This month the Agora Podcast Network is putting on scary stories from history. I’ll post a link on the website and you can come listen in to your favorite podcasters sharing terrifying tales that are even scarier because they’re true.
61: Carolingian Women: The Other Half of the Empire
Women are half of humanity, yet you wouldn’t know it reading most history books. Before the modern period most written works were by men who were far less concerned with women’s activities than they were with their fellow bearded-ones. Since most historical writing is from men this raises another problem in that what we know about women largely doesn’t come from them but from the other sex which regularly misunderstood their female counterparts. Our understanding of history becomes even more muddled because most pre-modern writing came from the wealthy. As such, we know relatively little about noblewomen, less about free woman and even less about poor women. But all is not lost! First, while the male written works aren’t ideal they are at least something and if we can read with nuance we can uncover quite a bit about women’s actual lives. There are some surviving texts written by women, such as queenly letters, poetry and literature by rare woman writers like Dhuoda. There are financial records showing women’s involvement in estates, either at the top, middle or bottom of the social ladder. There is the archeological record. Finally, scientific advancements permit us to understand how pre-modern bodies operated. All these tools allow modern historians to reconstruct at least a part of our lost women’s history. Today we’ll be using all of these to rediscover what life was like for women in the Carolingian Empire.
It’s no surprise that the Carolingians emulated the Roman Empire. The Franks inherited Roman lands, culture, military organization, religion and employed their language. Naturally, the Franks also adopted Roman attitudes towards women, though as in all things they refashioned Roman culture in their image. The ideal Roman woman was the matrona, a woman who bore children, cared for her family, remained at home spinning, and maintained the good reputation of her husband and household. While men inhabited the public sphere, women inhabited the private sphere. At least, that was the ideal. In theory, Frankish women were supposed to be a passive force in society. Women were supposed to maintain the condition of the household and maintain the family’s good morality as set down by the church and her husband. The only women permitted an active role were holy women, though even there people expected missionary women to submit to the authority of a male missionary who oversaw proselytizing efforts, and the church expected nuns to obey the male-dominated church hierarchy. Such sexist attitudes naturally inhibited women’s power beyond the household. Yet, despite the persistence of such ideas, women took a far more active role in societal development.
Carolingian women exercised remarkable power over their family’s finances since noblemen spent much of their time away from their primary estates. For men, spring was the first hunting season. Summer was the military season and even during those rare instances when the realm was at peace soldiers still had to present themselves at assemblies and perform drills. Fall was another hunting season. While it was also harvesting time this meant men would work the fields, or at least supervise, meaning they were occupied even while at home. Theoretically, noblemen could be back at their estates for much of the fall and all of winter but they also had other duties to fulfill such as attending assemblies, visiting court or acting as judges. All these obligations meant noblemen often spent more time away from their estates than on them. Since men were so often gone, women were more familiar with their estates than their husbands.
Naturally while the men were away women took charge of the family business. Usually a male manager, known as an index, worked the estates alongside a noblewoman, a measure which kept greedy indexes from taking advantage of an estate’s finances. Sometimes the index was called off to war, meaning the woman had to take direct charge of the household. Noblewomen’s control over family finances was so ensconced that the royal treasurer was officially beneath the queen in the palace hierarchy. In fact, the queen had such power over the treasury that she was responsible for paying knights their salaries [technically yearly gifts, which amounted to the same thing]! Likewise, noblewomen had power over all workers on their estates, including such manly professions as smithing. As Valerie Garver notes, “Among the many production activities women oversaw were candlemaking, dairying, gardening, baking, cooking, and textile fabrication. Elite women may have participated in some of these tasks along with the artisans and workers they supervised; they would have required firsthand knowledge about those various products.” In theory, women oversaw the inner household affairs while the lord dealt with the outer, namely agricultural work. But since men were so frequently gone women often took over men’s responsibilities.
