Experiences of Women in the 12th and 13th Centuries

3135 words (13 pages) Essay in History

18/05/20 History Reference this

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In 1250, Pope Innocent IV canonized Margaret, Queen Consort of Scotland and Wife to Malcolm III, solidifying a model of medieval feminine piety and existence which was to persevere over the coming centuries. In the 20th and 21st centuries, historians have been working to redress the idealised image of medieval women and the gap in historical research which explores their role in society, their cultural understanding and their personal identities. The current field of study surrounding Scottish women includes work from archaeologists, historical geographists, demographic and literature researchers, signifying the importance of a diverse range of source material in the support of challenging medieval feminine narratives and constructing a balanced, gendered perspective. [1]

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As a short survey of historiographical sources and a discussion of social and political impacts on women during the 12th and 13th centuries, this discussion aims to explore the experience of women living within the burghs during the period. By understanding how women expressed their perception of self as legal identities and where they placed value in material objects, allows us to shape a picture of how the wider social and economic development of the burghs at the time impacted on the female population.

The current research in the field utalises a variety of traditional and non-traditional sources in the pursuit of information. A significant issue which should be first discussed is the lack of female voices from the time. Although there were early female writers during the period, particularly in Germany, there is a lack of direct evidence from Scotland which addresses the themes in this discussion. A re-examination of sources commonly used in historical study of the time, has included court records, royal and local charters, registers and family papers.[2] Indeed, a study of five women from the middle ages featured records pulled from ‘medieval chronicles, monastic records, medieval encyclopedias and art.’[3]

As the field of study has grown, so to has the breath of sources. Archaeology from convents is being used as a prosprographical investigation on the religious lives of women, their communities and their kinship.[4] Research into less traditional sources such as Hebridean waulking songs and ballads of the period are being examined, broadening the scope of literary research which could shed light on the overlooked areas of female lives, missing from commonly used state and religious sources.[5] A key theoretical framework and source of understanding is material culture. By understanding personal, domestic or social objects which belonged to women of the period, historians have been able to chart social and political changes occurring within the Burghs. [6]

Undertaking a material culture study of objects belonging to women of the time, historians are able to understand how self representation and beliefs demonstrate social changes beyond the state and church. An example of this would be a study of the annular brooch. Appearing in imagery from the twelfth century in Scotland, Europe and the Balkans, the brooch was designed with a clasp to fasten clothing at the neck.[7] The widespread adoption of these brooches, often with amorous and possessive inscriptions from husbands and often in Norman French, suggests three considerations. The first, given these items are found across Scotland in a range of materials from gold, bronze through to pewter, it suggests such small personal items were able to be easily spread and interpreted across geographical and ideological borders.[8] Secondly, the use of Norman French highlights a growing adoption of Anglo Saxon ideals, in this case the ideas of courtly love.[9]

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the widespread production of this item suggests the impact of large scale trade on the women living within the burghs. Cultural shifts in the appreciation of goods and craft in higher society filtered down into burgh life as trade and access grew. [10] Exposure to international methods of production, aesthetic styles and ideals such as courtly love, which was now no longer restricted to court, altered the nature of the objects coming into the possession of women. Archaeological findings from Perth suggest large scale production of affordable alternatives to more expensive precious objects such as an annular brooch.[11] Despite this medieval scale of mass production, there is evidence to understand the emotional engagement with these objects through studies of wills and burials which provides a rich picture of how women invested in small objects of meaning, particularly towards the end of the thirteenth century when personal items of adornment and dress were part of the very small collection of personal goods over which women retained control after marriage.[12] An example of this is the appearance of lead decorated spindle whorls across a diverse range of sites such as rural farmland, burghs and burials. Interesting in itself as a gender specific object, it’s appearance in burial sites of young women might suggest a very important significance in the life of its owner, particularly as local and national trade for wool and flax was significantly in growth throughout the period. What could be seen as an everyday tool for labour was considered precious and reflective of themselves as a person enough to be buried with, or bequeathed by, women of the period. [13]

