Mariann Saghy

title.none: Evergates, ed., Aristocratic Women in Medieval France (Saghy)

identifier.other: baj9928.0005.015 00.05.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mariann Saghy, Central European University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Evergates, Theodore, ed. Aristocratic Women in Medieval France. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Pp. 2, 269. $19.95. ISBN: 0-812-21700-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.05.15

Evergates, Theodore, ed. Aristocratic Women in Medieval France. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Pp. 2, 269. $19.95. ISBN: 0-812-21700-4.

Reviewed by:

Mariann Saghy
Central European University

"The theory killeth, the sources give life." This somewhat transformed Pauline saying comes to mind at reading "Aristocratic Women in Medieval France", a new collection of essays edited by Theodore Evergates and published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. The contributors of the volume consciously set out to verify the truth behind the famous theory of the celebrated French historian, Georges Duby, according to which the eleventh century saw the coming of the "patrilinear family" and with it the sharp deterioriaton of the positions of women within the aristocratic family. Elder sons inherited the entire patrimony; dispossessed younger sons became clerics or wandering knights; and daughters, if not confined to the cloister, remained "virtual objects of exchange between male lineages." Duby propagated this idea in several influential articles and books. That this model of the eleventh-century family in the West came to be easily accepted was due not only to Duby's well-established scholarship and great personal charm (although one should not forget that Duby, the "ol' blue eyes" of French historiography, was one of the earliest and best "communicators" of the craft who successfully mediated between the historical profession and the public in various medias), but especially because this theory so plausibly explained the obvious. We were taught that even the crusades originated in the establishment of the patrilinear family (!); and it seemed all too clear that the development of the Western-type "nuclear family" presided by the powerful paterfamilias did not leave much power even to aristocratic women.

Appearances are, of course, deceptive. Readers and reviewers must therefore first congratulate the five authors of "Aristocratic Women in Medieval France"--Kimberly A. LoPrete, Theodore Evergates, Amy Livingstone, Karen S. Nicholas and Fredric L. Cheyette--who had the courage to test Duby's model on eleventh-thirteenth century sources. What they found was nothing like they expected. This volume brings to light the result of painstaking, meticuluous research of French archives which are surprisingly rich in material relating to medieval well-born women's life. Research was based on a wide variety of published and un-published sources -- charters, letters and poems -- , offering a comprehensive re-evaluation of female experience in the classical centuries of the Middle Ages. The five case-studies collected in this volume cover, in a most fortunate manner, almost the entire territory of France: the power-driven, prosperous North -- Blois-Chartres and the Chartrain; Champagne; Flanders -- and the sweet-speaking, softer South: the Occitania of poets and of dames sans merci, thus showing a vast panorama of the power and of the potentialities that medieval women had at hand.

The opening essay of the volume, Kimberly A. LoPrete's "Adela of Blois: Familial Alliances and Female Lordship" presents an exceptional case, the life of the youngest daughter of William the Conqueror. Both Adela's circumstances and her power were exceptional, and so is the relatively extensive source-material which is related to her.[[1]] Contextualized in a masterly fashion by the author, the sources reveal that Adela (c. 1067-1137), this remarkable woman who ruled as countess of Blois, Chartres and Meaux for more than twenty years, was an energetic and able lord exercizing power together with, as well as independently from, her husband, Stephen-Henry of Blois. Daughter and mother of a king, Adela used her status, her far-reaching family alliances and comital networks to intervene actively in the power-politics of her day.

As wife to the count and mother of his male heirs, she duly accompanied her husband to his official and ceremonial voyages to oversee comital affairs; she founded monasteries and participated in settling disputes between monks and laymen. In important and memorable passages, LoPrete calls attention to the fact that the religious functions of aristocratic women by far surpassed the level usually allotted to them by historiography: that is, pious donations to churches and monasteries. She describes how the countess of Blois took part in October 1095 in the translation of the relics of Empress Helena, mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine. Adela "joined the officiating bishops" and it was she who "read out loud to the assembled multitude the identifying label" of the precious relics.

After the death of her husband, Adela "held court to settle disputes, consented to donations by comital followers, founded and regulated fairs, and sponsored limited ecclesiastical reform." In the eyes of her (male) contemporaries, she had exactly the same authoritative powers as her male counterparts. Adela was truly a "female lord", who practiced not only princely politics by arranging feudal networks to strenghten traditional Thibaudian-Anglo-Norman alliance against the aggressive Angevin power (among other ways, through marrying off her children, a method easily associated with women), but, as Orderic Vitalis asserts, who also had the authority to command fighting men (a possibility definitely ruled out by the Duby thesis!). Adela equally intervened again in sophisticated church politics on the top level: in 1003-1006, she negotiated the reconciliation between her brother Henry I of England and Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury; and in 1007, she hosted Pope Paschal II in her domains, which resulted in Paschal's raising the bishopric of Dol to archbishopric and Baudry of Bourgeuil's appointment as archbishop. By this Adela managed to help her brother's allies as well as to limit her political rivals.

