The experience of Carolingian patriarchy

I was once talking to a couple of friends who belonged to a fairly conservative Christian church. They’d recently got married and the wife mentioned that in the wedding service she’d promised to obey her husband (far from typical by the late 1980s). So I asked them jokingly if she did obey. She said yes; her husband said no.

I’m writing a piece about Carolingian women at the moment and I keep on coming back to this question: what was it really like for them? I looked briefly at Helene Scheck’s recent book Reform and resistance: formations of female subjectivity in early medieval ecclesiastical culture and was unimpressed by its rigid polarisations. To Scheck, periods of ‘reform’ (such as the early Carolingian period) see women only as supplementary subjects or abjected, and there is no possibility of an ‘autonomous female subject’. Yet there is also ‘resistance’ to such a view, both from women and also from some of the reformers themselves. In contrast to Scheck’s book, I’m getting far more from Hans-Werner Goetz’s Frauen im frühen Mittelalter. Frauenbild und Frauenleben im Frankenreich, which frames the question of Carolingian women’s role in terms of limitations and possibilities, and is far more conscious of the ambivalent attitude of Carolingian men to women.

I think one of the reasons I found Scheck so irritating is that she’s still buying whole-heartedly into the claims from 30 years ago (by Suzanne Fonay Wemple and Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg in particular) about the Carolingian period being worse for religious women than the Merovingian period, without paying attention to the major flaw in their studies: that they were often basing their assessments on Carolingian hagiographies of Merovingian women. So maybe I need to start by reframing the question slightly: what’s distinctively Carolingian about Carolingian patriarchy? I’ve talked about this before but I’m still not sure I’ve captured the specific flavour of patriarchy in the period, and particularly how it’s enforced. This is another attempt to try and fit a few more of the pieces together, focusing inevitably largely on elite women, because they’re the ones we know most about.

A lot of traditional discussion on how Carolingian patriarchy works tends to focus on ‘law’, whether it’s capitularies or canons. But the more I read about dowries (and I’ve been reading a lot recently, the more I am sceptical about the early medieval idea of law and ours having much resemblance (and I feel rather the same after reading Alice Rio on formularies and slavery). To the Carolingians and the Merovingians, written law appears to count as nothing more than a starting point. And sometimes not even that. Consider one of the Merovingian formulae that Alice has translated (Marculf II, 12), which starts:

To my sweetest daughter A, B. An ancient but impious custom is held among us [a reference to Pactus Legis Salicae 59, 6], that sisters may not have a share of their father’s land along with their brothers. But I, carefully considering this impiety [say]: just as you were equally given to me by God as children, you should also be loved by me equally, and enjoy my property equally after my death….’

How do we understand this text? As an act of ‘resistance’ by some proto-feminist father? But this model document is repeatedly copied throughout the Merovingian and Carolingian period: it’s not marginalised or suppressed. It always remains as an option, but then so does the Pactus.

Looking at dowries also argues against economic pressures being one of the main methods for enforcing Carolingian patriarchy. It’s clear that women overall have less property than men, and that’s probably true at every social level. Trying to work out in general what control they have over their property seems to me to be near impossible. There isn’t a nice clear divide between when women have usufruct over the dowry and when they have full ownership (even assuming that what charters say full ownership, they actually mean it), and you can make specific arrangements over control via dowry charters, which themselves are the products of negotiations between the families of the couple. What isn’t really visible, however, is the existence of specific tools to bully recalcitrant women into obedience: complete control of property by husbands or disinheritance of recalcitrant daughters.

Similarly, while male violence was a key part of Carolingian patriarchy, I’m increasingly coming to think that the Carolingian preference was for patriarchy via indirect violence. The reformers do not encourage violence against wives or daughters, even as they do encourage it against sons. Instead, the (largely implicit) threat for women is the withdrawal of male protection for them, which will expose them to the dangers posed by other men. What I’m not sure is whether this meant that women ‘lived in fear’, as some scholarship presumes, especially when almost all men have to face the repeated threat of violence as well (between lordly oppression, elite warfare and ‘pagan’ attacks, who was free from worries about violence other than occasionally Charlemagne?)

Beneath these levels of patriarchal control are the ones we can barely glimpse at all in the kinds of sources we have: social sanctions (disapproval/shame/ostracism etc) and the internal caging of men and women’s minds via the effect of patriarchal ideology. We’re still waiting for the study of Carolingian honour we really need, but my sense is that social sanctioning works differently in particular societies depending on the importance of social/political patronage. If you have to network hard to maintain your position in a society, there’s an incentive not to destroy the position of other people if they might possibly be valuable to you. You can only decide to snub the people who call a lavatory a toilet if you’re very sure you’ll never need their help in any way.

The one form of elite female behaviour that Carolingian society does seem to have imposed heavy social sanctioning on (extending into violence) is sexual misconduct. Yet even here, there are some odd exceptions. Ingiltrude gets away with running off with her lover and never returning to her husband Boso, despite all the efforts of several popes. Apparently, her relatives were still prepared to support her efforts to avoid going back to Italy, as was Archbishop Gunther of Cologne. And there are a few other similar, if less blatant cases in ninth century papal letters of wives successfully abandoning their husbands.