Extending upon this idea of self perception, we can begin to explore the legal identity of medieval women in burghs. There is research which suggests the approach to law and gender in Scottish towns was ‘freer’ than that of the countryside, allowing for women’s legal capacity to be broader.[14] In Chapter 31 of the Laws of the Burghs, the law codes for urban centres, outlines that a man may answer for his wife, not that he must.[15] Though ecclesiastical reform had a large impact on female status and position as the monastic population of Scotland grew, female inheritance in the absence of sons was common legal practice by the reign of William I.[16] As women were unable to participate in military service, and thus not able to fulfil part of the obligations arising from any land tenure which had been inherited, their ability to hold property came into question as the continued development of the feudal system progressed.[17]

Perhaps some of the most fascinating evidence of this exercise of independence is the wax seals created for and used by women on formal documentation. These wax seals often utalised heraldic and mythological symbolism as an ‘assertion of personal identity.’[18] As individuals engaged in the business of living in burghs, such as traders, renters or property owners, townswomen had a distinct need to express their legal status. Though legal, it was not until the middle of the thirteenth century that the independent seals of women were widely accepted, often having to be presented in conjunction with that of a husband or a bishop.[19] As the practice came into common use, the adoption of symology as a means of personal expression and legal identity grew rapidly. Interestingly, the seals often referred to the balance of social and economic consequence within a marriage, sometimes in favour of the higher standing of the wife. The daughter of Conghal Strathearn’s seal included two chevrons from the heraldic symbols of the Earl of Strathearn, not that of her husband.[20]

Reflecting on the material and legal representations of women in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it becomes clear that there are several common themes across a social, economic and political spectrum which had an impact on the female experience living within Scottish burghs. Perhaps the most significant theme to arise is the importance of the function of burghs, which were designed as centres for trade and commerce, rapidly expanding local capabilities through developing trade networks and services. By 1214 there were over 38 burghs, either founded by Royal or Vassal charters.[21] In the 12th century, a levy duty was imposed on ships carrying merchandise, providing the crown with an incentive to encourage the growth of trade across ports which, alongside the introduction of coinage, saw a rise of international goods, skills and technologies enter the country.[22] The arrival of new skill sets and technologies supported the development of arts and crafts at a local level, such as pottery or metal working, which ultimately altered the objects with which women engaged with.

Alongside the growth of participation in international trade, immigration rose as burgh towns prospered, providing a second thematic which impacted on the female population. Adding to the existing populations in the burghs of local towns folk, the garrison soldiers which often occupied the associated forts or castles and their families, came an immigrant merchant class arriving from such areas as England, France, Brittany and the Netherlands.[23] Immigrants from such countries brought with them an understanding and acceptance of the feudal system, differences in approaching social traditions and practices, such as courtly love. In the traditional understanding of kinship rule in Scotland, the relationship between chief and his man was well understood, allowing for the acceptance of the more centralised pyramid system of the lord and his subject to dovetail somewhat.[24]

The introduction and acceptance of the feudal system impacted significantly on women through the questioning of their position and rights and landowners, as did the third thematic, the growing ecclesastical settlement occurring throughout the period. At an economic level, the monastic settlements brought with them foreign influence and literate administrators which improved the local spheres within which they operated.[25] Some monasteries directly impacted the economic wealth of local women, such as the lowland Cisterncian orders developing local trade in wool and flax, such as the farming which operated around Melrose Abbey.[26]

