Contrary to popular belief, noblewomen in Medieval Europe (400-1500 C.E.) were powerful, capable, and held important responsibilities of various forms. Noblewomen were competent in managing their households and finances, maintaining social ties, as well as upholding strict morals and values. On top of that, they intelligently made use of fashion and beauty to attain their goals and aspirations, and to elevate themselves to a status of higher standing and power.
Inheritance and Wealth
Depending on the region and time period, family name and nobility rights could be inherited from either the maternal or paternal side (although the latter seems to dominate) during the High Medieval Period (1000-1300 C.E.). Fiefs, which were originally granted as rewards for military contribution, became properties that were inheritable by daughters. This is an interesting development because noblewomen could exert political influence if their inherited fiefs came with such powers, directly “violating” legal codes that deny women of ascendency due to their “physical and mental limitations” (p. 128). However, considering the high mortality rate of noblemen (since many tend to die on crusades), inheritance by daughters seems logical (p. 129). Besides family inheritance, widows could also gain succession of their husband’s fief as indicated in the rights of dower.
Noblewomen were also often involved in retaining and managing the crown lands, apart from handling the household (p. 174). Gisela of Cysoing, born in 819 C.E. and spouse of a Frankish duke, was able to make large donations to a monastery at Cysoing after her husband’s demise. This depicts her generosity and impressive ability of managing her own finance.
Since noblewomen were expected to be affable, they played a crucial role in ensuring the smooth running of the community. They consistently contributed to religious structures (e.g. churches) through textiles and other valuable decorations, and displayed public morals through acts of compassion such as providing food and affection for the needy (p.175). Noblewomen were also renowned for their hospitality. The dining services, ambience, as well as choice of food and beverages served, were some of the important factors that noble hostesses had to consider to ensure friendly ties with fellow high-ranking families. Here, we see the well-rounded nature of noblewomen who excelled in both domestic and social roles, which in turn allowed noblewomen to raise the reputation of their family line and enhance their husband’s status through expanding social networks with religious institutions and reputable families.
Apart from that, noblewomen were involved in political affairs, such as those in court, through their spouses or sons. They took on managerial roles, such as that of the Merovingian queens, who had access and control over the royal treasury. For instance, a widowed Fredegund was able to get hold of part of the royal treasury when she was banished and sought refuge in Paris, further proving how noblewomen had such accessibility (p. 150). Non-royal noblewomen were also influential as they were able to run households and small territories without a spouse, hence exerting stronger individual power (p. 180-181).
Marriages between nobilities were often pre-arranged from birth for status, as well as for economical and political advantages (p. 131). Marital ties with powerful families helped create stronger lineages and mutually beneficial agreements (p. 71). Occasionally, marriages amongst higher nobilities even caused alterations in Medieval Europe’s political map, as seen in royal intermarriages!
However, marriage was not exactly a bed of roses for noblewomen. Feudal lords had the authority to intercede noble marriages, and exceptions were only granted when huge sums of money were given in exchange (p. 132). Marriages of noblewomen, particularly the heiresses and widows, were orchestrated mainly for strategic purposes within the political and social domains.
Family and Education
The main duty of married noblewomen was to provide heirs to their husband’s family, although they were also expected to run the households and aid their husbands (p. 165). As mothers, noblewomen played a more significant parental role than their husbands (p. 141). Due to the (typically) short lifespan of noblemen, many children became fatherless at an early age. Hence, the mothers of these children had to act as guardians, protecting their rights and estates. Through the rights of guardianship, some of these noblewomen even exercised the ruling powers inherited by their young children.
