Women

   The place of women in late antique and early medieval society was a complex one; women used a variety of strategies to negotiate their way at a time when their legal status was often low. Modern understanding of these strategies and the place of women in barbarian Europe is made difficult by the nature of the sources, which are often limited to the more traditional histories of government and battles. That notwithstanding, a variety of sources-collections of laws, contemporary literature, religious documents, histories-properly approached can provide insights into the lives of women of the time. The vast majority of women, it can safely be said, simply labored. They worked the fields with their peasant brothers, fathers, and husbands, raised children, and tended the family. The small minority, about whom most can be known, also tended to the family, one of the primary duties of all the women of barbarian Europe, but these women also had the opportunity to exercise power as queens and nobles. Furthermore, they could have recourse to a life of religion and often founded or headed communities of religious men and women. Although their history can sometimes be difficult to discern, women in the late antiquity and the early Middle Ages played an important role in society.
   The earliest literary record of barbarian women was provided by the Roman historian and moralist, Tacitus (c. 56-c. 120), whose Germania provides an account of the status and duties of barbarian women prior to the migration period and its extensive contacts with the Roman Empire. According to Tacitus, Germanic women were especially esteemed and respected in society. They were thought to possess special holiness and powers of prophecy, and were often asked their advice, which was often heeded, on a wide range of matters. Tacitus also notes that women rallied their warrior husbands and fathers in battle by baring their breasts and "making them realize the imminent prospect of enslavement" (108). The Roman historian also provides details concerning the domestic life of women among the pre-migration Germanic tribes. He notes that their dress differs from that of men in two important ways. Women wear sleeveless outer garments of linen decorated in purple, which expose their arms and shoulders. Tacitus also notes the important role that women play in marriage and family among the Germans. Marital customs were well defined, according to Tacitus, and involved a specific exchange of gifts between husband and wife that defined their relationship as one of partnership and mutual labor. Indeed, as noted in the Germania, the gifts included oxen and weapons, indicating that women were involved in farming and warfare. Marriages were strictly monogamous, and women were severely punished for adultery. Women also were responsible for nursing and raising children, and thus played a central role in all aspects of family life.
   Unfortunately, Tacitus's description is as much an indictment of Roman values and decadent family life as it is a picture of the status of Germanic women. Consequently, his assessment must be treated cautiously and is perhaps best understood as commentary on Roman social life. Nevertheless, although his view is colored by his attitudes toward Roman society, it is not without merit and at the very least provides a rough outline of the areas in which women did play a role. In work, family, politics and war, and religious life, women in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages exercised some, often considerable, influence.
   The fundamental role for women in barbarian Europe was that of wife and mother, which was true no matter what social rank they held. Their importance in marriage and family was clearly outlined in the numerous legal codes that were compiled throughout the early Middle Ages. Notably, the Salic law defined the value of men and women in society and established different values for women depending upon their age and ability to bear children. One section noted that if a pregnant woman was struck, the fine was 28,000 denars; if a woman of childbearing age was struck, the fine was 24,000 denars; and if a woman past the age childbearing was struck, the fine was only 8,000 denars. In the laws of King Alfred the Great, a fine was assessed for both mother and child if a pregnant woman was killed, and in earlier Anglo-Saxons laws the amount of inheritance a woman was owed from her husband's family was determined by the bearing of children. Moreover, during the Merovingian and early Carolingian dynasties women used childbearing as a means to power. Women of lower status at times married and bore children to powerful figures in the kingdom. And some women, who were not married but still bore children, enjoyed the prestige of having children with nobles and kings. Merovingian queens especially were empowered by the birth of sons, and the their prestige as mothers of kings was even greater than their status as wives of kings. Indeed, as late as the age of Charlemagne, the children from illegitimate unions were given rank and status, which enhanced the prestige of their mothers. Clearly, the most important duty of women was to produce children; in the higher social ranks, bearing children was essential for preserving the dynasty and for use later in marriage alliances.
   Although the primary duties of women in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages involved the family, high-ranking women could, and often did, exploit their position. In all the successor kingdoms, women played an important political role. Indeed, even in the Roman and Byzantine Empires, women exercised great influence and direct political authority. Constantine's mother, St. Helena, was an important figure in the church during her son's reign and was an influential pilgrim to Jerusalem, where she discovered the True Cross (believed to be the cross on which Christ was crucified). Theodora, Justinian's wife, was the emperor's partner throughout their marriage. She encouraged Justinian to stand his ground during the Nika Revolt in 532, played a key role in Justinian's plans to reconquer Italy, and helped her husband manage the divided church in the empire. Her contemporary, and some would say victim, Amalaswintha, daughter of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great, assumed the regency for her son and continued to be a powerful figure in Ostrogothic Italy until her murder by rival Gothic nobles who opposed her pro-Roman policy. In Lombard Italy, Queen Theudelinde was the real power in the kingdom for three generations, marrying two successive kings and acting as regent for her son. She introduced Catholic Christianity to the kingdom and was a close friend of Pope Gregory I, called the Great.
