In an attempt to counter the erroneous feminist allegation that women were oppressed in the medieval Christian social order,[i] some historians turn medieval queens into feminist heroines. Such historians replace a negative view of women’s role and status in the medieval period with a positive view, but fail to shed the trappings of feminist ideology.
The classic example of this is Régine Pernod’s book, Women in the Days of the Cathedrals (Ignatius Press, 1998). Pernod, in telling the stories of medieval women’s lives, argues that women’s influence in the social order was at its height during the feudal era of the 10th – 13th centuries (and, she writes, has only begun to be recovered since the 1960s and the advent of contemporary feminism).
What begins as an argument against the feminist accusation that women were oppressed in medieval times turns into a feminist position itself: “No, women were not oppressed in medieval times—they were empowered.” So, there have become two approaches to women’s role in the medieval era: 1) she was oppressed, or 2) she was empowered.[ii] But neither is true and both are feminist.
There are two points to make about such studies as Pernod’s, the second of which is the main focus of this essay:
1. Retelling history with a focus on women warps the historical record because it credits women with more influence than they had while incorrectly diminishing the role of men. For example, in Pernod’s discussion of St. Clotilde’s influence on the founding of Catholic France, she writes as if Clovis himself was a mere bystander, and only makes reference to St. Remi in passing. Pernod writes that in the West, “the diffusion of the Faith was the work of women.” This is simply untrue and is an outrageous statement for a historian to make about the creation of Christian Europe.
In Pernod’s discussion of the reforming movement of the 11th and 12th centuries and the struggle of the Investitures, Matilda of Tuscany saves the day while St. Gregory and St. Hugh play only minor roles. According to Pernod, Canossa is “the symbol of the resistance of a woman who imposed herself on the emperor and held the most eminent power within Christendom,” and Matilda was “the arbiter and guarantor of the whole Christian people in the vast effort of purification that characterizes her time.”
While Pernod attempts to “correct” the historical record to give women their due, her feminist ideology blinds her and she ends up warping the historical record by focusing on exceptions, exaggerating the role of women in historical events, and misleading her reader by omitting important facts.
2. The authors of such studies—writing after 1960s 2nd wave feminism had taken hold[iii]— impose feminist ideology onto medieval man. For example, in a recent article in the Catholic magazine New Oxford Review,[iv] historian Frederick W. Marks begins his discussion of women in history by stating, “Millennia ago, as recorded in the Old Testament, women were already asserting themselves.” “Asserting themselves?” Were women of the Old Testament guided by a need to assert their personality onto people and situations, or were they guided by both more practical and pressing concerns that had nothing to do with female assertiveness—a concern of modern women introduced by feminism?
As for the Middle Ages, Marks states, “…the vast majority of women in Christendom had a choice between child-rearing or work outside the home.” By infusing his description of the medieval woman’s situation with the modern idea that woman is free to shape her own life—have a career or stay at home and raise her children, or, more commonly, combine a career with motherhood—Marks obscures the differences between medieval and modern women.
The medieval historian David Herlihy, in his book Medieval Households (Harvard University Press, 1985), similarly claims medieval women were capable of “pursuing careers and supporting themselves, if they chose.” He states that this “Economic independence meant that they did not have to marry if they did not wish to.” Like Marks in his essay about women in history, Herlihy imposes modern ideas of women’s lives onto medieval women. Women “pursuing careers” is a modern and feminist idea. Further, Herlihy can have no idea what motivated some medieval women to remain single. Certainly, marriage or the religious life was the norm for medieval women, and women did not “pursue careers” in the sense that modern women follow their own inclinations and are led by the feminist idea that women are worthless if they don’t work outside the home.
Imposing feminist ideology onto medieval women is imposing Enlightenment rationalism and Protestant and Revolutionary[v] thinking onto medieval man—which is unreasonable since medieval thought is opposed to Enlightenment rationalism, and the Protestant Revolt sought to do away with the Catholic social order, and the French Revolution sought to finish the job on the remaining remnants of the medieval Christian world.
