Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 71-73
National Council for the Social Studies
Students should be encouraged to look carefully at the statements to see how they compare or contrast with what else the class is studying as part of its unit on the Middle Ages. For example, the following exercises deal with issues that encouraged women's interest in the military. Some of these ideas may contradict the "courtly love" tradition mentioned in textbooks that emphasizes knights' doing deeds for ladies. Thus, through these documents, students should come to see that women in the Middle Ages did not have just a one-dimensional existence but rather lived in a rich, complex society.
Part A. The Lady's Role in Feudal Society: Class Over Gender
One of the reasons women became involved in the military was that they frequently had the power, as queens, abbesses, wives of absent barons, or landed widows, to direct military operations. Particularly when a lord's possessions were spread out or when he was on crusade, he needed a family member whom he could trust to take care of his property. His wife, daughter, or mother might therefore be required to defend the castle and to have some military knowledge.
One of the sources of such advice was Christine de Pizan's work. De Pizan had been acquainted with many of the ladies of the French court and, as a medieval writer, offered suggestions on how defense should be handled. The following is a historian's summary of Christine de Pizan's major points:
She [the lady] should rule with such wisdom that she is feared and loved, and next to her lord is a refuge to his men. She must know the laws and customs of the place in case of need to defend herself against those who would harm her. She should be sweet, humble, and charitable and obedient, and work with the counselors of her lord, listening to the wise old men. . . . She must in trust, however, have the heart of man: that is, know the laws of arms and everything that belongs to them so that she is ready to command her men if necessary in attack and defense, see that her fortresses are well provided . . . test her men to know their courage and will lest she trust them too much, guard herself as best she can from too heavily taxing her subjects . . . and by her brave and high words give courage to her men-at-arms and spur them to be good and loyal. (Kelso 1956, 259)
Points to Consider:
1.What military virtues is the lady supposed to have, according to Christine de Pizan? Why might a lord be more likely to have his wife defend the castle than a male relative or his male second in command?
2. What knowledge would she need to judge a fortress's strength?
3. Is some of the advice about "obedience" and "listening" contradictory, or would it fit into the expectation that the lady have the "heart of a man"?
Part B. Medieval Armies and Women: Quartermaster Corps and Defenders
Historian Barton Hacker has pointed out that "women were a normal part of European armies" until the nineteenth century. He quotes a twelfth century knight as describing an army: "Of ladies there were also plenty" (Hacker 1981, 643). Although popes criticized the practice, women-Eleanor of Aquitaine the most famous-went on crusades to take back the Holy Land for Christianity. While upper class women were expected to lead rather than fight, poorer women usually foraged for food, mended clothing, nursed wounded, cooked, and generally acted as a quartermaster corps. In one Italian army of the fourteenth century, for example, it is estimated that over 10,000 women were part of the foragers keeping the army going (Hacker 1981, 645). In siege conditions, women were often a valued part of the defense, as were the eighty women in Amiens, France, who pelted their attackers with stones to protect their position in 1115 (Uitz 1988, 19-20).
Points to Consider:
1. What sort of activities in a siege of a castle would unskilled women be likely to do? Women who had hunted? How might class determine the sort of activities a woman might do?
2. Militarily, the Middle Ages was an era that thought the defense had the advantage over the offense. Would this system of belief have encouraged women's participation to a greater extent that offensive actions? Why or why not?
Part C. Medieval Women's Pastimes and Occupations
For upper-class women, learning to ride was often a necessity for moving between castles and churches and for making formal "progresses" so that their subjects could see them. To escape the confinement of castle walls, hunting was a major pastime for many queens and noblewomen. Archery was another enjoyment. For lower-class women, physical activity centered around personal and family survival: work in the fields and dairies, cooking, washing, or carrying water. Consider this list of activities from Sally Fox's Medieval Women, a collection of illuminations from the years 1300-1500:
Part D. The Heroic Tradition: Saints and Leaders as Role Models
Although Joan of Arc was certainly exceptional, she was also part of a culture that recognized female heroism, both in religion and in the secular world. Catholicism had encouraged the worship of saints, many of whom had bravely accepted pain and torture for their faith. Among these saints was St. Catherine, usually shown with the wheel representing the rack on which she was tortured by the Romans. Other saints suffered desert retreats, walled-in cells, or lack of food to prove their faith. In the secular world also, there were women who proved their heroism. Matilda of Tuscany, for example, had defended the Pope's interest against the Emperor of Germany in the twelfth century. The poet Tasso described her "manlike vigor" in defeating Henry IV and restoring the Pope to the Vatican. There were, then, role models in both the religious and secular world for what Joan of Arc set out to do. Consider the following excerpt about Countess Jeanne de Montfort, one of the women in the Middle Ages who showed heroism:
The Countess herself [Jeanne de Montfort], wearing armor, rode on a great war horse from street to street, desiring her people to make good defence, and she caused women to tear up the pavements of the streets and carry stones to the battlements to cast upon their enemies and great pots full of quicklime.
