A Woman’s Lot – the second “Meonbridge Chronicle”

Some weeks ago, I sent the manuscript of the second Meonbridge Chronicle, A Woman’s Lot, to my editor. Her initial thoughts are positive – hooray! – but I haven’t yet received her full considered feedback. I’m hoping to receive that when I return from India (which is where I am right now – home again in a few days). Then there will be more work to do before I can send the finished manuscript off to my publisher.

Keep an eye on my website Book pages for news of the book’s cover and publication date. If you follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter, then I’ll be posting news there too.

But in the meantime, I thought it was time to tell you a little bit about the book, to whet your appetite perhaps…

A Woman’s Lot

How can a woman stand up to the misogyny of men?

A resentful and intemperate cottar rails against a young freewoman’s efforts to build up her flock of sheep…. Another man, overworked, and grown melancholy and ill-tempered, succumbs to idle talk that his loving wife is a scold… A third, fearful of the potential power of women, determines to keep them in their lowly place…

The devastation wrought in society by the Black Death has given women a window of opportunity to break free from the yoke of chatteldom: a chance to learn a trade, to build a business, to be more than simply a man’s wife.

Not all men resist women’s quest for change – they desire it themselves. But many men hold fast to the teachings of the Church, and fear what the daughters of Eve might do if they usurp the roles of men and have control over their own lives.

And it takes only a few misogynists to unleash the hounds of hostility and hatred…

Like Fortune’s Wheel, A Woman’s Lot is another “everyday story of country folk”, this time mostly about some of Meonbridge’s women. The storylines (for, again, there are several threads) are about marital discord, women’s thwarted ambitions, and the quest for love, and also about the tensions between the poorer in society and the richer, and the ups and downs of rural life in medieval Hampshire. But especially about the particular attitude held in the Middle Ages by men – or at least some of them – towards women.

The novel begins about two years after the end of Fortune’s Wheel, in the spring of 1352. Danse_macabre_by_Michael_WolgemutI had shown in Fortune’s Wheel that, after the devastation wrought by the Black Death in 1349-50, society as a whole began to change, as feudal lords lost their former power in the face of resistance by their tenants, no longer willing to be confined to a single manor or to be paid less than they could obtain elsewhere.

It seemed as if women’s lot might also change. When so many people – perhaps as many as a third or even a half of the country’s population – had died from the plague, it seemed logical that everyone, including women, might have to turn their hand to whatever needed to be done. And perhaps, at first at least, this was what happened. Women saw opportunities for them to break out of the old mould and take on new occupations, and indeed to be a little more independent. But it didn’t last. By the fifteenth century, everything had returned more or less to the status quo. Male dominance reasserted itself and women were put back in their place. And I suspect this might actually have happened quite quickly, once society had recovered a little from the initial devastation.

So, underpinning the storylines of A Woman’s Lot is this status quo of male dominance, thwarting – or attempting to thwart – women’s struggle to improve their lot. Mediaeval women were for centuries subjugated to men (some, of course, still are). Men generally wielded control over their wives, daughters and servants, sometimes directly in the form of overt misogyny, sometimes in less overt but nonetheless powerful assertions of male authority. This is by no means to suggest that all mediaeval men were misogynistic. But such an attitude in one or two individual, influential, men could have disastrous consequences.

ob_57b905_adam-et-eve-pommeIn some contemporary mediaeval literature we find a contrast between the chivalric idealisation of the noble lady, based on the cult of the Virgin Mary, and a misogynistic contempt for women as the inheritors of Eve. Women were seen as “second class”, expected to devote themselves to their domestic functions, and refused any sort of public office. The restriction of women’s rights was justified on the basis of their limited intelligence, wiliness and avarice. Indeed all sorts of weaknesses were often ascribed to women as a class, including vanity and greed, wantonness and volatility. Some men despised women, or feared them perhaps, as the dangerous daughters of Eve. Others perhaps simply believed that women were neither very bright nor trustworthy, and felt they had to be kept in their lowly place. (I am aware that this attitude is probably not confined to the Middle Ages!)

Men’s control over women was perhaps strongest among the upper classes, where power and money lay in the making of beneficial marriages and the production of heirs, though the peasant classes, too, were interested in making useful alliances. However, I suspect the clergy – or some of them – were especially eager to keep women under strict control, fearful perhaps, and therefore critical, of their supposed wickedness and frailty. There is no doubt that the function, role and social position of women in fourteenth century England was heavily influenced by religious dogma and the teachings of the Church, and all men of every class would believe in their “God-given” right to dominate and chastise their wives.

36b886cec10c25994edaae3a0d07b346I daresay it is true that mediaeval women generally accepted their lot in life. That’s not to say that they believed that they were either especially wicked or frail, but it perhaps did not occur to most that there was much they could do to change the way things were.

However, there is also evidence that many mediaeval women were not down-trodden chattels. Competent manor chatelaines, wealthy peasant housewives and business women were strong and capable and very far from either the feeble-minded or the saintly creatures portrayed in much of the literature. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a good example of a woman who was more than a match for the men in her life! And I somehow doubt that all men held women in contempt: many – well, at least a few – surely loved and respected them, and understood what they were capable of?

The main drivers, then, for the story of A Woman’s Lot are the misogynistic attitudes of some Meonbridge men, which set in train events that lead to tragedy or almost tragedy. But, countering their misogyny are other men, and women, who recognise the injustice that those attitudes can engender.

A Woman’s Lot is narrated in the voices of four women, Eleanor Titherige, Susanna Miller, Agnes Sawyer and Emma Ward, all of whom had a role in Fortune’s Wheel.

fullsizeoutput_af9Eleanor, left orphaned by the Black Death, inherited her father’s substantial flock of sheep and, after initial worries about her own abilities to cope, decided to make a go of it. In A Woman’s Lot, her flock is thriving, but her path will not continue smoothly, neither on a business level nor in her love life.

At the end of Fortune’s Wheel, Susanna had just married the miller’s younger brother, Henry, and seemed happy. Two years later, she is still mostly content, but has a nagging worry that will lead her into disaster.

Agnes went missing before the start of Fortune’s Wheel, and the reason for her disappearance, and her brother John’s efforts to find her, are a constant thread throughout the novel. In A Woman’s Lot, Agnes is one of those women who would like to break the conventional mould a little and grasp what she perceives as the new opportunities brought by the Black Death. Emma, too, believes there are more opportunities “out there” for her and her family, and is eager to pursue them.

 

So, A Woman’s Lot is an everyday story of ordinary folk, but very much of its time. Of course, such misogynistic attitudes to women as I portray are not without parallels in our own time, but I am not attempting to draw comparisons. My tale is one of the fourteenth century, one that does not try to make Meonbridge’s women “feminists”. Their stories are not about women’s rights and liberation, but about making the best of opportunities within the context of the society they live in. Although she is a successful farmer, Eleanor isn’t happy about being unmarried: she has the usual desires for love and family life but, more importantly, she believes that social mores, as well as practicalities, really do require her to be wed. Susanna is a good mediaeval wife – she doesn’t wish to throw off the bonds of marriage but wants to make her marriage better, in the mediaeval way that she understands. Agnes and Emma, too, are not seeking to overthrow society, just to make, in their eyes, a more worthwhile contribution.

It is an interesting time to write about, and I do hope that you will want to read the latest chronicle of life in Meonbridge…