Jenifer Sutherland

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Can I be Frank?
Class in Medieval England

by Caitlin Fralick

Prior to the thirteenth century, the division of land in England was fairly standard: The king controlled the land, and he would assign responsibility thereof to noble lords. But as population increased and agricultural demands became greater, new options were required (Harding 36). Power over the land would become more spread out, and people not of noble birth would be given the chance for power.
One of the new positions in the power structure was the franklin. Simply put, the franklin is a free landowner not of noble birth. The root of this title, "franc," comes from the Anglo-Latin word, francolanus, meaning "held without dues," and consequently, free ("franklin," n.1, OED). Free is a somewhat loaded term, as he was by no means as liberated as today’s lower middle class. In fact, the franklin was probably closer to the peasant than to the nobility. He was still simply a villager, but he held a larger area of land than the peasants, usually between thirty and sixty acres. The notion of his "freedom" came from the fact that he had free tenure of the land once he swore fealty to the king. Depending on the terms of his agreement, the franklin’s power over his land would remain in his family line until that line failed to produce a direct male heir (this was called a fee tail) or until his lineal and collateral heirs ran out (a fee simple) (Harding 47). Furthermore, the franklin could represent himself before the king’s courts: He could plead against a lord who practised irregular distraint (the seizure of someone’s property in order to pay for rent owed) and could also serve as a justice or plaintiff before the Justice of the Peace (an order of knights appointed by the King) for his area. These limited freedoms set the franklin apart from the peasants who were subject to the will of their lord in all their actions. In fact, the franklin could employ servants, so he was not at the bottom of the social chain at all (48). He was free to tend to his land as he wished and could come and go as he pleased.

There were instances which could cause the franklin to lose his power. If he wasted woodland in his possession, or abused the farmland in any way, he could be distrained, which means his land would be taken away (50). In light of this fact, one has to wonder just how free the franklin was, especially if one remembers that he still owed fealty to lords and the king. Nonetheless, the position was symbolic of a changing attitude toward the notion that only the nobility could control land. Many economic historians call the franklin an early indication of capitalist society. To these thinkers he embodies the idea of the self-made man rather than the wealth of inheritance. Further, his lifestyle holds material profit, not active service to God and King, as paramount (Olson 156). The social hierarchy that had long kept the world in order was beginning to spread outward, instead of upward. The franklin was one of a number of self-made gentry positions who used their assets to further their own livelihood instead of simply accepting their low station in life.

This aspect of the franklin is especially evident in Chaucer’s depiction of his position. According to Paul A. Olson, the Franklin, the Miller, and the Wife of Bath represent a growing commercial group who choose material wealth over service and subordination, choosing secular contemplation over spiritual perfection. They demonstrate the ability to act decisively without the imposition of tyranny or sorrow, eliminating suffering through tolerance and generosity (158). With the growth of the commercial, capitalist mentality came the realization that power could be spread out among many people.

Not surprisingly, this new station was regarded with much ambivalence. The nobility was understandably upset at the idea of their inherited wealth being tampered with. Some of this ambivalence is certainly evident in the Canterbury Tales, with what some critics consider a detrimental attitude toward the Franklin and his tale. Olson believes that Chaucer’s Franklin is somewhat one-sided. He does not speak of any of the problems with his position, such as the complexity of oaths and obligation, but is instead more concerned with the pursuit of Epicurean ideals that are at the most physical end of the material spectrum (159). Chaucer’s Franklin appears to be too caught up in the present moment to consider his future, certainly an indication of his unworthiness as a landowner.
At the same time, the Franklin opens the reader’s eyes to the manners in which divine wisdom might manifest itself materially, how we might embrace our physical lives and live practically and happily at once. While he may be naïve in his aspirations, he nonetheless subverts social norms and shows us the power of the individual to make his own fortune.

Works Cited

Harding, Alan. England in the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Olson, Paul A. The Canterbury Tales And the Good Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

"frank." Simpson, J.A. and E.S.C. Weiner, Eds. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 February, 2003.

"franklin." Simpson, J.A. and E.S.C. Weiner, Eds. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press.