The Countess de Montfort did here a hardy feat of arms, and one that should not be forgotten. She had mounted a tower to see how her people had fought and how the Frenchmen were ordered without. She saw how that all the lords and other people of the host were all gone out of their field to the assault. Then she bethought her of a great feat and mounted once more her war horse, all armed as she was, and caused three hundred men a-horseback to be ready, and went to where there was no assault. She and her company sallied out, and dashed into the camp of the French lords and cut down tents and fired huts, the camps being guarded by none but varlets [servants] and boys, who ran away. When the Lords of France looked behind them and saw their lodgings afire and heard the cry and noise there, they returned to the camp crying "Treason, Treason," so that all the assault was left.
When the Countess saw that, she drew together her company, and when she saw that she could not enter again into the town without great damage, she went straight away toward the castle of Brest, which is but three leagues from there. When Sir Louis of Spain, who was marshal of the host, was come to the field and saw their lodgings burning and the Countess and her company going away, he followed after her with a great force of men at arms. He chased her so near that he slew and hurt divers of them that were behind, but the Countess and most part of her company rode so well that they came to Brest, where they were received with great joy by the townspeople. (Butler 1907, 293)
Points to Consider:
1. In what way would having strong religious beliefs overcome other opinions of the age that women were weak and should be subject to male authority? How might having heroic images of female saints affect women's sense of themselves?
2. In the description of Jeanne de Montfort, what skills is she shown to have as a military leader? What limitations, perhaps, are also implied?
3. In this reading, how are ordinary women enlisted in the fighting?
Part E. Women's Networks of Support
In telling about Joan of Arc, textbook writers usually mention three main actors in the story: Joan; the Dauphin of France she tried to convince; and the English army which was attacking France in the Hundred Year's War. Not considered are the women of the French court or the culture of women leaders who might support her. Noblewomen had often taken part in military actions or read and heard stories about women's exploits. When Joan came to the French court, her greatest supporters were Yolande of Aragon and her daughter Marie who was married to the Dauphin Charles. Consider the following list of Yolande's activities and her supporters:
After looking through the parts of the lesson, consider the following questions for a summary discussion:
1. In what ways were women part of the medieval military?
2. What traditions or networks of support might women find for their military roles? Would these be ongoing roles or one of temporary necessity?
3. Why are these roles so rarely depicted in textbooks or the popular media? Would it make a difference in the current debate about women in the military if they were?
4. Joan of Arc has frequently been used as a role model in history. Chinese revolutionaries in the early 1900s admired her courage. The late Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, pretended to be Joan of Arc in games when she was a child. World War I posters pictured Joan in a call to arms to save France. In what way might Joan of Arc be a role model and in what way might she obscure the lives of other medieval women?
Teachers often have only a few exceptional women-e.g., Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, or Harriet Beecher Stowe-in textbooks to discuss with their students. The exercises in this lesson plan are meant to illustrate that even one woman represents other women and complex social issues. To teach their students the surrounding context, teachers need to use multiple sources: art, diaries, biographies, economic data, music, and legends. Students may then see that they, themselves, may not be "lonely exceptions," but part of changing social conditions.
Butler, Pierce. Women of Medieval France. Philadelphia: Rittenhouse Press, 1907.Edgecume, Stanley. King Rene D'Anjou and His Seven Queens. London: John Long, 1912.Fox, Sally. Medieval Women. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988.Fraser, Antonia. The Warrior Queens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.Gross, Susan Hill, and Marjorie Wall Bingham. Women in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. St. Louis Park: Glenhurst, 1983.Hacker, Barton. "Women and Military Institutions in Early Modern Europe: A Reconnaissance." Signs 6 (Summer 1981): 643-671.Kelso, Ruth. Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956.Lucie-Smith, Edward. Joan of Arc. New York: W.W. Norton, 1976.Uitz, Erika. The Legend of Good Women: Medieval Women in Towns and Cities. Mt. Kisco, N.Y.: Moyer Bell, 1988.Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.