Category Archives: historical roles of women

The Role of Medieval Women

When I wrote Genghis Khan, my Brother: The Story of Temulin, I was plunged into a world that existed eight hundred years ago. Every little thing had to be researched: tanning hides, making armor, what the soldiers wore, what a ger was like. I find myself in the same position again now as I begin researching the Cathar Heresy and Inquisition which occurred at almost the same time as Genghis Khan’s rise to power on the other side of the world.

Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages, a period in which learning and progress seemed to have stalled, while in Asia, the Khan was plundering and fighting across the continent. He introduced innovative ideas, changed the way war was waged and introduced many other ideas that were strange for that time. Women fought alongside men; they worked alongside them, there was no such thing as a division of labor as far as everyday living was concerned in Mongol society. Europe, by contrast introduced the idea of chivalry ( to tame the rapacious knights) but the peasants, who performed all the work in the fields and elsewhere, treated their women like chattels. They were workhorses in the homes and in the fields, raising children and going it alone when the men went away to fight in the Crusades.Education was for the nobility and peasants remained ignorant and uneducated. The Bible was in Latin, as were the church services. Life was an unceasing round of toil and death came early to people. Forty was considered old; marriage occurred very early in life and many women died in childbirth. Superstitions abounded and the Catholic Church held sway over their minions, making them pay penances and indulgences which was blatant robbery.

Strangely, single women had more freedoms than married ones. A married woman’s land became the property of her husband; she lso lost her legal standing, having to defer to her husband in all legal issues. Women were bakers, brewers, dairymaids and gardeners and relied on a network in the community for support and news.

The Cathars

The Cathars were an heretical bunch who believed in allowing women -yes, women – to become priests. What sacrilege! Their take on Christianity was very different, not necessarily better, than that of Catholicism. They believed in duality, good and evil; the body was evil and so were its impulses. Humans were thought to be fallen angels in flesh. They practiced vegetarianism and were generally peace loving people until the decided to murder the Pope’s legate in France.

My current research takes me into the lives of the woman of the time, the role they played and the things they accomplished. It was the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a fearless woman undaunted by the restrictions placed upon women. She made a bit of a nuisance of herself by joining her husband, King Louis VII on the Crusade with a retinue of her ladies-in-waiting and about three hundred non-noble women. They set off from Vézelay, reputed to be the grave of Mary Magdalene.  She died before the Cathar Inquisition, but her life gives one a fair insight into the times of the 13th Century.

It makes one wonder though, the entire Cathar story…   

More to come.Watch this space.




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