Friday, July 12, 2013

Ladies of the House


When I posted “Women of Steel” a couple of months ago, I promised to write a comparative post about European women in the sixteenth century—Russians and those who lived to their west. Here, even more than with the nomads, the popular perception portrays women as downtrodden creatures, lacking in rights. But is that true?

To a large extent, yes. A bit less so in Russia, where women had the right to own property, retained control over their dowries, and could sue men who raped them in court. Otherwise, their situation differed little from their sisters who lived farther west.

There, even great heiresses became wards of the king, bound to accept his whimsical disposition of their futures. Girls owed obedience to their fathers or guardians until they married, then to their husbands. Marriages were arranged by parents or, if a girl had no parents, by her lord or the king, depending on her social standing. Chastity and submissiveness were the virtues expected of women. Book learning had little place, especially for females—assumed to be incapable of rational thought, prey to wandering wombs and the temptations of Eve, with minds barely superior to those of animals.

These women would have found Gulbadan’s level of freedom intoxicating, even though nomadic girls did not pick their marriage partners either. Love as a component of marriage concerned few people until the mid-nineteenth century; before then, economics and politics determined most matches. People hoped, at best, that affection would grow between a couple over the years. Sometimes it did. Just as often, it didn’t.

One’s place on the social hierarchy mattered, of course. Poverty constrained men as well as women. Knights had to follow the dictates of their lords; sons adopted the professions of their fathers. Only those at the very top determined their own destinies, and then only in part. But men had permission to take out their frustrations on their wives and daughters. Throughout Christian Europe, wife beating was common and rarely viewed as a crime. Women had no right to retaliate in kind. Most of the time, no one listened if they complained. Only if they died might the courts take notice, and that was far from guaranteed.


This experience of womanhood finds full expression in Anya Seton’s novel Katherine, published in 1954, which I happen to be re-reading for a Goodreads group. Rich in historical detail and with an appealing, ill-done-to heroine, Katherine captures the full panoply of injustices committed against a woman of moderate means—in this case, in mid-fourteenth-century England. Fifteen when the novel begins, Katherine endures marriage to a man she does not love and such extreme poverty, despite being a knight’s lady, that she cannot change her dress for six months. John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, eventually rescues her and makes her his mistress. Her inability to care for herself pays off in a brighter future of love and affluence, if tarred by the impossibility of marriage to her exalted lover. But how many women lived only the first half of her life? Stories like these are the reason why I put off writing my Russian novels for so long and, when I did turn to them, decided to make my heroine a Tatar instead.

At the same time, Katherine reveals the hidden flaw in the conventional view of medieval and early modern European women. The ones most vulnerable were the young, the single, and the poor. Despite the many disadvantages under which they labored, elite wives throughout Christian Europe ran their households alone while their men were at war. Since medieval and modern Europe spent more time at war than at peace, crusaders could disappear for a decade, knights for months or years. In an age when medicine killed more than it cured, many warriors who left returned in coffins, if at all.

In the lord’s absence, the lady of the house had complete control over an enterprise that might involve several hundred people engaged in numerous different trades as well as agriculture and husbandry: a small corporation, if you like. Even husbands in residence did not concern themselves with the running of the household—disdainfully dismissed as women’s work—although they might sit down with the bailiff long enough to plan the crops or wring a few more gold coins out of the estate for a new set of armor. Wealthy widows enjoyed considerable power and seldom had anything to gain from remarriage.

Natalya, Daniil’s mother in The Golden Lynx, is this kind of woman. In the days of female employment outside the home, we have forgotten the luster that once clung to the word “housewife,” but Natalya reminds us of its lost glory. She may pay lip service to the idea of female subservience. She may seek guidance from her priest and refrain from arguing (much) with her husband. But she does not hesitate to rule her children, her daughters-in-law, and her servants. She does not doubt her skills for a second. Amid a society determined to breed women like Katherine, Natalya is evidence that another model nonetheless thrived.

So let’s raise a toast to the lady of the house. After all, that’s her mead you’re drinking.


The picture at the top is Konstantin Makovskii's Cup of Mead, painted in the 1880s. It is in the public domain in the United States because of its age.

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