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HELPLESS, THREATENED AND FOREVER IN NEED OF RESCUE, the medieval damsel-in-distress is an archetype deeply bound up with the image of the chivalrous knight in shining armour. It’s easy for us to understand that back in the brutal world of the Middle Ages women should be at the mercy of forces beyond their control, and that they should need rescuing by heroic males.

William Maw Egley’s 1858 painting of the Lady of Shalott and her distant hero, Sir Lancelot, seems to convey, in its antiquarian detail, an authentic medieval vision (at least if one overlooks the very nineteenth-century appearance of Mrs Egley): the helpless lady sealed in her chamber, the armoured man emblematic of freedom and courage. But the picture evokes a world that would have been incomprehensible in the age it is meant to represent.

Not that noble ladies didn’t need rescuing on occasion. But when they did, they infuriatingly failed to live up to our stereotype.


Take Nicola de la Haye: she was certainly trapped in a tall tower and in need of rescue. But it was all a bit different from the fairy tale.

For a start, the tower in which she was trapped didn’t belong to a wicked uncle, stepfather or some other malign relative – it belonged to her. It was part of Lincoln Castle, and Nicola was the hereditary constable – governor – of the castle. What’s more, she wasn’t at all a helpless damsel; she was a military commander in her own right. As well as governing the castle she was also co-sheriff of Lincolnshire. She was obliged to provide knights’ service at the castle and exercised jurisdiction over the royal portion of the city of Lincoln.

She was trapped because an invading French army had occupied Lincoln and was laying siege to the castle.

Mind you, Nicola was a bit mature for a damsel – she was pushing 70. But then again, her knight in shining armour was also an old-age pensioner. He was none other than William Marshal, and although he was now well into his seventies he was the regent of England and was still generally regarded as the epitome of chivalry. William drove the French off, saving Nicola, Lincoln and the whole of England for the young Henry III. Ever the perfect knight, he then celebrated his and Nicola’s joint victory by taking her castle away from her and handing it over to the Earl of Salisbury.

Nicola, however, wasn’t going to put up with that sort of behaviour from a geriatric like William. She stormed down to London, had the castle restored to her control and kept going as constable until she was well into her eighties. ‘What, then, is chivalry? Such a difficult, tough, and very costly thing to learn that no coward ventures to take it on.’*1

On the down side, Nicola did not get the job of sheriff back. It is one of the oddities of social change that there are times when women are just not considered the right people to be sheriffs. England had to wait nearly 400 years for the next one – when Lady Ann Clifford was appointed sheriff of Westmoreland on the basis that not only was she one of the wealthiest women in the country, but she was also a recognized expert with a crossbow. Both James I and Cromwell found her hard to deal with, and that was the end of the story for woman sheriffs until the Victorian era.


The roles of men and women in society, and the relationship between the sexes, were forever changing throughout the period that we conveniently (if mistakenly) refer to as the ‘Middle Ages’. There was no one set of attitudes. It was a constantly varying dynamic – just as it is today.

It would probably be wrong to talk of any steady advance in women’s rights and privileges through the 500 years after the Norman Conquest, but it is possible to say that towards the end of the period women were enjoying a more equal role in society, and more respect than they had previously been given – and then things were reversed.

Of course, they lived in a man’s world – particularly at the start of the Middle Ages. The Conquest meant that William ‘owned’ the country. It became his personal property, and he had no intention of giving it away. Instead he allowed his followers the use of lands in return for their military service. This link between property and the profession of arms meant landholding became a male preserve. Men ruled the roost, and wives and daughters were supposed to do what they were told by their husbands and fathers.

Many of the new Norman overlords expected to find wives among the widows and daughters of the Englishmen they had supplanted, and the new king encouraged this as a way of consolidating the Conquest. Not surprisingly, many of these women resisted. Some retreated to nunneries for self-protection. However others, like Christina of Markyate, resisted in other ways.


The Conquest meant a property windfall for the Normans, but this was naturally at the expense of the former owner-occupiers. Anglo-Saxons found themselves both dispossessed and unable to enter the power structure. Many an unhappy couple fell back on the time-honoured tradition of trading in their daughter’s flesh: marriage to a wealthy member of the new establishment could put an entire family back on the social ladder.

This is the fate that Autti and Beatrix de Markyate resolved on for their young daughter, Christina, some 30 years after the Battle of Hastings.

