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In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Madeby Norman F Cantor
Chapter Six: Women and Men of Property
Ninety percent of the wealth of England in 1340 lay in land. Of this land perhaps 40 percent was owned by the king and the royal family and the high aristocracy that usually carried the titles of duke, earl, baron, or simply "lord." Another 30 percent of the land was held by ecclesiastical officers and corporations. This left nearly 30 percent of the land to be owned by the rural upper middle class, who came to be called gentry in the fifteenth century. At most 2 percent was in the hands of free peasants, later called yeomen.
In England before the Black Death there were probably around half a million people in the gentry class, including women and children. By 1400 the gentry comprised half that number. Their family incomes varied as greatly as those of the American middle class today: anywhere from the equivalent of fifty thousand dollars a year in today's money to three or four million dollars a year. The lesser gentry were sometimes called esquires, an obsolete military term. Perhaps half of the upper gentry were called "knights," another obsolete military term. Knighthood entitled the senior male (as today) of the family to use the title of Sir and his wife to be given the honorific appellation of Lady. But a significant portion of wealthy gentry families resisted the official awarding of knighthood from the king because to be a "belted knight" could increase military and tax liabilities and put a heavier strain on the hospitality and entertainment budget of the family.
Marriage, the production of progeny, and inheritance were the core of gentry life. A gentry family in the fourteenth century could rise from relative mediocrity by favor of the king, by collecting booty in the French wars, or — less commonly — by careful "husbandry" or estate management.
But another and common route up the social and economic ladder was a series of good marriages — that is, those that brought in heavy dowries — plus the availability of male heirs steadily over several generations to keep the estate perpetually intact.
On the other hand, marrying a woman of modest means and thin dowry, or losing her rich dowry after her death because of complicated legal maneuvers by which most of the landed dowry was returned to her family, and absence of male heirs, or even widows who lived too long and sat on a big share of family income, could damage or ruin a great family. This relationship between generations and property was the central and certainly most interesting theme in the life of fourteenth-century gentry families.
Over this process of marriage, birth, death, and inheritance, the Black Death fell like a tornado sweeping across the countryside. It generated a much higher level of mortality than usual among the gentry — especially among male gentry — and many great families were suddenly shaken and their security threatened, their wealth and social status undermined. Coveted estates that had taken generations to build were suddenly swallowed by another family, distantly related, and the losing family's honorable name was expunged from society and history.
There were two kinds of people who especially benefited from the squabbles brought about by the Black Death and the endless litigation that was the result. The first were the "common lawyers" (so-called to distinguish them from civil — Roman — lawyers who practiced in ecclesiastical courts).
The common lawyers were graduates of the Inns of Court, the four residential law schools cum bar associations located in Westminster in London (they are still there today). They made their money protecting, expanding, and defending the gentry estates. There was actually a shortage of them, and their fees were high, but no gentry family could endure long without their services. Since medieval English procedure did not allow a defendant to be represented by an attorney in a criminal trial, the criminal justice bar was almost nonexistent.
Many of these barristers specializing in property and inheritance cases were on permanent retainer to leading families. It was not enough to know the law — not an easy thing to do because property law was frequently changed by judicial decisions as well as by occasional legislation (as in the United States today). They also had to be expert at drawing complicated documents in a highly specialized language, law French, and it also helped to know Latin and English, which were also used in the law courts. Above all they had to be expert "pleaders" (later called barristers), attorneys who were licensed to appear in court, stand on their feet, and with little or no aide-memoir argue immensely complicated cases before judges and juries for hours or days on end.
They perforce got so expert in doing these things that they created a body of real estate law that is largely still in effect today. A barrister of 1350 deep frozen and thawed out today would need only a six-month refresher course at a first-rate American law school to practice property or real estate law today. In every U.S. law school, a required course in the first semester for entering students is entitled "property." Its principles and procedures were worked out empirically by the English bar in the fourteenth century, given a big boost by the carnage and confusion visited upon gentry families by the Black Death.
