thy sow.”
|Portencross Castle, Ayrshire - What Was Life Really Like?|
The feisty defence put up by ‘Black Agnes’ is not an isolated case, and we can perhaps understand her better by referring to an important document written by Christian de Pisan, The Book of Three Virtues. A veritable Mrs Beaton of her age, Christian de Pisan’s reference work was a guide to women on how to be a good woman, which meant of course being a good wife, and a good mother. Following on from last month’s post, we might expect this to advocate that women should be meek and virtuous at all times, subservient to their husband’s wishes. But this isn’t the case – for a woman to be a useful contributor to her household, she’s got to play an active part in its running. Christian advises the wives of nobles to be astute politically, and to be strong and courageous. Such a woman must be a good leader, and a wise counsellor: that way, she can support her husband properly, and also represent him in all matters when he’s absent. For this reason, ‘She must know the laws of arms and all things pertaining to warfare’ (Leyser, 1995, 286). This description by Christian directly inspired the kind of woman I had in mind when recreating the characters for Fire & Sword, a woman perhaps best typified by Helen Campbell, wife to Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie.
Christian de Pisan did not, however, focus completely on the nobility. She also offers advice to the wives of artisans and labourers. She urges women to make sure their husbands rise early and apply themselves vigorously to the tasks before them. That these women were more than capable of understanding their husbands’ trades is clearly evidenced by the vast number of widows who continued their husband’s businesses through widowhood. Emma Huntynton is a good example: following the loss of her husband in 1362, she inherited both his house and his apothecary’s shop and continued working in that trade throughout, we must presume, the remainder of her life. Though the medieval historian, Henrietta Leyser is quick to point out that for widows, working was a requirement, something expected of them by their peer group (who presumably didn’t want to support them financially).
So there we have it. Three real medieval woman. Whose stories serve to show us what life was really like back then. A misogynistic world in theory, perhaps, but one where, in practice, reality was often very different.
Leyser, H 1995. Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500 (Phoenix, London)
Norris, J 2007 Medieval Siege Warfare (Tempus, Stroud)