22 CONTEXTS: Love and Marriage in Medieval Britain

“A Bridal Couple” by Schwäbischer Meister. c. 1470. Wikimedia Commons.


by Allegra Villarreal

So much of Old English literature focuses on the external world: the quest for glory, the pain of battle, the destruction of cities and the loss of entire peoples. Only two voices emerge from that canon that hint at the drama of domestic life: “Wulf and Eadwacer” and “The Wife’s Lament” (both thought to be written by women) – though, even these elegies use the metaphor of heroic loyalty and loss to frame feelings of grief and longing. Occasional references are also scattered through the Exeter Book in the form of riddles and maxims but, again, these reveal little to us. The realm of the personal – what took place in the home and in relationships – was not the subject of Anglo-Saxon literary works and so, in some ways, that culture remains a mystery to us. Not so in Anglo-Norman times. Influenced by the culture of courtly love (first originating in southern France), romantic love took center stage in literature and art and in the royal courts of Europe. For the upper classes, arranged marriages are the norm, and so are annulments (for deals gone bad); lords were often known to marry for dowry (money and/or lands) and incest was also not uncommon. It is in this context that chivalric literature emerges wherein love is praised despite, and often outside, of marriage.

But what about love and marriage for everyone else? In the late Middle Ages, over 90% of the population were peasants. What was their experience? From its earliest days, the Catholic Church sought to regulate marriage and divorce (and, thereby, control sexual expression). In medieval Catholic doctrine, celibacy was seen as the ideal state which is why it was required of clergy and recommended for everyone else. Church fathers advised that if one had to engage in sexual relations, it was “better to marry than to burn in lust” so marriage was a prerequisite for sexual activity. In fact, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 specifically addresses marriage and divorce and subsequent Councils will establish marriage as one of the seven sacraments.

Evidence of same-sex love in the Middle Ages is scant; the term “sodomy” emerges in court documents from the 11th century, though it’s unclear what sorts of activities are being condemned as it seems to apply to any sexual activity (including masturbation) that cannot lead to procreation or heterosexual intercourse in any “unconventional” position. Though homosexual intercourse would have been condemned and the punishment death, at the same time, expressions of same-sex love could be highly eroticized as is evident from many of the literary works of the period.

The readings below offer interesting glimpses into the evolution of love, marriage, and gender roles over the course of British history which help us better understand the “romances” of the period.

from the Laws of Aethelbirht (c. 600 CE)

Aethelberht of Kent (560-616) ruled most of southern England during his reign and is remembered today as the first Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity (likely because he was married to a Christian queen). As a result, he allowed Augustine of Canterbury to proselytize among his subjects and was inspired by the Romans to set down his laws in writing. These laws, excerpted below, are the first established codes written in any Germanic language and the earliest legal documents in Britain. They deal primarily with monetary compensation (in the form of “wergild”) for injuries inflicted and as a means of preventing acts of revenge. Compensation is arranged according to social rank (from king to slave) and by body part (from hair to toenail).


16. If anyone lies with a maiden belonging to the king, he is to pay 50 shillings compensation. If she is a grind- ing slave,1 he is to pay 25 shillings compensation; [if a slave of ] the third [class], 12 shillings.

17. The king’s fedesl 2 is to be paid for with 20 shillings.

18. If anyone kills a man on a nobleman’s estate, he is to pay 12 shillings compensation.

19. If anyone lies with a nobleman’s serving-woman, he is to pay 12 shillings compensation.3

20. A free peasant’s protection is six shillings.

21. If anyone lies with a free peasant’s serving-woman, he is to pay six shillings compensation; [if ] with a slave- woman of the second [class], 50 sceattas; [if with one of ] the third [class], 30 sceattas.4 …

31. If a freeman lies with the wife of another freeman, he is to atone with his wergild,5 and to obtain another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other’s home. …

72. If a freewoman with control of a household6 commits any misconduct, she is to pay 30 shillings compensation.

73. The compensation for [injury to] a maiden is to be as for a freeman.

74. [Breach of ] guardianship over a noble-born widow of the highest class is to be compensated for with 50 shillings; over one of the second class, with 20 shillings; over one of the third class, with 12 shillings; over one of the fourth, with six shillings.

75. If a man takes a widow who does not belong to him, the [penalty for breach of the] guardianship is to be doubled.

76. If anyone buys a maiden with a payment, if there is no fraud, then let the transaction stand. If, however, there is any fraud, she is to be taken back home, and he is to be given back his money. If she bears a living child, she is to inherit half the goods if her husband dies first. If she wishes to remain with the children,1 she is to inherit half the goods. If she wishes to take [another] husband, [she is to inherit the same share] as a child. If she does not bear a child, [her] paternal kinsmen are to have [her] goods and the morning-gift.2

77. If anyone carries off a maiden by force, [he is to pay] to the owner 3 50 shillings, and afterwards buy from the owner his consent [to the marriage]. If she is be- trothed to another man at a [bride] price, he is to pay 20 shillings compensation. If a return [of the woman] takes place, [he is to pay] 35 shillings, and 15 shillings to the king.