The other beneficiaries of the plague, besides the lawyers, were women of the gentry class. The common law had a procedure for protecting widows, partly because the gentry landlords engaged in serial marriages with wives who died like flies in childbirth and were often gone by age thirty.
The heir to the family estate was usually a product of the first marriage and the widow, wife number two or three, was his stepmother, sometimes younger than the heir. Oedipal tensions ("that sexy young wench, my father's third wife and now his widow, is eating up the old man's estate," a great plot line that Shakespeare and Hollywood missed) could inflame an heir's greedy disdain for taking care of his stepmother or even hisactual birth-mother, in this cruel, selfish society.
Therefore, the law stepped in and decreed that every widow had a right to "dower," one-third of the income (not the capital) of her husband's estate until she died. Within forty days of her husband's demise she was supposed to vacate the family mansion. But one-third the income from the family lands would allow her to live comfortably elsewhere and play the role of the grand dowager.
Complex legal instruments called jointures, a sort of prenuptial agreement, might allow her to recover part or even all of the landed dowry she had brought to the marriage, a common occurrence when the bride was much wealthier than the upwardly mobile groom. A great deal of late medieval litigation, miles of parchment court rolls, written on sheepskin, was taken up by litigation following the heir's visceral disdain for dower and jointure belonging to his stepmother or even his own birth-mother.
A favorite trick was simply to refuse the widow the entry to the dower, leaving her in anxious frustration and genteel poverty. Then the heir's and widow's attorneys would try to work out a settlement giving the widow comfort but much less than she was strictly entitled to by law. If agreement could not be reached — and especially if the widow had important relatives who stood by her — then it was on to the courts where such cases could drag on not only for years but decades.
The worst thing that could happen to a gentry family was biological nullity — the family became extinct in children of either sex. No legitimate son or daughter survived the father or brother to inherit. Even without the added impact of the plague years, this occurred with remarkable frequency. In any given year before the Black Death, one out of twenty families of the wealthier gentry and also the nobility experienced extinction in direct succession.
If this happened a variety of outcomes could occur. The king might declare the family void and take the estate back into his demesne, his crown property, and then possibly give or sell it to an entirely unrelated family. Often a cousin would be allowed to inherit it from the extinct family, frequently taking their surname if he did not already bear it. This latter transaction required a hefty bribe to the royal government, in addition to the normal onerous inheritance tax, and could burden the estate for a generation or more.
Short of biological nullity, the worst thing that could happen to a gentry family was for two or three heirs in rapid succession, father, son, and even grandson, and all married, to die in a pandemic leaving three hale and hearty widows with dower rights in the family estate.
The fourth male heir (or rather his attorney, since he was likely to be a child) faced the gloomy prospect of two or even three dowagers asserting their dower rights upon the estate at the same time, taking away large parts of the family income and leaving a fraction only for the new heir. As the new heir came of age and found the majority of his ancestral income siphoned off by the two or three dowagers, personal animosity would exacerbate fiscal strain.
Then as now a dysfunctional family would be sucked into a whirlwind of psychological stress, fiscal tightness, and bitter litigation. It could take two decades to straighten out this mess, if it ever was straightened out. The lawyers clucked in pretended sympathy while adding up the steadily mounting legal fees.
No historian has yet come up with a statistical study of whether gentry males were harder hit by the Black Death than women in the same family. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support such a theory. There was a plethora of dowagers in the two or three decades after the Black Death of the late 1340s. It is easy to understand how this difference in the mortality rate of male and female gentry happened.
The Black Death resulted either from bubonic plague or anthrax. The male gentry would commonly be out in the fields inspecting their lands, barns, and cattle and encountering plague-ridden rats or diseased cows daily. While there were some activist female gentry who would do the same thing, the majority of them lived a more confined and sheltered life and were less likely to have close daily physical contact with rodents and cattle.
