Medieval Monday: Five Myths about Medieval Women and Power

Guest blogger Janna Bianchini, Assistant Professor of history at the University of Maryland and author of The Queen's Hand: Power and Authority in the Reign of Berenguela of Castile, busts some common misconceptions about women in the Middle Ages.

The Queen's HandWhen I mentioned to a friend that my new book was called The Queen’s Hand, his eyes got wide. “You mean like in Game of Thrones?” he said. Sadly for my hopes of record-breaking sales, no. But this is one of those cases where reality is cooler than fiction. In George R. R. Martin’s epic, the King’s (or Queen’s) Hand is an official who handles the dull administrative work of ruling so that the monarch can feast and joust and hold court. In thirteenth-century Iberia (the peninsula now occupied by Spain and Portugal), the queen’s hand was literally that—her hand, the symbol of her authority. She didn’t delegate her power to someone else; she used it herself.

The Middle Ages isn’t generally thought of as a period friendly to women at all, much less to powerful ones. Still, we’re all familiar with a handful of medieval and early modern women who had extraordinary influence: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of Castile, Elizabeth I of England. The subject of my book, Berenguela of Castile, is one of their lesser-known peers. But the focus on women like Berenguela as “exceptions to the rule” has the strange effect of reinforcing old myths about medieval women. Were these women exceptional? Oh, yes. But they didn’t come from nowhere, and their success depended on navigating a society that was much more complex than these myths assume.

Myth 1: Medieval women couldn’t own property.

The myth: This one probably derives from modern laws that barred women from controlling property. After all, if married American women in the nineteenth century couldn’t own land except under their husbands’ authority, then obviously their ancestors in the benighted Middle Ages couldn’t either…right?

The reality: Well, no. Medieval women could and did inherit, own, and transmit property, even during marriage. Customs differed across place and time, but in Berenguela’s kingdoms of Castile and León, women were entitled both to a share of their husbands’ property at marriage and to half of whatever the couple acquired afterward. Access to personal wealth and the means to dispose of it independently were essential for anyone—man or woman—who wanted to court goodwill or forge alliances with important people. Having property rights gave women the means to get things done.

Myth 2: Medieval women only had soft power.

The myth: In most of Europe, women couldn’t inherit the throne or serve as judges or advisors. So what we now call “hard” power—like the ability to make laws or command armies—wasn’t available to them. Outside their households, they were pretty much limited to the “soft” power of persuasion, example, and (if their husbands had entrusted them with the family purse strings) funding.

The reality: Women could inherit the throne in plenty of places, and they could act as regents for underage sons elsewhere. These opportunities were fairly rare, though, so women’s access to “hard” power usually came through owning property or standing in for their absent husbands. When a nobleman was away at war, on crusade, or at court, it was often his wife who took over the duties of lordship at home. She ran the estate, heard legal cases, and even defended against invaders. Which brings us to…

Myth 3: Medieval women had no role in warfare.

The myth: Every so often you find a Joan of Arc, dressing up in armor and leading knights into battle. But that only proves how rare it was for women to get involved in war. Women weren’t trained to fight, and anyway, medieval men had too low an opinion of them to ever obey them on a battlefield.

The reality: Even discounting the vast numbers of female spouses, cooks, launderers, and prostitutes who accompanied a medieval army, most women had no choice but to get involved in wars. It was a part of life. A noblewoman running her estate while her husband was off at war might find herself besieged by the enemy and forced to defend her land. Or she might take a more active role. There were numerous occasions when Berenguela led an army in the field or even commanded sieges—which shows that her men were perfectly willing to take orders from her.

Myth 4: The Church hated powerful women.

The myth: The medieval Church was a powerful institution dominated by celibate men, and it was inherently misogynist. Ecclesiastical writers expected women to be submissive and obedient, and accused them of sin, deviance, and witchcraft if they weren’t.

The reality: Medieval society as a whole had clear views on whether women should be subject to men (its answer was yes). The Church shared those views and sometimes promoted them. But if a woman cultivated good relationships with the Church—say, through piety or strategic donations—then she could exercise quite a lot of authority without being denounced as a witch or a shrew. Ecclesiastical authors were entirely capable of praising an individual queen or noblewoman to the skies while still dismissing womankind in general as capricious and weak-willed. Berenguela took advantage of this loophole. Others (like Eleanor of Aquitaine) were less successful, but remained formidable figures anyway.

Myth 5: The only way a medieval woman could be powerful was by acting like a man.

The myth: As Elizabeth I famously said, “I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart of a king.” Women were so widely scorned in the Middle Ages that they had to deny their femininity before their male subjects would take them seriously. They had to pretend that on some level, they weren’t really women; they were brave, smart, or capable because in their hearts, they were men.

The reality: Claiming spiritual manliness was a well-established way for women to legitimize their authority—and if they didn’t do it themselves, their admiring ecclesiastics would often do it for them. But there was another option, which was to use entrenched misogyny to their advantage. Women could assert authority by insisting that they were women—modest, pious, domestically-minded souls whose exercise of power was no threat to anyone. Berenguela was a master of this strategy. So is George R. R. Martin’s young queen, Daenerys Targaryen, who tells her enemies that she’s “only a young girl, innocent in the ways of war”—and woe to those who believe her.

Janna Bianchini is Assistant Professor of history at the University of Maryland.

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