Pernod and her ilk make the mistake of imposing the Revolutionary concepts of equality, freedom and rights onto medieval women—as if a medieval woman understood herself as only a modern woman can—as only a descendent of the 18th century Enlightenment can. Medievals, however, had very different standards for how to live and order society than we have today.
In his book The Framework of a Christian State (1932), Father Edward Cahill describes medieval society thusly:
The whole structure of mediaeval society was founded upon Christianity. All the people were Catholic; and ecclesiastical influence was very powerful. Christian principles were inculcated in the current literature, the pulpit, the schools, and the tribunal of Penance; and were taken for granted, even when not faithfully followed, by all classes of society. The laws and their administration, the economic policy of the State, the recognised relations between the different classes, even international politics, were judged by Christian standards. So strong and deep-rooted was public opinion in the matter that it was difficult for individuals to disregard these standards openly.
Bede Jarrett, in his 1926 study of the period of 1200-1500, Social Theories of the Middle Ages (Angelico Press, 2012) writes:
For the people of that time religion or the Faith ran through the whole of life, in the sense of being inextricably entangled with it. The teaching of Christian tradition was not always lived up to nor ever lived up to perfectly, but the Church as an institution which in their eyes had been given them to be the living embodiment of that teaching could never wholly be put out of their lives. In the village, the church as a building was the centre of the village life, round it and in it moved the important events of life, individual and communal. It had no rival. Even in the towns, where at the beginning of the thirteenth century there were less visible signs of the domination of the Church, it was impossible to get away from the influence of the Faith. However much the mediaeval preacher might inveigh against the evils of men’s lives, and however distressingly he might lament the ignorance and superstition of so many even of his audience, he could not but be conscious that life nevertheless was lived in surroundings that forever bore witness to the Faith.
But what did this thoroughly Christian social order mean for the way people thought? About themselves and the world around them?
Medieval people were not extremely devout Catholics comparable to a devout person of modern times. They had a different mindset and way of looking at themselves and the world. It was a pre-Revolutionary mindset. To medieval man, people and things had fixed natures which in turn fixed their purpose. Your life wasn’t “what you make of it” because it was to a great degree predetermined by your birth and sex and the belief that you had a certain role in God’s plan for the human race. This does not mean medievals viewed themselves as mere puppets. They understood well that they had free will and that the goal of their life was to use their free will to follow the path that leads to eternal life with God in Heaven.
As explained by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his comments on Two Basic Aspects of the Medieval Mentality,[vi] medieval man was dominated by a profound reverence for God and His laws as well as the belief that he was a child of a loving Father:
Medieval society was born from a very intense love for Our Lord Jesus Christ and a profound comprehension of Him. When medieval men spoke of Our Lord, they had a much higher idea of Him than today’s faithful. The admiration of medieval men for His immeasurable perfection intensely and profoundly influenced their attitudes and actions…This explains that supreme reverence which we know medieval man had for Our Lord. Such reverence permeated his soul, and reflected in an attitude of respect, confidence, and tranquility of soul in his personal behavior…At the same time, medieval man had toward Our Lord the great affection of one who felt himself tenderly and personally loved by Him. He knew that he could expect from Our Lord, time and time again, an unlimited patience, forgiveness, compassion, tenderness, and will to help. This caused the medieval man to have in Our Lord the confidence of a small child.
Medievals had the concrete guides of Scripture and Church teaching to prescribe to them how to live. The implications for woman’s role are well known, and it is this, the traditional teaching that women are subject to their husbands, that historians like Pernod and Herlihy are attempting to redress when they write that medieval women actually had personal freedom and independence.
The underlying problem with this line of argument is that it assumes that subjection is negative. Further, as stated earlier, it assumes that medieval women thought as modern women think, they who have been taught to despise the idea of being subject to man and his helpmate rather than his equal.