Most daughters of noble families were sent to the courts of other lords for education at around the age of 7 (p. 92). They were taught a wide range of subjects and skills, including homemaking skills, dancing, horse riding, hawking, archery, and religious knowledge, but education on manners and etiquette held precedence over all others. After all, these young noblewomen had to display decorum as expected of their class, and they also needed the practical skills for socializing with fellow nobles. While the majority eventually went on to work as servants of older ladies of the castle, higher ranking young noblewomen generally became ladies-in-waiting trained in the principles of the Medieval Code of Chivalry and Courtly Love. Receiving such extensive education and wide exposure to socio-political scenes helped hone noblewomen into competent managers of social ties, politics, and their household.
Mothers have been stereotypically viewed as the figure responsible for educating children, and mothers of noble class in Medieval Europe were no exception. Noblewomen were seen as the primary role models for their children and servants, and were expected to uphold moral values, including respect and kindness. Moreover, noblemen expected their spouses to be disciplined enough to carry out their roles responsibly in order to maintain the prestigious and powerful family image (p. 123). In fact, this particular role of the noblewomen was so highly regarded that they were often associated with religious virtues in texts! Historians like Garver believe that noblewomen were portrayed this way in order to disseminate some of the practices and beliefs of religious reforms (p. 123).
Beauty and Style
Literature suggests how clothing and colours were the basis for social stratification. We learnt that the superior women were oftentimes donned in whites, golds and silver, as well as shades of purple, which was associated with humility, and red that symbolized rank and power. Interestingly, not only do noblewomen, but also the royalty and richer clergymen, like archbishops, cardinals, and the pope, wore red to display their riches. Cosmetics were also used to enhance beauty, with rosy pink undertones for a luminous glow (p. 21).
Additionally, noblewomen clothed themselves in silk, commonly embroidered with (again) gold streaks, and cloaks or mantle outlined with fine furs and costume jewellery like gems, crisolite and sapphires (p. 48) that indicates acuity and piety. Dyed clothes too were exquisitely made at a hefty price.
Case study: Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204)
As the famous saying goes, behind every successful (noble)man is a capable (noble)woman. However, this is not the case for Eleanor. An exemplary noblewoman of the Medieval times, Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in 1122 C.E. to William X, Count of Aquitaine and Aenor de Chatellerault. After her father’s death, Eleanor inherited a substantial fortune (mainly land), propelling her to become one of the richest and most influential women then. She started education in the fields of literature, philosophy and languages at a tender age. Her thorough education and beauty (probably enhanced by cosmetics and clothes afforded to nobles) made her a highly desired bride.
At 15, Eleanor had her first marriage to King Louis VII, the King of France. They were married for over a decade and had two daughters. However, in medieval times, sons were prefered as heirs to the royal line and thus their wedding was annulled in 1151.
Eight weeks on, Eleanor married King Henry II, King of England, who was 12 years her junior. Despite the large age gap, there was a mutual attraction arising from their similar backgrounds. Over the course of their 40-year marriage, they had eight children- three daughters and five sons- two of which went on to become the succeeding Kings of England. Her daughters married European royalties as well, making Eleanor the grandmother of crowned Europe (p. 335).
King Henry II’s succeeding sons turned against him in a rebellion led by Eleanor, who had been angered by Henry’s infidelity (p.246). Eleanor supported her sons through troops and money, but the rebellion backfired and Henry kept her in captivity for 16 years until his death. Even at 67 years old, she was still extremely capable, and stood by her son, Richard, who subsequently ascended the throne as the new King.
Richard’s sudden death in 1199 C.E. led his brother, John, to be the next in line for the throne, since he had no heir (p.247). Once again, Eleanor supported her son during the war which occurred during his reign.
Throughout her lifetime, Eleanor showed exceptional capabilities in education, politics and wealth. Some sources even claimed that she had encouraged and influenced the arts during her time, demonstrating the strong impact she made and left behind.
Despite experiencing certain social restrictions, noblewomen in Medieval Europe exhibited their capabilities, power, and influence in their own rights.They were not just powerless “accessories”, but instead, played key roles in their families, society, as well as politics. Women of our time can look up to these noblewomen and learn to rise above societal limitations to achieve success at home and at work.
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