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by Kirk Middleton

The following presentation will focus on the inventions that were created during the Middle Ages that not only revolutionized Western Europe’s economical and demographic growth but also changed the way in which people would look at natural sciences. Although there were numerous inventions that could be argued as having a significant impact on Western Europe’s evolution, for the sake of condensing so much information the focal point of this presentation will view the following three inventions:

1. Optics & Eyeglasses
2. Compass
3. Mechanical Clock

Optics & Eyeglasses:
During the Middle Ages, knowledge of matters that refer to optics was very limited. In fact the only source that provided anything even approaching a systematic account of light color, and vision was the first half of Plato’s Timaeus. Plato argued that visual fire emanating from the observer’s eye coalesces with daylight to form an optical medium capable of transmitting the motions of external bodies to the soul, where they result in visual sensation. Scholars in the Middle Ages contributed very little to the science of optics. In comparison to the Islamic nations (and even the Greeks), their knowledge in optics was exceedingly primitive. This would all change in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century as translations by Constantine the African provided Christian societies with the most current optical literature written by the Greeks and Islam.

The first impact of the newly translated material is perceptible in the writings of Robert Grosseteste ("Bighead" 1168-1253), who was a lecturer and chancellor at Oxford University and later bishop of Lincoln, and Roger Bacon (d. 1292). Grosseteste was convinced that light held the key to an understanding not only of the natural world but also of the divine and redemptive activity. Meanwhile, Bacon attempted to establish the mathematical tradition in optics and to reconcile it with the philosophical tradition of Aristotle.
The problematic issues around the science of optics were not resolved during this time but would continue to challenge scholars for the next 400 years. Part of this reason is that the optical researcher neglected to experiment but rather focused on the literary and intellectual issues at hand.
Regardless of their lack of experimentation, the knowledge of optics would directly contribute to the invention of eyeglasses. Roger Bacon was one scholar who began to focus on magnifying lenses, whereas, his peer, Grosseteste remained intrigued with the rules of refraction. As Bacon notes: [Refer to quote #1]

There is no exact date as to when eyeglasses were made, however, a sermon given by Giordano of Pisa in 1306 lends evidence that they were probably conceived in 1286, as he states: [Refer to quote #2]. All references that I have provided thus far are to converging lenses; it wasn’t until a letter written in 1451 that showed proof to the making of diverging lenses. Eyeglasses were an extremely important discovery as they doubled the working life of skilled craftsmen. Lenses in general would lead to such inventions as the telescope, microscope, micrometer, and other fine instrument that would change the face of various sciences like Astrology, Biology etcetera.

Magnetic Compass:
The magnetic compass has been known and used since the late twelfth century. It is not known exactly where it originated, sources seem to believe that it came from the port of Amalfi, Italy, which shipped magnetic ores from the mines of Elba. The earliest account that mentions the use of a compass is in 1187 by an English scholar, Alexander Neckham who was traveling back from South France. Here he states: [Refer to quote #3]. Another early reference of the compass comes from Guiot of Provins who wrote in his La Bible Guyot (1206): [Refer to quote #4].

In the late thirteenth century a document written by Pierre Perelin described a rendition of the compass that was now encased in a compass box with a transparent cover and had pivots placed above and below a vertical arbor for the needle. The arbor having a traverse arm of nonmagnetic metal such as brass were placed at right angles and pointing east-west when the needle pointed north-south. At the turn of the century a compass card (or wind rose) was created and was typically divided into eight equal sectors. It was common for the east point to be marked by a cross that indicated the direction to the Holy Land, while the other points were indicated by the letters of the Frankish or Italian names of the appropriated winds.

As accurate as the compass seemed at the time, it was soon discovered that the needle did not point to true north (it was between north and northeast). Compass makers in the second half of the fourteenth century began to angle the compass card in order to compensate for the variation. The application of the wind rose to the compass had an important effect on sea travel as it enabled the mariner to know the direction of his course and to delineate with greater accuracy the coastal outlines of routes previously traveled.

Mechanical Clocks:
Prior to the invention of the mechanical clock escapement, Western societies’ timekeeping relied solely on sundials and water clocks (which was basically a ratchet and pawl mechanism that acted as an internal regulator). Several problems occurred with the water clock escapement such as, the water freezing or evaporating, as well as, clogging of their apertures by minerals from hard water.
There have been accounts as early as 1283 in England with reference to horological devices being erected in churches. However, these ‘clocks’ consisted of simple bell ringing devices to indicate times of prayer rather than regulated clockwork in the sense that we presently know it. It has not been confirmed whether the mechanical clock escapement originated in Europe or was transmitted from the Orient via European traders during the last quarter of the thirteenth century. What it known is that the first public clock in Europe (with a twenty-four hour time display) was erected in the tower of the Church of S. Eustorgio in Milan by 1309.