Autti was an ambitious Anglo-Saxon merchant in the village of Markyate in Hertfordshire who seems to have decided to achieve Norman respectability by offering his family’s sexual favours to the conquerors. His sister Alveva became the mistress of the notorious Ranulf Flambard – a man who was universally feared and infamous for his greed and ambition. The liaison was potentially attractive as Ranulf had been William Rufus’s chief minister, and became bishop of Durham. However, Rufus was killed and the hated Ranulf was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He escaped to Normandy with the help of his mother (apparently a one-eyed witch).

When Christina was about ten years old Ranulf returned to England and his bishopric was restored. The bishop dropped in on his way to London, Alveva laid on a family feast and Ranulf saw Christina. He liked what he saw.

Christina’s parents were only too happy to oblige the bishop with their daughter’s . . . well ‘hand’ wasn’t perhaps what Ranulf had in mind.

Intermarriage may have been encouraged by the Conqueror as a way of embedding his men in their new country, but Christina had no intention of getting embedded with anyone. She had made a pilgrimage to St Albans Abbey when she was younger, and it had made a big impression on her. It must have been by far the largest building she had ever seen, and here she had made a secret vow of virginity, scratching a cross on the wall of the abbey to signify her commitment to Christ.

After the feast Christina was left in Ranulf’s room with him, and he began to introduce her to his wicked ways. Knowing perfectly well what all this was about, Christina suggested that she should lock the door – and promptly did so from the outside.

The enraged bishop determined to have the girl broken, and arranged for a young nobleman, Burthred, to ask for her hand in marriage. Her parents were delighted. Christina was going to achieve more for the family than Aunt Alveva ever had: their grandchildren would be legitimate members of the nobility.

The problem was that Christina refused to be married, pleading that she was promised to Christ. Her parents spent a year trying to get her to see sense, buying her presents, making promises. Eventually she was browbeaten into agreeing to a betrothal – but betrothal was one thing, consummating the marriage was another. And a marriage did not count until it was consummated.

Her parents embarked on a desperate series of stratagems, surrounding the girl with entertainers, taking her to banquets, trying to get her to loosen up. When these failed they shoved the hapless Burthred into her bedroom to do what he could. Christina sat the lad down and lectured him on the attractions of chastity for both sexes. He left somewhat confused, but was hectored into making a more robust effort.

Christina’s parents pushed him into her room again and told him to stiffen up, be a man and take their daughter by force. This had her climbing up the wall – literally. She ‘hastily sprang out of bed and clinging with both hands to a nail which was fixed in the wall, she hung trembling between the wall and the hangings.’ Burthred could not find her and gave up his attempt at rape-within-marriage.

Eventually Autti carted his daughter off to the Augustinian canons of St Mary’s Priory in Huntingdon: ‘Why must she depart from tradition? Why should she bring this dishonour on her father? Her life of poverty will bring the whole of the nobility into disrepute!’ The prior was more impressed by the daughter than he was by her father, and so was the bishop until Autti bribed him to order her to marry. Christina, though, was unmoved.

Beatrix decided that the problem was that her daughter was frigid. She hired crones to slip Christina love potions and sent men into her room at night, and ‘in the end swore that she would not care who deflowered her daughter, provided that some way of deflowering her could be found’.

The only thing Christina could do was escape. She went first to the cell of Alfwen, an old anchoress in the nearby village of Flamstead, where she hid in a small dark chamber. Burthred, doing the full knightly quest thing, showed up at the cell and asked if Christina was hiding there. Alfwen replied: ‘Stop, my son, stop imagining that she is here with us. It is not our custom to give shelter to wives who are running away from their husbands.’ The biographer adds: ‘The man, deluded in this way, departed, resolved never again to go on such an errand.’

Christina eventually moved to a hut belonging to Roger, a monk of St Albans who was living as a hermit in the village of Markyate. There she continued to hide, silently concealed in the corner of the hut behind a wooden plank and a log that was too heavy for her to lift. Burthred finally had the betrothal annulled, and she was able to leave her confinement. To make her happiness complete, Roger died and bequeathed his hut to her.

Eventually she became a celebrated holy woman at St Albans Abbey, making slippers for the pope and embroidering the abbot’s underwear. That’s what really happened to damsels in distress. They had to be tough-minded and look out for themselves.


There are, of course, stories of damsels being abducted and forcibly married by fortune-hunters, but these are not necessarily what they appear to be.

The inheritance of a wealthy widow or an unwed noblewoman would become the property of whoever married her, but in neither case was the woman a free agent. She was a ward of the king. He regarded her estate as entirely within his gift to give away to whomsoever he wished.