The resulting difference in mortality from the Black Death was a boon to women of the gentry class. Their superior survival rate brought enhanced wealth, independence, and position in local society. But this sexual disparity could play havoc with the stability and economy of a gentry estate, especially due to the law's generosity to dowagers, and thereby generate decades of bitter family infighting.
The case of the le Strange family demonstrates well what the Black Death and the courts could do to an unlucky upper-class family. The le Stranges lived in Whitchurch in Shropshire in the black-earth, high-grain-yielding country intensely competed for by gentry families. The rich le Stranges were ambitious and on the rise, and because of their upward mobility were starting to make marriages in some instances with younger daughters of the nobility.
But the le Strange family was exceptionally unlucky in losing male family members during three successive outbreaks of the plague — two in 1349, and one each in 1361 and 1375. By 1375 not even the relative fecundity of the family in producing sons for the next generation could help them escape extinction in the male line. The plague had eliminated sons and left ambitious dowagers.
The le Stranges going back to the 1330s were not originally a great gentry house. They were a family on the make, principally through marriages with rich women, plus good estate management. The enhancement of family fortunes was launched by the marriage of John le Strange the First to a wealthy gentry heiress, Anakretta le Botiler. In the next two generations the le Strange heirs married into the nobility. This raised their social and political profile and with luck would have accrued vast landed wealth to the family.
But the Black Death countered that luck. Fulk le Strange, John I's eldest son, married Elizabeth, the daughter of Earl Ralph of Stafford. Earl Ralph drove a hard marriage bargain. Fulk's father, Ralph Stafford insisted, had to settle land worth two hundred marks a year (about a half-million dollars) jointly on the couple. This meant that if both John I and Fulk died close in time to each other and Fulk's marriage to the heiress Elizabeth Stafford was short, the le Strange estate would be affected severely by loss of income from land held as dower for the widow.
Fulk le Strange died in the Black Death on August 30, 1349. But Elizabeth Stafford lived to a ripe old age by medieval standards, not dying until 1376. During those three decades Elizabeth not only collected dower from her deceased husband's estate but remarried twice, taking with her the succulent property that John I le Strange had to settle jointly on his son Fulk and Elizabeth Stafford to get Earl Ralph's permission for the marriage. The land thus eventually passed to the family of Reginald, Lord Cobham, Elizabeth Stafford's third husband.
The story gets worse and more complicated for the pathetic le Stranges. Not only did Fulk le Strange, the elder son and prime heir of John I, die in the Black Death in August 1349, but the old man himself, John I le Strange of Whitchurch, had died of the plague only five weeks earlier. For a rich gentry family this blow was equivalent to a 60 percent crash in the stock market today — if every single asset was held in stock.
Anakretta le Botiler survived her husband, John I le Strange, until the next visitation of the plague in 1361. This meant that there were now two living dowagers, Anakretta le Botiler le Strange and Elizabeth Stafford le Strange, both women from families powerful enough to get their full dower rights and then some. For the twelve years of her widowhood Anakretta held the family house at Whitchurch in Shropshire (contrary to custom, by which she should have vacated it within forty days of her husband's death). She held on to one estate that came with her dowry, since it was jointly visited upon her and John I. For another piece of land she paid her son John II le Strange and his estate the modest sum of twenty marks (thirty thousand dollars) a year.
This medieval soap opera in the age of the Black Death gets worse still for the le Strange gentry. John II le Strange got back some of his father's lands when his mother, Anakretta, died in 1361, but he himself died of the plague in the same year. This left a third dowager to be taken care of from the le Strange lands, a great lady indeed, Mary, daughter of the earl — later duke — of Arundel.
Mary Arundel le Strange had to be taken care of in the lifestyle she had come to expect as a product of the high aristocracy and as a lady dominating local society. She took possession of most of the income or actual real estate of the le Strange inheritance, dying in 1396. After the dowager Mary died, the remaining le Strange lands passed to Richard, Lord Talbot, who was married to Anakretta, the daughter of John II le Strange.