Other time telling devices that were more compact and suitable for traveling were being created as early as 1377, as King Charles V of France was reported to have owned an orloge portative.
With an absolute measure of time, improved accuracy led to precision instruments (i.e. the astrolabe), which changed the way scientists charted the stars. Moreover, businesses could now open at uniform times creating a much more efficient marketplace, and in turn led to the growth of towns and cities.

Strayer, Joseph R. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. American Council of Learned Sciences. Volume 3, 7, 8, 9. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York. 1987.



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by Lily Gama


In the Middle Ages, magic was an elusive term; what one person believed to be magic another believed to be religion. Yet, many feared magic. The church, took over some pagan festivals and practices in hopes of converting people. For example, the pagan festival of the night of the dead become Hallow’s Eve and All Saints day. However, the church never condoned magic; it was associated with the devil.
Magic derived from ancient pagan religions, folk traditions, and Greco-Roman sources. Ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece and Rome all contributed something to magic.

Magic and Medicine

Magic was also used in medicine; people, such as midwives and physicians would turn to magic to provide them with remedies. Many also tried to understand illness according to the heavenly bodies. The preparation of medicines often involved taboos, sympathetic magic, and astrology. When an unknown disease appeared people often blamed witchcraft, yet many also resorted to herbs and magical potions to cure these diseases.

Magic and Women

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that women were more prone to witchcraft because they were regarded as the weaker sex and feebler in mind and body. Women who were aggressive and deviated from societal norms would be accused of witchcraft, Women did not have the advantages of men and therefore it was believed that they had the most to gain from magic. Women living in the countryside were more likely to be deemed a witch. Unmarried women and widows were regarded as even more vulnerable because they did not have a husband to protect them. However, the person most accused of using witchcraft was older women living in villages who had a reputation as being a healer. A woman was considered a witch if she would cause harm or injury to animal and people. Those women who were believed to be using witchcraft were making a pact with the devil, and doing the devil’s bidding.

Gossip in small villages would plague a women’s reputation. When a women would scold or threaten an individual and consequently that person fell ill then the woman would be considered a witch.


Alchemy was introduced to Europe during the time of the Crusades. The first alchemist texts were translated from Arabic to Latin. Alchemist based their practices from Aristotle’s theories of earth, air, water, and fire as well as relating it to the four humors which were phlegm, blood, bile and black bile. They believed that a healthy individual had the four humors in a balanced ratio and therefore illnesses would be a result of a deficiency of one or more of the elements.


Works Cited:

Jeffery Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), p. 45.

Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Second Edition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p. 270.

Ibid, p. 265.

Link: Social History
Link: Women in Science



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La Vieille

by Michelle Ou

One of the Wife of Bath’s literary antecedents was La Vieille (the Old Woman) from Jean de Meun’s contribution to The Romance of the Rose. The model for Chaucer’s oft-married pilgrim is a courtesan who has learned the game of love, not in school where they teach the theory, but by practice. Her years of practical experience have made her wiser, and as a self-professed expert, she takes it upon herself to teach the young and green, for, as she firmly believes, it is but right to share her knowledge with youth.

The recipient of her lesson is Fair Welcome, a young man imprisoned in a tower by Jealousy, with the Lover despondently trapped outside. After being accosted by False Seeming, Constrained Abstinence, Courtesy, and Largesse, the Old Woman agrees to let Fair Welcome see the Lover, but not before urging him to learn from her mistakes.