78. If anyone lies with the woman of a poor freeman while her husband is alive, he is to pay a two-fold compensation.

from The Laws of Cnut (c. 1021)

Cnut the Great (one of only two English kings remembered as “Great”) was the king of a “North Sea Empire” (uniting England, Norway and Denmark for a time). For this reason, he is remembered as the most effective king in English history. His laws were likely drafted by Wulfstan, author of “Sermon of the Wolf to the English,” and are more explicitly Christian in their outlook and scope. What is clear is an increased strictness on regulating the sexual activities of women, in particular, which seems to signal an interest–on the part of the state–in the moral lives of its citizens.


51. If anyone commit adultery, let him make amends for it as the deed may be. It is a wicked adultery when a married man commits fornication with a single woman, and much worse with another’s wife, or with a conse- crated nun.

52. If anyone commit incest, let him make amends for it according to the degree of kinship [between them] with wergild or punishment or [by the forfeiture] of all his possessions. The cases are by no means alike whether a man lie with a sister, or with a distant relative.

53. If anyone rapes a widow, let him make amends for it with his wergild. If anyone rapes a maiden, let him make amends for it with his wergild.

54. If a woman commits adultery with another man while her husband is alive, and it becomes public, she shall be disgraced, and let her lawful husband have all that she possesses; and let her then lose both her nose and her ears: and if it be a prosecution,4 and the attempt to refute it fails, let the bishop use his power, and judge severely.

55. If a married man commits adultery with his own slave, let him lose her, and make amends for himself to God and to men: and he who has a lawful wife, and also a concubine, let no priest administer to him any of those rites which ought to be administered to a Chris- tian man before he desist, and make amends as seriously as the bishop may instruct him; and let him ever after- wards desist from such things.

56. If foreigners will not correct their fornications, let them be driven from the land with their possessions, departing in sin. …

74. And let every widow continue husbandless for twelve months: afterwards let her choose what she wishes. And if she choooses a husband within the space of a year, then let her forfeit her morning-gift and all the possessions which she inherited through her first hus- band; and let the nearest kinsmen take the land and the possessions that she had before. And let the husband be liable for his wergild to the king, or to whomever has jurisdiction over him. And even if she is taken forcibly, let her forfeit the possessions, unless she be willing to go home again from the man, and never again be his. And let not a widow take the veil too hastily. And let every widow pay her heriot without penalty within twelve months, unless it be convenient to her earlier.

75. And let no one compel either a woman or maiden to marry someone whom she herself dislikes, nor exchange her for money, unless he is willing to give anything voluntarily.

from The Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215)

The Fourth Lateran Council is remembered as the “Great Council” as it assembled over 1,000 clergymen from across Europe to codify key Catholic doctrine. For example, transubstantiation is defined, and it is ruled that Jews and Muslims must wear distinct clothing in Christian lands. Canons 50-52 deal explicitly with marriage and indicate the extent to which the Church was attempting to formalize its control of the institution; it addressed the laws of consanguinity and the custom among clergy and kings of having multiple “wives”.

Canon 14

Summary: Clerics, especially those in sacred orders, shall live chastely and virtuously. Anyone suspended for incontinency who presumes to celebrate the divine mysteries shall be forever deposed.

That the morals and general conduct of clerics may be better let all strive to live chastely and virtuously, particularly those in sacred orders, guarding against every vice of desire, especially that on account of which the anger of God came from heaven upon the children of unbelief, so that in the sight of Almighty God they may perform their duties with a pure heart and chaste body. But lest the facility to obtain pardon be an incentive to do wrong, we decree that whoever shall be found to indulge in the vice of incontinence, shall, in proportion to the gravity of his sin, be punished in accordance with the canonical statutes, which we command to be strictly and rigorously observed, so that he whom divine fear does not restrain from evil, may at least be withheld from sin by a temporal penalty. If therefore anyone suspended for this reason shall presume to celebrate the divine mysteries, let him not only be deprived of his ecclesiastical benefices but for this twofold offense let him be forever deposed. Prelates who dare support such in their iniquities, especially in view of money or other temporal advantages, shall be subject to a like punishment. But if those. who according to the practice of their country have not renounced the conjugal bond, fall by the vice of impurity, they are to be punished more severely, since they can use matrimony lawfully.

Canon 51

Summary. Clandestine marriages and witness to them by a priest are forbidden. Marriages to be contracted must be published in the churches by the priests so that, if legitimate impediments exist, they may be made known. If doubt exists, let the contemplated marriage be forbidden till the matter is cleared up.