For Richard Talbot the benefits of this marriage alliance and ultimate inheritance were timely. His father, Gilbert, had run up huge debts and was sitting in debtor's jail in London. His debts were the result of a lifetime of unprofitable military campaigning in France and Spain.
Not all military gentry struck gold in looting the countryside and ransoming high-born prisoners during the Hundred Years War. Some put up their own money to campaign for the Black Prince or John of Gaunt and never got a return on their investment of time and money. Richard Talbot, newly enriched by the le Strange fortune, got his father out of debtor's prison and the old soldier died of the plague in 1387 in Spain, battling on to the end and losing.
The le Strange name thus disappeared from gentry history. Richard and Anakretta Talbot, however, turned out to be good managers in their efforts to recover the level of income, which had fallen during the greatplague years of 1348-49, of their estate, Whitchurch. Some of this recovery stemmed from increasing commercial activity, which attracted tenants who hoped to get high market prices for their grains.
Overall, the experience of Whitchurch confirms the now well-accepted view of economic historians that in the agrarian sphere, the full economic impact of the plague was delayed by at least a generation. Even the fall in grain prices in the 1370s did not spell immediate disaster for careful landlords who were prepared to use imaginative means to boost their incomes. By the time of his death in 1396, Richard Talbot had actually increased income from the Whitchurch demesne by 25 percent and from the manor as a whole by 10 percent.
But successive outbreaks of plague and the failure of the population to make a sustained recovery made the situation gradually worse. Against this background, it was difficult for the manorial economy to bounce back from any new incidental blow that it suffered. There were several of these — a serious outbreak of plague in 1391, harvest failure in 1428, and floods in 1434.
But by far the most significant setback was the Welsh wars of the first decade of the fifteenth century. In the raids of 1404 Whitchurch was burned up to the gates of the manor by Welsh terrorists (or as they are called at Oxford today, freedom fighters). The damage was so severe that peasant rents were remitted for five years afterward.
The Talbots after about 1410 could not hire enough labor to continue direct cultivation of their own family lands, the demesne. They did what most other landlords did in the fifteenth century. They split up their demesne into farm blocks that they leased ("farmed") out to the wealthier and more enterprising peasants. From these yeomen leaseholders new gentry families emerged in the late fifteenth century.
Thus John I le Strange's great dream of a huge gentry estate and his family's eminence in local society over long time, and respect and honor for the le Strange name, came to absolutely nothing, even for the Talbots. The Black Death and all those privileged dowagers had brought this to pass.
In the high mortality of the Black Death there were plenty of other stories of women surviving and the men of the family perishing. This happened in Bordeaux in the family of the vintner and wine merchant Raymond le Clerque. In 1340 le Clerque drew up a long and complicated will dividing his land and property in and near the city among his six children, two sons and four daughters. His eldest son, Jean, got most of the property, and his second son, Guillaume Arnaud, one valuable vineyard. In return Jean was to pay five hundred pounds (about half a million dollars) to each of two of his four sisters, Margaret and Gaya, as dowries when they married. The other two sisters were apparently unprovided for.
Raymond le Clerque died in 1346. A year later the plague had completely undone his plans. In the end only Gaya survived, and the whole estate devolved on her and her new husband. Gaya became a grand lady. In 1351 she withdrew to a house in the more salubrious countryside, appointing her husband and a lawyer to manage her property in Bordeaux on her behalf.
Nor was the le Strange case singular in the way that the Black Death and bad luck in matters of inheritance could bring down a great family much as a massive stock market collapse could affect a very rich American family today. The story of the Hastings family, for example, reads like a comedy out of Shakespeare.
The tomb of Sir Hugh Hastings of Elsing in Norfolk (d. 1347) is representative in several ways of the world that was swept away by the Black Death. The style of the brass displays an aesthetic refinement that was not repeated in the aftermath of the plague. The brasses' iconography provides a history of family harmony that turned into bitter division as aristocratic estates passed between families more rapidly in an atmosphere of intensified competition.