But the king had a problem. It was a legal principle that if an unmarried couple spent the night under the same roof they were taken to have slept together and were therefore married – marriage, after all, was simply a social compact. It did not require the involvement of a priest. However, such an unauthorized marriage was – in the king’s view – virtually stealing from him, and the marriage was legally regarded as abduction. The married couple could expect to have to pay a considerable fine.

Obviously, these ‘abductions’ were quite often carried out with the full participation of the heiress in question as it was one way of getting to choose her own husband. Marjorie, Countess of Carrick, even went to the extreme of doing the abducting herself. She had held her title since her father died in 1255, when she was three. As the holder of a major Scottish fortune, her marriage was controlled by the King of Scotland, Alexander III, and before the age of 15 she was married to a suitable lord 20 years her senior: Adam de Kilconcath.

Part of Adam’s suitability lay in his closeness to the future Edward I of England, and when Edward set off on his long-awaited crusade to the Holy Land in 1270 Adam went with him. The crusader kingdom of Jerusalem had been reduced to just an urban rump at the port of Acre, filled with internecine squabbles and killings, and the crusade was a hopeless gesture that cost Adam his life.

The bad news arrived in 1271. It was brought to the 19-year-old Marjorie by an 18-year-old who had also been on the crusade: Robert Bruce, the son of the Lord of Annandale and Cleveland. Robert found Marjorie out hunting. She does not seem to have been devastated by the news; her marriage had hardly been a love match. But she was immediately aware of a very depressing fact – she was back once more on King Alexander’s list of useful assets, to be married off to some, probably rather elderly, supporter who needed her estate.

What happened next is unclear. According to Robert, Marjorie simply decided that he was the most gorgeous hunk she had ever seen and seized the young crusader. She dragged him kicking and screaming, ‘very loath, to her castle of Turnberry’. After 15 days the poor boy emerged, married.

Some historians are suspicious of the chronicle account, and suspect Robert of some complicity in all this. But by putting the blame on to Marjorie he avoided offending the king, who had to be content with seizing her castle and lands until she paid a fine. It was not necessarily the dynastic union he would have preferred, because the Bruces were competitors for the throne and Marjorie’s wealth strengthened them. In fact, Marjorie’s son, another Robert Bruce, became King of Scotland.

The significance of the story, though, lies not in exactly what was going on, but in the fact that it was seen as entirely credible that a young noblewoman would abduct a man, bed him and so force him into marriage. It is not just that women were not seen as weak and helpless. They could also be seen as sexual predators.

The Victorian idea that women were somehow less sexual than men would have been baffling in the Middle Ages – especially to women.


The story of the Lady of Shalott created an extraordinarily resonant echo in the Victorian and Edwardian imagination; Pre-Raphaelite artists, looking for images that expressed what they saw as a truly medieval perspective, returned to it time and time again. Tennyson provided them with the narrative, a story in which the lady is cursed only to see the world through a mirror. When she spies Lancelot she is smitten and looks directly at him: the mirror shatters and she is doomed. She sets out on a pathetic boat trip to Camelot, but by the time she arrives the curse has had its effect and she is dead.

It is an image of womanhood as essentially confined and restricted; full participation in the world is forbidden and fatal. This is sentimentally regretted, but tragically unalterable.

Tennyson was retelling a genuine medieval tale, but he transformed it utterly. In the original story the lady was not weak and helpless at all, and she was not under any curse. Nor was she passive and pathetic. She was a wilful, stubborn woman who boldly declared her passionate love for Lancelot. Her tragedy was that it was not returned. The story was retold in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in the fifteenth century, and there too the Lady of Shalott was portrayed as a real, flesh and blood woman whose declaration of love was unashamed (‘Why should I leave such thoughts? Am I not an earthly woman?’) and who wrote to Lancelot as an equal.

In fact, pretty well every time we find an apparently helpless woman in medieval literature she turns out to be not quite what we were looking for. Take the distressed damsel in Chrétien de Troyes’ romance Yvain. The heroic knight Yvain is feeling sorry for himself in a woodland chapel, when he becomes aware of ‘a lorn damsel in sorry plight’. She says she is about to be condemned to death, and can only be saved by someone brave enough to fight her three accusers. Yvain, of course, is the necessary hero.