As for patriarchal beliefs held by both women and men in the period, there tends to be a divide between those like myself or Katrien Heene who stress the relatively low levels of misogyny in Carolingian sources as compared to late antique or eleventh century texts, and other scholars who point out Carolingian texts which refer to female inferiority. Maybe we need to think more creatively about how sexism and respect can co-exist not only within cultures, but within individuals.

The nearest I can get to characterising Carolingian attitudes is in them seeing Woman as inferior, but not necessarily women. Any society where the dominant ideology starts from the premise of female inferiority is faced with the problem of how to reconcile that belief with experience. It’s fairly easily to sustain the claim that women are physically inferior, for most, but not all definitions of physical activity. Claiming that women are intellectually or morally inferior is much harder, given the empirical evidence in every society of considerable numbers of intelligent and/or virtuous women along with stupid and/or vicious men. It is possible for a society to get round the problem of intelligent women by refusing to educate them properly and then calling them ignorant, and the moral problem by deployment of double standards, but both require particularly concentrated forms of self-delusion. The easiest solution for believers in male superiority is therefore to retreat to the proposition that on average women are intellectually or morally inferior. This is very difficult to disprove conclusively, even with advanced experimental techniques, particularly given the psychological effects on women themselves.

Saying that women are inferior on average is also a very flexible strategy, because it allows variation on how much overlap there is between the ‘worst’ men and the ‘best’ women. At one extreme a few exceptional women can be grudgingly admitted to be up there with the lowest men. At the other end, any number of individual women can be recognised as morally or intellectually excellent, just as long as a few men are still on top (so that it doesn’t matter if more women than men go to university, as long as most Nobel prize winners are male).

The latter seems to be nearer the view adopted by at least one Carolingian commentator. When Lupus of Ferrieres is trying to console Einhard on the death of his wife Imma, he says:

Indeed, even though she had learned many things from your association, so that she surpassed by far not only the average of her own sex, but also the crowd of men in her distinguished prudence, dignity and honesty…and although female in body, had advanced to male in mind, she would scarcely have climbed up to the height of your wisdom’

Certe illa etsi ex vestro consortio multa didicerat, ita ut non sui sexus modo, verum etiam turbam virorum sua insigni prudentia, gravitate atque honestate… longe superaret, ac corpore femina, animo in virum profecerat, ad sapientiae vestrae fastigium numquam penitus aspirasset (Lupus, Epistola 4 MGH Epp 6 p 12)

Lupus’ views may be expressed in sexist terms, but he clearly considers Imma the superior to most men, if not quite to Einhard. And though such a view can be used to address women in a controlling way (‘you’re not like the rest of those inferior women’), that hardly seems likely here, when he’s talking about someone dead.

How do we put all these pieces of Carolingian patriarchy together? One way is to talk in terms of restrictions combined with room for manoeuvre, which is how Hans-Werner Goetz frames in. Yet it’s surprisingly hard to find absolutely hard and fast restrictions. It’s not quite true to say that a woman could do anything if she found someone powerful enough to support her: she couldn’t become a cleric, for example. But Ingiltrude could get away with adultery; Charlemagne’s daughters could get away with ‘living in sin’ while he lived; Liutbirga could abandon convent life for the secular sphere at a countess’ request and still be seen as holy. The need for the approval of some man was still almost always there. But a woman who was lucky and also adept enough to be able to work the Carolingian system could, I think, do more than in many other patriarchal societies before and since.


6 thoughts on “The experience of Carolingian patriarchy

  1. Very good, enjoyable post.

    One of the interesting things I read recently – you may be familiar with it – is “The Hodoeporicon of Saint Willibald” by Huneberc of Heidenheim in Noble and Head, ed., Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University, 1995).

    In it I was struck by Huneberc including various statements about female weakness and the frailty of her sex in addition to the usual humility topoi – and as I was reading it the impression I had was that here was a woman who didn’t buy everything she was saying – that she gave no more credence to her effeminate weakness statements as she did those regarding her inferior ability to write. She was literate, intelligent, and while I can’t say for sure if she felt herself equal to men, it sure felt to me as if she was saying, “I’m a woman, and smart, and I can read and I can write and write well and there’s a place in this society for women like me.”

    Right now I’m reading Wendy Davies’ Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany (University of California, 1988). I’m only about a third of the way through it (there may be more on this later) but she asserts that in 9th century Brittany aristocratic women appear to have had substantial rights and can be found in positions of authority including holding public office, though this appears to change drastically as you move down the social/socioeconomic ladder.

    As you cover in your last few paragraphs, there has to be some critical analysis of source texts and while those texts, largely written by men, may not have deliberately excluded women, they will have been very prone to the prejudices of the day – including one assuming the weakness of women, an assumption which may not have been very true at all. The characterizations of women in these texts can’t be taken at face value. We should all recognize erroneous assumptions of writers regarding various social/ethnic groups from our own relatively recent past and understand just how wrong we now understand these assumptions to be.


