Women in early medieval charters and the six honest serving men

Julie Hofmann from Shenandoah University is currently doing some very interesting work looking at women’s activities in the charters of Fulda and I had a long discussion with her recently about whether we’re asking the right questions about women. This is the subject of her paper at the International Medieval Congress, and this is my initial, probably rather rough attempt to suggest some approaches to the topic. My structure is taken from a poem of Rudyard Kipling:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Thinking about the who, what, where, when, how and why of women in charters (and in other sources) seems to me one way of approaching what questions we need to ask, even if we may not be able to answer them.


We’ve got enough evidence from case studies now to have some sense that the women who act are often doing so because of specific family structures/lifecycle moments. So, for example, Julie’s got examples of a couple of significant families round Fulda which only had daughters, in which these daughters seem to have had a particularly active role in family donations. Some women involved in marital disputes plainly relied on powerful brothers. Pauline Stafford’s classic work on queenship showed the key importance of phases such as widowhood for women’s activities.

In terms of family structure and the charter evidence, I think the most interesting question is going to be what married women were able to do, because that’s the stage of life that has often been seen as offering minimal independent agency to women. There is at least one example I know of a married women donating without her husband (from C8 Wissembourg, mentioned by Staab, Franz, ‘La dos dans les sources du Rhin moyen et des régions voisines ‘, in François Bougard, et al. (eds.), Dots et douaires dans le haut moyen âge, Collection de l’École français de Rome, 295, Rome: École français de Rome, 2002, pp. 277-304 at pp. 284-285). It would be useful to see if any more can be discovered.

What I also think we need is a better sense of is how far down the social spectrum women are doing things and how their activities compare to men at the same social levels. (There are all sorts of problems of identifying social levels, of course, but that’s a separate issue).

As the preceding section implies, if we are going to move beyond case studies to attempts at synthesis, it would be useful to have some kind of typology or classification of what people can do via charters or their roles in such transactions, so we can see whether or not women are doing all the activities that men are. This is where the database and diplomatic specialists probably need to take the lead: there are attempts to develop a charter markup language, and the kind of classifications being developed there are an obvious starting place.

Most recent attempts at studying women’s history have had a strong sense of time and place, either at the macro scale of endeavouring to see changing spatial and temporal patterns or at the micro level, emphasising how legal constraints on women, in particular can be very context specific. The macro scale has been marked by attempts to show changes in women’s status over time, or to contrast more or less Romanised societies. But the micro level studies are now challenging this. Guy Halsall has pointed out the specific context of Lombard law’s insistence that women should always be under male power. Jinty Nelson and Alice Rio’s recent work on law-codes, meanwhile, showed that the wide variety between provisions in different areas didn’t correspond to regional differences in Romanisation. They also argued that women’s status didn’t really change over the period.

Given the small evidence base we have for women’s activities in any specific place or area, are we in danger of creating too many discontinuities in women’s experience, or over-explaining results that may be due to chance? What would happen if we started from the assumption that women’s opportunities for activity didn’t change substantially in the early medieval period (which is the message we get from some other sources) and see if other explanations for the changing statistics are possible?

One very interesting question that I don’t think has been considered is not only the what of women’s actions in charters, but the how: are women using different methods than men to get the same effects? It’s a question that’s worth asking because we’ve probably already got one positive answer to it: the classic article on women in charters: Nelson, Janet L., ‘The wary widow’, in Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre (eds.), Property and power in the early Middle Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 82-113. Jinty shows a widow who makes unusually elaborate provisions to ensure her wishes are carried out, which don’t, as far as I know, have any male parallels.

The final question we ought to be asking is in many ways the most difficult one, and maybe one that we shouldn’t even attempt to answer until we’ve got a better grip on some of the other questions. It’s the question of why women are doing what they’re doing and it runs into the horrendous quagmire that is discussions of female agency. Julie asked the simple question: what if we assume that women have agency, that they are choosing to do what we see them doing? And yet I think it’s more complicated than that, for reasons I want to explain. It seems to me that there are several different frameworks that make discussions about female agency very tricky for early medievalists, especially when looking at charters.

One is the theoretical modern framework of feminism. Feminist thought holds an inherent tension between women as being strong, competent individuals and the belief that in patriarchal societies they can nevertheless sometimes be coerced or manipulated into doing things that are against their own interests.

A second is the empirical modern experience that women’s agency, especially within the family unit, varies greatly and is often hard to determine for outsiders. I’ve mentioned before couples with divergent opinions or whether the wife has “obeyed” the husband, as she promised.