This seems to be the fairy-tale archetype; the helpless damsel and the knight in shining armour. But this young lady is not some passive shrinking violet. Yvain knows her. A couple of thousand lines earlier she had saved his life, rescuing him from certain death by giving him a magic ring of invisibility at the risk of her own life. The damsel and the knight are equals in courage and daring.

The fact is, there is little reference to genuinely helpless high-born maidens in medieval literature. Perhaps this is not too surprising as the stories were often commissioned by noblewomen, to be read to their friends and family.

We do not have enormous knowledge of their lives, but there is enough to show that the lady’s bedchamber was, in many cases, more like a salon, elegantly decorated, where she amused herself entertaining her women friends (generally her retainers, ‘damsels’ married to men of status in her husband’s service) and male visitors, and where they would ‘drink wine, play chess and listen to the harp’.*2 They would also read and be read to – silent reading was regarded as highly suspect, a sign of being antisocial or melancholy, suitable only for scholars.

By the fourteenth century wills show that the women who could afford expensive books were as interested as men in the derring-do of storybook knights. A recent historian writes: ‘The evidence of women’s wills in Chaucer’s day . . . reveals a network of women readers who bequeathed books from one generation to another. These included, along with devotional books, the works of romance which Chaucer depicted women reading to one another. Such books were frequently passed from mother to daughter, sister to sister, godmother to god-daughter, but it was not considered essential to keep them in the female line; women’s reading tastes were catholic and they shared them with men.’*3

Thus, in 1380 Elizabeth la Zouche leaves Lancelot and Tristam to her husband. The Count of Devon leaves books to his daughters but not to his sons. His widow, Margaret Courtenay, then leaves her own books, which include Merlin and Arthur of Brittany, to the girls and a woman friend.

The women in these tales are light years away from the Victorian stereotype. Far from being helpless, they are resourceful and often scheming. And as for being sexually passive – medieval women wouldn’t have known what you meant. The damsels in the stories are all too often sexual predators. Take the Lady of the Castle who takes such a shine to Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The story so far: Gawain is on a quest. He sleeps the night in a strange castle. He’s woken up very early in the morning, shortly after the Lord of the Castle and his men have ridden off hunting. The door of his chamber opens cautiously and the lady slips into his room. She locks the door, creeps across to his bed and sits down upon it. Gawain lies doggo for some time but eventually shows some sign of life, whereupon the lady speaks to him thus:

My lord and his men are a long way off

The other men are still in their beds, and so are my maids

The door is closed and fastened with a strong lock.

You are welcome to my body,

Your pleasure to take.

I am driven by forces beyond my control

To be your servant and so I shall.

In these stories married women were free to take lovers, and if their husbands complained they could be silenced by the wife explaining that the lover was a valiant and famous knight. In real life things were not so different. What did Marie de Saint Hilaire have in common with Katherine Swyneford, apart from the fact that they were both damsels (married women in the service of great ladies)? The fact that they both bedded John of Gaunt while he was married to Blanche, and didn’t make a secret of it.

In one of the most celebrated love affairs of the twelfth century a young student, Héloïse, fell passionately in love with her teacher Abelard. Abelard was a phenomenon: a great and controversial theologian, a celebrated poet and singer, and a captivating teacher whose lectures virtually created the University of Paris. Héloïse set out to seduce him and she succeeded. The affair was a disaster: Abelard insisted on marrying her, and when her family found out they castrated him

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and locked her in a nunnery. In her letters to Abelard, which she wrote from the nunnery, she re-examined and celebrated her passion:

Never, God knows, did I seek anything in you except yourself; I wanted only you, nothing of yours. I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more worthy but sweeter to me will always be the word lover, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore. I believed that the more I humbled myself on your account, the more I would please you, and also the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation.

Prudery was not a virtue. Women were expected to be sexually active and to demand the same from their husbands. If the man failed to perform in the marriage bed, the wife was perfectly at liberty to go public about it. A twelfth-century manual advocates a physical examination of the man’s genitals by ‘wise matrons’ who – presumably – knew how these things worked. Witnesses were then summoned to observe a full-blown road test of the under-performing member:

A man and a woman are to be placed together in one bed and wise women are to be summoned around the bed for many nights. And if the man’s member is always found useless and as if dead, the couple are well able to be separated.

That is, sadly, how we know about Walter de Fonte, a citizen of Canterbury in the thirteenth century. In 1292, his wife complained he was impotent. He was duly examined by 12 worthy women ‘of good reputation and honest life’ who testified that his ‘virile member’ was ‘useless’. What a way to enter history.