Since the prohibition of the conjugal union in the three last degrees has been revoked, we wish that it be strictly observed in the other degrees. Whence, following in the footsteps of our predecessors, we absolutely forbid clandestine marriages; and we forbid also that a priest presume to witness such. Wherefore, extending to other localities generally the particular custom that prevails in some, we decree that when marriages are to be contracted they must be announced publicly in the churches by the priests during a suitable and fixed time, so that if legitimate impediments exist, they may be made known. Let the priests nevertheless investigate whether any impediments exist. But when there is ground for doubt concerning the contemplated union, let the marriage be expressly forbidden until it is evident from reliable sources what ought to be done in regard to it. But if anyone should presume to contract a clandestine or forbidden marriage of this kind within a prohibited degree, even through ignorance, the children from such a union shall be considered illegitimate, nor shall the ignorance of the parents be pleaded as an extenuating circumstance in their behalf, since they by contracting such marriages appear not as wanting in knowledge but rather as affecting ignorance. In like manner the children shall be considered illegitimate if both parents, knowing that a legitimate impediment exists, presume to contract such a marriage in conspectu ecclesiae (not clandestinely) in disregard of every prohibition. The parochial priest who deliberately neglects to forbid such unions, or any regular priest who presumes to witness them, let them be suspended from office for a period of three years and, if the nature of their offense demands it, let them be punished more severely. On those also who presume to contract such marriages in a lawful degree, a condign punishment is to be imposed. If anyone maliciously presents an impediment for the purpose of frustrating a legitimate marriage, let him not escape ecclesiastical punishment.

from The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus (c. 1180)

Known throughout Europe by its Latin title, De Amore, this book was an influential treatise on love addressed to a fictional young man named Walter. It is divided into three books; the first offers a range of definitions of love and dialog between men and the objects of their affection (as a means of illustrating seduction techniques); the second offers advice on how to behave in love and the third offers reasons to “reject” love and finally argues that Walter should never engage in love affairs such as those described in book two.

from Book I

Chapter 1. What Love Is

Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embrace.

Chapter 3. Where Love Gets Its Name

Love gets its name (amor) from the word for hook (amus), which means “to capture” or “to be captured,” for he who is in love is captured in the chains of desire and wishes to capture someone else with his hook. Just as a skillful fisherman tries to attract fishes by his bait and to capture them on his crooked hook, so the man who is a captive of love tries to attract another person by his allurements and exerts all his efforts to unite two different hearts with an intangible bond, or if they are already united he tries to keep them so forever.

Chapter 4. What the Effect of Love Is

Now it is the effect of love that a true lover cannot be degraded with any avarice. Love causes a rough and uncouth man to be distinguished for his handsomeness; it can endow a man even of the humblest birth with nobility of character; it blesses the proud with humility; and the man in love becomes accustomed to performing many services gracefully for everyone. O what a wonderful thing is love, which makes a man shine with so many virtues and teaches everyone, no matter who he is, so many good traits of character! There is another thing about love that we should not praise in few words: it adorns a man, so to speak, with the virtue of chastity, because he who shines with the light of one love can hardly think of embracing another woman, even a beautiful one. For when he thinks deeply of his beloved the sight of any other woman seems to his mind rough and rude.

Chapter 8. The Love of Nuns

You may be interested enough to ask what we have to say regarding the love of nuns. What we say is that their solaces must be absolutely avoided just as though they were a pestilence of the soul, because from them comes the great wrath of our heavenly Father and the civil authorities are greatly stirred up and threaten the most severe punishments, and by all of this we become infamous among men and our good reputation is destroyed. Even Love’s commandment warns us not to choose for our love any woman whom we may not properly seek to marry.1 …

Chapter 9. Love Got with Money

Now let us see whether real love can be got with money or any other gift. Real love comes only from the affection of the heart and is granted out of pure grace and genuine liberality, and this most precious gift of love cannot be paid for at any set price or be cheapened by a matter of money. If any woman is so possessed with a feeling of avarice as to give herself to a lover for the sake of pay, let no one consider her a lover, but rather a counterfeiter of love, who ought to join those shameful women in the brothel. Indeed the wantonness of such women is more polluted than the passion of harlots who ply their trade openly, for they do what one expects them to, and they deceive no one since their intentions are perfectly obvious. But those others who pretend to be fine ladies of the very best breeding force men to languish for love of them, and under the false veil of affection, they gleefully rob of all their wealth those who have been smitten by Cupid’s arrow. Men are deceived by their fallacious looks, outwitted by their crafty beckonings, and impelled by their clever and deceitful demands; they are kept busy giving them as many good things as they can, and they get more pleasure out of what they give away than from what they keep for their own use. These women have all sorts of ways of asking for things, and so long as they see that a man can respond to their greedy desire for gifts, they say that he is their adored lover, and they never cease to drain away his property or ruin him by their constant demands. But when his substance is gone and his patrimony is exhausted they despise and hate him and cast him aside like an unproductive bee, and then they begin to appear in their real colors. Any man who would seek for the love of women like these ought to be classed with shameless dogs and deserves no help from anybody. …

Chapter 11. The Love of Peasants

But lest you should consider that what we have already said about the love of the middle class applies also to farmers, we will add a little about their love. We say that it rarely happens that we find farmers serving in Love’s court, but naturally, like a horse or a mule, they give themselves up to the work of Venus, as nature’s urging teaches them to do. For a farmer hard labor and the uninterrupted solaces of plough and mattock are sufficient. And even if it should happen at times, though rarely, that contrary to their nature they are stirred up by Cupid’s arrows, it is not expedient that they should be instructed in the theory of love, lest while they are devoting themselves to conduct which is not natural to them the kindly farms which are usually made fruitful by their efforts may through lack of cultivation prove useless to us. And if you should, by some chance, fall in love with some of their women, be careful to puff them up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to take what you seek and to embrace them by force. For you can hardly soften their outward inflexibility so far that they will grant you their embraces quietly or permit you to have the solaces you desire unless first you use a little compulsion as a convenient cure for their shyness. We do not say these things, however, because we want to persuade you to love such women, but only so that, if through lack of caution you should be driven to love them, you may know, in brief compass, what to do.

from BOOK II: The Rules of Love

1. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.

