The theories of churchmen were generally hostile to woman; some laws of the Church enhanced her subjection; many principles and practices of Christianity improved her status. To priests and theologians woman was still in these centuries what she had seemed to Chrysostom—“a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a deadly fascination, a painted ill.”40 She was still the ubiquitous reincarnation of the Eve who had lost Eden for mankind, still the favored instrument of Satan in leading men to hell. St. Thomas Aquinas, usually the soul of kindness, but speaking with the limitations of a monk, placed her in some ways below the slave:
The woman is subject to the man on account of the weakness of her nature, both of mind and of body.41 … Man is the beginning of woman and her end, just as God is the beginning and end of every creature.42… Woman is in subjection according to the law of nature, but a slave is not.43 … Children ought to love their father more than their mother.44
Canon law gave to the husband the duty of protecting his wife, and to the wife the duty of obeying her husband. Man, but not woman, was made in the image of God; “it is plain from this,” argued the canonist, “that wives should be subject to their husbands, and should almost be servants.”45 Such passages have the ring of wistful wishing. On the other hand the Church enforced monogamy, insisted upon a single standard of morals for both sexes, honored woman in the worship of Mary, and defended woman’s right to the inheritance of property.
Civil law was more hostile to her than canon law. Both codes permitted wife-beating,46 and it was quite a forward step when, in the thirteenth century, the “Laws and Customs of Beauvais” bade a man beat his wife “only in reason.”47 Civil law ruled that the word of women could not be admitted in court, “because of their frailty”;48 it required only half as high a fine for an offense against a woman as for the same offense against a man;49 it excluded even the most high-born ladies from representing their own estates in the Parliament of England or the Estates-General of France. Marriage gave the husband full authority over the use and usufruct of any property that his wife owned at marriage.50 No woman could become a licensed physician.
Her economic life was as varied as the man’s. She learned and practiced the wondrous unsung arts of the home: to bake bread and puddings and pies, cure meats, make soap and candles, cream and cheese; to brew beer and make home medicines from herbs; to spin and weave wool, and make linen from flax, and clothing for her family, and curtains and drapes, bedspreads and tapestries; to decorate her home and keep it as clean as the male inmates would allow; and to rear children. Outside the agricultural cottage she joined with strength and patience in the work of the farm: sowed and cultivated and reaped, fed chickens, milked cows, sheared sheep, helped to repair and paint and build. In the towns, at home or in the shop, she did most of the spinning and weaving for the textile guilds. It was a company of “silkwomen” that first established in England the arts of spinning, throwing, and weaving silk.51 Most of the English guilds contained as many women as men, largely because craftsmen were permitted to employ their wives and daughters, and enlist them in the guilds. Several guilds, devoted to feminine manufactures, were composed wholly of women; there were fifteen such guilds at Paris at the end of the thirteenth century.52 Women, however, rarely became masters in bisexual guilds, and they received lower wages than men for equal work. In the middle classes women displayed in raiment the wealth of their husbands, and took an exciting part in the religious feasts and social festivities of the towns. By sharing their husbands’ responsibilities, and accepting with grace and restraint the grandiose or amorous professions of knights and troubadours, the ladies of the feudal aristocracy attained a status such as women had rarely reached before.
As usual, despite theology and law, the medieval woman found ways of annulling her disabilities with her charms. The literature of this period is rich in records of women who ruled their men.53 In several respects woman was the acknowledged superior. Among the nobility she learned something of letters and art and refinement, while her letterless husband labored and fought. She could put on all the graces of an eighteenth-century salonnière, and swoon like a Richardson heroine; at the same time she rivaled man in lusty liberty of action and speech, exchanged risqué stories with him, and often took an unabashed initiative in love.54 In all classes she moved with full freedom seldom chaperoned; she crowded the fairs and dominated the festivals; she joined in pilgrimages, and took part in the Crusades, not only as a solace but now and then as a soldier dressed in the panoply of war. Timid monks tried to persuade themselves of her inferiority, but knights fought for her favors, and poets professed themselves her slaves. Men talked of her as an obedient servant, and dreamed of her as a goddess. They prayed to Mary, but they would have been satisfied with Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Eleanor was but one of a score of great medieval women—Galla Placidia, Theodora, Irene, Anna Comnena, Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, Matilda, Queen of England, Blanche of Navarre, Blanche of Castile, Héloïse…. Eleanor’s grandfather was a prince and a poet, William X of Aquitaine, patron and leader of the troubadours. To his court at Bordeaux came the best wits and graces and gallants of southwestern France; and in that court Eleanor was reared to be a queen to life and letters both. She absorbed all the culture and character of that free and sunny clime: vigor of body and poetry of motion, passion of temper and flesh, freedom of mind and manners and speech, lyric fantasies and sparkling esprit, a boundless love of love and war and every pleasure, even to the death. When she was fifteen (1137) the King of France offered her his hand, anxious to add her duchy of Aquitaine, and the great port of Bordeaux, to his revenues and his crown. She did not know that Louis VII was a man stolid and devout, gravely absorbed in affairs of state. She went to him gay and lovely and unscrupulous; he was not charmed by her extravagance, and did not care for the poets who followed her to Paris to reward her patronage with lauds and rhymes.
Hungry for a living romance, she resolved to accompany her husband to Palestine on the Second Crusade (1147). She and her attendant ladies donned male and martial costumes, sent their distaffs scornfully to stay-at-home knights, and rode off in the van of the army, flying bright banners and trailing troubadours.55 Neglected or chided by the King, she allowed herself, at Antioch and elsewhere, a few amours; rumor gave her love now to her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, now to a handsome Saracen slave, now (said ignorant gossip) to the pious Saladin himself.56 Louis bore these dalliances, and her keen tongue, patiently, but St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the watchdog of Christendom, denounced her to the world. In 1152, suspecting that the King would divorce her, she sued him for divorce on the ground that they were related in the sixth degree. The Church smiled at the pretext, but granted the divorce; and Eleanor returned to Bordeaux, resuming her title to Aquitaine. There a swarm of suitors courted her; she chose Henry Plantagenet, heir to the throne of England; two years later he was Henry II, and Eleanor was again a queen (1154)—“Queen of England,” as she was to say, “by the wrath of God.”
To England she brought the tastes of the South; and she continued in London to be the supreme lawgiver, patron, and idol of the trouvères and troubadours. She was now old enough to bear fidelity, and Henry found no scandal in her. But the tables were turned: Henry was eleven years her junior, quite her equal in temper and passion; soon he was spreading his love among the ladies of the court; and Eleanor, who had once scorned a jealous husband, fretted and fumed in jealousy. When Henry deposed her. she fled from England, seeking the protection of Aquitaine; he had her pursued, arrested, imprisoned; and for sixteen years she languished in a confinement that never broke her will. The troubadours roused the sentiment of Europe against the King; his sons, at her behest, plotted to dethrone him, but he fought them off until his death (1189). Richard Coeur de Lion succeeded his father, released his mother, and made her regent of England while he crusaded against Saladin. When her son John became king she retired to a convent in France, and died there “through sorrow and anguish of mind,” at the age of eighty-two. She had been “a bad wife, a bad mother, and a bad queen”;57 but who would think of her as belonging to a subject sex?