In a similar case in 1433 one conscientious witness seems to have been so anxious to fulfil her civic duty that she got rather carried away; she ‘exposed her naked breasts and with her hands warmed at the said fire, she held and rubbed the penis and testicles of the said John. And she embraced and frequently kissed the said John . . .’

But it was all to no avail. Whereupon ‘with one voice’ the assembled women cursed the said John for not being ‘better able to serve and please’ his wife.


The view that women were more sexually assertive than men was, of course, firmly endorsed by the Church. In its long war against the temptations of the flesh women were enthusiastically cast as the seducers.

Of course, the Church did not disapprove of sex as such – after all, God had said ‘Go forth and multiply’. But the tendency for people to enjoy it was seen as a bit of a problem. Having sex – let alone enjoying it – was certainly damnable outside marriage. However, as this was not a view that was widely held outside the Church, preachers often went to extremes to impress the gravity of the sin on the reluctant populace.

It was argued that women were the cause of all evil because they tempted men, who would otherwise have remained pure. An eleventh-century cardinal, Peter Damian, taught that ‘the wickedness of women is greater than all the other wickedness of the world . . . the poison of asps and dragons is more curable and less dangerous to men than the familiarity of women.’ Having made a careful study of the story of Eve and the forbidden fruit, he was able to explain to the clergy that ‘Women are: “Satan’s bait, poison for men’s souls”.’ His opinions were absolutely normal for a monk of the period. The Church calls him a saint.

The Church had been blaming all women for Eve’s temptation of Adam for at least 800 years before Damian picked up the baton and ran with it. In the second century, St Tertullian accosted women and asked them: ‘Do you not know that you are Eve?’ He then went on to inform them that: ‘God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you’ and that ‘You are the devil’s gateway’.

The significant change since Tertullian’s day was, of course, that the medieval Church encompassed all society, and had its own courts of law. Sexual offences, including fornication, were almost entirely a matter for the ecclesiastical courts and were often dealt with in bizarre ways. For example, in 1308 the archbishop of Canterbury, Robert of Winchelsey, decided that unmarried fornicators should have to sign a contract of marriage that dated from their offence but would only come into effect if they offended twice more. And accusations of fornication were often used as a device to strip single women of their land: on the bishop of Winchester’s estates, for example, a quarter of all recorded forfeitures between 1286 and 1350 were punishments for fornication, imposed only on women.*4

At the same time as it castigated women for being the daughters of Eve, the Church promoted an ideal of chaste womanhood that did not lure men to sin. Of course, this wasn’t exactly easy to achieve as it involved becoming a mother while at the same time remaining a virgin. But all the female roles presented by the Church – temptress, mother, servant and nun – rather missed the reality of life in a family that owned property.


The woman often had to run the show. Quite apart from women who held authority in their own right, like Nicola de la Haye, there were others whose power came with marriage. A noble lady was inevitably responsible for running the household and, to a large extent, the business of the estate (which would include the bakery, the brewery, the dairy, managing the horses and gardens, and so on).

In her own territory, she was the equivalent of a queen. This had the inevitable effect of thrusting women into very masculine roles when the men were not around. Well-to-do medieval wives found that their husbands spent a lot of time away on business . . . very often the sort that involved being heavily armed and taking all the fit and able male members of the household with them. This left the lady of the manor to fill her absent husband’s shoes, including running the manor court and defending the family property and honour.

We have an extraordinarily clear picture of the problems dealt with by a fifteenth-century lady of the manor from the letters between Margaret and John Paston, of Oxnead, Norfolk.

Margaret was the daughter of a wealthy man and inherited his land. In about 1440 she married John Paston, the son of a judge, who had legal chambers in London. His father had bought a manor near Cromer, but John’s ownership was disputed by another powerful local family. While he was away in London defending the property at law, his wife was at home organizing battles of a more physical sort:

Right worshipful husband, I recommend myself to you, and pray you to get some crossbows and arrows. Your house here is so low that no man can shoot out with a crossbow, though we have never had such need. Also I would ask you to get two or three short poll-axes to defend the doors with and as many padded jackets . . . Partridge and his friends are sore afraid that you will enter again on them. They have greatly defended the house, so I’m told. They have made bars to bar the door and they have made loopholes on every side to shoot out at with bows and handguns . . . I pray you to buy me 1lb of almonds and lib of sugar and that you will get some woollen cloth for your children’s gowns.*5

The Pastons had a rich relative, Sir John Fastolf, who built a castle at Caister in Norfolk. John Paston was his lawyer. Fastolf had no children and the Duke of Norfolk hoped to inherit the estate, but when the old man died John Paston suddenly produced a new will in which Fastolf left his huge estate, including Caister Castle, to a certain John Paston. The disappointed heirs accused Paston of forging the will and laid siege to the castle.