2. He who is not jealous cannot love.

3. No one can be bound by a double love.

4. It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.

5. That which a lover takes against the will of his beloved has no relish.

6. Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.

7. When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor.

8. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.

9. No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love.

10. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.

11. It is not proper to love any woman whom one should be ashamed to seek to marry.

12. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.

13. When made public love rarely endures.

14. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.

15. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.

16. When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.

17. A new love puts to flight an old one.

18. Good character alone makes any man worthy of love.

19. If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives.

20. A man in love is always apprehensive.

21. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.

22. Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.

23. He whom the thought of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.

24. Every act of a lover ends within the thought of his beloved.

25. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved.

26. Love can deny nothing to love.

27. A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.

28. A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.

29. A man who is vexed by too much passion usually does not love.

30. A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.

31. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women.

from the Writings of Christine de Pisan (c. 1395)

Christine de Pisan is considered the “first professional female writer” of Europe; that is, she is the first recorded woman to earn a living from her writings. She was exceedingly prolific, producing lyrics, ballads, biographies, proverbs, moral instructions, dream visions, histories, advice to princes and prose. She is best known for the book excerpted below, Book of the City of Ladies, a story in which a “city of ladies” (a metaphor for a book) is built through the stories of prominent women. Part I opens with Christine reading from Matheoulus’ Lamentations, a work criticizing marriage for making men miserable (anti-marital literature being a common genre in the late Middle Ages); the narrator is “ashamed” at being a woman and consults three virtues, namely Lady Reason, who outlines exactly why women are not evil or useless but have a significant contribution to make to society.

“Seulete Suy” (Alone am I)

Alone I am and alone I wish to be,

Alone has my sweet friend left me;

Alone I am, without companion or teacher, Alone I am, sorrowful and in distress,

Alone I am, languishing in wretchedness, Alone I am, more lost than anyone,

Alone I am, left without a friend.

Alone I am at the door or at the window, Alone I am, hidden in a corner,

Alone I am, to nourish myself with tears,

Alone I am, sorrowing or calm;

Alone I am, there is nothing that goes so badly;

Alone I am, shut up in my room,

Alone I am, left without a friend.

Alone I am everywhere and in every place;

Alone I am, whether I go or stay;

Alone I am, more than any earthly thing,

Alone I am, abandoned by everyone,

Alone I am, drooping woefully,

Alone I am, often drowning in tears,

Alone I am, left without a friend.

Prince, now my sorrow has begun:

Alone I am, threatened with every sadness,

Alone I am, duller than deep purple,

Alone I am, left without a friend.

fromThe Book of the City of Ladies

One day as I was sitting alone in my study surrounded by books on all kinds of subjects, devoting myself to literary studies, my usual habit, my mind dwelt at length on the weighty opinions of various authors whom I had studied for a long time. I looked up from my book, having decided to leave such subtle questions in peace and to relax by reading some small book. By chance a strange volume came into my hands, not one of my own, but one which had been given to me along with some others. When I held it open and saw its title page that it was by Matheolus, I smiled, for though I had never seen it before, I had often heard that like books it discussed respect for women. I thought I would browse through it to amuse myself. I had not been reading for very long when my good mother called me to refresh myself with some supper, for it was evening. Intending to look at it the next day, I put it down.The next morning, again seated in my study as was my habit, I remembered wanting to examine this book by Matheolus. I started to read it and went on for a little while. Because the subject seemed to me not very pleasant for people who do not enjoy lies, and of no use in developing virtue or manners, given its lack of integrity in diction and theme, and after browsing here and there and reading the end, I put it down in order to turn my attention to more elevated and useful study. But just the sight of this book, even though it was of no authority, made me wonder how it happened that so many different men – and learned men among them – have been and are so inclined to express both in speaking and in their treatises and writings so many wicked insults about women and their behavior. Not only one or two and not even just this Matheolus (for this book had a bad name anyways and was intended as a satire) but, more generally, from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators – it would take too long to mention their names – it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth.