Alongside the economic benefits, the ecclesastical growth exerted power through the development of local parish and diocesan offices which brought stability and foreign influence across the geographical landscape of Scotland. Perhaps most significantly for women, the growth in monasteries and convents enabled women of means, both townswomen and those of the landed classes, to enact charters and donations to the church, exercising their legal rights over property and to publicly express their piety and devotion. These far reaching and well understood events impacted significantly on the daily lives of women living in the Scottish burghs. The societal, economic and political change brought about by the Davidian revolution strengthened their ability to enact self expression and to advertise relationships or piety to God, to imbue objects with meaning and develop generational narratives, to hold independent legal status over their property and their legacy and to learn and participate in widening culture of an expanding and forming national identity.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Abrams, L., Gordon, E., Simonton, D., & Yeo, E. (Eds.). (2006). Gender in Scottish History Since 1700. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Ashley, K. (2000) Review. Five Euphemias: Women in Medieval Scotland, 1200 – 1420, Vol 23. University of Hawai’i Press.
  • Barrell, A. D. M. (2000) Medieval Scotland. Cambridge University Press.
  • Barrow, G. W. S. (1981) Kingship and Unity : Scotland, 1000-1306. Toronto: University of Toronto Press
  • Bartlett, R. (1994). The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950-1350. London: Penguin.
  • Bawcutt, P. (2000) ‘My bright buke’: Women and their Books in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland. Medieval Women – Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain. 17-34
  • Bedos-Rezak, B.M. (2000) Medieval Identity: A Sign and a Concept. American Historical Review 105 (5).
  • Brown, M. (2004) The Wars of Scotland 1214 – 1371. Edinburgh University Press.
  • Boorsma, R. (2011) Women of Independence in Barbour’s Bruce and Blind Harry’s Wallace, Chapter74, Medieval Scotland 1000 – 1600 (ed. J Cowan Lizanne Henderson) Edinburgh University Press.
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[1] Ewan, E. (1999) A Realm of One’s Own? The Place of Medieval and Early Modern Women in Scottish History. Gendering Scottish History: An International Approach, Publisher: Cruithne Press, Editors: Terry Brotherstone et al, pp.22

[2] Ewan, E. (2009) A New Trumpet? The History of Women in Scotland 1300 – 1700. Blackwell Publishing, University of Guelph. pg. 434

[3] Five Euphemas – two reviews.

[4] Ewan, E. (2009) pg.436

[5] Ewan, E. (2009 pg. 434  / Sheils, J & Campbell, S. (2011). Medieval Scotland 1000 – 1600, Chapter Three, Sacred and the Banal: The Discovery of Everyday Medieval Material Culture 1st ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.pg. 79, 169

[6] Sheils, J & Campbell, S. (2011). Pg. 69 / Bawcutt, P. (2000) ‘My bright buke’: Women and their Books in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland. Medieval Women – Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain. 17-34

[7] Sheils, J & Campbell, S. (2011). Pg. 71

[8] Ibid. pg.71

[9] Ibid. pg.72

[10] Ross, D. (2002). Scotland: History of a Nation. New Lanark, Scotland: Lomond Books. Pg. 64

[11] Sheils, J & Campbell, S. (2011). Pg. 74

[12] Sellar, D. (2011). Medieval Scotland 1000 – 1600, Chapter Four, The Family. 1st ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pg.114 / Neville, C. J. (2005) Women, Charters and Land Ownership in Scotland, 1150 – 1350, The Journal of Legal History, 26 (1). Pg. 51

[13] Sheils, J & Campbell, S. (2011). Pg. 78

[14] Neville, C. J. (2005) Pg. 45

[15] Ewan, E. (1992). Scottish Portias: Women in the Courts in Mediaeval Scottish Towns. Journal of the Canadian Historical Association / Revue de la Société historique du Canada, 3 (1), 30 / Leges Burgorum, ch 31 in Cosmo Innes, ed. Ancient Laws and Customs of the Burghs of Scotland 1124 – 1424 (SBRS, 1868)

[16] Neville, C. J. (2005) pg. 50, 27

[17] Neville, C. J. (2005) pg. 30

[18] Bedos-Rezak, B.M. (2000) Medieval Identity: A Sign and a Concept. American Historical Review 105 (5).pg. 1492

[19] Neville, C. J. (2005) pg. 46

[20] Ibid. pg.47

[21] Brown, M. (2004) The Wars of Scotland 1214 – 1371. Edinburgh University Press. pg.16

[22] Barrell, A. D. M. (2000) Medieval Scotland. Cambridge University Press. pg.33

[23] Brown, M. (2004) pg.17 / Barrow, G. W. S. (1981) Kingship and Unity : Scotland, 1000-1306. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pg.84-104

[24] Mackie J. D. (1970) A history of Scotland. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. p.55

[25] Yeoman, P. (1997). Medieval Scotland. London: B.T. Batsford. p15

[26] Barrell, A. D. M. (2000) pg.51

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