But the medieval saw the world in terms of hierarchy, not equality, with everything having a proper place in that hierarchy which is all a design of God.
Is there any evidence that medieval women saw their subjection as negative?[vii] Or, did medieval women accept their place in God’s ordering of the world as ordained by Him in accord with their nature—that of the “weaker vessel?” The fact that the medieval’s mindset was so thoroughly imbued with Christian teaching suggests women accepted their role as man’s helpmate and were not unhappy about it. And, we know that medieval women did not view their lives through the rebellious, individualistic, Godless, Revolutionary lens that the modern woman does.
A woman’s understanding that she is subject to her husband’s rule, that she is designated as his helpmate and not his equal, does not preclude a deep friendship and closeness in marriage, or the happiness of a woman, or the mutual respect of husband and wife. This is difficult for a modern woman to comprehend because the modern mindset is filled with the liberal ideals of personal independence and equality of the sexes. Woman’s true role, however, is to help men lead, and with few exceptions, not to lead themselves. The lives of medieval women bear this out.
If we look at Bede Jarrett’s work on the period of 1200-1500, we find insight into the truth about medieval man and how he viewed women and their subjection.
Jarrett states: “Undoubtedly the most obvious thing to be said of the position of woman in that age was that it was one of subjection to man. The argument used by mediaval writers to describe woman’s place in the world is consistent and unchanging. It is found everywhere.” He goes on: “Basing his argumentation on the Scriptures, the mediaval theologian or moralist made the man the head of the woman,” and, referring to St. Thomas Aquinas, Jarrett writes: “For Aquinas therefore, the Biblical account of man’s creation is the divine expression of a social truth, that woman was created to be man’s helpmate.”
For the medievalist, therefore, the position of a woman was governed exclusively by her purpose in the mind of the Creator as the Bible had expressed it. There was no possibility or desire of assigning to woman an inferior place because of her lesser capacity for goodness or divine love, for no one would have admitted this to be true or even possible. As human souls men and woman were equal, as saints a woman might be a better lover of God than a man.
The social theorist who considered the position of women primarily concerned himself with the family in the abstract as he found it, proving the family to be in his theories the unit of society. He no longer gave to the father of the family that absolute mastery over women and children that the Roman law had given him; he gave the father a directive power, purely “civil or economic,” natural and not conventional — that is to say, it was not a legal ownership established by capture, or the rights of war, or the enslavement of a people; it was a purely natural subjection required for the ordered well-being of social life and for the development of the family, and determined by Divine law as taught by the revealed dogmas of the Faith.
There was nothing “oppressive” about the medieval’s approach to woman’s role. It was a matter of following the prescription given to man by Divine law for ordering society.
“Nor must we imagine that the subjection of the wife to the man was merely theoretic. It most certainly was carried out in practice to judge from the advice freely handed out to wives throughout the mediaeval period,” writes Jarrett, and quotes the advice of St. Louis IX to his daughter Isabella, Queen of Navarre, from a letter:
Dear daughter, because I think you hearken more to my words than anyone, for the love you bear me, I purpose to give you some advice. . . , Accustom yourself to confess frequently and select always confessors of holy life and good education. . . . Obey your husband humbly and your father and mother also in all that is pleasing to God. You must give to each of them your due for the love that you have for them and still more you should do it for the love of Our Lord (Acta S.S. Bollandists, 5th August, p. 588).
It is difficult to fathom how thoroughly religious people and society were in medieval times. Imbued with the liberal ideology of the rights and freedoms of the individual and the independence of man from God, the modern can’t fathom the subjection medieval man felt to his Creator. Piety—love of God—was everything to the medieval, and is nothing to the modern. What this meant for the medieval woman is the key to understanding her.