   In the Frankish kingdoms of the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, queens also influenced politics. From the very beginning of the Merovingian dynasty, women played a key role in the direction the kingdom took. Clotilda, a Burgundian Catholic princess, according to the sixth-century historian of the Franks Gregory of Tours, convinced her husband Clovis (r. 481-511), the great Merovingian king of the Franks, to convert to Catholic Christianity. Also, according to Gregory, she persuaded one of her sons to invade and conquer the Burgundians in revenge for the reigning king's murder of her father. In subsequent generations, queens continued to play a central role in the political life of the kingdom, and perhaps the two greatest figures were Brunhilde and Fredegund. The career of Fredegund reveals the fluid nature of marriage and rank in the Merovingian kingdom. She may have been a slave woman, and was surely lowborn, yet she married a king and bore him an heir, Chlotar II, who went on to reign in the early seventh century, restoring the dynasty's greatness. Both Brunhilde and Fredegund, furthermore, employed ruthless measures to guarantee their own power and that of their husbands and especially their sons. They indulged in a terrible blood feud during which each sought to kill the other or the husbands, sons, and supporters of her opponent. During the last decade of the sixth and first decade of the seventh century, Brunhilde was the real power in the kingdom.
   In the Carolingian period, marriage customs changed, and women had fewer opportunities to rule as Brunhilde and Fredegund did. Nonetheless, leading Carolingian women managed to influence affairs of state. The widow of Pippin II, Plectrude, seized control of her husband's treasury and nearly managed to take control of the kingdom before being defeated by Pippin's son Charles Martel. Bertrada, the widow of Pippin III, called the Short, exercised great influence after her husband's death and remained an esteemed figure during her son's reign. She negotiated a marriage alliance with the Lombards for her son Charlemagne and struggled to keep the peace between her sons Charlemagne and Carloman. Charlemagne married Fastrada, the daughter of a powerful east Frankish count, in order to gain political influence in the eastern part of the kingdom; he may have kept his daughters close by his side, refusing to let them marry, so that their husbands would not use their connections to the royal line as justification for revolt. The wife of Louis the Pious, Judith, actively promoted her son, Charles the Bald, and was identified by Louis's sons by his first wife as the cause for disruption in the empire. And the noblewoman, Dhuoda, wrote an important manual for her son to teach him the proper behavior at court and as a Christian nobleman. Although women did not often have formal, legal powers, their close proximity to kings, emperors, and other powerful figures provided them the opportunity to influence affairs and even rule themselves.
   As Tacitus noted, pre-migration Germanic women were esteemed for their powers of prophecy. In the mid-ninth century, the prophet Theoda gained a significant following when she preached the coming of the end of the world and called for religious reform. She was quickly suppressed by the authorities, and there were few true female prophets in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Women did, however, play a key role in religious life, just as they often did in political life. Indeed, many of the same women who influenced politics shaped religious affairs in their kingdoms. Theodora sponsored and protected Monophysite monks and priests and even established a special chapel in the imperial palace where they officiated for her. Theudelinde warmed relations between the Arian Lombards and the Catholic church in Italy, and laid the foundation for the ultimate triumph of Catholic Christianity in the kingdom. According to Gregory of Tours, Clotilda not only convinced Clovis to accept Catholic Christianity, and with him 3,000 of his followers, but also entered a convent after her husband's death.
   Brunhilde, despite her violent struggle with Fregedund and hostility toward the Irish saint Columban, supported the mission to England of Augustine of Canterbury and encouraged reforms in the church at the suggestion of Gregory the Great. Moreover, other royal women, including Balthild, wife of the seventh-century Merovingian king Clovis II, and Radegund, a sixth-century Merovingian queen, founded or led communities of religious women. Indeed, one way that queens and aristocratic women could exercise power and influence was through the foundation or endowment of monasteries, for men or women. And the religious life was highly esteemed even by the most ruthless of kings. In their communities, royal women could wield great power over the other nuns, and they also gained power in the wider world because of the economic strength of their house. Moreover, religious women throughout the early Middle Ages ruled over the unique institution of the double monastery-a community of monks and nuns ruled over by an abbess. Although often without much legal authority, women nonetheless played an important role in the political, religious, and social life of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Cameron, Averil. The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity, a.d. 395-600. New York: Routledge, 1993.
 ♦ Clark, Gillian. Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.
 ♦ Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
 ♦ Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.
 ♦ Kirshner, Julius, and Suzanne Wemple, eds. Women of the Medieval World. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
 ♦ Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England, 450-1500. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.
 ♦ Schulenburg, Jane Tibbetts. Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500-1100. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
 ♦ Shahar, Shulamith. The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 1990.
 ♦ Tacitus. The Agricola and the Germania. Trans. H. Mattingly, rev. trans. S. A. Handford. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1982.
 ♦ Thiébaux, Marcelle, trans. The Writings of Medieval Women: An Anthology. New York: Garland, 1994.
 ♦ Wemple, Suzanne. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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