Thinking deeply about these matters, I began to examine my character and conduct as a natural woman and, similarly, I considered other women whose company I frequently kept, princesses, great ladies, women of the middle and lower classes, who had graciously told me of their most private and intimate thoughts, hoping that I could judge impartially and in good conscience whether the testimony of so many notable men could be true. To the best of my knowledge, no matter how long I confronted or dissected the problem, I could not see or realize how their claims could be true when compared to the natural behavior and character of women.Yet I still argued vehemently against women, saying that it would be impossible that so many famous men – such solemn scholars, possessed of such deep and great understanding, so clear-sighted in all things, as it seemed – could have spoken falsely on so many occasions that I could hardly find a book on morals where, even before I had read it in its entirety, I did not find several chapters or certain sections attacking women, no matter who the author was. This reason alone, in short, made me conclude that, although my intellect did not perceive my own great faults and, likewise, those of other women because of its simpleness and ignorance, it was however truly fitting that such was the case. And so I relied more on the judgment of others than on what I myself felt and knew. I was so transfixed in this line of thinking for such a long time that it seemed as if I were in a stupor. Like a gushing fountain, a series of authorities, whom I recalled one after another, came to mind, along with their opinions on this topic. And I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have designed to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. As I was thinking this, a great unhappiness and sadness welled up in my heart, for I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature and in my lament I spoke these words:

Oh, God, how can this be? For unless I stray from my faith, I must never doubt that your infinite wisdom and most perfect goodness ever created anything which was not good. Did You yourself not create woman in a very special way and since that time did You not give her all those inclinations which it please You for her to have? And how could it be that You could go wrong in anything? Yet look at all these accusations which have been judged, decided, and concluded against women. I do not know how to understand this repugnance. If it is so, fair Lord God, that in fact so many abominations abound in the female sex, for You Yourself say that the testimony of two or three witnesses lends credence, why shall I not doubt that this is true? Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a man, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a man is said to be? But since Your kindness has not been extended to me, then forgive my negligence in Your service, most fair Lord God, and may it not displease You, for the servant who receives fewer gifts from his lord is less obliged in his service.

I spoke these words to God in my lament and a great deal more for a very long time in sad reflections, and in my folly considered myself most unfortunate because God had made me inhabit a female body in this world.

The story continues in the form of allegory, as three women (Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice) come to instruct Christine and to show her how to build a city for virtuous women. As Lady Reason explains…

There is another greater and even more special reason for our coming which you will learn from our speeches: in fact we have come to vanquish from the world the same error into which you had fallen, so that from now on, ladies and all valiant women may have a refuge and defense against the various assailants, those ladies who have been abandoned for so long, exposed like a field without a surrounding hedge, without finding a champion to afford them an adequate defense, notwithstanding those noble men who are required by order of law to protect them, who by negligence and apathy have allowed them to be mistreated. It is no wonder then that their jealous enemies, those outrageous villains who have assailed them with various weapons, have been victorious in a war in which women have had no defense. Where is there a city so strong which could not be taken immediately if no resistance were forthcoming, or the law case, no matter how unjust, which was not won through the obstinance of someone pleading without opposition? And the simple, noble ladies, following the example of suffering god commands, have cheerfully suffered the great attacks which, both in the spoken and the written word, have been wrongfully and sinfully perpetrated against women by men who all the while appealed to God for the right to do so. Now it is time for their just cause to be taken from Pharaoh’s hands, and for this reason, we three ladies who you see here, moved by pity, have come to you to announce a particular edifice built like a city wall, strongly constructed and well founded, which has been predestined and established by our aid and counsel for you to build, where no one will reside except all ladies of fame and women worthy of praise, for the walls of the city will be closed to those women who lack virtue.. . . .

{3}”My lady, according to what I understand from you, woman is a most noble creature. But even so, Cicero says that a man should never serve any woman and that he who does so debases himself, for no man should ever serve anyone lower than him.” She replied, “The man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher; neither the loftiness nor the sex, but in the perfection of conduct and virtues. And surely he is happy who serves the Virgin, who is above all the angels.” “My lady, one of the Catos — who was such a great orator– said, nevertheless, that if this world were without woman, we would converse with the gods.” She replied, “You can now see the foolishness of the man who is considered wise, because, thanks to a woman, man reigns with God. And if anyone would say that man was banished because of Lady Eve, I tell you that he gained more through Mary than he lost through Eve when humanity was conjoined to the Godhead, which would never have taken place if Eve’s misdeed had not occurred. Thus man and woman should be glad for this sin, through which such an honor has come about. For as low as human nature fell through this creature woman, was human nature lifted higher by this same creature. And as for conversing with the gods, as this Cato has said, if there had been no woman, he spoke truer than he knew, for he was a pagan, and among those of this belief, gods were thought to reside in Hell as well as in Heaven, that is, the devils whom they called the gods of Hell – so that it is no lie that these gods would have conversed with men, if Mary had not lived.”. . . .

Christine and Lady Reason discuss women’s education.

Christine, spoke, “My lady, I realize that women have accomplished many good things and that even if evil women have done evil, it seems to me, nevertheless, that the benefits accrued and still accruing because of good women-particularly the wise and literary ones and those educated in the natural sciences whom I mentioned above-outweigh the evil. Therefore, I am amazed by the opinion of some men who claim that they do not want their daughters, wives, or kinswomen to be educated because their mores would be ruined as a result.” She responded , Here you can clearly see that not all opinions of men are based on reason and that these men are wrong. For it must not be presumed that mores necessarily grow worse from knowing the moral sciences, which teach the virtues, indeed, there is not the slightest doubt that moral education amends and ennobles them. How could anyone think or believe that whoever follows good teaching or doctrine is the worse for it? Such an opinion cannot be expressed or maintained. . . .

