Carolingian lordly women

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 I’ve 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 can’t 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 they’re not seen as honorary men or unnatural, but are still regarded as women).

I want to add a third question to Kim’s, looking from a research background 300 years earlier. Are such lordly women a new phenomenon? Apart from alienating land, I can’t think of any Carolingian examples (750-900) of non-royal laywoman carrying out any of the other activities I’ve 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 there’s a difference in behaviour or just in the quantity of sources. (It’d 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 isn’t, 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 Nelson’s argued for Fastrada deciding one case), but I’m not aware of any with non-royal women prominently involved in judging. Kim is arguing that for 1050-1250 you’re probably looking at around 10-20% of ‘lords’ being women, so you’d expect a few to show up in the Carolingian sources if there’s a similar percentage.

The other negative evidence is Dhuoda, who as a magnate’s wife ought to be a lordly woman if anyone is. But I don’t 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’ she’s giving Bernard in the Marches and many other places, which has led her into debt, but it seems equally possible that it’s household management that’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Kim’s 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, I’m 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 shouldn’t have exercised it. But I think the honest answer is we don’t really know enough about Carolingian lordship to know exactly what was going on. I do think that there’s just enough Carolingian evidence to suggest that overall something did change in non-royal noblewomen’s activities, but as usual, I’m open to countervailing arguments.

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8 thoughts on “Carolingian lordly women

  1. I’m glad to hear Kim LoPrete is looking more closely at the relevance of the public/private model of power. It seems to me the concept of a division between ‘private’ and ‘public’ power is not that useful for this time period, when the lord’s household was also the centre of their political power (although in England, that was of course starting to change by the 13thC, at least the level of the king’s household).

    I’ve been thinking lately that we really need to find a way to work around or against an assumed underlying male/female gender binary when it comes to female lordship/power in the medieval period. Much has been written about the fluidity of sex and gender in the mid-to-later Middle Ages (I don’t know about the earlier period so I may be completely off base there), so that gender was not finally located in a fixed, sexed (male or female) body. I wonder whether instead of asking whether female lords were seen by their contemporaries as either ‘honorary men’ or as exceptional women, we could look for an in-between, where these people could have been gendered as both male and female simultaneously, or could slip between those categories depending on the context and what they were trying to achieve.

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  2. I’m not sure about the Carolingian end of this, but during the period 1000-1200-ish (sometimes later) the relevant offices could be inherited. I suspect that it is not coincidental that at the same time we find female advocates and, obviously, lots of countesses. Indeed, in the 13th century we even encounter the odd female sheriff in England (cf. Louise Wilkinson, ‘Women as sheriffs…’ in English Government in the Thirteenth Century, ed. Adrian Jobson (Woodbridge, 2004).

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  3. Forgive an ignorant interloper into the field….but a) while the percentages are low, we do have examples in the very early period of lordly women, not many grant, but they did exist and b) there’s a rather significant set of events in the 11th and 12th centuries that rather opened up society a bit to “lordly women”: the Crusades. With the Lord of the Manor so to speak off in the Holy Land for years, or being held for ransom, or dead, someone had to step into the vacuum. At least so it seems to this unhistorian.

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  4. Thanks for all your comments: a few brief and belated replies.

    Bavardess – Kim is citing the work of Joan Cadden on medical views of sexual difference in the central Middle Ages. Unfortunately Cadden only starts from the C11 with Constantine the African and the Salerno school, and I don’t think that anyone’s looked at what medical texts were floating around in the Carolingian period. The other problem is that if the ‘one-sex’ view is the medically dominant one, does this necessarily mean this was widely known and widely believed? For the early modern period Anthony Fletcher has got decent evidence for this view (that biological sex was a matter of degree rather than an absolute binary) as circulating in popular ‘medical’ texts (almanacs and the like). But I don’t know if there’s evidence for your average C12 nobleman having heard that stuff.

    And even if they heard the theory, would they believe it? If you look at the recent example of the South African athlete Caster Semenya, for example, a lot of online articles with earnest discussions about the possible kind of intersex conditions are followed by comments from readers saying that they should just check whether or not the athlete has a penis and the like. The idea of a simple difference does go very deep.

    Aquablanca – in the Carolingian period the rhetoric around countships (and lesser offices) is very much that they are appointed, even if in practice they are often inherited (or at least chosen by the ruler from a very small circle of families). So I think one of the reasons women couldn’t be allowed to be counts because it would reveal Carolingian ‘public’ rule to be the facade it was. Thanks for the reference to Louise Wilkinson’s work, BTW, I knew female sheriffs had been found, but I didn’t know if the details had been published.

    Interloper – I’d be interested to hear any early examples you could think of of non-royal lordly women leading a secular life: an awful lot of the laywomen prominent in the sources are the wives, sisters or daughters of kings. You’re right that the Crusades are one factor in the equation, but Kim is seeing the same pattern from 1050 onwards, nearly half a century before the first crusade, so it’s not the only factor. And if Carolingian noblemen weren’t going off on such protracted campaigns, they were still away from home a lot: Dhuoda didn’t see her infant son for several years when he was with her husband Bernard.

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  5. Magistra – it was actually the Caster Semenya story that was in the back of my mind when I was reading this post. It’s an interesting question as to how much medical views of biological sex influenced the beliefs of the wider population (and also how far they reinforced or conflicted with theological ideas about gender and sex difference). For the later medieval period (at least) there is also some evidence from popular culture (folktales etc.) in which a common trope was girls ‘presenting’ as boys (masculine clothing etc.) who at the critical moment in the story are revealed to actually be boys (or to have become boys because of their adoption of masculine gender behaviour? the stories can be read in different ways) by having a penis fall out.

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  6. Expressions of Hispanist medevalist community, in ExeterWe seem now to be firmly into June 2013 in my never-decreasing backlog of reporting, and next up in it was a day out to Exeter, somewhere I hadn’t been for a long time but which called me now for the same reason as it often has before, a gatherin…

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  7. Expressions of Hispanist medevalist community, in ExeterWe seem now to be firmly into June 2013 in my never-decreasing backlog of reporting, and next up in it was a day out to Exeter, somewhere I hadn’t been for a long time but which called me now for the same reason as it often has before, a gatherin…

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