It is important to note that women had male inferiors. While women were less powerful than men their economic status could put them above poorer men. While men technically owned most of the country’s wealth, women primarily controlled that wealth, effectively running the economy. During the Carolingian period, before the rise of feudal consolidation of land, estates comprised numerous tracts of land spread out across large swathes of territory like a patchwork quilt. Managing all these shows women had remarkable mathematical and financial skills. Women could also make large-scale independent decisions, such as taking out large loans, showing that they had access to funds, institutions and could command respect.
But women didn’t just spend their sugar daddy’s money. Ever since the Edict of Chilperic amended the Salic Law women could inherit land if there wasn’t an immediate male kin to claim it. In cases where a husband died and left behind underage sons the wife retained use and control of the land until the boys came of age. These amendments greatly increased the power and wealth of women. By the 10th century in southern France 9% of landholders staked their claim based on a connection to their mother. In the 11th century this grew to 12%.
Women with estates could expand their holdings and even patronize churches and monasteries, giving them economic, political and religious authority. Moreover, women could still hold their land even after consecration, giving them the option to become powerful abbesses while still running their own estates. These religious women were spared childbirth and thus could live long and accumulate wealth and power. But if independently wealthy women chose to remarry, rather than pursue a life of prayer and chastity, they could still use their wealth to leverage power against their new husbands who depended on them for their financial standing.
Even when their husbands were present women still had important, independent financial roles within the household. Women were in charge of hospitality, and gave relief to travelling nobles and pilgrims. Provisioning travelers connected households to their own communities, to other communities and to religious organizations which pilgrims visited. Caring for travelers enhanced the reputation of a household. Hospitality was one of the core values of Christianity, and pre-modern society. By employing hospitality women enhanced their family’s reputation with locals, strangers and the church, giving them social power. Hospitality for nobles demonstrated a house’s wealth, impressing their compatriots and tying together noble families through bonds of friendship. These friendly meetings for dinner, drinks and poetry readings helped bring families together at a time when noble landholdings were scattered across the realm. This bound social groups together and introduced families to new people, including potential love interests for children. This women-dominated activity of hospitality was one of the bedrocks of medieval society, effectively connecting individual households to a broader community. Aside from hospitality women maintained the morality of the house. Women enforced norms of behavior, including adherence to Christian piety and godly behavior. Importantly they kept men from getting too drunk at dinners so violence didn’t break out. As hostess women brought people together and facilitated friendship between others.
Women were the first primary care givers to the sick and dying. Before a physician could be called women administered folk remedies and attended the needs of ill family members. Since professional medicine during this period was crude, wise women could be even more effective than physicians whose theory of humors meant a lot of bloodletting which often led to complications with illnesses. When someone died women were often responsible for preparing the dead for burial and mourning them.
Another important job women had was overseeing certain religious affairs. Women helped preserve the memory of their kin through religious rites and prayers. They maintained family chapels, churches and altars to their saintly relatives. They also sponsored or wrote family histories, connecting living members to powerful and important historical figures. These kept a family’s legacy alive at a time when pedigree was social and political capital.
Women were the sole employees of Francia’s most important industries: textile working. Spinning, weaving and sewing were entirely women’s work and they made all the clothes, bedding, religious vestments, tablecloths, tapestries, belts; literally everything involving cloth. Wealthy women directed poorer women in workshops to make every piece of clothing for the empire. This was obviously important work, since without women the entire empire would be naked, but textile work was also a major driver of the economy since everyone needed clothes. These textile works weren’t just practical but works of art as richer women embroidered patterns on their vestments, setting them apart from the plainer clothes the poor wore. Textile work allowed women to engage in culture as they created patterns and tapestries in emulation of other artwork that was then being made in manuscripts. No doubt, some male manuscript writers admired the intricate patterns women made and worked these designs into their books.
