Debunking the Myth of the Medieval Ages

It always irks me when people use the term “medieval” to describe anything out of date, obsolete, crude, or unenlightened.

The medieval period was none of those things. It was not merely a long dark tunnel out of which mankind emerged, blinking, into the light of the Renaissance. Au contraire. It was during this period that learning flourished, man had a clear idea of his place in the world and in relation to his God, and women were more emancipated than they ever were before – and quite possibly after.

For those who want to disabuse themselves of any prejudices they may be harbouring against this much maligned, under-appreciated, and misunderstood period of history, historian Regine Pernoud wrote two excellent books: Those Terrible Middle Ages and Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. I used both, among many others, in my research for the commentary that appears below. It’s my own small effort to help debunk the myth of the Medieval Ages.

Wonder Women of the Medieval Ages

The most powerful and prevalent image of woman in the Middle Ages was that of Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ. Her image is reverently depicted and her praises sung in every art form of that period.

In you are mercy, tenderness, compassion;
In you is generosity sublime;
In you all creatures’ goodness has been fashioned. (Dante’s Paradiso)

Not only the poetry but also the liturgy of the period extols her as “…the beautiful chamber from which the worthy spouse comes forth, the light of the gentiles, the hope of the faithful…” The Rosary was developed as a popular substitute for the Liturgy of the Hours. At the same time, numberless churches and cathedrals were erected in to her honour. So began the practice of going on pilgrimage, a devotion still practiced today, which involves reciting the Rosary while visiting a shrine dedicated to Mary.

In the visual arts, the depiction of Mary reached its golden age in the Middle Ages. The Virgin was celebrated in illustrated manuscripts, enamel and gemstone inlays, and church sculpture. The tradition of the coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven began at this time, and abundant use of gold and lush colours enhances her image that is often “larger-than-life.” (Jacqueline Orsini, Mary: Images of the Holy Mother)

Mary therefore was a constant presence in medieval life – in sculpture or painting in every church, in daily prayer, in the many feast days dedicated to her. There can be no doubt that Mary served as a model on whom many medieval women patterned themselves. Inspired by their devotion to Mary, medieval people had a reverence for womanhood, and particularly for motherhood, considering it something very sacred and precious. Women were the center of their families and of their homes, “the nucleus without which the framework could not exist…the cornerstone of the whole structure.” (Regine Pernoud, Women in the Days of the Cathedrals)

Certainly queens and noblewomen such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Blanche of Castile dominated their respective spheres. They exercised power when the king was absent, ill or dead; they had their chancellery, their dower, their field of personal activity. (Regine Pernoud, Those Terrible Middle Ages)

Ordinary women also had their own circle of influence. Historians contend that instead of viewing them as mere “women of the hearth,” it would be more appropriate to insist that the hearth belonged to the woman. Women’s work was not denigrated or considered less than men’s work, just different; and marriage was considered a partnership, from both an economic and an emotional perspective.

In addition to keeping house, many women also assisted their husbands in their livelihoods. For example, The Householder of Paris, a handbook on housewifery written by a Paris burgher, shows that he was training his fifteen-year-old bride not only to run his household but to be his business manager as well.
Not all women of the time became wives and mothers. During the Middle Ages a new way of life opened up for women: that of the religious. “Christianity initiated a new era not only in the history of monasticism but also in the history of feminism. Accepted as fully equal to men in their spiritual potential, Christian women could transcend biological and sexual roles and seek fulfillment in religious life.” (Suzanne Fonay Wemple, “The Search for Spiritual Perfection and Freedom,” in Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900)

The religious of that time were for the most part extremely well-educated women whose knowledge could have rivaled that of the most learned monks of the same period. In fact, according to Pernoud, entering a convent was a normal path for those who wanted to develop their knowledge beyond the usual level.

Prioresses in charge of convents had a formidable job description. Paul A. Olson describes the skills of a successful fourteenth-century prioress: “She had to have the administrative skills of a baron and the spiritual authority of a parson. She had the authority to see the liturgical services properly said, to oversee all management of the convent property, to supervise the education of convent novices, children, and youths, to supervise convent arts, crafts, and eleemonsynary work, and to provide for the disciplining of sisters violating humility, continence, voluntary poverty, or worship and work disciplines.” (Maureen Hourigan,“There Was Also A Nonne, A Prioress,” Chaucer’s Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales)

Besides figures of power, influence and knowledge, medieval women can count among their ranks models of remarkable character and virtue. Such women existed in both the lay and religious spheres. Two of the many well-known examples are Bridget of Sweden, a wife and mother of eight, and Catherine of Siena, a mystic, each of whom played a decisive role during the sixty-year exile of the Church papacy in Avignon.

We women of today would do well to learn from the lives of our medieval sisters who, with Mary as their model, lived their lives with simplicity, generosity, and courage, in the service of God and others.


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