For woman’s life to be governed by her subjection to her husband, for her role to be his helpmate, is only negative if one takes the modern, liberal, Revolutionary, Godless view of man’s purpose: “What can I do? How can I fulfill myself?” asks the modern. The medieval would have asked: “What is my nature and purpose as deigned by God, for I am bound by this reality and subject to it.”
Today from a young age girls are told they can do anything they want with their lives; what this translates into in our feminist-oriented world is “You can do what only men did in the past.” This then becomes a shunting of girls into “STEM” fields or politics or business, and the distortion or denigration of what was once woman’s natural role—that of wife and mother.
One of the basic duties a woman has is to look after her husband and children—a duty which is being abandoned in our times as women pursue their own fulfillment via “careers” while they leave the care of children and home to professionals. Her husband gets no care at all, and instead, must pick up the slack that she leaves in the wake of her pursuit to “have it all.”
This is driven purely by liberal feminist ideology. Queen Isabella of Castile was never asked what she’d like to do with her life and shown a vast array of possibilities. She was duty bound and learned this and took it seriously from a very young age. A medieval queen, therefore, was not a queen because she wanted to do great things in the world and achieve success in her life. She was a queen because she was born into a particular family and lived in a monarchy. How she filled her role was partly due to personal character, but she was in no way given the role due to personal merit and it was not a personal achievement.
In Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, Pernod lists several medieval queens who influenced their husbands to convert to Catholicism which led to the spread of Faith in early medieval Europe. The problem with the overview she gives of these women’s place in history is: 1) as stated earlier, she exaggerates their role in politics and their influence on history, and 2) conversions are the work of God and are not based on individual merit. The faith and prayers of others certainly come into play, but conversions are not anyone’s achievement but God’s.
Further, the influence of these women should be viewed in the context of their subjection. It was their subjection to God and their husbands that provided the basis for God to use them to influence their husbands to convert. Without this sense of subjection would they have had any influence at all? God makes use of the humble and obedient, not the proud—the lives of the Saints are evidence of this. These queens didn’t reject their traditional role, as the modern woman does, and it is from within the confines of their roles as wives and mothers that they influenced.
There is no doubt that pious women in medieval times, in particular Saints like Clotilde or later Margaret of Scotland, had a beneficial and at times a strong influence on the times in which they lived. However, exaggerating their political influence and their role in history is driven by a need to turn them into empowered women and feminist heroines, thereby denying the true source of their greatness—their faith in God.[viii]
It does a disservice to historical accounts of these women to reduce their lives to our modern and pathetic views of success and achievement. Notable women from medieval times were great because they lived for God and a much higher purpose. It is impossible to extricate their “achievements” from their deep religious faith. We, as saturated with liberal ideology as we are, have a difficult time understanding this, for the world no longer has a place for the truly devout woman who has given her life to God.
The role of notable medieval women can only be understood in the context of their Catholic Faith. Their stories are stories of the greatness of their Faith (which allowed God to use them), more than they are stories of the personal greatness of the women themselves. The words of women like Queen Isabella bear this out:
Thou Lord, in whose hands is the rule of kingdoms, who has put me by Thy Providence into royal estate, I beg humbly to hear now the prayer of Thy servant, and show forth the truth, and manifest Thy will with Thy marvellous works; so that if I am not in the right that Thou mayest give me wisdom and strength so that with the aid of Thine divine arm, I may be able to carry on and to prevail, and bring peace to these realms, which until now have suffered so much evil and destruction. -public prayer of Queen Isabel of Castile on the eve of war between Castile and Portugal
The measure of man for medievals was to what degree they gave their lives to God—giving up their own desires to follow God’s will. This requires obedience, humility and sacrifice. Our modern mindset does not comprehend the power of self-sacrifice for we are so hung up on the power of self-assertion.
