Saturday, August 27, 2016

Women in the Middle Ages


Rating: 4 Stars

I have read several books by this husband and wife team and enjoyed them all. This one is no exception. Though it was written in 1978 and comes across at some points as dated now, it is a thoroughly researched and well-written look at the lives of women in what we refer to as the Middle Ages, roughly 600 AD to 1600 AD. Of course there is always debate as to when the actual Middle Ages occurred - some dismiss the term 'Dark Ages' completely now, others say this time period begins with Alfred the Great and ends with Richard III's defeat at Bosworth. A strict start and end date is of little consequence to this book, as the authors look at seven women who lived in the centuries from roughly 1000 through 1400. And, though Eleanor of Aquitaine is not one of the women profiled in the book (sad face), she does make an appearance and I quite enjoyed that she is given brief but proper due in the chapter dedicated to Blanche of Castile (her granddaughter): "Heading the party was John's mother, and the princesses grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, an almost fabulous queen who had astounded her contemporaries 50 years earlier by coolly deserting one king (Louis VII of France) to marry another (Henry II of England and Anjou), and who, at the age of 80, still played an active role in politics" (page 97). Page 99 then shows a photograph of Eleanor's effigy at Fontevraud Abbey, next to her favorite son, Richard. As an aside, I am forever amused that she was laid to rest next to her son, instead of Henry II, who was also entombed there. Whether this was purposeful planning or not, one would assume she would not want to spend eternity next to the husband who imprisoned her for years due to her habit of helping their sons rebel against him. While Henry was a great king, he was not a great husband (as viewed from our century, at least, though it would have been of little matter in the 12th century).

Now, back to the book...

Question: Even in the Middle Ages, people knew the world was not flat. And this fact was about them knowing this was known in 1978. So why the heck were we still taught in the 90s that people in that time thought the world was flat? It makes no sense.

I like that the authors use the first section of the book to give background and general information, not only about women in the Middle Ages, but in history as well. For readers who do not know much about this time period, this is valuable to give some insight into life for women in a time so different from our own - or even those in 1978 when this was first published.

The second section is devoted to seven specific women, spanning the centuries of the Middle Ages. I loved that the authors profiled women from all over Europe, not just England (though I do love England quite a bit). Here we meet Hildegarde a German nun who lived in the 1100s; Blanche of Castile (Eleanor's granddaughter), who became queen of France; Eleanor de Montfort, youngest daughter of King John (and another granddaughter to Eleanor of Aquitaine - are you picking up on her importance yet?);Agnes li Patiniere, a textile worker who lived in Flanders in the 1200s; Alice Beynet, who lived in England; Margherita Dantini, an Italian woman whose home, built by her husband (an Italian merchant) still stands today - or least did so at the time of publication; and finally, Margaret Paston, of whom we know so much about because of the multitudes of correspondences between her and her husband and sons that survived the Wars of the Roses.

These women are so fascinating because of the varied lives they lived. From peasant women, to the granddaughters of queens. The authors present these women as they deserve. They are made real, not just distant figures in time, as people who might have existed. There are existing documents that prove as much. It was great to see these women stand on their own and not be defined by the men in their lives, whether that be their fathers or brothers or husbands. This is important, because when we think of that time period, we don't think of women being successful in their own right in a very male-dominated society.

The only thing that bothered me was the photos. They're all black and white, and directly on the page with the text - no fancy glossy paper stuck in the middle of the book here. I would have loved to see some of these paintings in color, they would have been beautiful On page 35 there was also a chart of consanguinity from the 13th century which I would love to see in a more clear photo. You can't read the writing at all, so it would have been helpful to have not only the full photo, but then a close-up of the writing so it would actually be legible.

Otherwise, I have no real complaints. Frances and Joseph Gies were fantastic and thoughtful researchers who were thorough in their work. Both have passed away now, but have left many books behind to introduce the new readers to the world in the Middle Ages. Highly recommended.

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