To speak of more recent times, without searching for examples in ancient history, Giovanni Andrea, a solenm law professor in Bologna not quite sixty years ago, was not of the opinion that it was bad for women to be educated. He had a fair and good daughter, named Novella, who was educated in the law to such an advanced degree that when he was occupied by some task and not at leisure to present his lectures to his students, he would send Novella, his daughter, in his place to lecture to the students from his chair. And to prevent her beauty from distracting the concentration of her audience, she had a little curtain drawn in front of her. In this manner she could on occasion supplement and lighten her father’s occupation. He loved her so much that, to commemorate her name, he wrote a book of remarkable lectures on the law which he entitled Novella super Decretalium, after his daughter’s name.. . . .

Thus, not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did. Your father, who was a great scientist and philosopher, did not believe that women were worth less by knowing science; rather, as you know, he took great pleasure from seeing your inclination to learning. The feminine opinion of your mother, however, who wished to keep you busy with spinning and silly girlishness, following the common custom of women, was the major obstacle to your being more involved in the sciences. But just as the proverb already mentioned above says, No one can take away what Nature has given,’your mother could not hinder in you the feeling for the sciences which you, through natural inclination, had nevertheless gathered together in little droplets. I am sure that, on account of these things, you do not think you are worth less but rather that you consider it a great treasure for yourself; and you doubtless have reason to. ” And Christine, replied to all of this, “Indeed, my lady, what you say is as true as the Lord’s Prayer.”

Lady Reason explains the causes of misogyny.

By those who do it because of their own vices I mean those men who dissipated their youth in debauchery and dedicated themselves to promiscuity. The great number of their adventures has made them rogues. Grown old in sin, they spend their time regretting the transgressions of their youth — the more so since Nature prevents them from slaking their impotent desires. They purge their bile by denigrating women, thinking thus to disgust others from enjoying what they cannot enjoy.

Those motivated by the infirmity of their bodies are cripples with misshapen bodies and crooked limbs. Their minds are malicious and sharp, and they have no other means of vengeance for the misery of their impotence than to blame those [women] who bring gladness to others…

Those who blame women by jealousy are unworthy men who, having known or met many women of greater intelligence or nobler heart than theirs, have conceived bitterness and rancor…

As for those who are scandal-mongers by nature, it is not surprising that they slander women, when they speak ill of everyone. Yet I assure you that every man who takes pleasure in vilifying women has an abject heart, for he acts against Reason and against Nature because there is no bird or beast that does not naturally seek out its other half, that is to say the female. It is thus unnatural for a reasonable man to do the contrary. . . .

Christine and Lady Reason discuss the inventions and other advantages women have given humanity.

And was there ever a man who did more for humanity than the noble queen Ceres … who brought the barbarian nomads who dwelt in the forests, without faith or law, like savage beasts to come fill towns and cities where now they live respectful of the law? She provided them with better food than the acorns and crab apples that they used to eat: wheat, corn, foods that make the body more beautiful, the complexion more radiant, the limbs stronger and more agile, for they are more substantial and better suited to the needs of the human race. What is more worthy than to develop a land filled with thistles, thorn bushes and wild trees, to till it and sow it and turn wild heath to cultivated fields? Human nature was thus enriched by this woman who carried it from barbarous wildness to orderly society, rescuing these lazy nomads from gloomy ignorance and opening access to the highest forms of thought and the noblest occupations.

Isis did the same for crops. Who can detail the good she brought humanity by teaching it to graft fine fruit trees and to husband the good plants appropriate to human sustenance?

And then Minerva! … People went clad in skins and she provided woolen garments; people carried their goods in their arms and she invented the art of building carts and chariots, relieving humanity of that burden; she taught noble knights how to manufacture coats of mail, so that their bodies should be better protected in war — a handsomer, nobler, more solid armor than the leather jerkins they had before that!

Then I said to her: Ah! My Lady! To hear you, I realize more than ever how great is the ignorance and the ingratitude of all those men who speak so much ill of women! I already believed that having had a mother and having experienced the services that women normally provide to men would be sufficient to still their mischievous tongues. But I see now that women have overwhelmed them with gifts, and continue bounteous with their blessings. Let them shut up! Let them henceforth be silent, those clerks who speak ill of women! Let all their accomplices and allies who speak ill of women in their writings or poems hold their tongues. Let them lower their eyes in shame to have dared lie so much in their books, when one sees that the truth goes counter to what they say…

And let noble knights, many of whom speak ill of women, hold their tongues, knowing that it is to a woman that they owe armor, the art of war and of marshalling armies, that profession of arms of which they are so proud. And generally, when one sees men living on bread and dwelling in civilized towns subject to civil law, when they work their fields, how can one in view of so many good turns condemn and despise women the way so many do? For it was women — Minerva, Ceres, Isis — who brought them all those useful things that they enjoy all their lives and that they will always enjoy. Are these things insignificant? Not at all, My Lady, and it seems to me that not the philosophy of Aristotle — so useful and so highly praised, and rightly too! — nor all other philosophies that ever existed, ever brought or ever will bring so many advantages to humanity as the inventions that we owe to the spirit of these women.