For the Old Woman, experience has not been obtained without pain. She reminisces about the beauty she possessed in her youth and the ability she once had to make men skip, now "sighing and weeping" when she sees her ravaged face and wrinkles. In her youth she was young and beautiful, silly and irresponsible, deceiving many men, but being herself deceived as well. All at once it was too late, and her youth was left behind her. She is shamed when she realizes that men no longer want her, and even those who loved her in her youth call her a "wrinkled crone" and worse. She frets over the gifts that she no longer receives from suitors, deciding the only way to avenge herself is to teach her doctrine. Being young, Fair Welcome has much to gain from her teachings, because memory retains best what is learned in youth.
The Old Woman's Advice

Although her advice is addressed to a young man, it is more appropriate for a young girl. The Old Woman advises:

Never be generous: a woman should bestow her heart in several places, and never just one, selling it dearly to the highest bidder (anyone who gets it should not feel as though he has won a bargain). It is folly to give unless the gift is small and intended to be used as bait. A poor man is good for nothing, and visitors who are just passing through should be avoided, (but she should not refuse money or jewels if the visitor offers). A wise man would be suspicious of any gift from a woman, because they are all traps intended to deceive - generosity is a sin against woman's nature (this does not matter much to the Old Woman because so few women are in the habit of giving).

A woman should frequent rich men if they are not mean or miserly, and if she is skilled at fleecing them. Any woman who does not fleece her lover of everything he has is mad. If the lover realizes that he has given more than he should, the woman should beg him to make her a loan, but she should never repay any of it.
If there are a thousand men, each of them must be told that they alone will have the rose (consummation) and that no one else will ever have a share. The woman must not be concerned about perjuring herself because God will pardon her. A woman should strive to be like a wolf about to steal a sheep – to avoid failure she must attack a thousand instead of just one, spreading her nets everywhere to ensnare.

Anyone who believes the oaths of lovers is a fool, because their hearts are fickle and unreliable, and promises are broken.

A woman who concentrates her efforts on just one man deserves suffering (e.g., Dido and Aeneas, Phyllis and Demophoön, and Medea and Jason). Men are deceitful traitors, so women should deceive them as well. Women ought to have several lovers and bring great suffering on all of them. To attain lovers, she might alter her appearance, learn to laugh, and practise proper etiquette – she must cover any fault unless she is a fool.

A woman must not wait too long and must seek love while she still has youth on her side. Once old age hits, she loses the opportunity so she must pick love's fruit while in her prime. She must not lead too cloistered a life and must be seen in society, because her beauty is less sought after if nobody knows about it.

In the bedroom, the woman should feign jealousy to make false compliment to her lover. A man who is jealous is afflicted with torment because he will never again have possession of her. During sex, men and women should both experience pleasure, climaxing together, without abandoning one another. If a woman feels no pleasure, she should pretend to enjoy it and "fake it" so that he will imagine she is happy when she doesn't actually care.

Women are born free -– like caged birds they naturally seek paths to freedom.

The Old Woman's Mistakes
The Old Woman gave the gifts she received to those she loved better. Everything she had was given to a scoundrel who put her to shame, but whom she loved best. He had nothing but contempt for her, called her a common whore. However badly he treated her (beating, dragging, bruising) though, he would beg her forgiveness and make up before sex. She admits that he had her "at the end of a rope" because he was so good in bed. The gifts she gave to him were used to lead a life of debauchery, and he never learned a trade since she supported him financially. Eventually he was left begging for food and she had been reduced to poverty, her looks now faded with age.

The final bit of advice that she imparts, is to tell Fair Welcome to behave sensibly and to heed what she has taught because she will feel the lack of gifts when he is stricken with old age

Works consulted:
Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. Trans. Frances Horgan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Bartlett J. Whiting. Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Eds. W.F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster. Chicago: Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1941.


Marie de France

by Janice Evans

Marie de France is the earliest identified French female poet. Her identity is obscure, as most poetic writing in her time, especially that of female authors, was written anonymously. Yet she did state a desire to be remembered, as she signed her Fables with one of our only indications to her identity: "I shall name myself in order to be remembered: My name is Marie and I am from France" (Fables, epilogue, II.3-4). She also names herself in her other major works, the Lais, and The Purgatory of St. Patrick. These stories have influenced English romances, including some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

It has been determined that Marie was probably born in either Normandy or Ile-de-France, but was writing in England in the second half of the 12th Century. She was widely educated and knew Latin, English, and French. She wrote in a form of language called ‘Anglo-Norman’, which was a dialect of the aristocracy in England and Northern France. Her writing shows that she was familiar with contemporary vernacular literature and classical works such as those of Ovid.

It is assumed that she was of noble birth, and spent time in England’s royal court. The most probable identification of this Marie is the abbess of Shaftesbury, an aristocratic nun living in England from 1181 to 1216. It has also been suggested that she was the illegitimate daughter of Geoffery IV of Anjou, half sister of Henry II of England.

