Thursday, October 1, 2015

12th Century Woman: Place in Society, Marriage and Childbirth

Summarised background research to developing my book All That is Truth Will Be Revealed.

by Denise J Hale

Until recently I was working with young people; as a part of my role I had to ensure they understood “equality and diversity”. Most young people had a blasé attitude to these subjects; ‘yeah I know about that’, ‘we’re all equal now’, ‘course men and women are treated equally’. Even harder was trying to ensure they were aware of protection from sexual harassment; luckily newspaper stories of events in the 70’s could be referred to. There is no doubt that our attitudes to these subjects have changed within my lifetime.

It may seem a strange leap to medieval history, but it was thinking of the similarities and differences within the two societies which inspired my book.

Too many girls I spoke with were complacent about equality, yet women are still not treated equally in many sectors of society. I began to think about a period in England where women were not viewed as equal, when arranged marriages were the norm and married women wore veils to hide their hair. I have studied various periods of history as part of my degree, but the earliest (not counting the Romans) was 1450. Prior to that I had a rudimentary knowledge of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Norman Conquest, Crusades, Plantagenets, War of the Roses and the founding of the Tudor dynasty. Now I wanted to know more about the zeitgeist of the medieval era.

Selecting a period

In the summer of 1190 the recently crowned King, Richard I, left England for the Holy Wars along with his knights and their men. This is not an illustration of Richard, but it shows anxious women, on the edge of the picture, watching their men leave.

It was these women, on the edge of history, I wanted to learn more about.

Class and women’s place

After the Norman invasion a chronicler summarised England as having three classes; ‘those that pray, those that fight and those that work.’ The chronicler was referring to men, but women were, of course, present in all these classes. Medieval writers rarely mention women, and when they do they are often termed as chattel in marriages. Richard did not even allow women (or, incidentally, Jews) to attend his coronation.

Within ‘those that pray’ were the nuns. However, unlike their male counterparts they could not conduct services, even in nunneries only male priests could conduct Mass and other Christian rituals. The Church viewed women harshly. The original sin, according to the Bible, was caused by the actions of Eve and led to her, and Adam’s, expulsion from Paradise. God even punished women by inflicting on them the pains of childbirth. Women were naturally inferior to men; after all, man was made in God’s image. The head of the Church was the Pope and the English clergy answered to him for their actions, not the King. The language of the Church was Latin; it was both spoken and written.

Many nuns would have been ladies from noble families, and some would be able to read. It was not uncommon for older women (and men) to enter religious houses. Queen Eleanor retired to Fontevraud (one of many religious establishments she’d give endowments), and here she became a nun. People recognised the brevity of their life, and there was a strong belief in an after-life for the soul. Its destination was dependant on your actions on earth and your contrition for your sins. Fasting and penance were not only practised by the religious orders but were part of everyone’s life.

Fighting was the major occupant of the nobles; whether defending their own lands or performing feudal service for their Lord. Women’s roles were home based—wives and mothers, the bearing of heirs being particularly important. In many cases these women would have been managing their husband’s affairs whilst they were away.

Marriages of the nobility were arranged by parents; few were love-matches. Gaining alliances, strengthening of land holdings and gaining of property were all attainable from a good marriage. Dowries were obtained from the bride’s family by the groom’s, however, the bride’s family could also gain advantages from the union. Girls, of course, had to be virgins and many marriages were agreed when the girls, in particular, were very young. At this stage the marriage contract may be sealed, but the consummation of a marriage would not take place. Intercourse with a girl, not yet a woman, (the arrival of menstruation was recognised as the beginning of womanhood) was considered as likely to damage the girl and risk the possibility of her being unable to bear children. The completion of the marriage contract required an exchange of vows to take place. This would occur at the door of the church with witnesses before a priest. The bride would be standing on the groom’s left, as it was believed Eve was created from one of Adam’s left rib-bones. After the vows were exchanged everyone would enter the Church to celebrate Mass. The marriage also had to be consummated for it to be valid.

