The principal characters of Fortune’s Wheel are women: Alice, the middle-aged widow of a moderately affluent peasant; Eleanor, a young free woman, orphaned by the plague and now thrown onto her own resources; and Margaret, the wife of the lord of the manor of Meonbridge.
I wanted to tell the story of Fortune’s Wheel through the voices of women. Although we certainly hear the words of men in the story, it was the women’s viewpoints that interested me, for women in history often do not get much opportunity to speak.
For the next four blogs, I am going to share a very little of the research that I have undertaken (and am still undertaking) into the lives of women of the fourteenth century to help me portray their lives with as much authenticity as I can.
Today, I will discuss women’s status in society, and next time I will say something about the rather negative view of women that can be found in some mediaeval literature. Thirdly, I will discuss the practical aspects of what mediaeval women wore and where they lived. And, lastly, I will talk about the daily lives of fourteenth century women.
The status of mediaeval women
Generally, peasant women had little status in fourteenth century society. If they were married, they had no say in village life, for their husbands spoke for them. But if they were landowners and widowed or unmarried, they had more control over their own affairs and might play some part in village affairs, such as attendance at the manorial courts (Shahar, p.220). All unfree peasants (villeins or serfs) were tied to the manor, owing not only rent, fees and taxes, but also regular week-work, and a woman fully shared in this burden, “a partner to her husband” (Gies, 1980, p.146-147).
Ordinary women had to work, as today, because married women needed to contribute to the household budget and single women had to earn a livelihood. In the Middle Ages, as today, marriage by no means meant that a woman had to devote herself to her home, and many women supported themselves or ran businesses independently from their husbands (Power, p.56). Rates of pay for women were generally lower than for men. However, the general shortage of labour after the Black Death gave women more power to claim higher wages (Leyser, p.148), just as it did for men.
Young, single, peasant women would probably initially get work as wage labourers or live-in servants (Leyser, p.144). Other options for single women were few: peasants did not become nuns, and it was never easy to set up in business. Some might move to a town to find work. If she did not marry, the single woman might end up as a servant in her married brother’s house (Hanawalt, p.142).
In some ways the status of the wealthy woman was little better than that of a peasant: she was still the chattel of her father, and then her husband, and often had little control over her life, even if it was relatively comfortable. She might be married as a child to someone she did not know, in order to seal an economic deal, and might be sent away from home at an early age. However, many of these women were more active and competent than the ‘chattel’ status might imply. Fourteenth century chivalric literature might suggest that she was “the romantic, lovely and capricious lady of chivalry”, but she was “in practice, more often an extremely hard-worked woman” (Power, p.37). The real fifteenth century Margaret Paston, who lived in Norfolk, was a ‘lady of the manor’ who was often left in charge of the manor while her husband was away. Power says that she “was exceedingly competent and managed [his] property for him with the utmost success; collecting rents, keeping accounts and outwitting enemies” (Power, p.39).
In Fortune’s Wheel, I have woven into the story a picture of women from different positions in society, rich and poor, young and old, free and unfree, and their stories will continue in future Meonbridge Chronicles.
Gies, F. & G. (1991). Life in a Mediaeval Village. New York: HarperPerennial.
Gies, F. & G. (1980). Women in the Middle Ages. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Hanawalt, B.A. (1986). The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Mediaeval England. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Leyser, H. (1996). Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500. London: Phoenix Press (Orion Books Ltd.).
Power, E. (2001). Mediaeval Women. London: The Folio Society.
Shahar, S. (1983). The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.