A third level is that we know of the existence of coerced property transactions in the early Middle Ages: Carolingian capitularies specifically complain about them. We also know that charters sometimes lie about all kinds of things: there’s even a nice German word for one sort: the Scheinprozess

All this means that we can’t simply take what a charters says for granted. The problem is, it’s quite hard to use the handy rule of thumb for document plausibility: cui bono? I once wrote a journal article on marriage disputes that mainly asked the simple question: did the women involve get what they wanted? For those situations, it’s possible to get some answers, at least some of the time. But we simply don’t know enough in most property transactions to be able to try and answer that. In particular, we rarely know the balance of tangible and intangible benefits to each party from the transaction, and this is especially problematic for women because we don’t know the balance of resources within the family economic unit. Or, to put it at a far less abstract level, when a husband and/or wife give a donation of some of the wife’s dowry to a monastery (which is fairly common), is it her choice to do this, or is she actually being forced to give up some of her economic resources for the benefit of others?

I’m really not sure what to do about this problem at the moment, or whether there is any kind of solution that relies on anything more than pre-existing conceptions. All I can suggest is that we start looking explicitly for examples of transactions involving women that we consider to be either particularly likely to be free-willed or particularly likely to be coerced, and see if we can get some small amount of traction there for the wider problem.

So those are my current suggestions about the questions we should be asking. Although, of course, when I say ‘we’ what I mean is other people, because I am going to be busy with Hincmar for a while yet…


3 thoughts on “Women in early medieval charters and the six honest serving men

  1. It’s always the other people, isn’t it?

    I can think of another example for the weird over-explaining other than Erkanfrida: the charter I was telling you about that mentions uterine brothers and sisters is also really detailed.

    I agree with all the problems you note, and think they were why I was so troubled about the paper. One of the issues (or strand-wise, problems) that I think we really need to get to grips with is the feminist theory/agency one. I am honestly not sure what agency looks like, even now, because people don’t operate in vacuums. One of the things I think gender studies has done for us is show that people are often constrained, or coerced, into doing things they don’t necessarily prefer to do because of their particular circumstances. And obviously a charter will not be able to tell us about the dynamics in any particular family.

    For me, another problem is that I actually believe that women were more constrained in their actions than men. But I’d like to understand the constraints better and have a better understanding of how women worked within them. I realized the other day that really, this is even more rooted in pedagogical experience than in scholarly questioning. It’s there in the trying to understand and explain, for example, how women in Islamic societies where the veil is obligatory function. The veil is, for westerners, normally a symbol of oppression. I would never argue that women aren’t oppressed — there are obviously places where women seem unable to do anything without permission, and are subject to abuse at the whim of any man who thinks they are behaving inappropriately. But there are also veiled societies where women are in government, run businesses, etc. At what point is a lack of agency determined?

    (I should say that you could say this about all sorts of societies, not just those that are largely Muslim: in fact, I would say it’s typical in any community that follows a fundamentalist Abrahamic tradition.)

    Regarding the how — shouldn’t we also be determining whether women are using really different strategies in the first place?

    Argh. I also wish I hadn’t missed your post last year, because it says much of what I was trying to say, but better. It also makes me happier I focused a bit on the disconnect between the generalist Anglophone scholarship and what is being done elsewhere as a problem. It’s not that people aren’t thinking about this stuff, it’s that despite what is being uncovered, books like Scheck’s and Bitel’s are not taking advantage of it to present what I think must be a more nuanced and complicated picture!

    Speaking of which, Captcha is asking for Greek letters…that’s complicated, too!


    • Bennett’s patriarchal equlibrium and, to a certain extent, old anthropology might both teach us to look for the ways in which women who seem oppressed might still have advantages and vice versa. I guess there must still be overall better and worse, but there are a lot of registers to gauge it on.


  2. Jinty shows a widow who makes unusually elaborate provisions to ensure her wishes are carried out, which don’t, as far as I know, have any male parallels.

    I can offer another, should that be helpful, a Catalan couple both of whom severally go to Rome on pilgrimage, and since their wills are how we know this, may not make it back. The husband goes first, and his will is long, but the widow’s will is a lot longer, largely because of the fine-tuning she does with debts, loans (lots of both those) and bequests. The documents are: R. Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa (Barcelona 1999), doc. nos 1078 & 1354 or Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic, segles IX i X, ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. nos 403 & 480.

    Feminist thought holds an inherent tension between women as being strong, competent individuals and the belief that in patriarchal societies they can nevertheless sometimes be coerced or manipulated into doing things that are against their own interests.

    In this respect, surely, `women’ are just a subset of `people’. In the words of the old hippy currently gracing my stereo speakers, “If you take away our leaders, why the hell’d we go to war?” And on a lesser scale the business of advertising often relies on the possibility of convincing people to act against their advantage. I doubt deludibility differs that much between the sexes really!


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