The second in a projected five-volume study of the history of women in western Europe, SILENCES OF THE MIDDLE AGES explores the dominant themes common to women’s lives during the millennium commonly known as the Middle Ages. More than a dozen scholars from Europe offer insight into the domestic, economic, political, and religious conditions of a period that could aptly be described as the Age of Misogyny. Women’s lives were highly controlled by men who openly disdained the weaker sex as the cause of sin and travail in the world. Dominating every aspect of life in this era is the Catholic Church, whose attempts to regulate its communicants had direct (and often deleterious) influence on the lives of women subjected to its regulations.
Not surprisingly, all of the essayists stress the importance of marriage and family in the lives of women in the Middle Ages. Whether noble or serf, a woman’s primary role was to marry and have children. The constant struggle between the Church and the various secular states to determine the proper role of marriage, especially for the nobility, whose matrimonial alliances had distinctly political overtones, is a theme that cuts across national boundaries and extends over the entire millennium. Ironically, however, it was the virgin rather than the wife who was held in highest esteem. The age saw the rise of convents and the emergence of a class of “holy women” who eschewed family life for a higher calling in service to God. Nevertheless, this period which celebrated the cult of the Virgin was also the one that gave the world the notion of Courtly Love (discussed in a perceptive essay by Georges Duby, a general editor of the five-volume series).
As more than one writer notes, determining exactly how women lived and what they thought of their plight is difficult, because there are few primary sources not written by men. One important exception is the work of Christine de Pisan, called the first feminist writer in Europe; her treatises are celebrated in this volume as being treasure troves of information concerning how women felt about their second-class status and what they did to overcome the indignities to which they were subjected.