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8-08-2015, 14:26

The Role of Women

Women played a greater role than might be expected in this elite warrior society, as heiresses and chatelaines in charge of castles (see Documents 44–53). Since land was the basis of status and power, estates were kept intact by being passed on to the oldest son rather than being divided among all the children. In spite of high infant mortality and short life expectancies, a family hoped that at least one son survived to inherit lands and titles. Younger sons hoped to gain an estate of their own by marrying an heiress. Consequently a young noblewoman (or later the daughter of a prosperous merchant or peasant) might become a pawn in the marriage game, if she brought land and treasure into a family as her dowry. Of course, a few younger sons and daughters gained positions in the court or the Church through their extraordinary personal skills. A strong and clever woman acted for her husband when he was serving his feudal lord in court or at war, and she might command the defense of the castle or fortified manor house in his absences. Even in peacetime, her responsibilities were heavy. She managed a large, selfsufficient household, sometimes composed of hundreds of individuals, which moved regularly from one manor to another. She oversaw the care and education of children as well as the health and well-being of the community. In an age when the only effective medicine came from the herb garden, she was gardener and herbalist. She also provided for the cultural life in the castle through music and dancing, pageants and oral poetry. If a woman’s husband died before a son came of age, she tried to maintain control of the property against the encroachment of greedy uncles and overlords. As a widow she kept part of her dowry. An alternate career path for a woman lay in the Church, where as a nun she escaped the dangers of childbirth. In the convent she could hold any position except that of priest, and as an abbess or prioress she had great power and responsibility.