The reason for the pattern of work for women today—typically women are driven to achieve professionally and have a fulfilling career—is feminist ideology. This has been shaping up since the 19th century when Elizabeth Cady Stanton held the first woman’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, but has especially taken shape since the 1960s when Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in which she told women they were worthless if they did not have a paying job outside the home. That’s not to say that some women work out of necessity or follow their interests into a career; however, the dominant factor shaping the pattern of work for women today is feminist ideology.
In the West, before the revolutionary times of the 18th and 19th centuries the social order was Christian. During the medieval period the social order was thoroughly Catholic; society was informed by the Catholic Faith and led by the Catholic Church. Now, the dominant factor shaping our mindset is the Enlightenment’s spawn, liberal ideology, of which feminist ideology is a daughter. Self-love and fulfillment of that self have replaced fear and love of God.
Yet, despite the incredible differences between our time and the medieval period, some historians and commentators on women’s lives use a modern, feminist paradigm of success and fulfillment when discussing the lives of medieval women. Because these historians themselves are concerned with women’s equality and independence—as if such things are the only standards to which one should aspire—they transfer this concern onto medieval women. But while we moderns are blinded by the liberal ideology of rights and freedoms, medievals were not. They were enlightened by a deep and binding religious faith which gave them an altogether different mindset, and an idea of perfection that far surpasses such notions as “rights” and “equality.”
Medieval men and women were imbued with an ideal of womanhood vastly different from the modern ideal. The ideal medieval woman was chaste, modest and humble, the gentle and pious woman who served her husband and her household with the spirit of Christ, that is, of self-sacrifice. She viewed herself as rightfully subject to her husband, but above all as subject to God. How can we compare her to her foolish descendent, the modern woman, who seeks her own aggrandizement and fulfillment as she chases after worldly achievement and recognition, while abandoning the duties of home? She has no master, and while thinking she is her own mistress shaping her life according to her own judgment, she is in reality a slave to the feminist ideology with which she has been indoctrinated. “Having it all” to today’s woman means a career and motherhood, while for the medieval woman “having it all” would have been a foreign concept, while the idea of giving all of herself to Christ would have been well known to her.
Historians infected with feminism ascribe modern, feminist motivations to medieval women, and they celebrate medieval women like Matilda of Tuscany or St. Joan of Arc. However, they should be reminded that women in politics or battle were exceptions in medieval times, which was a Catholic social order informed by Scripture and Church teaching—including the teaching that woman is subject to her husband. Whereas today women’s involvement in politics is ideologically-driven and forced, in medieval times it was simply an exception which was accepted—perhaps for the very reason that it was an exception (exceptions confirm the rule, after all).
Further, historians like Pernod are attempting to counter the feminist allegation that women were oppressed in the medieval Christian social order; however, that allegation was based on confusing a Catholic social order with a later Protestant and Puritanical one which rigidly enforced the idea that women have only one role—that of wife and mother. In reality, the Catholic social order of medieval times was organic—not rigid—and while it held that woman was subject and was to follow, not lead man, in its wisdom it allowed for exceptions. In his comments on The Perfect Societies: Church and State,[ix] Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira states that in an organic society such as was found in the Middle Ages it is the “exceptions that weave the rich fabric of reality.” In his comments on abbesses as temporal governors during that time, he writes:
No one strives more than the Church to instruct women in their proper place in society, that is, to be subject to man: This is the rule.
However, only under the inspiration of the Church did states exist where the governors were women. This occurred in the large Convents that had temporal estates so large that they became temporal fiefs. For this reason, the Abbesses in effect would receive temporal titles such as countess, duchess or princess of that land and province. In fact they would exercise the temporal power over those populations and be respected as such.
This exception to the rule was made without a planning committee – it occurred organically.
Compare such organic developments to the forced entrance of women into leadership roles based on feminist ideology and the quota mentality. Today it is often the case that a woman is in a leadership role precisely due to a committee that has planned it, and has had to legislate it into existence. This is rigidity.