The art historian Paul Binski has concluded that the brass on Sir Hugh Hastings's tomb was the product of an important London workshop, active during the 1340s and responsible for several impressive brasses. The style of this workshop is one of ebullience and confidence combined with artistic delicacy. It is distinguished by its eclecticism. Sir Hugh Hastings's tomb of 1347 is a delicate mix of English and continental influences, especially in the scene of the coronation of the Virgin, but also in the incorporation of an equestrian portrait of St. George above the figure of Sir Hugh.
This mix probably reflects the cross-Channel influences that transmitted to England through Edward III's French campaigns. Sir Hugh himself had fought at Crecy. The workshop flourished only briefly. After 1349 this style of brass completely disappears from England, leading scholars to believe that the artist had died in the Black Death or that the workshop had been broken up in the wake of the disaster.
Sir Hugh in his tomb is flanked by a group of eight weepers, headed by King Edward III and including companions in arms and members of the Order of the Garter such as Ralph, Earl of Stafford, and relatives such as Roger, Lord Grey of Ruthin. According to Binski, the tomb expresses "a form of corporate identity, embedded in shared military honor and badges of allegiance."
The Hastingses of Norfolk who commissioned this famous tomb were a younger branch of the family of John of Hastings, Earl of Pembroke, one of the richest men in England. The earl being childless, his nearest heir was his cousin Reginald de Grey of Ruthin, commonly called Lord Grey. Second in line was another cousin, William of Beauchamp.
As the earl of Pembroke prepared to leave anew for the continental wars in 1372, he had a bitter falling out with Lord Grey. While the earl had previously been fighting in France, Grey dispensed a rumor that the earl had died abroad and proceeded to invade some of the earl's lands. When the earl returned he made Grey apologize publicly in front of several great lords but retained his pique against Grey.
Pembroke regarded Grey as a nouveau riche arriviste, and Grey was indeed descended from a younger son of a minor baronial family. The other cousin — and next in line as the earl's heir — was William of Beauchamp, descended directly from one of England's ancient families.
Before the earl again departed for the French wars in 1372, he placed his lands in irrevocable trust. This provided that in event of his death abroad the trustees were to grant the whole estate to William of Beauchamp, provided that the king would make Beauchamp earl of Pembroke. In effect John Hastings was adopting William of Beauchamp as his son and heir, with the king's anticipated approval and cutting out entirely Lord Grey. This was a clever but dicey legal maneuver, just the kind of complicated instrument a common lawyer loved to draw up.
The whole plan fell apart when John Hastings, earl of Pembroke, heard while he was in captivity in Spain that his young second wife was pregnant and then that she had borne him a son, John II. Pembroke had no doubt that he was the genetic father of the child. The trust that the earl had set up giving everything to William of Beauchamp had not provided for this possibility. In effect John Hastings had disinherited his own yet-to-be-born son by a rash and sloppy legal maneuver. "Everything that was done has gone wrong," he lamented.
John Hastings promised a monstrous ransom to his Spanish captors (equivalent to thirty million dollars) and hurried back to England to try to straighten out this mess. Between Paris and Calais in 1375 he took ill and died of the plague.
While Lord Grey was exulting that the trust meant to exclude him would have to be canceled — itself a very difficult legal engagement — the possible new heir, John II, made things easier for Grey by dying accidentally in a tournament. After protracted litigation that went on for two decades, Grey and Beauchamp settled the inheritance between them. Grey assumed the inheritance but by collusive prearrangement sold off a substantial partof it to Beauchamp at bargain rates.
The fears of John Hastings I, earl of Pembroke, of what would happen to his great estate and family name if it fell into the hands of parvenus had come strikingly to pass, partly because of the plague and partly because of his rash reliance on an expensive but incompetent lawyer who drew up a flawed trust.
At this point Edward Hastings of Elsing, descended from Sir Hugh, the knight portrayed in the magnificent brass of 1347, belatedly put in a claim. He went so far as to challenge Lord Grey to the archaic process (not finally abolished until 1819) of trial by battle: "Thou lying false knight, I am ready to prove with my body against thy body," Edward Hastings proclaimed. Grey wisely declined the duel.