from The Paston Letters (1422-1509)

The “Paston Letters” are a collection of correspondence written over the course of nearly a century, documenting the lives of the Pastons, a family of landed gentry in Norfolk. It is one of the best sources on life in 15th century England. The first letter below details the arranged marriage of Elizabeth Paston to Stephen Scrope, a man thirty years her senior (she was twenty, he was fifty). The second describes a secret marriage between Margery Paston and Richard Calle, the family steward (a servant who ran the household estate). A marriage between “unequals” (as it would have been regarded at the time) was taboo in society but considered legal under Church doctrine (provided the two were not related).

from Letter from Agnes Paston to her son John Paston I (c. 1449)

Son, I greet you well with God’s blessing and mine and to let you know that my cousin [Elizabeth] Clere wrote to me that she has spoken with [Stephen] Scrope after he had been with me at Norwich, and told her what hospitality I had given him, and he said to her he very much liked the reception I gave him.

He told my cousin Clere that unless you gave him a warm reception and comforting words at London, he would speak no more of the matter.

My cousin Clere thinks that it would be folly to forsake him unless you knew of another as good or better; and I have consulted your sister and I’ve never found her so willing toward anyone as she is to him, if it be the case that his land stands clear …

from Letter from Richard Calle to Margery Paston (1469)

My own lady and mistress, and before God my very true wife, with a heart full of sorrow I recommend me to you, as one that cannot be merry, nor shall be until it be otherwise with us than it now is. For this life that we now lead is neither pleasing to God nor to the world, considering the great bond of matrimony that is between us, and also the great love that has been, and I trust is still between us, and on my part has never been greater. On this account I beseech almighty God to comfort us as soon as it pleases him, for we who ought by right to be together are torn apart; it seems to me that it is a thousand years since I spoke with you. I would rather be with you than have all the goods in the world. Alas, alas, good lady, consider little them and what they do to keep us apart. Four times in the year they who obstruct matrimony are cursed. It causes many men to reflect inwardly who have a great con- science in matters other than matrimony. But, lady, suffer as you must and make merry as you can, for certainly, lady, in the long run God will from his righteousness help his servants who mean well and wish to live according to his laws, etc.

I understand, lady, that you have had as much sorrow for me as any gentlewoman has had in the world. I wish to God that all the sorrow that you have had rested upon me so that you would be free of it. For certainly, lady, it is like death for me to hear that you are being treated otherwise than you ought to be. This is a painful life that we lead. I cannot live thus without it being a great displeasure to God.

Also, I would like you to know that I had sent you a letter from London by my lad, and he told me he was not allowed to speak with you, and was made to wait there for you a long time. He told me that John Thresher came to him in your name and said that you sent him to my lad for a letter or a token which I should have sent you. But he didn’t trust him and he would not deliver anything to him. After that he brought him a ring, saying that you sent it to him, commanding him that he should deliver the letter or token to him, which I have affirmed by my lad was not sent by you, but was sent by my mistress and on Sir James Gloys’ advice. Alas, what do they intend? I suppose that they consider us not to be pledged to- gether. And if they think that, I am amazed, for then they are not well advised, remembering the plainness with which I broke the matter to my mistress at the very beginning, and I suppose by you as well, if you did as you ought to have done by right. And if you have done the contrary, as I have been informed you have done, you did it neither from conscience nor to God’s pleasure, unless you did it from fear and to please for the time those who were around you. And if you did so for this reason it was a reasonable cause, considering the great and unbearable demands you had, and the many untrue tales being told you about me, which God knows I was never guilty of.

My lad told me that my mistress your mother asked him if he had brought any letter to you, and she insinu- ated many other things to him. Among all the others she said to him, that I would not tell her about it at the beginning but she supposed I would at the end. And as to that, God knows she knew of it first from me and no other. I do not know what her ladyship means, for upon my word there is no gentlewoman alive whom my heart cherishes more than her, nor is more loathe to displease, except only your person, which by right I ought to cherish and love best, for I am bound to you by the law of God, and so I will do while I am alive, whatsoever results from it. I suppose if you told them plainly the truth they would not damn their souls for us. Although I tell them the truth, they will not believe me as well as they will you. And therefore, good lady, at the reverence of God be plain to them and tell the truth. And if they will by no means agree to it, it will be between God, the devil, and them, and the peril that we should be in, I beg God that it may lie on them and not upon us. I am grieving and sorry to remember their disposition. God send them grace to guide all things well, as well as I wish they did. God be their guide, and send them peace and rest, etc.

I marvel greatly that they should take this matter so hard, as I understand they do, remembering that it is a situation that cannot be remedied. My desire on behalf of everyone is for it to be thought there is no obstacle against it and also that their honor is not in your marriage; it is in their own marriage, which I pray God send them such as may be to their honor and pleasing to God, and to ease their hearts, for otherwise it would be a great pity. Mistress, I am afraid to write to you, for I understand you have shown my letters that I have sent you previously, but I ask you to let no one see this letter. As soon as you have read it, let it be burned for I wish that no man should see it in any way. You have had no letters from me for these two years, nor will I send you any more. Therefore I send this whole matter to your wisdom. Almighty Jesus preserve, keep, and give you your heart’s desire, which I know well to be God’s pleasure, etc.