Women also were active participants in maintaining the Carolingian religious community. As Garver notes, “Churchmen expected that elite women would participate in the dissemination of Christian reform, especially because women communicated regularly with those with whom clerics probably had the least contact: other women, children, and social inferiors. aristocratic women had ample opportunity to transmit religious ideals and to persuade others to act with Christian virtue.”
When women weren’t running the estates, hosting visitors, making textiles, spreading new theology or caring for the sick they had to make time to raise children. Women were the primary caregivers for children from infancy until adulthood. Women usually breastfeed their own babies, though wealthier women often looked to wetnurses to assist them. Male writers such as Gregory the Great criticized wet-nursing. Gregory assumed that some aristocratic women ignored their duty to breastfeed their babies because it was painful and tiring, and these bad mothers wanted to get back to sexual intercourse. Despite these condemnations, wealthy women largely ignored church advice and employed wet nurses who were valuable companions and aides.
Women naturally raised young children while their fathers were away fighting, engaging in politics, or, for poorer men, working. After their mother’s early tutelage very elite girls received their education at court from scholars and private tutors alongside their male counterparts. Charlemagne’s daughters were probably just as educated as laymen, expressed interested in music and astronomy, and corresponded with the greatest scholars of their day. Girls belonging to noble families outside the most elite circles went to convents for education. Since wealthy mothers were literate they assisted in teaching reading and writing to their children. Perhaps the most important education women passed on to their daughters was how to be a woman. This included teaching them all the social, religious and cultural expectations they faced, alongside imparting biological and medical knowledge which they would not learn in school or in church.
So far we’ve focused on noblewomen and freedwomen. The majority of women were poor agricultural workers. Their lives primarily consisted of working the fields when they weren’t too heavy with child, performing textile work to supplement the family income, and managing their meager houses. The one upside for poor women is that their husbands were around more often to help care for the family. Otherwise, poor women occupied a similar role to rich women, albeit with less resources and more manual labor instead of overseeing others.
A major exception to normal life was the convent. Women who joined convents freed themselves from male-dominated daily life. Nuns became important religious figures in their community, caring for the sick and copying manuscripts. Nearly all copied manuscripts were originally written by men but rarely, women produced their own religious books, as was the case in Remiremont, where there was one manuscript written by women. Likewise, nuns championed female saints and women’s contributions to the church. The strict rules in nunneries were meant to control and regulate women, though the abbesses and sisters could carve out their own spaces and identities within these rules. The church hierarchy wanted to sequester religious women so that they were beholden to them and not to powerful families, but interestingly this was rarely the case and religious women could even leave the convent to marry. This was usually frowned upon, but women did it anyway. Archbishop Fulk of Reims criticized Richildis for not cloistering herself after her husband Charles the Bald’s death as they expected widows to remain chaste and removed from public life, even former empresses.
Chastity was the highest virtue for women in a society based on legitimate succession of political power and economic possessions. Women were expected to only have sexual relations within marriage. Men were also taught to be chaste but it wasn’t nearly as important for them. Part of this stems from the double standard that men had; since men ruled society they could impose rules on women while ignoring them when they felt like it. But something truly fascinating was going on with male sexuality. Male promiscuity increasingly fell out of fashion over multiple thousands of years. Classical and Imperial Roman society centered around a familias and at the center of the familias was the pater, or father. The pater familias exercised dictatorial control of his family, at least in theory. The very word ‘patriarchy’ comes from the Latin ‘pater’ because Rome was a literal ‘patriarchy’ a society ruled by fathers. Roman men regularly had sexual relations with their female slaves and could act with impunity in their households, regardless of their wives’ feelings.
In the Late Roman Empire Christianity started to change European attitudes. The church held that women were equal in spirit to men, if not equal in body. The church stressed monogamy and affection between a man and his wife. In this new Christian society the husband and father had ultimate authority but he was supposed to show respect and kindness to women. These ideas didn’t fully translate into society, as Late Romans still sexually abused their slaves.