The Ysopet
The Ysopet
is a collection of 103 fables that are a retelling of Aesop’s Fables, from a version translated by King Alfred into English from Latin. They are simple, often comical stories with strong morals. Some of the genre of fabliau, which began in France, and involve stereotypical characters like the cuckolded husband, the cheating wife, her lover, etc.

The Purgatory of St. Patrick
This is a moral tale that is re-written from a Latin narrative. It tells of the adventures of an Irish Knight who descends into a cavern where he witnesses the torments of the sinners and the happiness of the just, in atonement for his sins.

The Lais of Marie de France
Lais are a form of long poetry in rhymed stanzas of six to sixteen lines, with four to eight syllables per line and often set in music. These were very popular in Northern France. Most of the stories focus on legends that she heard through oral tradition, passed down from Old Breton legends. Brittany was located on the North-Western French peninsula, beside the old provinces of Normandy and Anjou. These tales originated in the 5th to 11th Centuries.

The Lais of Marie date from between 1160 and 1189. Her style has been described as "simple and graceful" with "clear and concise narrative". They were very popular, and were translated into other languages including Norweigan in the Middle Ages. The tales are dedicated; "In your honour, noble king, you who are so worthy and courtly, you to whom all joy pays homage and in whose heart all true virtue has taken root, did I set myself to assemble lays, to compose and to relate them in rhyme" (The Lais of Marie de France, Prologue). It is assumed that this "noble king" was King Henry II of England.

The stories use Celtic and English places and personal names. Marie swears that she tells the stories as the Bretons preserved them and that they are based in fact. The stories can be described as romantic verse novelettes, and are written in octosyllabic couplets. They deal greatly with types of love, from physical to transcendental emotions. The many sides of love are explored ranging from happy, to unfortunate, to wise, to foolish, to criminal as motivating forces in the characters. For the most part, the plots tell the adventures of brave Breton knights, acting for the sake of their ladies. The traditions of Courtly love and culture of Marie’s time were incorporated into the older tales. She also deals more fairly and sympathetically with her female characters than most male contemporaries.

The lais often involve elements of the supernatural, and faeries from Celtic mythology. Realistic and unrealistic elements co-exist, such as in the typical story of Bisclavret where the title character is a werewolf. Marie also uses symbols to deepen the meaning of the stories such as in Guigemar, where there the main character refuses to marry and is wounded in the groin by a white deer. The white deer later comes to represent his ladylove, who is the only one who can heal the wound as she completes his heart.

The Story of Lanval
(Synopsis. Entire English translation of the Lais is available online at
King Arthur gives rich gifts of wives and land to all of his Knights, except that he forgets about one chivalrous Kinght, Lanval. He is entirely alone in this land, as the other Knights are jealous of his qualities and his family is far away, so he has no one to stand up on his behalf and is too humble to question the King’s decision.
One day he goes out to a stream and is approached by two beautiful damsels who ask Lanval to go with them to their lady’s tent. The tent is decorated more expensively than humanly possible and the lady is idyllically beautiful.

The lady addresses Lanval by name and states that she came from her land to see him and offers him wealth to exceed that of a king if he proves himself worthy. He swears his love to her and the lady promises to give him magical wealth that can never be depleated in order for him to follow his instinctive generosity. She also says that she will come to him when he likes, but that only he will see her, but if he reveals her secret he will never have her. Lanval returns to his realm and finds that all of this comes true.

One day Lanval is called upon by Arthur’s Queen (notably not named Guenivere here) who offers her love. Lanval refuses, saying that he is too loyal to the king. The Queen insinuates that Lanval is homosexual, and Lanval inadvertently reveals that he is in love with a woman more beautiful that the Queen. The Queen is insulted and tells Arthur that Lanval had humiliated her because she refused him her love. The King arrests Lanval, but the only punishment that Lanval feels is that from the estrangement from his lady, after he revealed her existence.

When the date of Lanval’s trial comes the barons decide that the only way to decide who is at fault is to bring Lanval’s lady before the court so they can judge if she is in fact more worthy than the Queen, therefore proving that Lanval told the truth. Lanval believes that there is no way that his lady will come, but just as the court is about to pass judgement, two servants of his lady arrive, then two more and the court agrees that they are more lovely than the queen. Finally the lady arrives, and it is only hear that her beauty is fully described to the reader. Lanval acknowledges that it is his lady and prays that she will forgive him. She tells everyone that Lanval told the truth, and Arthur acquits him. The lady then begins to leave and Lanval leaps onto her horse, choosing to leave his land behind and go with her to Avalon. He was never heard from again.

