The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages

By Shulamith Shahar; Chaya Galai | Go to book overview

5

Women in the Nobility

As we saw in the introduction, most authors of ‘estate literature’ in the Middle Ages treated noblewomen as a subclass of their sex. Humbert de Romans devoted a sermon to laywomen in general and then separate sermons to various categories of women. The first of these separate sermons is devoted to noblewomen: their lot is a happy one as regards status and riches, he writes, so that more is demanded of them than of other women. 1

The counterpart of the nobleman (nobilis vir) is the noblewoman (nobilis femina or nobilis mulier). In certain regions in certain periods during the Middle Ages the right to belong to the nobility was handed down on the maternal side, and in other regions at other times through the father. In the High Middle Ages the latter appears to have been more common. 2 The nobleman was also a knight—miles—and this word pointed to a status that differentiated him not only from the peasant (rusticus) but also from the foot soldier (pedes). As a knight, he was a warrior horseman who underwent the ceremony of initiation into the knighthood, which in the High Middle Ages was also of religious significance (so that the initiate became a Christian knight—miles Christianus). Knighthood created a common denominator for the different strata of the nobility in most countries of Western Europe. 3 As their name implied, the task of those who belonged to this class, and who were denoted warriors (bellatores or pugnatores), was to fight. In the literature depicting the sins and omissions of members of the various classes, the heaviest sin of noblemen is non-fulfilment of their function, which is to defend other classes. 4 The brave warrior was a central

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The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • List of Illustrations viii
  • Preface xi
  • Foreword xvii
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - Public and Legal Rights 11
  • 3 - Nuns 22
  • 4 - Married Women 65
  • 5 - Women in the Nobility 126
  • 6 - Townswomen 174
  • 7 - Women in the Peasantry 220
  • 8 - Witches and the Heretical Movements 251
  • Notes 281
  • Index 344
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