Women in Medieval Society

Women in Medieval Society

Women in Medieval Society

Women in Medieval Society

Excerpt

Susan Mosher Stuard

Social history aids in understanding women's condition in any age; it is particularly essential for comprehending women in the Middle Ages, an era remote enough from our own so that common social presumptions do not pertain. As a discipline it demands that information gleaned from research be understood in the social context of the day, integrating knowledge at the expense, perhaps, of glamorous misconceptions of an earlier and exotic age. Such an approach dwells upon the ordinary with barely a mention of some of the more spectacular figures of the day, St. Joan, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and that host of saints, abbesses, princesses, and queens who come to mind at the mention of the Middle Ages. Instead it deals with the position of women, the roles assumed by women, and their importance within their social context, which often meant their importance within the family. Frequently these articles bring forward new information about women's lives; just as often they establish a more adequate context for comprehending previously available data.

Inheritance provides a good example. For generations scholars have noted women's inheritance rights in the medieval period, but the problem lay in interpreting what such rights meant in a woman's life. Certainly there existed no such simple equation deriving high social status from inheritance rights. The complexities of the problem, however, can be investigated by social history. Inheritance of land or of non-servile status meant enhancing a woman's desirability as a marriage partner in ninth-century French peasant society but at a price -- her relative scarcity, as Emily Coleman's study of infanticide indicates. Heath Dillard shows that, in Spain, women's traditional right to inherit lay at the heart of the social restrictions which came to surround women's lives. In late medieval Venice, women's right to inherit and bequeath property established patterns distinct from male gifts, be-

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