When Rome fell, the land of Gaul fell into warring kingdoms until the Franks seized power under the Merovingians. Clovis I led the Franks to adopt Christianity and its teachings, though the church’s calls for monogamy conflicted with Frankish traditions and political realities. The post-Roman world was a society wherein each house depended on male succession. Fathers needed sons who could fight to protect their families and eventually take up the mantle of leadership. As such, if a Merovingian man married a woman who was barren then their entire household could disappear as it was absorbed by rival houses. To ensure the survival of their house the Merovingians resorted to concubinage. Essentially, concubines provided the ‘B Team’ for Merovingian succession while wives provided the ‘A Team.’ If a wife gave birth to sons then those sons inherited their father’s lands and titles while the sons of concubines entered the church, expanding their house’s connections and power. If the legitimate children died then a nobleman could pass on his legacy to the illegitimate children. This practice wasn’t as demeaning for women as the Roman practice of a pater having complete and total control over the bodies of those under his power. Merovingian men had to treat their concubines kindly, as if they were wives; in fact there seems to be something of a grey area as historians debate whether some figures were second wives or concubines as sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. At times the Merovingians seemed lecherous, immoral and unrestrained when we hear cases of certain kings like Clothar I simultaneously taking up multiple sexual partners. But concubinage wasn’t just a way for men to enjoy sex; it was a tradition meant to protect the household. During the Merovingian period the nobles and church conflicted as the recently-converted Franks frequently maintained affairs to ensure they produced sons while the church criticized their sexual promiscuity.
Sexual mores further changed during the Carolingian period. Charles Martel, the illegitimate son of Pepin of Herstal and his mistress, consolidated power using the Catholic Church. The church administered his realm and in exchange Pepin increased its power. An increasingly-powerful church condemned concubinage, prostitution and any sex out of wedlock, and even kings had to adhere to these dictates. Of course, kings could still have affairs and there was always the loophole of serial monogamy. The church frowned upon remarriage, but that didn’t stop Charlemagne from having four wives over the course of his life, nor did it stop Louis the Pious or Charles the Bald each from having two wives in succession. Despite these go-arounds, there was a sexual revolution among elite men. Elite Roman men could sexually exploit any unfree woman under their power. The Merovingians treated women with greater respect and kindness but still resorted to concubinage to ensure their lineage. The Carolingians largely adopted monogamous relationships, accepting church doctrine that one man and one woman made a household together.
Still, old habits die hard and old sexist tropes remained part of Carolingian culture. Women were under much more pressure to remain chaste than their male counterparts. Yet, women were more often blamed for sexual indiscretion. Throughout Roman history there is a topos of the conniving, immoral women as the source of what is wrong in politics and this lived on under the Carolingians. Most often this topos was resurrected as a way for usurpers to distract from the fact that they were usurping. Usurpers placed all blame on immoral women, allowing them to claim their fathers’ legacy while condemning their mothers. For example, Pippin the Hunchback accused Charlemagne’s wife Fastrada of impropriety during his rebellion. Louis the Pious’ sons accused Judith of Bavaria of having an affair with Bernard of Septimania even as they claimed their father’s empire. Lothar II accused his wife Theutberga of incest when she could not bear him children. Thus, women got most of the blame for sexual impropriety even though men were more likely to sleep around.
As the church struggled against political realities and cultural norms to enforce sexual mores it simultaneously did the same regarding divorce. Secular Germanic and Latin law allowed for divorce since it viewed marriage as an economic unit which directly bound together two adults and indirectly two kin groups. The church viewed marriage as a divinely-ordained institution, drawing from the book of Genesis wherein God ordered the union of Adam and Eve as “one flesh.” It wasn’t until the 13th century that marriage became a sacrament, but the church was moving in that direction and theologians argued that marriage was indissoluble; conservatives went even further and argued this extended past the death of one spouse and widows and widowers should not remarry. After all, how awkward would it be to show up in heaven and meet with a bunch of exes?
