Most of us have grown up with the antiquated and inaccurate idea of the helpless fair maiden locked in a tower, forever in need of rescue by the strong valiant armoured knight. This is a ridiculous image created by the romantic nonsense of the Victorian age and one that would have been incomprehensible to the women in the age it was meant to represent.
Throughout the medieval period the roles of men and women in society were constantly changing and this makes broad generalizations difficult or even impossible. So we shall focus upon the latter portion of the fifteenth century.
Women in 1495 were enjoying the tail-end of a period of what would even today be considered quite admirable with regards to the rights and roles of women. Women were able to own property, start and run businesses, divorce their husbands if beaten, ill-treated, or if their husbands even failed to “perform in the marriage bed”. There were notable women writers, scholars, warriors, and business owners. They influenced society to the point that the traditional jousts transformed from being strictly training for war into events which culminated in music and dancing. The focus at courts became the arts: music, poetry, fashion and fine cuisine. Women in significant positions of power increased. Indeed Margaret Marshall was created a duchess in her own right by Richard II of England in 1397.
Women achieved greater significance partly due to the series of plagues that decimated Europe’s population at various times throughout the period. This reduction in the overall population of the workforce made it necessary for women to begin to take on more and more of the traditionally male-only occupations. An increase in the general education and literacy afforded by the development of the printing press in 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg, and the necessity for literacy in reading court documents, particularly in England, allowed more women the ability to become educated.
Writers and thinkers of the 14th and 15th centuries started to have another look at the traditional male attitude that women were naturally the corrupters of men and therefore subject to servitude to keep them in check. In 1404, Christine de Pisan even went so far as to question this in public with the following:
“No matter which way I looked at it and no matter how much I turned the matter over in my mind, I could find no evidence from my own experience to bear out such a negative view of female nature and habits. Even so, given that I could scarcely find a moral work by any author which didn’t devote some chapter or paragraph to attacking the female sex, I had to accept their unfavourable opinion of women since it was unlikely that so many learned men, who seemed to be endowed with such great intelligence and insight into all things, could possibly have lied on so many occasions…”-The Book of the City of Ladies
Christine supplemented her income to care for her three children and mother, after her husband and father had died earlier, by writing lyric poems. She achieved significant success and prestige as a poet at the French court and as a writer. Christine de Pisan was by no means a rarity. Most of the histories that are still used in schools today are based upon the romanticized and chauvinistic accounts written by the very men who felt so threatened by the power and significance of women.
In the last years of the 15th century and gaining significant momentum in the 16th century, the rights of women were to be crushed almost out of existence for almost 400 years by the religious zeal and dogma of the “Renaissance”, the “Enlightenment”, and the industrial revolution.
Women in a Mercenary Company
There is plentiful evidence that many women played a vital role in the military machine of the 15th century. The Schilling Chronicles often show women marching with the troops toting canteens and waterskins for thirsty soldiers and being busy about the camp. One woman wears a dress in cantonal colors and obviously holds an officially recognized position. Two women are shown armed with halberds and another is shown as a member of a company of handgonners. She appears to carry her own gun, bullet bag, powder flask and is wearing a red dress and the usual white headcloth and fringe. Indeed in Louis XI’s time, French master gunners freely recruited what helpers they needed, including women. Indeed on several occasions they were known to enlist their own wives.
In what is now Switzerland, jumpfern-young unmarried woman- were important providers of support for the soldiers and this was no doubt the case with other armies as well. They were engaged in all manner of work; cooking, washing, foraging, repairing, looking for animals and were no doubt capable of looking after themselves, handling weapons and helping to defend the camp if necessary. Washer women were indeed so vital to the military that in most cases they were specifically not to be attacked and in a number of cases were successfully ransomed back to their home nation.
There are examples of women fighting amongst the rank and file soldiers. In 1382 a woman was killed in battle bearing the Flemings’ banner in Flanders. In 1396 a Friesian woman fell pierced by arrows during a battle between Hainault and Friesia. Following the defeat of the Burgundian army, during the retreat “many women that were dressed in armor were struck down because they were unrecognized… many armed women, to protect their bodies and lives, exposed their breasts, proving that they were not men”. During the siege of Beauvais, France in 1472, the women of the town, inspired by Jeanne Hachette played an important role in the defense of the city. They were granted the right to wear whatever clothes they wished and to precede their men in civic processions. Some 4000 women from the Burgundian camp were once organized in an unsuccessful attempt to divert part of the Rhine. These women were given a banner by the Duke with a woman painted on it and went to and fro with banner, trumpet and pipes.