When people critique my writing, I often hear, “Women were not like that.” To which I respond, “The Victorian Era hadn’t happened yet.” In medieval days, few women had the opportunity to sit demurely and read, entertain guests for tea, or do needlework. In fact, the first printing press was not invented until 1439. Prior to that time, many books were huge, expensive, handwritten tomes. Many people were unable to read, although that was beginning to change in the late medieval era. As for tea, the Dutch introduced it to Europe in 1610. And for you coffee lovers, that beverage was available in the Arab world and Turkey during the 16th century, but did not spread to Europe until the 17th century. So passing the time in such a way was not even a thought.
Peasant women who lived in rural areas kept busy. In addition to child rearing, they were also responsible for preparing food for the family, tending the livestock and the garden. Many had businesses such as brewing ale (a brewster), baking, or were engaged in the textile manufacturing process (spinning, weaving, knitting, etc.) During harvest time, everyone pitched in. Women who lived in town helped their husbands either in trade or running shops and inns. If their husbands were off at war, or died, they would take over the management of the household.
For upper class women there were two options: marriage or “taking the veil.” Most chose marriage. These were most often arranged by their families., and neither the bride or the groom had a say in who they married. Being born or married into the ruling class did not mean a life of leisure. Their husbands were often gone to war for years at a time. This meant they managed the family demesne and finances in their absence. They did have the ability to enjoy other diversions because they had servants to help with the work.
While women during this era were considered property, some still found a way to break out of their traditional roles to make a name for themselves and influence history.
Here are some memorable examples:
Eleanor of Aquitaine – Born in the 12th century, Eleanor was one of the most sought after women by the monarchs of the day due to the vast inheritance of territories in France she received upon her father’s death. During her lifetime, she married two monarchs, lead armies in the Crusades, secured trade deals with the Byzantine Empire, and set up the Court of Love that promoted the arts and chivalry. She also acted as regent for her son, Richard the Lionheart. During her lifetime, Eleanor wielded influenced over the political and social landscape of Europe.
Joan of Arc – This young peasant girl rose to be an unforgettable military leader. In the early 15th century, she cut her hair, donned boy’s clothes and led the French armies to victory during the Hundred Years War. Her end was tragic, being accused of heresy and burned at the stake. The verdict was later overturned (a bit late to save her life). In 1920, she was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Queen Margaret d’Anjou – Margaret was married to Henry VI of England, the first king to be toppled during the Wars of the Roses. She was instrumental in negotiating with the King of France for military assistance and led an army into England in 1470, freeing her husband from the Tower of London and retaking the throne for her husband. However, the victory was short-lived. Edward IV returned from exile and re-took the throne only six months later. King Henry and Queen Margaret’s only child and heir to the throne, Edward, died in battle. Henry VI died shortly thereafter, leaving her with nothing left to fight for.
Lady Margaret Beaufort – This Margaret claims the title of mother to Henry Tudor, the first king of the Tudor dynasty. Her son had been exiled from England after Edward IV re-took the throne in 1471. She is credited with being a major player in the Wars of the Roses, pulling political strings behind the scenes to garner support among the nobility against Richard III (notorious for the disappearance of the princes in the tower and more recently his body being discovered beneath a car park). When Henry Tudor invaded England in 1485, Richard III died defending his throne. Lady Margaret Beaufort played a dangerous game that helped bring down the Plantagenet dynasty and the rise of the House of Tudor, becoming the King’s Mum.
One more Margaret for you, Margaret being a very popular name for girls during this era. Book 2 of my Roses & Rebels series, BETRAYAL OF TRUST, features Margaret Harleston, a feisty, take no prisoners woman who changed the course of history on the Isle of Jersey, defying the Governor’s orders and presenting her case before the Henry VII (Henry Tudor), King of England.
In every era, there are women who, despite the unfortunate practice of being deemed property of men, broke free and defied the bonds of society and left their mark on history.
Please share if you have medieval woman you find fascinating.
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C.V. Lee writes historical biographical fiction featuring forgotten heroes and heroines of the past. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, Alli, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can find her on Facebook @cvlee.histficwriter and on Instagram @cvleewriter.