Women in the Middle Ages
© Frances and Joseph Gies 1978
236 pages, plus index, notes, and bibliography.
Again this week I read from Frances and Joseph Gies’ series on daily life in the medieval era. The book is divided smartly into two parts: background and women. The four background chapters detail the roles that social and other institutions shaped for women, beginning with a short summary of “Women in History”. The two institution looked at in particular are the church and the feudal system. “Eve and Mary” focuses more on the theology backed by the church rather than the church itself.
The second part of the book consists of a series of seven case-studies. Each chapter focuses on one woman in particular, using her story to establish what kind of life other women in her situation lived. The women range in class and time — the Gies relate the stories of an abbess (to explore female monasteries), an old noble (Blanche of Castile), bourgeoisie’s women during the beginning and height of Europe’s economic revival, peasants, and others in between.
The book ends with a summary, one that begins this way:
During the thousand years of the Middle Ages, Western society made historic strides, technological, commercial, political. 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 horse-shoe, three-field system, Gothic engineering, distillation, universities, rhymed verse, Hindu-Arabic numbers, the modern theater, movable type, and the printing press. The Commercial Revolution of the high Middle Ages, led by merchants like Francesco Datini, opened the new age of capitalism, as feudal political fragmentation gave way to new national states.
The technological, economic, and political surge could not fail to have its impact on women — on the work they did, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the houses they lived in; the health, security, stability, and intellectual enrichment of their lives.
Some parts of the book are mildly repetitive of Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, but that’s to be expected. As usual, the Gies write a relaxed and informative narrative that incorporates quotations from primary sources, resulting in a thoroughly interesting and informative read. I would probably say this is my third or fourth-favorite Gies novel (the first and second being Life in a Medieval City and Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel) One chapter mentions “Rose the Regrater”, which was amusing.