The third group of people, the workers, were a mixture of people including traders, craftsman, freemen, villains, serfs. For the most part they did not speak the same language as the nobles (Norman French) although, after one hundred years since the invasion, there were bi-lingual speakers in both groups. The majority would have been tied to the land and were viewed as their lord’s property. They would be expected to work his land (as well as any granted to them) and their wives and children would work alongside them; tilling, planting and harvesting. Most of the workers in the castles would have been men, including in the kitchen. There were also skilled castle workers which included blacksmiths, wood workers, leather workers, stone masons, grooms.

Note—the ladies of the castle were served mainly by other noble women. Noble men would also serve in the castle; pages, squires, men-in-arms, clerics. I suspect Normans tended to trust other Normans when sharing their living space.

Marriage, for workers, was unlikely to involve very young girls; most women would be in their 20s, and it was less likely to involve the church. A couple, wanting to wed, would need a witness to hear their vows. This was enough to constitute a lawful marriage as long as neither had previously married, was not a close relation and was not being forced to wed, i.e. ‘had not given their word freely'. The reading of banns to safeguard against unlawful marriages was introduced following Herbert Walter’s Westminster Council 1200.
Note: I have been told it was usual to request permission from their lord before marrying; I am still trying to verify the facts on this.

Childbirth and Menstruation

In 1190s, whilst men faced death on the battlefield, it was childbirth that claimed the lives of women. The birthing room was presided over by women; no man was supposed to enter.

Due to the high risk of death a woman would attend mass before birth in order to be prepared if the worst wa0s to befall her. Midwives were the only women who were given permission to perform a church service. 7'Midwives could baptise a baby, but only if the baby was unlikely to survive, so that its soul would gain entry to heaven. Due to the risk of infant mortality living babies were taken and baptised within days of birth although the mother could not leave the birthing chamber till she was ready to be churched.

Menstruation, at this time, is a source of some very strange beliefs. Women looking at fresh milk, or wine, could turn it sour. The blood could kill plants and rust metal! Priests certainly did not allow women in this condition to enter and defile the holy ground of a church!

Churching normally took place 40 days after childbirth, when bleeding had stopped. On the positive side it allowed women recovery time. The service was a celebration of her return to the church and the safe delivery of a child; it would be followed by a feast.

Holy women often did not menstruate. This was due to the effects of fasting and their restricted diet, but was viewed as a sign of their release from the consequences of Eve’s sin.

Marriage and Sex

"52-aspetti di vita quotidiana, amore,Taccuino Sanitatis, Cas" by Giovannino de' Grassi - book scan Bibliotheca Casanatense Roma. Italia.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Once married it was believed to be important for the woman to reach climax in intercourse, as well as the man, in order both their seeds were released to create a baby.

Throughout the medieval period the church sought to control both sex and marriage. Although lust was viewed as a sin, within marriage sex was a necessity for the providing of children. Various edicts were issued including naming days when sex even within marriage was sinful, positions that were sinful, acts which were sinful.

Writing my novel

Like many others I absorb information about history and ideas related to history, then think, what if? What if a girl experienced a little bit more freedom than others of her gender? What if the future that was planned for her is destroyed? What if an opportunity is given to her family, and she can change its fortune?

Eventually Helena’s story began to enfold. It began as a romance, but as it developed other factors came into it. The three sons of Lord Westbury were partially based on a family of original crusaders—the eldest embracing the life of a soldier, the second son looking for ways to gain status and the third destined for the church. In the original family the youngest left the church himself whilst I amended this decision to being his father’s. All three sons trained as soldiers from a young age, as most men would have at this time. Not many would be able to read and write though. Edwin, the youngest son, learnt both skills from the monks. His eldest brother, Richard, could also read. Helena’s father appointed their priest for both his ecclesiastical proficiencies and his ability to read and write. He was also tutor to his sons and allowed Helena to join their reading lessons.

I also wanted to ensure that the society’s bi-lingual aspect came across in my novel; the ruling class spoke Norman French and the lower classes the native ‘English’. Hand made books were produced, but only the rich could afford them; they were written in either Latin or French depending on their subject matter. Before the twelfth century all readers read aloud; as manuscripts began to acquire spacing between the words, they became easier to read without muttering the words. However, people still read aloud to share the story with others.