Edward Hastings's legal claim was very weak. The courts turned him down and ordered him to pay the enormous court costs of 987 pounds (two hundred thousand dollars). Though he could afford to pay he refused on the principle that he was the true earl of Pembroke.
For this ridiculous pride, Edward Hastings was consigned to debtor's prison and languished there for twenty years, complaining of the inhumanity that left him there "bound in fetters of iron more like a thief or traitor than a gentleman of birth." Not to say earl of Pembroke. After his wife died, he softened at last and made his peace with the now billionaire aristocrat Lord Grey, marrying his son to one of Grey's daughters. Edward Hastings died shortly thereafter. The Grey family played an important role in early-sixteenth-century politics.
Edward Hastings was undoubtedly a litigious crank, but there are some aspects of his irrationality that point up the subtle difference between the pre- and post-Black Death gentry worlds.
The plague had shaken the gentry society like an earthquake, and the fissures ran deep and long. It would be wrong to view the pre-Black Death era as a golden age of chivalry and consistently elegant behavior. But after the plague a certain restraining sense of honor and civility among the gentry and nobility was attenuated.
A seemingly endless war and the bitter politics of the reign of Richard II in the last two decades of the century certainly contributed to violence and rapacity among England's landed elite. The takeover of the crown by Henry IV of Lancaster, John of Gaunt's son, from the Black Prince's son, the gay and erratic Richard II, in 1399, Richard's condemnation as a tyrant by Parliament, and the murder of the deposed monarch, probably by starvation, were the ultimate symbolic acts of this new dark age of bad behavior.
The havoc randomly visited upon rising gentry families by the plague certainly contributed to the advent of an era of rural capitalism, unceasing aggressive litigation, and the conviction that unrestrained greed is good. American law students in their first-year course on property law are today imbibing a judicial heritage crystallized in Black Death England and the culture of contention and merciless conflict it embedded in the common law.
The social and cultural equation works in the opposite direction. If the judicial heritage of Black Death England embedded contention and merciless conflict in the common law and legal profession, the formality of the law itself and its slow-moving judicial procedures imposed restraint on the behavior of the gentry.
It is not that some wealthy gentry did not resort, like the great nobility, to gangsterism and violence. They did occasionally. But this was always measured against the due process of the common law and widely regarded among the upper middle class as bad behavior.
Under a renewed strong monarchy in the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries the peaceful resolution of conflict and the juristic socializing of ambitions mitigated the violence and privatism and broughtthe gentry back to a rule- and process-driven life. It was not a generous or charitable culture that was transmitted into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it was one that operated within the rule of law. Within the juristic culture even dowagers had their share of triumphs.
At first glance it seems that the gentry world in the age of the Black Death treated women of this class harshly — as property. But closer consideration moderates this easy judgment. Not only were widows privileged by the law of the dower, but brides bringing substantial landed wealth to their marriages were protected from abuse and impoverishment by prenuptial agreements giving them a joint ownership in the real estate that was the main part of their dowries, defending such wives from abusive treatment and curt dismissal.
Furthermore, even saying that married women in gentry society were mere property in the time of the Pestilence does not get at the reality of their situation. As in rich families today, the words mere and property did not go well together. There was nothing dismissive or pejorative about property. It was the heart and soul of gentry life. The males of the gentry household knew full well that their well-being and status followed closely from the level of property they held, particularly in landed estates. To be equated with property was no insult in the gentry world.
Nor did this mean that marriages were necessarily without love and passion, even if their transactional business character ultimately prevailed. The young people of this affluent class were well-conditioned in the psychology and ritual of romantic love. They were immersed in this culture, in the romances that they read or that were recited to them after dinner in the great halls of the stone family houses. They were prone and ready to take sexual initiative at any time after they reached puberty. Gentry women as yet did not wear underwear. Men wore a doublet with a movable codpiece covering their sexual organ. Coupling was quick and easy and the steady increase in the number of private bedrooms in the gentry houses — an amenity in the twelfth century reserved only for the head of household and his lady — facilitated sexual unions with due regard for female modesty, which wasn't very much to start with.
