Lordship and Feudalism

The role of women in the Norman aristocracy

Gonnor, the wife of Richard I, confirming a charter of the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel, abbey cartulary, 12th c.Due to the silence of contemporary writers, little is known about Queen Matilda, the wife of William the Conqueror, and a descendant of Rollo. In northern France, during the 11th century, a woman occupied an inferior position at every social level, regardless of the role she may have played in the activities of society, whether in agricultural production in the countryside or in commercial activities in the city. In the aristocracy, she sometimes had responsibility for domestic workshops where fabrics or garments of high value were produced; a woman was also able to exert a political influence over the men of her family. In this period, however, the influence of the Church and its teaching led to women being considered more or less explicitly the source of physical temptation. The relevailles ceremony (religious ceremony in which a priest blesses a woman after childbirth) is very revealing in this respect as it shows that the woman alone was considered to be tainted.

Queen Matilda holding a deed of donation, 14th c. illuminationAt the very end of the 11th century and, above all, at the beginning of the 12th, there was a radical change of emphasis in the way these matters were treated. In the time of William the Conqueror, although there were occasional references to a woman's beauty, this was a formulaic word without much specific meaning. Moreover, we are told nothing in written sources about the physical appearance of Queen Matilda. However, from the following generation onwards the situation changed and fulsomely laudatory or sometimes mocking physical descriptions increased in number, even from the pens of the men of the Church.

Queen Bérangère, wife of Richard the Lionheart; recumbent statue, Le Mans Cathedral. 13th c.This change was probably due to the long separation of couples during the crusades. It is not impossible that the conquest of England, which kept knights away from home for protracted periods, had the same effect. We might recall in this context the case of the wives of many Norman knights away in England who sent their husbands letters in which they threatened, if their husbands did not return home promptly, to take a lover: many of the husbands succumbed to this threat, an indication of how seriously they took it.

During the 12th century another new development was the emergence of so-called courtly literature, produced in particular at the court of the Plantagenet rulers, which seems to present an idealised image of women. But "amour courtois" (courtly love) further masks much more commonplace rivalries, the objective of which, for the young knight, was the acquisition of a rich heiress.


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