  2. Great post. You say that patriarchy can dismiss women as physically, intellectually or morally inferior, but a more specific form of the last is the belief that women are more emotional and less rational than men (and thus, e.g., incapable of holding public office). How is that expressed in your sources (if at all)?


  3. Your summary seems very fair to me, but perhaps it would since you are, these days, my main source of perspective on these matters! All the same I hope you will write it up. It seems fairly clear at least that powerful and respected women were a possibility, and remained a possibility in some parts of the ex-Empire for long afterwards. One wants to compare, of course: to Einhard and Lupus one is tempted to compare Jerome, and wonder about the rôle of patronage, though of course Rosamond and Jinty have found us female patrons of letters and in Jerome’s day the state wasn’t a sponsor in quite the same way.

    Three nuances struck me. Firstly, I wondered if the formula for flaunting the Salic Law (and there are other instances of this as you probably know in other areas) might have arisen out of contact with other laws. The Visigothic, and I think also the Burgundian? codes both provide for equal male and female inheritance, although the Visigothic one has quite a lot of edge cases which side against the women. If, in Aquitaine or Septimania for example, one repeatedly confronted this practice it might be harder to stick to the Salic line. Or, of course, Salic law may never really have worked that way; I just find myself thinking of competing norms.

    Secondly, when you say: “…assuming that what charters say full ownership, they actually mean it…”, this is of course a concern with men too, it’s just not adequately realised. Full alodial property may be kind of a myth.

    Thirdly, when you say: “It’s not quite true to say that a woman could do anything if she found someone powerful enough to support her: she couldn’t become a cleric, for example.” This causes me to remember that Charlemagne or his churchmen still felt it wise to include the section of the Council of Laodicæa that banned women priests in its capitulary reissue, along with that banning mathematicians. And isn’t there Carolingian conciliar legislation against women conducting mass? This might be one place where the élite optic is distorting.

    Just some thoughts, anyway, as ever. This line of your thinking is really interesting and I hope it reaches print.


  4. Sorry for the delay in replying, it’s rather busy around here at the moment…

    Curt – there’s something similarly intriguing to Huneburc’s comments in Dhuoda’s prologue: ‘I Dhuoda, although of the frail sex and living unworthily among worthy women (inter dignas vivens indigne)…’ To me that sounds simultaneously affirming and subverting the topos: she personally may be unworthy, but there are many worthy women. I am still not sure what to do with these standardized references to the frailty and inferiority of women, the weaker vessel etc, which crop up in a lot of Carolingian texts, precisely because they are so standardised. Do authors (male and female) put them in largely to show that they’re sound chaps before they say something that’s less orthodox? To what extent do they mean them?

    Theo – There are a few Carolingian texts that say women are more emotional or prone to ‘lightness of mind’ (levitas mentis) but not many, as Katrien Heene showed. Vita Liutbirga c 5 says that Liutbirga studied the Scriptures ‘until she arrived at such a depth of understanding that if the weakness of her sex (imbecillitas sexus) had not impeded her, she would have been able to teach (docibilis).’ That strikes me again as someone using a conventional phrase to water down the potential challenge to male superiority involved in praising a woman.

    More generally, I think both Christianity and early medieval culture made identifying the emotional and irrational as inferior more problematic than it had been in classical times. Jesus was no stoic, and some male Carolingian saints, like Adalard, were conspicuous by their tears. And rationality is not necessarily the most useful quality on the battlefield (although I suppose the truly rational would have got themselves excused from the army in some way). In a militarized culture, it is easier to exclude most women from positions of power (on the grounds of combat incapacity) than in a purely civilian one. Also, if Carolingian men had started claiming that rationality should determine who holds power, they’d have been worryingly near having to give John Scotus Eriugena an important post and nobody would have wanted that.

    Jon – I suspect people were flouting the Salic law almost before they’d written it down: I can’t think of any early medieval culture that seems to have taken written law very seriously in practical terms (while simultaneously believing that it was very, very important on some more theoretical level that didn’t stop them doing what they wanted). It might help your argument if we could work out where Marculf was writing, but Alice Rio says we can’t.

    As for the bans on women priests, I think Carolingian rulers are always very ready to condemn things on principle, whether it was actually happening or just a nasty rumour.

    To all – I’d just add that I would like to write my ideas up in more detail in the longer term (once the book after the current book is finished), but I’m not yet sure whether I could find a suitable journal or the right tone for an article. Part of the problem is that I’m having to make up some of the analytical framework as I go along. I don’t know whether it’s just that I’ve been looking in the wrong places, but I don’t know many attempts to look at patriarchal systems as a whole in the pre-modern world (apart from Gerda Lerner’s Creation of Patriarchy and some of Judith Bennett’s work). And I don’t want to write something that will turn readers off with too much feminist jargon: I’m trying to write gender history for the non-theorist. I vaguely feel that I might get on better with a journal like History Workshop Today (or even Past and Present) than Women’s History Review or Gender and History, but it would still need a lot of work to get the thing sounding suitably academic.


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