In 1469, Margaret once again had to organize the defence of family property. Her husband was now dead and she wrote a chiding letter to her perhaps feckless son, John Paston II, who she felt was wasting his fortune living it up at court:

Your brother and his fellowship stand in great jeopardy at Caister . . . Daubney and Berney are dead and others badly hurt . . . Unless they have hasty help, they are likely to lose both their lives and the place, which will be the greatest rebuke to you that ever came to any gentleman. For every man in this country marvels greatly that you suffer them to be for so long in great jeopardy without help or other remedy . . .


Although women had to take on male roles, saw themselves as sexually bold and (within a generation or two of the Conquest) undertook what amounted to military duties, they did not become less feminine. On the contrary, the more power they exercised, the more they dressed to emphasize their femininity. Within 100 years of the Conquest, noble ladies had moved from wearing simple gowns to ones with elaborate embroidery, and to even more elaborate hairstyles.

One of the most influential imports that Europeans brought back from the crusades was the humble button. This transformed women’s fashion as clothes no longer had to be loose enough to be pulled over their heads. Fashionable women were able to emphasize their figures, combining tight corsetry with long, flowing skirts and sleeves. Femininity, of course, was also a weapon that could be used to control men, and the power of noblewomen in the game of courtly chivalry was greater than that of any man.

The crusades also introduced Europeans to new fabrics – silks, satins, damasks, brocades, and velvets – and to new bright colours and elaborate weaves. And as trade increased, and the variety of coloured cloths grew, women began making strong statements about who they were by what they wore. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the stylish look was long and slim, the tightness of the cut emphasizing a boyish body-shape – in fact, boys were often referred to as ‘damsels’, a word that was used to describe the young Richard II.


By the late fourteenth century many women were in positions of considerable power, and courtly society in England had become increasingly sophisticated and – naturally – feminized. Richard II certainly held jousts, as his predecessors had, but they were more of an entertainment than a training for war, and they were followed by music and dancing. The emphasis at court was on the arts: on poetry, music, fashion and haute cuisine. It was enough to turn the stomach of one rednecked chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, who wrote: ‘The King surrounds himself with “Knights of Venus” more valiant in the bedchamber than on the battlefield.’

Women also took on important roles in government; and Richard II’s queen, Anne of Bohemia, was seen as a crucial restraining hand on the implacable justice of the king. As the Virgin Mary interceded with God on behalf of mankind, so it was thought right and proper for the queen to intercede with the king on behalf of his erring subjects. After the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 the official rolls included many pardons like this one:

Pardon, at the supplication of the queen, with the assent of divers prelates, earls and lords of Parliament . . . to Thomas de Faryngdon for the offences in the late insurrection of London . . .*6

Richard travelled everywhere with his beloved Queen Anne, and there is no doubt that there was a genuine affection between them. She was intellectual and liberal. For instance, she owned a copy of the Wyclif Bible, the first translation of the Bible into English, and perhaps through her it was circulated in her native Bohemia. It seems likely that she had a powerful influence over her husband and perhaps, although we do not know this, was instrumental in raising the profile of women in his court. Richard was certainly the first king to create a woman duchess in her own right: Margaret Marshall in 1397.


Women’s roles were changing over a much wider swathe of society than just the high nobility. The Black Death, oddly enough, contributed significantly to this: it created such a shortage of people that women had to take on tasks in many spheres that had previously been restricted to men. They were increasingly able to support themselves as traders (a statute of 1363 lifted the ban on women being limited to one trade or craft)*7 and seem to have been able to exercise more choice over whom they married.

The best-known female businesswoman was the extraordinary Margery Kempe, born in Lynn in Norfolk in 1373, who wrote what is often described as the first English autobiography: The Book of Margery Kempe. Her father, John de Brunham, was a prominent merchant, five times mayor of Lynn, and the book describes how Margery grew up accustomed to affluence.

She describes herself as a fashion victim. She wore gold threads on her head, and her hoods with long ribbons were fashionably slashed. Her cloaks were also modishly slashed, and underlaid with various colours between the slashes. When her husband finally refused to fund her extravagant lifestyle she decided to find the money for herself. Since women were now legally able to operate as sole traders, she didn’t need her husband’s permission, and could keep any profits she made for herself. So she set herself up as a brewer . . . intending to be ‘the greatest in the town of Lynne’. But alas it was not to be.