Examples of themes that are exemplified in Lanval
and which recur throughout the Lais:
In Lanval the Chivalric world is presented with both positive characteristics like Arthur’s noble rewarding of knights for bravery along with negative characteristics like women being treated like property to be given away by the king, despair of knights once their money runs out and others abandon them and unrighteous judicial process

The women presented are very strong. The queen is able to manipulate Arthur and his whole court when she is rejected and the faerie, with more power and money than Arthur, saves Lanval.

This story has been questioned as to whether it was originally an Arthurian tale because of the uncharacteristic actions of the king and Queen. It is likely that the characters of Arthur and Guinevere were added later to enhance interest based on the popularity of these legends.


Women and Work
by Sandy Sun

Historically, medieval data was easy to misinterpret because what remains has been selectively preserved, and some scholars inadvertently or intentionally distorted historical record. Antifeminist treatises describing the worthlessness of women are often interpreted as a reflection of the medieval woman’s actual life. However, these texts were primarily composed by clerics to promote celibacy and sexual continence among clergy. Little information was recorded about the work medieval women were employed to do outside of the medieval household. As it will be shown, the medieval world was not entirely dominated by men. Historians have discovered that women did have a significant impact in the medieval working world. This information broke ground 10 or so years ago. The impetus for this renewed interest comes from the growth of the women’s movement in the late 1970s and the development of a feminist analysis. Medieval women were very similar to the women of today, looking out for the interests of her family and establishing her place in society.

The shortage of labour after 1348 encouraged the hiring of female workers; this became an exceptional period for women in which an acute labour shortage served to enhance the value of female labour. The statute of labourers 1351 allowed women to become an essential part of the labour force after the Black Plague. For the first time, women were not confined to secondary tasks, but were involved in reaping crops and were highly mobile and independent labourers free from familial restrictions. In fact some towns actually had more women residents then men; all looking for work and recovery after the Black Plague. Most women practiced more than one trade and their employment tended to be intermittent; therefore women tended to be in less specialized trades such as brewing whereas men worked in specialized trades, such as baking. There were female apprentices, but there was no female guild to record them. As in the 21st century, medieval women earned less than men and took up tasks the male neglected to do. Medieval women found success in the fields of fabrics, foods and service.

Women laboured in sheepfolds, on silk farms, and in silver mines to create elaborate embroidered wool and silk-velvet capes. Women dominated the cloth trade in Europe and occasionally monopolised the entire industry. Thousands of women worked as spinners, spinning fleece into thread or yarn. Spinners were always in demand, and spinning was an activity that was easily integrated with other routines. There were a large number of women who were apprentices in silk making; silk making was a craft exclusive to women and were responsible for weaving silk into fabric or blending it with wool for tapestries and rugs. A single woman was able to support herself by taking on several jobs in the cloth trade.

Drinking water was regarded to be unhealthy so there was a high demand for ale. Brewing was a job a woman can get and easily integrate it with her other activities. Although brewing was laborious and time-consuming, it could be fitted in around other household duties; it required no regular commitment. Many women brewed according to their financial need. The actual number of women brewers is unclear because, by law, they had to register under the husband’s name regardless of who was the actual brewer. Women lost out when beer took over ale; beer could be kept longer, so it was possible to make large quantities of it.

Women as young as 12 started service work. Starting at such a young age made them vulnerable to both financial and sexual exploitation from their employers. Many women were actually tricked into prostitution instead of the job of being a live-in servant. Being a live-in servant was common and was seen as an acceptable occupation between adolescence and marriage. They were provided with food and lodging, but were very dependent on the behaviour and good-will of their master or mistress.

Single women unable to find regular full-time employment, they could end up in prostitution. In the times of necessity, such as when the demand for spinning collapsed, a young woman could pick up customers in the street, or in a tavern, and take them back to her lodging. For such women prostitution provided a casual and occasional source of income and they dropped in and out of it as the need arouse. For a few women, however, prostitution became a full time occupation. In some instances a woman could have been seduced and then abandoned after she became pregnant. If she had no immediate family around her to take care of her and her child, she would have very few options open to her.

