I came across the research of Kim LoPrete in the spring, when she spoke at the Pauline Stafford conference, and she also subsequently sent me some of her articles. She works on aristocratic laywomen in eleventh to thirteenth century France and their political role. In particular a number of her recent articles are arguing for the existence of lordly women (her translation of the term dominae) in France in the high Middle Ages.
By lordly women what Kim means is aristocratic but non-royal women who are carrying out a variety of activities traditionally seen as lordly: alienating land, adjudicating disputes, collecting dues, ordering knights to fight, swearing oaths to keep the peace, granting privileges, acting as advocates, etc. They are carrying out these actions with authority equivalent to the counts and lords who are their male counterparts.
In the articles Ive read, Kim is looking at two main questions. Firstly, how do these activities (and women carrying them out) relate to historians ideas about the public? (She argues that such activities are just as public as when male lords do them, so you cant sensibly contrast male public power and female private power). Secondly, how are such women seen by their contemporaries in gendered terms? (The evidence suggests that theyre not seen as honorary men or unnatural, but are still regarded as women).
I want to add a third question to Kims, looking from a research background 300 years earlier. Are such lordly women a new phenomenon? Apart from alienating land, I cant think of any Carolingian examples (750-900) of non-royal laywoman carrying out any of the other activities Ive listed above. And the linguistic evidence also supports this: domna/domina (except for royal women and abbesses) is not a common Carolingian term as far as I know, and comitissa only starts appearing at the end of the ninth century (the earliest known example is the widow of Raymond I of Toulouse in 865).
The problem, of course, is proving such a negative and deciding whether theres a difference in behaviour or just in the quantity of sources. (Itd also be useful to know what the evidence for lordly women is in C11-C13 Germany, as a contrast paging Theo!). For a lot of the kind of activities mentioned, the sources are pretty scanty for the Carolingian period. The one that isnt, however, is dispute settlement: we do have a decent number of placita. There are a few with royal women involved in making decisions (I think there are some Italian ones involving the empress Engelberga, and Jinty Nelsons argued for Fastrada deciding one case), but Im not aware of any with non-royal women prominently involved in judging. Kim is arguing that for 1050-1250 youre probably looking at around 10-20% of lords being women, so youd expect a few to show up in the Carolingian sources if theres a similar percentage.
The other negative evidence is Dhuoda, who as a magnates wife ought to be a lordly woman if anyone is. But I dont get any sense that Dhuoda has ever acted as a judge from what she writes, whereas her discussion of the royal court is marked by a personal sense of what it is to be a courtier. Dhuoda does talk (LM 10-4) about the servitium shes giving Bernard in the Marches and many other places, which has led her into debt, but it seems equally possible that its household management thats involved after all, much of the lordly activities mentioned is revenue-gaining.
If the lordly woman is a post-Carolingian phenomenon, why is that? At least at the level of countess, I think that Carolingian ideology wouldnt have allowed such female activity: it would rip the mask off countship as an appointed office if a woman was exercising its functions. In contrast, lordship by Kims time was seen as exercised by the grace of God, so if the Almighty had ordained that a woman inherited the title, who had the right to complain that it was unsuitable for her to exercise the authority?
About Carolingian lordship below the level of count, Im less sure. If that kind of lordship was innate, familial, and exercised in a domestic setting (as Kim argues C11-C13 lordship was), then presumably there was no particular ideological reason why women shouldnt have exercised it. But I think the honest answer is we dont really know enough about Carolingian lordship to know exactly what was going on. I do think that theres just enough Carolingian evidence to suggest that overall something did change in non-royal noblewomens activities, but as usual, Im open to countervailing arguments.