The one great lack in the lives of gentry women was their exclusion from higher education and the learned professions. It didn't inevitably have to be that way, but this sharp exclusion crystallized as the universities and secular professions, particularly law, were constituted in the period 1200 to 1350. This sexual segregation in higher education and the professions was not breached in England until around 1900, and not in substantial degree until around 1965.
In recent years there has been a tendency to lay the blame for medieval exclusion of women from higher education and the secular professions at the feet of church tradition and hierarchy. The church fathers St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, around 400, were outspoken misogynists, greatly respecting nuns for their spiritual qualities, but insisting that they be excluded from all leadership and sacerdotal roles in the church, and thus from the education needed to gain these posts.
Some historians have seen the triumphs of Ambrose's and Augustine's misogyny as the final chapter in a bitter conflict over the role of women in the church that goes back to the first century a.d. The attitude of the church fathers, further institutionalized by an exclusively male priesthood, can be regarded as the imposition of a male chauvinist position from which twelfth- and thirteenth-century ecclesiastical culture could not depart. Yet the church and medieval society changed in many directions over the centuries and their exclusionary attitude to women could have changed also. From the twelfth century on, many separated ("heretical") medieval religious communities, including the fourteenth-century English Lollards, allowed women preaching and leadership roles.
There was also a generation or so between about 1120 and 1160 when the church did produce top, highly educated intellectuals such as Heloise in Paris and Hildegard of Bingen in the Rhine valley, as well as a strong visible female hand in patronage of the arts and letters.
By 1250 the prospect for this road not taken was wiped away. The main reason was the inconvenience, instability, and costs that education and entrance into the professions would have meant for upper-middle-class gentry families. The English gentry families of the fourteenth century experienced no democratic ideological pressure toward enhanced privileges for their daughters. On the contrary, the weight of church tradition was strongly in favor of excluding women from higher education and the professions, and the gentry fathers and brothers had no hesitancy in cultivating these male chauvinist traditions.
There were frustrated intelligent and ambitious women among the gentry class of the late Middle Ages, of that we can be sure, who did not like earlymarriage and motherhood or the nun's veil and cloistered chastity as the only viable alternatives in their lives. Yet the great majority of gentry women of propertied families who followed the conventional role (and were still following it in the era of Jane Austen or even George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf) still led comfortable and dignified lives, as much as women of the suburban middle class in America today.
The women to be pitied, if any, among the gentry class in the age of the Black Death were not married or widowed ones. The pitiable gentry women in the fourteenth century were daughters who for one reason or another — too ugly, too pious, and most commonly, lacking adequate dowries because the family already had too many other daughters, despite the widespread practice of female infanticide — found no husband and were shunted off to nunneries by the age of twenty. Some convents were still as most had been in the twelfth century — rich and genteel. The food in these high-toned establishments, nearly always of the Benedictine Order, was good. Diversion was gained by choral praying, writing, painting, embroidering, and (in spite of the indignant complaints of bishops) breeding and raising birds and greyhounds. When you win big at the greyhound track today, give silent thanks to those medieval dog-loving nuns.
In England of 1340, however, as was amply demonstrated as long ago as 1924 by the great medievalist Eileen Power, there were many dozens of small nunneries that were underfunded (funded by a rich family in the past and then forgotten about), even impoverished (sometimes by mismanagement), and sadly deficient in good food, entertainment, and amenities. This bleak ambience was unrelieved, in spite of the jokes and anecdotes about straying and licentious nuns — the medieval equivalent of Playboy magazine — by the sexual activity that married women and many a rich dowager enjoyed. They had to make do with piety alone.
Copyright © 2001 by Norman Cantor
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