Young single women and older widows enjoyed greater freedom in the workforce because they had fewer household responsibilities and obligations, and their legal, economic and social position equalled men. Single women had difficulty raising the money needed to become a brewer, and brewing was an occupation that was usually acquired later in life. Older widows were able to become brewers because they had the capital necessary to start their business and most chose to never remarry (she enjoyed more rights). A married woman can have her own business but she had to register all she brewed under her husband’s name, irrespective of who was the actual brewer. Her husband often answered questions for the wife’s brewing activities – indicating the legal subordination of women. A woman’s identity was still tied to her husband’s.

However, the married woman can go out on her own under the medieval laws recognizing the "Femme Sole", dating back to the 13th Century. A "Femme Sole" was an independent businesswoman or craftswoman responsible by law for her own professional practice, purchase, profits and business debts independent from her husband. A married woman would do this to legally protect her business from her husband and her greedy relatives. If her business was more successful than her husband, the children would take her name. For example, the family name given to a woman who was in the business of cloth trade was Webster; Weaver or Webber if the business was the father’s. A woman who was a breadmaker was called Baxter; Baker if the business was his. The application of names according to the mother’s occupation was called matronymics. Matronymics evolved because the family identifying themselves by their mother’s work symbolized her significant economic function. Her fame in the market might have been easier to identify than her husband’s because she did what she did better than he did what he did. More importantly, matronymics evolved because her work was honoured while his was not.
Although women made a considerable contribution to the medieval economy, they did not enjoy any public, legitimated authority. They were forbidden from serving on local juries and were never elected to parliament, local offices and the military. Although women were brewers, they were forbidden from becoming ale-tasters. The only control women had over men were of domestic matters. But a medieval woman with money was able to enjoy her success and her new-found power. One such woman – although not a representation of all medieval women - was Margery Kempe, the Mayor of Lynn’s daughter. Her attempt to start her own brewery failed but this doesn’t give her reason to behave as a woman whose ventures in any way implicate her husband’s: she takes care of his and her debts. She made an agreement with her husband that she pays for his bills if he releases her from the marriage debt, and the obligation to have sex. Before her pilgrimage to Jerusalem she invites all her husband’s debtors to come and settle with her. It is likely Margery was able to do this because of her inheritance from her dad. She very much resembles the financially independent woman of the 21st century.


Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Women at Work in Medieval Europe. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2000.
Goldberg, P.J.P. Woman is a Worthy Wight. Wolfeboro Falls: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1992.
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Medicine in the Middle Ages

By Michael Bacinello

Medicine in the Middle Ages was at best a little understood and risky business. Germs had yet to be discovered and the link between sanitary conditions and heath had yet to be made. As a result sanitary conditions in most towns and villages were extremely poor. People would often live indoors alongside their animals and livestock, and garbage and feces would have been simply dumped outside ones home or along the roadside. The result of these poor sanitary conditions was that diseases were commonplace and what would now be considered easily treatable illnesses were potentially deadly.

Many myths existed in the Middle Ages concerning the spread of disease, namely that disease could be spread through bad odors. As such there was a great concern for things which smelled. There is even one humors record from the borough court proceedings of Norwich England from roughly 1280-1300, of one Roger Benjamin who is recorded twice, once for "setting a much heap in the kings highway, in which he has buried the offal of beasts, whereby the air is abominably poisoned, fined 2 shillings,"(Goering, Pg.7) and again "Of the same Roger because he has set a pigsty in the king’s highway, fined 12 dinars." (Goering, Pg.7) Mint leaves were thought to "restore bad air" and by doing so cure problems resulting from bad odors.
There was a strong connection between the body, spirituality, and more arcane arts during the Middle Ages. Physical ailments were thought the result of sin, and of an impure soul. As such people often sought to cure themselves of disease through prayer, meditation, or pilgrimages to holy places. The body was viewed as a part of the universe, a concept derived from the Greeks and Romans. Four humors, or body fluids were directly related to the four elements: fire=yellow bile or choler; water=phlegm; earth=black bile; air=blood. These four humors had to be balanced. Too much of one was thought to cause a change in personality--for example, too much black bile could create melancholy. A common way to restore the bodies humors should they become unbalanced, was bloodletting. Where a patients veins were opened up and he was allowed to bleed for a time. Early surgery such as this was often performed by the town barber without the use of anesthetic. In fact if you’ve ever seen the red and white barber poles, the white stands for water, the red for blood, a holdover from the days when barbers were also surgeons. Natural functions, such as sneezing, were also thought to be the best way of maintaining health. When there was a build-up of any one humor, or body fluid, it could be disposed of through sweat, tears, feces, or urine. When these natural systems broke down, illness occurred. Medieval doctors stressed prevention, exercise, a good diet, and a good environment. One of the best diagnostic tools was uroscopy, in which the color of the patient's urine was examined to determine the treatment. Other diagnostic aids included taking the pulse and collecting blood samples. Treatments ranged from administering laxatives and diuretics to fumigation, cauterization, and the taking of hot baths and/or herbs.