The irony of the feminist allegation that the Catholic Church oppressed women in medieval times is that the medieval social order was an organic society more in harmony with man’s nature—while today women are indoctrinated with an ideology that is contrary to their nature. They are told they should fill the same role as men, competing with them and aping them. They are boxed into the role of overachieving superwoman which sets them up for feelings of never measuring up (for a woman can never be a man) and a life of stress and unhappiness.
Modern man can’t fathom that a thoroughly Catholic social order such as was found in the medieval period is more conducive to woman’s well-being and happiness than the one we have now. It is this understanding, however, that is essential for the historian who delves into the lives of medieval women.[x]
Pernod states that women’s influence in the social order was at its height during the medieval period and has only begun to be recovered since the 1960s and the advent of contemporary feminism. However, the fact that she imposes modern, liberal ideas onto medieval women suggests she does not understand that it was the absence of such ideology and the firm presence of Christian belief that allowed for women the influence Pernod so admires.
There was no such thing as “empowered” women in the medieval period. Only women who became great because they saw that all power and greatness comes from God, and that we can only be useful instruments for His plans for mankind if we give up our own desires and follow God’s will.
These women existed in a thoroughly Catholic social order, and it is this foundation that is necessary for both men and women to reach their fullest potential in complete obedience to God’s will.
[i] This essay deals with the period of 500-1500 A.D., although it should be acknowledged that the Christian social order took some time to develop during the early medieval period, reaching its height during the 12th and 13th centuries.
[ii] Historians of feminism—as opposed to feminist-oriented historians which are the topic of discussion in this essay—take a more nuanced approach. They generally do not include medieval women within feminism because, as stated by one such historian, although “we can admire the subversive protest of medieval women and appreciate their tenacity and courage in the face of hostility and disparagement, the theoretical basis for feminist politics still lay in the future.” Because medieval women did not explicitly condemn, or even recognize, women’s so-called oppression, they cannot be considered feminist. In short, they did not have a “feminist consciousness.” However, it is these same writers of feminist history who wrongly attribute characteristics to medieval women that come from a “feminist consciousness.” In addition to “subversive protest” we find such terms as “rebellious” to describe St. Catherine of Siena; St. Joan of Arc “operated autonomously”; women mystics viewed Mary as a source of “empowerment”; and the act of fasting for medieval women was a means of “controlling” their own body. See Marilyn LeGates, In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society (Routledge, 2001).
[iii] One need not identify oneself with the feminist movement or assume the title of “feminist” to be infected with its ideology.
[iv] New Oxford Review, July-August 2017
[v] “Revolution” here does not refer to a specific revolutionary event but to the slow and violent sweeping away of the Christian social order, starting in the late Middle Ages. The Protestant Revolt, the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the Russian Revolution are all specific revolutionary events that are part of the overall “Revolution.” The Revolutionary spirit is characterized by anti-Catholicism and the worship of “liberty” (a.k.a. license). Under the Revolutionary order the rights of man usurp the rights of God. See Revolution and Counter-Revolution by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira for more on this topic.
[vii] Some feminist writers have portrayed Christine de Pizan from the late medieval period as a feminist. However, feminist historians generally do not consider Pizan to have had a “feminist consciousness.” For example, she argued for better treatment of women, rather than for a change in their position in the social order.
[viii] The “civilizing” force of good women on the behaviour of men should be acknowledged; however, it is feminism that places undue emphasis on this dynamic. The truth is that it is the Christian Faith—that is, the Catholic religion—that raises the dignity of both men and women.
[x] It would be even better if historians understood God’s role in history, and what history essentially is. For God is the author of history, and history itself is the unfolding of God’s plan for man. “The spiritual meaning and value of history are hidden under the veil of outward political and economic change,” wrote Christopher Dawson in The Formation of Christendom. Or, as Thomas Storck wrote more recently, “When it ends, all will see that the history of the human race was a journey toward God…” (From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond, Angelico Press, 2015.)