Medieval European women have always presented rather a mystery. The portraits of those which survive in mosaics, paintings and illuminated manuscripts are usually of queens, princesses, duchesses and the like. Their faces, framed by elaborate headdresses and rich robes, are usually expressionless and enigmatic. They don't give much away, either about themselves, or the majority of less exalted women who populated their world. Frances and Joseph Gies have now attempted, in a work which is both serious and popular, to make these women less mysterious, and even to bring some of them to life.
Part one of "Women in the Middle Ages" in an interesting essay on methodology. Many writers on the history of women have related the status of women of that of men. The Gieses reject this approach and find it more profitable to examine a wide range of factors: the state of technology and economic activity (which of course affects both sexes), obstetrical practices, marriage conditions, legal and property rights, education and the division of labor. Most of the points made about these different themes are well illustrated. Aptly chosen quotations from contemporary sources highlight the pain and danger of medieval childbirth, the many legal injustices suffered by women and the strange views held about their bodies. The contradictory stereotypes of Eve and the Virgin Mary are nicely summarized.
The second part of the book is devoted to the lives of individual medieval women. Numerous black-and-white illustrations, mostly taken from contemporary manuscripts, depict medieval women in arresting poses: A lady hoists her lover up to her tower wind ow by winch and pulley; a peasant carries her baby in a curved box uncomfortably balanced on her head and shoulders; a priest pats a nun on the head as she confesses her sins.
Unfortunately, very little information about individual women is available especially for the early Middle Ages. Most women led unchanging lives of varying degrees of misery. They bore children and expected to lose most of them. They worked in the house and on the land. Their subsistence was always at the mercy of the weather, their health governed by forces they couldn't understand. Rarely did they travel farther than five miles from their birthplace.
The pattern of their lives can be discerned clearly enough, but personal biographical material to illustrate it does not exist. It follows that the Gieses, in choosing their seven women, have not been able to muster a representative collection.
Thus, the first woman whom they describe is a 12th-century nun. There is no description of a woman's life during any of the preceding seven centuries. And this is no ordinary nun: She is the Abbess Hildegarde of Bingen, who wrote two revelatory books in Latin, "Know the Ways of the Lord" and "Book of Divine Works," at a time when few women were literate. Similarly, their second case study concerns Blanche of Castile, the beautiful wife of a 13th-century French king, one of perhaps a dozen medieval women who enjoyed real political power: She ruled France like a man after her husbands death, and continued to do so after her son had reached his majority.
To compensate for the unusual qualities of the women they describe, the Gieses do try to place them in perspective. For example, the chapter on Agnes li Patiniere of Douai, a 13th-century Flemish cloth maker, includes a fascinating discussion of women working in cities and their frequent exploitation by male entrepreneurs. But in other instances the context and perspective are lacking. The reader learns all about the household routine, furniture and clothing of Margherita Datini, a 14th-century Italian mechant's wife, but has no way of judging how many other women were enjoying the same sort of life.
Given the obscurity of the subject and the pauctiy of soundly based work on it, this new book is welcome. Its unpretentious style and the felicity with which the illustrations complement the text both deserve praise.