This is one of my top favorite paintings. The lady of the castle perches on the battlements finishing the standard that her knight husband’s squire will bear before him into battle. She is a woman skilled in the accomplishments of needlework, personal presentment, raising children, handing on the Faith, and keeping hearth for her people. But up here on the castle wall, she also commands view of the surrounding countryside. Should a messenger arrive at the fief she will be there to greet him. Should an enemy mass she will help her husband prepare the garrison and command the defenses. Should the town be struck by fire or pestilence she will rise up and assist them. Should a mob break out she will go down to address them. Should capture or another woe befall her husband’s troops she is versed enough in regional politics and customs to negotiate the best outcome for his safe return. And that is exactly what she must be prepared to do. She is the lady of her lord, the queen of their lands, the heart of their castle. As the keeper of her knight’s heart, she is also his most able partner. Because of her upbringing and her presence at his side, when he rides away to war, he will have no qualms about leaving her in charge of their kingdom. No matter how large or small their holdings, he knows she is prepared with the skill and insight of a wise ruler to lead after his own heart until he returns. And when he returns she will sit at his side with valuable contributions while he rules.
Regardless of what dark legends say about the Middle Ages, the truth about Medieval Europe is that the majority of women were raised with just such an ideal in mind. Peasant wives worked alongside their husbands on their fiefs. Craftswomen had their own guilds same as the craftsmen. Of course, the peasant women did not haul stones from the fields; they helped plant them. Of course, the craftswomen did not quarry stone and mold windows for cathedrals and palaces like the men; they made beautiful pottery and jewelry and woven tapestries and embroidered cloths for the cathedrals and palaces instead. Just as there were valets, pages, and squires to aid the stewards, there were also maids and ladies-in-waiting and cooks. Each had a crucial place in the medieval round of life. As for the ladies, princesses, and queens…
A glimpse into the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary sheds light. In 1211, Elizabeth the daughter of King Andrew and Queen Gertrude of Hungary was sent at the age of four to the court of Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia (nephew of Frederick Barbarossa) to grow up with his children in preparation for her marriage to his son Louis who was six years older than her. Right away the princess was trained in embroidery, singing, playing the lute, horseback riding, and ladylike manners. By the age of ten she was expected to know about running the estates, sewing the clothes she and Louis would wear, and caring for the people as well. Although many of the court ladies resented the fact that she was half Hungarian (her mother was German), at the age of fourteen she was married to Louis. Her stepmother took the opportunity to retire to the monastery of Eisenach, and Louis and Elizabeth were now in charge of the Thuringian estates, castles, and towns. She and Louis loved each other deeply. Often Elizabeth was solely in charge as her husband spent much of his time at war or on the Crusade. She had three children by the age of nineteen, and by her death in 1231 at age twenty-four she had managed the kingdom through three famines, a flood, two years of pestilence, and a Crusade. This life was what could be expected for a lady at that time.
This did not, however, mean that women expected to rush into battle (although some did as the call arose) or that they expected to compete at jousting (although some regions and times required the women to be skilled in war as well as lady-mothers). For the most part, they knew that they were irreplaceable for the things they did best—overseeing the people of the household, joining the hunt, being present at negotiations, entertaining diplomats, knowing what was going on in the village because they helped the people, inspiring the men at tournaments and before war…The list goes on.
“We stood on the shoulders of giants and saw further,” Bernard of Chartres (12th century) liked to say. The medieval woman as lady of the manor did not mean she was stupid or lacking in education (if she belonged to nobility; male serfs were just as illiterate as their wives). Unlike ancient women who were regarded as property, women of the medieval times knew exactly where they complemented society—not their husband’s subject but his partner. Society accorded them that dignity.
It was not until the Renaissance when Europe went back to imitating the Greeks and Romans instead of building on them that women were shuttled away to leave the culture to men and mind only their hearths. That was when education for girls became stupid, women were taught to tend their babies and their prayers, and faith during the Enlightenment came to be seen as a pastime for the weak female. In the last two centuries we have seen how that mentality culminated with a rebellion swinging in the opposite direction. Now recognitive, cultural power for women has finally been touted at the expense of homemaking.
Feminists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made great reclaims within the suffrage movements and the work force. However, they blew the fight for rights into an equalization with men that equated to becoming men rather than actualizing each gender’s unique ability to complement the other no matter the sphere. That is where we stand today—in a deteriorating culture of cowed gentlemen, roaring women, skewed family circles, and a fear of who men and women really are.
Since the pendulum has swung both ways in the past six hundred years, the time is ripe to bring the scales back to the middle. Once more women should stitch standards for our modern times, standing as a feminine genius that binds man to God through her com-patriotism and man to earth through his offspring and her stimulation. Eve was not created to stand by herself but because it was not good for Adam to be alone. Not greater, not identical, but equal in that Adam and Eve complete each other. The new arena of exploration—how should a woman viably model this ideal in the modern world?
More reading for those interested in the myths of the Middle Ages:
Those Terrible Middle Ages! by Régine Pernoud
The Building of Christendom: A History of Christendom, Vol. 2 by Warren H. Carroll
The Glory of Christendom: A History of Christendom, Vol. 3 by Warren H. Carroll