Not all women possessed powers as extensive as Countess Adela. Yet they were not entirely dispossessed either. As Amy Livingstone shows in a model study which complements remarkably well our knowledge of the lot of medieval women in the Chartrain, an area ruled by Adela and her family, aristocratic women--daughters, wives, widows -- remained influential members of their family and of their society as landlords, donors and patrons. Livingstone worked on charters, a source-material known to be stubbornly resilient to yield data on women's lives. The charters from the Chartrain reveal that families did not seek to restrict or impoverish their daughters, on the contrary: women of the landholding elite played a significant role as lords, and their powers grew more important with marriage. Women--such as Emeline of Chateaudun, Agnes of Montigny, Ermengard of Freteval, Mahild of Alluyes and her likes -- were powerful heads of families, allies and vassals. The charters indicate continuity throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries: again, nowhere do we find trace of the abrupt change in family structure preconised by Duby.

Two studies explore realities behind acclaimed literary representations. Chrétien de Troyes in the court of Marie de Champagne, and the troubadours swarming around the lords and ladies of southern France represent a world of which women seem to have been the center. But do romances and poems give an accurate image of women's lives, status and culture? Theodore Evergates and Fredric L. Cheyette sought to peek behind the curtain of literary conventions as well as historiographical commonplaces in order to answer the question: what position did aristocratic women have in the society of Champagne and of Occitania? The two scholars chose somewhat different paths in their research: Evergates is more intent in confronting the evidence of charters with literary witnesses, while Cheyette, rejecting earlier hypotheses about troubadour poetry, offers a drastically new, "literal" reading of vidas and razos to explain social reality in, and from, these texts. Both of them arrive at the conclusion, however, that the countesses of Champagne and the "women dynasts" -- Ermengard of Narbonne, Stephania of Les Baux, Beatrice of Mauguio -- of twelfth-century Occitania alike possessed powers which were very tangible in the world in which they lived: they inherited, acquired and bequeathed property; they freely divorced and remarried; often practiced highly independent political and ecclesiastical politics; and they patronized male talents who, in turn, started to spiritualize women's "material" authority. And what else, indeed, is troubadour poetry if not an eroticization of power relations -- of loyalty and faith, treason and deceit? Far from expressing a "male subtext" -- a competition between young bachelors and elderly lords, the youths fighting for inheritance and the favors of their lord's wife, as Georges Duby imagined --, troubadour discourse, by eroticizing power ties, "gave them powerful reenforcement, served both to implant the proper ethos and to elaborate the code of behavior that made it visible." (p. 177)

From the South of songs, Karen S. Nichols leads us to the most industrialized region of medieval France: the county of Flanders, ruled by amazingly self-conscious and influential countesses between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries. Flanders functioned as a "dowry" par excellence: it was inherited by "hereditary" countesses, by the daughters and widows of the counts, and/or it was brought into marriages by the countesses as a most precious asset. How was the rule of women seen by the burghers of the thriving Flemish towns? What were the ever evolving power relations among countesses, husbands, and their subjects? The lives of twelve countesses of Flanders -- Richilde, Gertrude of Holland, Clemence of Burgundy, Margaret of Clermont, Sybil of Anjou, Elizabeth of Vermandois, Matilda of Portugal, Margaret of Flanders, Marie of Champagne, Jeanne and Marguerite of Constantinople -- show that they had to fight strong prejudices against female rule, prejudices which were much stronger in Flanders than in Occitania. In order to enforce their authority, the countesses had to ally with powerful males, laymen and clerics as well. Using their diplomatic skills, the countesses of Flanders built a veritable wall of support around themselves: they chose to patronize towns and ecclesiastical institutions such as monasteries by granting special privileges to them. In Flanders, therefore, traditional forms of female piety, such as almsgiving and donations to churches, also need to be reconsidered, for they clearly served purposes of power.

Aristocratic Women in Medieval France represents gender studies and revisionist scholarship at its best. Presenting hard facts of solid research, this elegantly written volume turns upside down prejudices and idees recues concerning society, family, and women in the Middle Ages. The book will certainly make an impact on French scholarship and will incite French historians to take a fresh look at the rich material related to medieval women available in the archives,[[2]] and to approach this material with a conceptual framework different from the one left by Georges Duby.


1. See also Kimberly LoPrete, Adela of Blois, Countess and Lord, forthcoming January 2001, Dublin: Four Courts Press.

2. Women's studies seem to be a strangely neglected field in the rich spectrum of French medieval studies. Many interesting new books have been recently published on women, but none of them deals with the medieval period. To mention a few: Femmes plurielles. Les representations des femmes. Discours, normes et conduits, ed. Danielle Jonckers, Renee Carre, Marie-Claude Dupre (Paris: Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1999); Danielle Haase-Dubosc, Ravie et enlevee. De l'enlevement des femmes comme strategie matrimoniale au XVIIe siecle (Paris: Albin Michel, 1999); Fanny Casandey, La reine de France. Symbole et pouvoir, XV-XVIIe siecle (Paris: Gallimard, 2000).