I would like to take some time to help dispel the myth that medieval women were on any level damsels in distress.
I would hope that it is commonly understood now that the passivity, and also the prudishness, associated with medieval women is an entirely Victorian invention.
Much as I love a good medieval style romance, it is a heinous fiction to believe that any real medieval ladies ever sat in a tower and waited for a man to rescue them.
When John Pelham, Constable of Pevensey Castle and a supporter of Henry IV, rode out to battle with Richard II in the 14th century, he left Pevensey to be besieged by the Yorkists. His wife Lady Joan was the one who organised the defence of the castle and succeeded in holding out, even getting word to her husband about what was happening.
Women were often left in charge of the running, or at times military defence, of their homes when their husbands were away at war. Although it is undeniable some women suffered in their husbands’ shadow, many outshone them with their colourful and dramatic lives.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
One of my favourite historical figures has to be the fantastic Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was one of the richest and most influential figures of the High Middle Ages. Her biography, wonderfully written by Alison Weir, does read like a Medieval romance novel.
Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Eleanor went on to become queen-consort of France and later queen of England. During her controversial life, she did many things that might not be expected of a medieval woman.
She accompanied her first husband, Louis of France, on the Second Crusade, travelling to Constantinople and Jerusalem. When he divorced her, blaming her for their lack of sons, she secretly married Henry of Anjou – who later became King of England – and produced five sons and three daughters, including King Richard I and King John.
She took part in a rebellion with her sons against her husband Henry II and ruled as Regent of England when Richard was away on Crusade.
Most sensationally, she is supposed to have presided in her youth over the fabled Courts of Love.
In the city of Poitiers, Eleanor is said to have established a “court of love” at her castle. The purpose of the court was to instruct men in the burgeoning art of chivalry and Eleanor and her ladies were said to have trained men in the arts of romance, poetry and love.
Whether this is quite true or not is less relevant than how splendid the tales about the Courts of Love are and I might come back to these in a later musing.
In sum, Eleanor was both a confident stateswoman and a patron of, possibly, scandalous arts. She was criticised by myriad commentators of her age but her influence is undeniable.
Obviously, the situation of most medieval women was not comparable to that of spectacular characters such as Eleanor. Yet history is littered with vivid and exciting female figures who deserve to be recognised and I hope the continued interest in women’s history might bring more into public awareness.