Following a battle incident in which his life was saved by the actions of Helena’s betrothed, causing him to lose his own life, Lord Westbury promised Helena’s father that she could marry one of his sons. Beside his sense of gratitude Lord Westbury would have been aware that, even through Helena’s father is a Norman noble, Helena would have very little dowry and was likely to encounter difficulties obtaining another suitable husband. The returning of John’s heart in a gold casket is based on burials of Crusaders’ hearts found in two Suffolk churches.

Besides her father’s absence, her mother’s illness, mixed with her family’s improvised state, has allowed Helena a freedom which would not have been normal for an unmarried nobleman’s daughter. Her mother’s illness is not named. I viewed it as gynaecological problem following her seventh childbirth, originally ignored by her and then not recognised, or even treatable, by doctors.

The story begins with Helena’s father’s return and Helena having to leave her home and family, carrying with her with the responsibility ‘to make a good marriage’ without any support or guidance available to her. Even her letters home will have to be dictated to a household cleric. Her first impressions are of the higher status of this family to her own; clothing, furnishing, even windows and floors are to impress others as much as for comfort. Lifestyle envy, despite a recent ‘Times’ article, is not new. Lady Westbury is unwelcoming to her. Whilst her husband may have made a promise she does not want her sons to marry this girl who brings nothing but her beauty to a marriage. Edwin, however, treats Helena with respect and kindness. Unsurprisingly, after her family leaves, Helena feels uncomfortable; she finds her freedom curtailed, she makes mistakes, and, eventually, she falls in love with the one brother who is not available to her. When her mother dies she is able, at last, to leave Westbury. She is accompanied home by the youngest and eldest sons.

Apart from creating a readable story, within ‘All that is truth will be revealed’, I hope I have provided an insight into the lives of people in this era. Helena is not the only one to make mistakes and then have to deal with their consequences.


I was born in Gloucestershire and, so far, have lived here all my life. I am married with two boys.
History was always something I enjoyed; whether it was reading about people and events, watching films or TV dramas, or visiting stately houses and castles. I wanted to take history as an A’level but was told it didn’t fit into the maths based course that I hoped would lead to a job.

I worked as a programmer/analyst and undertook an Open University Degree in my spare time. I probably should have studied for a computer-based degree to further my career, instead I opted for history and art based units. One of my last units was 'Approaching Literature'. After I finished the degree I completed a few writing courses. I wrote various short stories; one was read on Radio Gloucestershire, another won first prize in a writing competition. I also wrote a couple of novels, but they weren’t published.

In 2014 I started to write a medieval historical novel. I have just completed this novel and am presently working on its sequel. I would like to follow the family I created, 'The Westburys', through till the death of the last Plantagenet King, in 1485.




  1. Thanks for posting - the differences between the freedoms that women enjoyed in the pre-conquest era compared with the later medieval are quite marked.

  2. Compared to today, women in the 12th century were certainly less free -- but so were men. After all, arranged marriages were imposed on children of both sexes -- the boys had no more choice in the matter than the girls. Women did have careers, could own and control property, and widows could be extremely powerful and influential.

  3. I was just going to say, what mrs. Schrader pointed out. Men couldn't pick their brides either. There were Kings all over Europe who didn't want to rule or marry and yet they had no choice in the matter. Second, if men didn't fight and sat at home taking care of their children, their homes would be taken over by someone stronger. It was a matter of survival so of course men who were physically stronger, not by choice but simply because they evolved that way, had to take the lead. Not all the women wanted the responsibilities. Finally, menstruation is not a clean pleasant affair. Why should medieval people, who didn't understand the biology of human body, think about menstruation as something proper, clean and holy? As a woman I would be glad to stay at home during that time and not worry about this dirty blood dripping on the church floor. All the best with your research. Try to really put yourself in the shoes of both genders.

  4. Interesting blog on a big subject - I enjoyed reading it. The 12th C is 'my' period as a historical novelist, and, in my research, I've found huge cultural differences between Occitania (southern France and northern Spain) - my focus - and northern France & England. Women had such a diversity of roles and professions at this period in 'my' region - rulers in their own right, doctors, writers, artisans. It seems to me that later restrictions wrote some of this freedom out of history and it's a joy to rediscover it in research. There's a lso a strange mix of constraint and 'freedom', as you point out; the medieval notion that women's orgasms were good for health and procreation must have had side-benefits :)


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