Leprosy was a major cause of panic and fear in the Middle Ages, and a widespread disease. France alone in the year 1300 had 2000 leper colonies, including several in the vicinity of Troyes. There was no cure for leprosy and as a result the leper was sentenced to be separated from the rest of the town and sent to a leper colony. There was in place an involved ceremony for casting out a leper. The leper is first taken to the church and the mass for the dead is performed in his honor, he is then given a shroud a pair of castanets, a pair of gloves, and a bread basket, and the final ceremony is said. The priest says to him. "I forbid you ever to enter a church or monastery, a mill, a bakery, a market, or any place where there is an assemblage of people. I forbid you to quite your house without your leper’s costume or castanets, I forbid you bathe yourself or your possessions in stream or fountain or spring. I forbid you have commerce with any woman except her whom you have married in the Holy Church. I forbid you if anyone speaks to you on the road to answer till you have placed yourself below the wind." (Gies and Gies, Pg. 288) Then the leper is left at the leper colony to live out his life.

Medicine in the middle ages was not available to everyone. Often professional doctors only practiced in large cities or at court. Doctors then as now often earned large sums of money for their work, and charged based on the patients wealth. A rich mans illness would command a much high price than a poor mans and treating the king or queen commanded a huge price. One medical text instructs the doctor, "when the patient is nearly well, address the head of the family or nearest relative thus: God almighty having deigned by our aid to restore him who you asked us to visit, we pray that he will maintain his health, and that you will now give us an honorable dismissal." (Gies and Gies, Pg.286) As a result most commoners living in towns and villages would not rely on the services of doctors, but on the diagnostic skills of lay people like themselves. There are records of townsfolk with no medical training at al making highly complex medical diagnosis and suggesting treatments including surgery. Despite this not all medieval medicine was a failure, there are instances where surgery was successful in curing things like, breast cancer, hemorrhoids, gangrene, and cataracts.

Perhaps the greatest contribution to medicine of the medieval age, was the hospital, which was developed during this time. At the time they were alongside abbey’s and monasteries places of Christian charity. Run by priest and nuns who cared for the sick. Townsfolk and commoners would often donate goods, money, and used clothing to the hospital. In the hospital contagious people and critically sick people would be isolated as is done in modern hospitals, also a major medical advance of the middle ages.

In relating this to Chaucer we see in the General Prologue that the physician is one who knows all about the humors, as well as a great deal about astrology, as the position of the stars often affected health as well as the time surgery could be performed, planets were thought to preside over different parts of the body, and numerology provided a complicated guide to charting the course of an illness. There is also mention of his love of gold and money and it seems fairly common for doctors to be thought of as cheating patients and families out of money or charging exorbitant sums for surgery. There are many records in medical training manuals which give the doctors methods to appear that they are practicing good medicine when in fact they have done nothing of the sort. For example, one book suggests: "When you go to a patient always try to do something new every day, lest they say you are at nothing but books. If you unfortunately visit a patient and find him dead, and they ask why you came, say that you knew he would die that night, but wanted to know the hour in which he would die." (Gies and Gies, pg. 286)

Clearly medicine in the middle ages was at best an emerging science, based as much on speculation and greed as on actual science, but the Middle Ages also laid the foundation for the type of institutes which would practice modern medicine and foster healthcare world wide.

Works Cited

1. Gies, Frances, Gies, Joseph. Daily Life in Medieval Times, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York, 1990.
2. Goering, J. Borough Court Proceedings: Norwich England 1280-1300, reprinted in History 220Y reader, 1999.




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