Under the Merovingians women could still divorce their husbands or leave for monasteries, as was the case when Radegund left Clothar I. Historians Jo-Ann McNamara and Suzanne F. Wemple write, The Council of Agde in 506 “forbade divorce without prior presentation of causes to a bishop’s court” and the Council of Orléans 533, “forbade repudiation of a partner who was too ill to fulfill the conjugal duty, but this rule was not incorporated into the secular codes and, lacking the support of the Merovingian Kings, the church could not enforce it. Apart from incest regulations, secular laws, whether incorporating the customs of the Roman or Germanic inhabitants of the Frankish kingdom, confined themselves to the social element: the protection of the family interest and the disposition of property between the bride and groom.”
Divorce laws dramatically changed under the Carolingians. In exchange for church administration of the kingdom, Pepin the Short turned church dictates into law. First, he prohibited remarriage during a spouse’s lifetime, except in cases of adultery. This had little practical effect as Franks regularly divorced and remarried. Moreover, the later Council of Compiègne 757 “allowed a man to remarry if he had to leave his home in order to follow his lord, or if his wife entered a nunnery, or if illness prevented her from fulfilling her marital duties. A woman was allowed to remarry if her husband had ceased to cohabit with her.” Furthermore, “The Council of Verberie allowed a man to remarry if his wife tried to kill him or if she refused to follow him, though the woman was not allowed to remarry.” Moreover, men could not remarry if their wife entered a nunnery, a law which protected wives whose husbands forced them into a convent so that they could legally remarry.
Charlemagne maintained these strict rules for divorce, but in practice he could do whatever he wanted. As Mel Brooks would say [It’s good to be the king!]. Charlemagne notably divorced his first wife on the grounds that their marriage was never consummated and had three more wives in succession. By the time of Louis the Pious remarriage was illegal in most cases. When Louis’ sons convicted Judith of adultery Louis had to agree to leave for a monastery rather than have a chance to remarry. Finally, under Charles the Bald’s ally Hincmar, Bishop of Reims, divorce became illegal except in cases of adultery, incest or when one or both spouses wanted to enter a monastery. However, even if one left for a monastery the other could not remarry. Hincmar later allowed divorce in cases where the marriage was not consummated or not approved by the parents; in his mind these two cases made the marriage illegitimate, and thus annulling the marriage did not technically constitute a divorce.
Prohibitions on divorce had a mixed effect on women’s security and social standing. On the one hand, wives became less disposable as men could not push them aside for another woman. Wives were guaranteed their role as matriarch of a house, even when they fell out of favor with their husbands. Conversely, women in abusive relationships could not leave their husbands. Violence within a marriage was not a crime as long as it was not excessive. Sexual violence was also permitted. While rarely discussed, for millennia Christian theologians held that there was no such thing as rape within a marriage as husbands held the right to access their wives’ body and women had to comply as part of their Christian duty to cleave to the husband as one flesh and be fruitful and multiply. Restrictions on divorce protected women’s social position within a marriage but also confined them to the tyranny of their husbands.
The last thing I’ll talk about today that relates to Carolingian women is beauty. Beauty is not just physical attractiveness or a trope. At this time, perhaps in all human history, feminine beauty is an economic marker, a spiritual expression, a political statement, a romantic gesture, a public persona, labor and an art. It’s a craft that women teach their daughters and each other, which is incredible because beauty is reinvented continually. Men only needed to learn how to make metal tools once but women have to relearn how to present themselves constantly. More than anything beauty is a gamble. Being beautiful and expressing beauty were always dangerous because beauty belongs to the person observing a woman, not the woman herself. There are fewer sources for how women looked during the Carolingian period than men, as men were depicted on coins, manuscripts and other lasting artifacts but while we don’t know much about how women looked we do know that men were very concerned about how women presented themselves.