The beer simply would not ferment properly for her.

But Margery wasn’t to be beaten. She bought two horses and a mill, and set herself up as a corn-grinder. But that, too, was a disaster. It was said that the very horses that turned the mill started to go backwards instead of forwards. Then the miller ran away. ‘And then it was noised about the town of Lynn that neither man nor beast would work for her . . .’

Margery took this as a sign from God that she wasn’t cut out for commerce and looked around for another career. She relaunched herself as a visionary and professional hysteric.

Full-time professional religious weeping may not sound like an obvious money-spinner, but there is no doubt that Margery was head and shoulders above the competition. She was, in fact, a world-championship-class weeper. Show her a crucifix and she would faint; and if she thought she was in the presence of God she would start to scream uncontrollably. She wept in public. She wept through sermons. She wept at meals – loudly and incessantly. A holy woman told Margery her weeping was a gift of the Holy Spirit, but most people thought it was just a damned nuisance. After meeting her the archbishop of York is reported to have given his staff five shillings to get her as far away from him as possible.

And when she went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem her fellow-pilgrims just couldn’t stand the way she wept and lamented during dinner. They asked her politely to stop, but she couldn’t do it. Before they were a quarter of the way to the Holy Land, they dumped her and told her to go on alone.

Margery clearly wasn’t your average businesswoman, but at least she finally regained her position in Lynn and even became a member of the guild. The role of women had obviously changed a very great deal.

Writers and thinkers began to re-examine the traditional male attitude that the role of women was merely to be their servants; and to question the Church’s teaching that this was an inevitable consequence of the fact that women were naturally corrupters of men, and were morally and intellectually weak and unfit to participate in public life. Women even began to question this out loud:

No matter which way I looked at it and no matter how much I turned the matter over in my mind, I could find no evidence from my own experience to bear out such a negative view of female nature and habits. Even so, given that I could scarcely find a moral work by any author which didn’t devote some chapter or paragraph to attacking the female sex, I had to accept their unfavourable opinion of women since it was unlikely that so many learned men, who seemed to be endowed with such great intelligence and insight into all things, could possible have lied on so many different occasions . . .

CHRISTINE DE PISAN, The Book of the City of Ladies

Christine de Pisan, who wrote this nicely ironic piece in about 1404, had serious trouble with the learned attitude to women and wanted to do something about it. She had grown up in Paris, where her father was a scholar and physician at the royal court, and married a royal secretary. When she was 25 everything went wrong. Her husband died, leaving her with three children and her mother to care for. Her father, who had lost his position, had died two years earlier.

To supplement her income she began to write lyric poems. There were plenty of men who made a living this way, finding patrons who would accept their work as gifts and reward them. Christine had decided to break into this male market. She became accepted as a poet at the French court and began to receive commissions. At the same time, she read widely and she began to join in the intellectual life of Paris.

She had strong opinions about what she read, and decided it was necessary to challenge the way men were writing about women. She was as alarmed by popular romances as she was by the works of ‘learned men’. In particular, she objected to the most celebrated romance of the age, Jean de Meun’s poem The Romance of the Rose. She published ‘Cupid’s Letter’, deploring his attitude towards women and what she called his bad influence on many contemporary men which encouraged them to be shallow seducers and revel in their conquests.

When a royal secretary wrote saying that she was a presumptuous woman, daring to attack a man of ‘high understanding’, she hit back and didn’t pull her punches:

. . . since you are angry at me without reason, you attack me harshly with, ‘Oh outrageous presumption! Oh excessively foolish pride! Oh opinion uttered too quickly and thoughtlessly by the mouth of a woman! A woman who condemns a man of high understanding and dedicated study . . .’

My answer: Oh man deceived by wilful opinion! . . . A simple little housewife sustained by the doctrine of Holy Church could criticize your error!*8


However, this age of semi-emancipation was not going to last. As what we call ‘the Middle Ages’ merged seamlessly into what we call ‘the Renaissance’ Europe seems to have been dominated by tyrannies and a new wave of militarism and barbarism. Perhaps as a corollary, many men resented and feared women playing prominent roles in society. The restraining hand of the queen as mediatrix was no longer seen as a political ideal. Men sought to push women back into the background.

