Medieval women

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book: Eileen Power, Medieval Women. Another Powells-at-Kalamazoo find. It is a dated, but wonderfully vivid, brief tour through medieval attitudes toward women, and women’s roles in court, town, schools, and nunneries. I can’t resist quoting this bit:

Bishops regarded pets as bad for discipline and for century after century tried to turn animals out of convents without the least success. Nuns just waited till the bishop went and whistled the dogs back again. Dogs were easily the favourite pets, but nuns also kept monkeys, squirrels, rabbits and birds. They sometimes took animals to church with them.

and one more:

For more than six centuries the bishops waged holy war against fashion in the cloister and waged it in vain. Occasionally a wretched bishop flounders unhandily in masculine bewilderment through something like a complete catalogue of contemporary fashions in order to specify what nuns were not to wear. Synods sat, archbishops and bishops shook their heads over golden hairpins and silver belts, jewelled rings, laced shoes, slashed tunics, low-necked dresses, long trains, gay colours, costly materials and furs.

and finally,

Bishops continually attempted to keep nuns shut up. The most strenuous attempts began in 1300 when Pope Boniface VIII published the Bull Periculoso, ordering nuns never, save in exceptional circumstances, to leave convents nor to allow secular persons to visit them without special licence. But no one ever succeeded in putting the Bull in force. At one nunnery in the diocese of Lincoln, when the bishop came to read the Bull and deposited a copy in the house, the nuns pursued him to the gate when he was riding away and threw the Bull at his head.

3 responses to “Medieval women

  1. It is a wonderful book which I have used extensively over the past couple of years during my MA studies. I focused on sexuality and the Church and her book was a source of many wonderful stories. But Chris is absolutely right: times change, but people don’t. I may just have to steal that!

  2. Karen, just as you say: times change, but people don’t. The historian communes with many people from long, long ago whose “types” are still alive and walking around today! That is indeed one of the reasons reading history is so delicious.

  3. Chris, an enjoyable posting! I believe I’ve read Powers’ book called Medieval People. I know she’s considered an excellent historian. I really had to laugh at the last quote you gave because I can envision this happening. The poor bishop probably could not wait to get away. From your quotes, it’s easy to see that times change, but people don’t. That’s what I find so fascinating about history.


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