Women and Power, Part Two

NB: The research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

This is the second blog on the theme of women and power in the Middle Ages. Click here for Women and Power, Part One.

What follows is a brief historiographical overview of themes I engage with in my research on elite women in Scotland in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Now that you know more about me, I thought I would offer you a primer on the topic, as I will be engaging with the ideas presented here through a focussed discussion of primary sources from my doctoral work in the next few blog posts. I’ve included a reading list at the end with links to historians and works that have influenced by own thinking.

The ‘decline’ of women in the later Middle Ages

Since the 1970s, cycles of debate about women’s power and position within medieval society have grappled with issues of periodisation and the question of ‘decline’. The 1973 McNamara/Wemple thesis posited a decline in women’s access to participation in power structures in the eleventh century, echoing the arguments advanced a decade earlier in George Duby’s work on family structure, which was known as the ‘Duby thesis’. Both conceptualisations relied on a change in the organising of families around male lineage with a shift from horizontal to vertical family structures. This shift supposedly prioritised primogeniture inheritance to preserve the family’s wealth and position within elite society. One of the results of this theoretical shift was that the importance of women in family and in politics was downgraded.

The ‘decline’ of women was also linked to a supposed difference between public and private power. Women could exercise power through their position within the family, but they were not afforded access to ‘public’ spheres of power – namely government institutions and public offices. It was generally accepted that women could exercise power from within the elite household, as extensions of their gendered roles. However, women’s influence beyond the private sphere has been thought of as diminished as a result of increased importance of male lineages and bureaucratisation of medieval government.

Work of feminist scholars on elite women in the last thirty years has problematised the notions of ‘decline’ in status for women in positions of power after the year 1100. Most recently, the edited volume of Heather J. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400. Moving beyond the Exceptionalist Debate (2019) issued a call-to-arms to researchers of women’s and gender history to prove, once and for all, women who exercised power after the year 1100 were not ‘exceptional’, rather they were commonplace. The movement advocates for the inclusion of women into political narratives of medieval Europe.

While current scholarly thinking has advanced the political histories of female ‘lords’ and expanded definitions of female power to include the aspects of ‘soft’ power, such as influence, popularity, and attractive leadership, the notion of ‘decline’ has been harder to shake from medieval chronologies. Katherine J. Lewis has commented on a continued historiographical perspective that assumes women were placed outside the political structures of medieval governance by the later Middle Ages. Indeed, even the most recent cycle of the debate of women and power has merely shifted the ‘decline’ in female status to the fourteenth century.

 We need to question the ‘decline’ proposed by existing chronologies of the Middle Ages. These chronologies assume change, even if it occurred later than previously proposed by the Duby and McNamara/Wemple theses. Could the narrative of women’s history in the Middle Ages not be one of continuity? Judith Bennett’s notion of ‘patriarchal equilibrium’ becomes useful here. While the structures of power may have transformed during the Middle Ages, the status of women’s position within these structures might not have. While these spaces might have been ‘male’ in theory, were these spaces ‘male’ in practice?

There is exciting new work being done on women in the later Middle Ages and Early Modern period that problematises the assumptions made about women and their public selves. There is an ongoing reappraisal of the law of guardianship that rendered women ‘invisible’ during marriage. There are new gendered analyses of the law, which provide us with a more nuanced understanding of medieval legal systems as well as the gulf between law and practice. Additionally, there have been recent studies that have challenged the notion of ‘male’ space in castles and parliament. The Theresa Earenfight edited volume Royal and Elite Households in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: More than Just a Castle (2018) shows the myriad ways in which these spaces can be culturally understood. The late W. Mark Ormrod’s book Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England (2020) interrogated the ‘male’ space of medieval parliament and exposed the ways in which women appeared and made use of parliament in England.

When investigated, the notion of ‘decline’ and ‘exclusion’ of women in the later Middle Ages does not hold up. The evidence reveals a more nuanced historical reality than simple binaries. It suggests that the periodisation of women’s power in the Middle Ages ought to be eschewed completely, embracing the complexity and messiness of late medieval source material to further our understanding of women, power, and agency.

Reading List

Selected works on women, power, and patriarchy (this list is by no means exhaustive, but rather reflects works that have been key to my own research in addition to the works specifically named above).

Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia, PA, 2006).

Georges Duby, The Chivalrous Society, Cynthia Postan (trans.) (London, 1977).

Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, Arthur Goldhammer (trans.) (Chicago, IL, 1980).

Georges Duby, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, Jame Dunnett (trans.) (Chicago, IL, 1994).

Georges Duby, ‘Women and Power’ in Cultures of Power: Lordship, Status, and Process in Twelfth-Century Europe, Thomas N. Bisson (ed.) (Philadelphia, PA, 1995, 73-80.

Theodore Evergates (ed.), Aristocratic Women in Medieval France (Philadelphia, PA, 1999).

Barbara J. Harris, English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers (Oxford, 2002).

Susan M. Johns, Noblewomen, Aristocracy and Power in the Twelfth-Century Anglo-Norman Realm (Manchester, 2003).

Erin Jordan, Women, Power and Religious Patronage in the Middle Ages (Basingstoke, 2006).

Bronach Kane and Fiona Williamson (eds.), Women, Agency and the Law, 1300-1700 (London, 2013).

Katherine J. Lewis, ‘Women and Power’ in Historians on Gower, S. Rigby (ed.) (Woodbridge, 2019), 323-50.

Amy Livingstone, Out of Love for My Kin: Family Life in the Lands of the Loire, 1000-1200 (Ithaca, NY, 2010).

Kimberly LoPrete, Adela of Blois: Countess and Lord (c.1167-1137) (Dublin, 2007).

Jo Ann McNamara and Suzanne Wemple, ‘The Power of Women through the Family in Europe’ Feminist Studies 1:3/4 (1973), 126-41. (republished in Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.), Women and Power in the Middle Ages (Athens, GA, 1988), 83-101.

Jo Ann McNamara, ‘Women and Power through the Family Revisited’ in Gendering the Master Narrative, Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.) (London, 2003), 17-30.

Linda E. Mitchell, Portraits of Medieval Women: Family, Marriage, and Politics in England, 1225-1350 (London, 2003).

Linda E. Mitchell, Joan de Valence: The Life and Influence of a Thirteenth-Century Noblewoman (London, 2016).

Joel T. Rosenthal, The Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth Century England (Philadelphia, PA, 1991).

Dr Rebecca Mason (University of Glasgow) is doing really exciting work on married women in early modern Scotland.

Other work on marriage and laws of guardianship:

Katie Barclay, Love, Intimacy and Power: Marriage and Patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850 (Manchester, 2011).

Cordelia Beattie and Matthew Frank Stevens (eds.), Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe, 1200-1800 (Manchester, 2003).

Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent (eds.), Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland (Aldershot, 2008).

Charlotte Vainio, ‘Empowered Spouses: Matrimonial Legal Authority in Sweden, 1350-1442’ in Authorities in the Middle Ages: Influence, Legitimacy, and Power in Medieval Society, Sini Kangas, et al. (eds.) (Berlin, 2013), 285-306.

Heather J. Tanner, ‘Women’s Legal Capacity: Was the Thirteenth Century a Turning Point’ in Paradigm Shifts during the Global Middle Ages, Albrecht Classen (ed.) (Turnhout, 2019), 81-98.