As the economy recovered from the Black Death during the second half of the fourteenth century, a male backlash had begun to be tangible. In 1400 an ordinance from York declared that ‘henceforth no woman of whatever status or condition shall be put among us to weave . . . unless they have been taught the craft’. As women could not join guilds, that meant never. Other similar rules began to appear.

But, as usual, men found that the handiest weapon against women was religion and the clearest example of this came with the strange history of Joan of Arc. In 1429 Christine de Pisan wrote a poem of sheer delight as this remarkable woman led an army of national liberation through France (that was certainly how Christine saw it). But two years later Joan was in an English prison.

She had gone into battle wearing male costume; she kept it on in prison, the pants and tunic ‘firmly laced and tied together’, apparently as a defence against being raped by the soldiers guarding her. Although there were efforts to charge her with witchcraft and heresy these collapsed, and she was convicted for the crime of cross-dressing and nothing else. She had finally consented to wear a dress, but her jailers had taken it away and thrown her the old, forbidden male clothing. She eventually put it on, and was promptly declared to be a ‘relapsed heretic’ and condemned to death.

The fire in which Joan burned was just the beginning of a long process of changing not just the position of women, but the very perception of a woman’s nature. There was also a striking change in how noblewomen dressed. Instead of showing off a slim, boyish figure, fifteenth-century fashion was concerned with occupying space and moving sedately. A new kind of dress, a ‘houppeland’, with a deep V-neck, baggy sleeves and an enormous skirt seriously restricted women’s movements. Noblemen also wore houppelands as their bagginess was a demonstration of wealth and extravagance, but the male version was nothing like such an impediment.

Women had started to wear clothes that reduced them to rather helpless ornaments.


One extraordinary insight into the psychological background of these developments is provided by Dr Samantha Riches’s study of dragon pictures.*9

The story of St George and the dragon had been around since the twelfth century. It was said that this terrible beast had ravaged all the countryside around a town. It had such bad breath that it caused pestilence whenever it approached the town, so the people gave it two sheep every day to satisfy its hunger; and when they eventually ran out of sheep they decided to offer it human victims, chosen by drawing lots. Eventually the chosen victim was the king’s daughter. So the maiden, dressed as a bride, was led out and left to wait for the monster. St George happened to find her, bravely attacked the dragon and defeated it.

This tale became very popular in the fifteenth century. But something sinister was appearing in the story.

Dr Riches looked at late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century pictures depicting the tale and realized that in many of them dragons had female genitalia. This portrayal of the dragon as female and sexual is probably connected to fears about women’s sexuality during this time. The ‘damsel’ in the pictures is ‘saved’ by St George, who symbolizes chastity, from the dragon who symbolizes her own uncontrolled sexuality. Women’s sexuality was being associated with a monster, suggesting that this sexuality was seen as evil and threatening. St George was the patron saint of towns, and in towns that were actively legislating against women traders this view seems entirely possible.

What began in towns ended by dominating the country. When religious dissent developed it was the craftsmen and tradesmen of the towns who led it, and urban Protestantism would eventually take over England. Built into that Protestantism was a view of woman as the helpmeet, the obedient domestic creature who would now have to vow at her wedding to love, honour and OBEY. Women were not to be encouraged to play queenly roles, as John Knox made clear in 1558 in his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, an attack on the very idea of women at the head of states. (‘Regiment’ meaning ‘government’.)

Things changed so much that in the eighteenth century the great English legal commentator Sir William Blackstone wrote:

The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage . . . for this reason a man cannot grant anything to his wife or enter into any covenant with her: for the grant would be to presuppose her separate existence, and to covenant with her would be only to covenant with himself.

All this was further compounded through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, by a belief that women were ornamental and men active, and then that women really had very little sex drive – that was a man thing. It would have been too frightening for a husband to leave his wife at home while he went off to work if she was actually thought to be randier than him. In fact, less than 100 years ago any woman who was ‘excessively’ interested in sex was deemed to be sick or mad, and in need of treatment. A large proportion of the women in mental asylums were there because they had had illegitimate babies; or simply because they enjoyed sex more than was thought proper.

And so we come to the Lady of Shalott, and the Pre-Raphaelites, and the damsel-in-distress. A Victorian invention, projected back in time, to hinder our understanding of the Middle Ages. Modern (male) scholars have argued that Héloïse’s letters to Abelard – ‘sweeter to me will always be the word lover, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore’ – must be male forgeries. No real woman, it came to be believed, could ever write, or even think, like that.

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