Society expected wealthy women to dress lavishly. Women put on make-up and washed themselves so that they would have unblemished skin. Fair skin was highly prized. Poor women who had to work in the fields tanned while rich women could remain inside where their skin remained naturally white. Women wore their hair long and in many braids and there were fines for those who cut women’s hair without permission.
Clothing was important. Women wore intricately-embroidered dresses and silks dyed in many colors. Since the Franks were master smiths, women wore accessories such as brooches, armbands, necklaces, hairpins, rings, pendants, anklets, chaplets, and other adornments. These were most-often gold and encrusted with gems. Finally, women wore perfume. While conservative clergy condemned perfume as a luxury, women largely ignored these prohibitions. Even religious women were expected to look pleasing in some fashion, by keeping clean clothes and well-groomed hair.
Beautification was a tightrope. On the one hand, wealthy women were expected to dress lavishly to showcase their wealth and power to other nobles, potential creditors and social inferiors. Simultaneously, by dressing elaborately, women risked being condemned by the church for vanity, excessive luxury and seducing men. Yet, even the clergy expected women to be beautiful. The church taught that a woman’s outer beauty should reflect their inner beauty and that a woman’s physical appearance be justified by pious acts. Again, one can see the inherent problem here since a woman’s reputation was outside of her control and whether she was pious enough to present herself as beautiful was determined by others. There were no hard rules for beauty and physical attraction could be interpreted negatively or positively depending on who perceived it. Alcuin condemned shows of luxury while Theodulf of Orléans, saw a link between physical beauty and moral loveliness. Theodulf cited the Biblical Judith, the woman who the wicked Holophenes was attracted to, but she did not succumb to him and instead beheaded him. Conservatives warned of the dangers of beautiful women and how they seduced men into wickedness, while more relaxed priests believed women could use their beauty to lead men into a pious relationship. The controversy over physical beauty sharpened during the Byzantine Empire’s iconoclastic period as like-minded scholars condemned visual presentation.
Youth was associated with beauty and older women lost their beauty. The Carolingian diet was less diverse than during our period; in particular people lacked iron, meaning they were more likely anemic and sickly. Women were pregnant most of their adult lives, which bore a tremendous toll on their body and they probably entered menopause in their 40s, as opposed to 50s in the modern era. The accelerated aging for medieval women meant that they lost their youthful beauty more quickly than modern women.
The ideal Carolingian woman was young, had fair white skin, wide child-birthing hips, at least decently sized breasts, smelled nice but not overly-perfumed, had long hair which was meticulously braided, was highly educated but not self-absorbed and wore expensive clothing and adornment but wasn’t impious or vain. I described being beautiful as walking a tight-rope but the metaphor should probably include juggling chainsaws on fire given how delicate this balancing act was.
One final piece of adornment was the veil. The see-through veil was an important marker of womanhood and humility. Veiling was nominally reserved for virgins 25 years or older, but younger women could be veiled. The veiling of a woman was an important ceremony as women entered the religious community, and it brought the family and community together to observe the blessing of the veil.
Being a woman in the Carolingian period was a complex affair. Women managed the basic economic unit of the empire, made all clothes, hosted visitors, cared for the sick, maintained a moral community and raised children. Next time, we’ll talk about the most important, mysterious, and dangerous part of a woman’s life: childbirth.
Valerie Garver, Women and Aristocratic Culture in the Carolingian World, 2011.
Felice Lifshitz, Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: A Study of Manuscript Transmission and Monastic Culture, 2014.
Simon Maclean, “Queenship, Nunneries and Royal Widowhood in Carolingian Europe,” Past and Present, 2003.
Jinty Nelson, Frankish World, 750-900, 2003.
Ed. Susan Mosher Stuard, Women in Medieval Society, 1973.
Steven Vanderputten, Dark Age Nunneries : The Ambiguous Identity of Female Monasticism, 800–1050, 2018