[THE DISTAFF SIDE] [BIRTH] [CHILDHOOD] [MARRIAGE] [DEATH]
THE DISTAFF SIDE
"The Distaff Side" is a term commonly used to designate the female side of the family or the matrilineal line.
This page explores the life of the distaff side of families from each of three classes: the lower class (serfs, servants, and peasants), the middle class (town dwellers, burghers, and tradespeople), and the upper class (gentry, nobility, and royalty). Birth, childhood, marriage, and death were four things common to all classes.
Most births took place at home, with a midwife in attendance (Uitz 70). Upper- and middle-class babies were baptized at the church on the day of their birth, as death without baptism would send the little soul into Limbo. The child's mother did not attend; the Church considered her impure for a certain number of days after labor. The ceremony called "churching" restored a woman's purity (Gies and Gies, City 62-3). In a peasant family, or if the infant was so close to death that it would not live until the ceremony, the baptismal ceremony was performed by the midwife herself (Gies and Gies, Village 117-8).
The status of a child's parents determined its status. In the early Middle Ages, a child could be born peasant or noble. If born a peasant, a child could be free or a serf. Free people's lives, at least in agriculture, resebled serfs' in terms of quality of life and quantity of work (Rowling 42). The only difference was the scorn held by free people for those bound to the land (43). Free people and serfs owed their lord the same duties for the privilege of his protection (42). Peasants needed the protection -- they were under constant threat from famine, diseases, and marauding armies. Women who could not find refuge were often the prizes of pillagers (46-7). Each lord might be the vassal of a higher lord or church official. He would owe his liege his services in war. By the end of the Middle Ages, a middle class had emerged which was free of feudal duties, congregating in towns and cities: the burgher, merchant, or middle class. Women who lived in towns were free of feudal obligations, though control by male relatives was a given. Town women were protected from rape and seduction because they were valuable commercial assets (Uitz 9).
Medieval childhood was a risky business. A child could die from a number of illnesses and accidents. Girls and boys played games that are the ancestors of many we have today, but their games were generally more dangerous and could result in death. Peasant girls began to work with their mothers when they were about eight years of age. Peasant women tended to confine themselves to "indoors" tasks -- sewing and cleaning and tending livestock -- but during the labor-intensive parts of the year, such as harvest-time, they often joined their husbands and brothers in the fields. Middle-class girls could be apprenticed to another woman or sometimes a man. They would learn the master or mistress's trade until the girls were ready to open their own business or to marry. Upper-class girls could be fostered out to other wealthy homes, where they would learn sewing and embroidery and manners and music and other skills of leisure. They were always preparing for marriage.
Fashion was not a major part of a girl's life. It was important to the wealthy to keep up with current styles, but even a rich young lady could not afford more than a few gowns. Since ready-to-wear was not available, fashion could not change at the rate it does today. Peasants wore the same style of clothing for several centuries. To see depictions of medieval fashions, click here.
Marriage, the unshakable institution, had a surprising number of weaknesses. Divorce as we know it was forbidden by church law; however, annullment on grounds of consanguinity, adultery, or baseborn ancestry was legal -- and simple desertion was not a rare practice (Rowling 77; Moriarty 160).
Girls were brought up to expect to be married. Only girls with wealthy parents could afford to enter a nunnery, which was the only semi-practical alternative to matrimony. Any other career would be taken on in addition to, or in spite of, marriage or monasticism (Power 41). Since women outnumbered men in medieval Europe, women often married men of lower status than themselves (Moriarty 160-1). In cities the situation was much the same. Women outnumbered men; if women could not marry, they had to find some way of supporting themselves (53-4).
The medieval age of consent was seven, but a marriage could be nullified if the couple were married if the girl was under twelve or the boy under fourteen.
The marriage process began with a betrothal that was so formal, and so similar in wording to a wedding ceremony, that the Church had a difficult time preventing couples from beginning marital relations when they were in fact merely engaged (Gies and Gies, City 70).
When settling a marriage, the bride's family would give a portion of land called the marriage portion or dowry. The groom's gift to his wife was the dower, and also usually consisted of land (Gies and Gies, Women 31; Castle 79). Peasant dowries might consist of a little land, or of money or livestock. The poorest girls would marry without dowry (Gies and Gies, Village 111). Because the redistribution of wealth was a major consideration in marriage (Moriarty 160-1), a girl with a larger dowry would be under more pressure to marry well than a girl with little (112).
On her wedding day, a girl wore her best clothes, and, with her fiancé, led a procession to the church door. The ceremony took place on the steps of the church. The wedding feast was a huge party with food, wine and entertainments which could last hours, days, or even weeks (Gies and Gies, City 70-3).
In all classes, women were expected to be subservient and to defer to their husbands' wishes. It was within the husband's right to beat his wife -- as long as he didn't kill her (Rowling 72).
Peasant women were expected to join in all their husbands' labors on the family's holding -- as well as feed and clothe the family, give birth to and care for children, and possibly carry on a side industry (Power 71, Rowling 23). Middle-class women were expected to pitch in with the housework (Hanawalt 182). And the load for upper-class women wasn't any lighter. They were expected to manage the household at all times, commanding what could be an army of servants; and when their husbands were away, they ran all the husbands' estates and acted as hostess for his guests.
Did couples in medieval marriages love each other? Choice and attraction played some part in peasant marriages, but marriage among the nobility was far too politically important to leave to whim (Gies and Gies, Castle 78). Evidence exists of partnerships carried out successfully or unsuccessfully, but the ruling of the love courts of Marie de Champagne (daughter of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine) was that love could not exist between a husband and a wife because, as they shared everything, jealousy could not exist; and love could not exist without jealousy (87). Jealousy must have existed, however, as proven by the double standard enforced regarding adultery. In women, it was punishable by humiliation or even death; men's mistresses and illegitimate children were often discreetly overlooked (90).
On her husband's death, a widow automatically received a third of her late husband's property for use during her lifetime, unless his will specifies otherwise (Gies and Gies, City 69). A peasant widow, however, often inherited all of her husband's worldly goods and land. Though she might be pressure to remarry (to ensure that the lands would be worked), she could maintain her independence by hiring workers (Gies and Gies, Village 107). Peasant widows in England had to pay heriot, or death-tax, to their husbands' liege lord. Heriot usually consisted of the family's best beast, or its equivalent in cash (109).
Pregnancy and delivery were fraught with hazards. Midwifery, though crucial to a pregnant woman's survival, was primitive. Breach presentations of children were not handled easily; Caesarian section was reserved for cases when either mother or child was dead, and then it was performed without anaesthesia or antiseptics (Gies and Gies, City 58). A woman's life expectancy was twenty-four. Few people, men included, could expect more; most people died before the age of thirty (Manchester 55). If a woman survived her childbearing years, she stood a good chance of outliving her husband to marry again (Gies and Gies, City 58). People who made it to the thirty-year milestone might well live to be a ripe old fifty or sixty -- but a medieval woman at thirty might resemble a modern woman at sixty (Manchester 55).
A dying woman received extreme unction, the last
chronologically of the seven Christian sacraments. Her soul was commended
to God and would be saved from the torments of Hell. (However, if the woman
recovers after receiving the last rites, she must live a life similar to
a nun's -- poor, chaste, and penitent.) The corpse was anointed, wrapped
in a shroud, sewn up in a leather sack, and placed in a coffin. Mourners
in black followed the funeral procession to the body's final resting place
-- which might not have been its final resting place. The body could have
been dug up a few years later and placed in a charnel house so the grave
could be reused (Gies and Gies, City 74; Village 126-7).
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