This letter was written with as great pain as was anything I ever wrote, I think, in my whole life, for in good faith I have been sick and am not yet very well recovered, God amend it, etc.

from Eadmer’s The Life of Saint Anselm (early twelfth century)

Anselm of Bec, born in Italy, would later become the Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the most well-respected theologians of his day. He was a defender of “oblation” wherein families would offer their children up into the care of religious houses or into religious orders as an “offering”; these children usually had no say in the matter and were committed for life. He did, however, also condemn the “deplorable” treatment of boys and advocated for moderation in discipline and education. The homoerotic tone that monks used to address one another was common in its day; the extent to which these relationships were tacitly accepted will probably never be known for sure.

1.4 How he left his native land because of his father’s great hostility to him

From that time, with health of body, youth, and worldly well-being smiling upon him, he began little by little to cool in the fervor of his desire for a religious life—so much so that he began to desire to go the way of the world rather than to leave the world for a monastic life. He gradually turned from study, which had formerly been his chief occupation, and began to give himself up to youthful amusements. His love and reverence for his mother held him back to some extent from these paths, but she died and then the ship of his heart had as it were lost its anchor and drifted almost entirely among the waves of the world. But almighty God, foreseeing what he was going to make of him, stirred up for him a hateful and domestic strife, lest in enjoying a transitory peace he should lose his soul. That is to say, he stirred up in his father’s mind so keen a hatred against him that he persecuted him as much, or even more, for the things he did well as for those which he did ill. Nor could he soften his father by any degree of humility, but the more humble he showed himself towards his father, the sharper did he feel his father’s anger towards him. When he saw that this was becom- ing more than he could bear, he feared that worse might come of it, and he chose rather to renounce both his patrimony and his country than to bring some disgrace upon either himself or his father by continuing to live with him. He gathered together those things that were necessary for the journey, and left his country, with a clerk as his companion and servant. As they were crossing Mount Cenis, he grew weary and his strength failed him, being unequal to the toil. He tried to revive himself by eating snow, for there was nothing else at hand that he could eat. His servant was grieved to see this and began to make a careful search in the bag that was carried on the ass’s back to see if by chance there was anything to eat. Soon, against all expectation, he found some bread of exceptional whiteness and, having eaten and been refreshed, Anselm set out once more on the road with renewed strength….

1.11 The reason for his giving more attention to the training of young men than of others

Nevertheless, his chief care was for the youths and young men, and when men asked him why this was, he replied by way of a simile. He compared the time of youth to a piece of wax of the right consistency for the impress of a seal. “For if the wax,” he said, “is too hard or too soft it will not, when stamped with the seal, receive a perfect image. But if it preserves a mean between these extremes of hardness and softness, when it is stamped with the seal, it will receive the image clear and whole. So it is with the ages of men. Take a man who has been sunk in the vanity of this world from infancy to extreme old age, knowing only earthly things, and altogether set in these ways. Converse with such a man about spiritual things, talk to him about the fine points of divine contemplation, show him how to explore heavenly mysteries, and you will find he cannot see the things you wish him to. And no wonder. He is the hardened wax; his life has not moved in these paths; he has learnt to follow other ways. Now consider a boy of tender years and little knowledge, unable to distinguish between good and evil, or even to understand you when you talk about such things. Here indeed the wax is soft, almost liquid, and incapable of taking an image of the seal. Between these extremes is the youth and young man, aptly tempered between the extremes of softness and hardness. If you teach him, you can shape him as you wish. Realizing this, I watch over the young men with greater solicitude, taking care to nip all their faults in the bud, so that being afterwards properly instructed in the practice of holy exercises they may form themselves in the image of a spiritual man.” …

1.22 Concerning the discretion that he taught a certain abbot to practice toward boys who were being educated in his school

On one occasion then, a certain abbot, who was considered to be a sufficiently religious man, was talking with him about matters of monastic discipline, and among other things he said something about the boys brought up in the cloister, adding: “What, I ask you, is to be done with them? They are incorrigible ruffians. We never give over beating them day and night, and they only get worse and worse.” Anselm replied with astonishment: “You never give over beating them? And what are they like when they grow up?” “Stupid brutes,” he said. To which Anselm retorted, “You have spent your energies in rearing them to good purpose: from men you have reared beasts.” “But what can we do about it?” he said. “We use every means to force them to get better, but without success.” “You force them? Now tell me, my lord abbot, if you plant a tree-shoot in your garden, and straightway shut it in on every side so that it has no space to put out its branches, what kind of tree will you have in after years when you let it out of its confinement?” “A useless one, certainly, with its branches all twisted and knotted.” “And whose fault would this be, except your own for shutting it in so unnaturally? Without doubt, this is what you do with your boys. At their oblation they are planted in the garden of the church, to grow and bring forth fruit for God. But you terrify them and hem them in on all sides with threats and blows so that they are utterly deprived of their liberty. And being thus injudiciously oppressed, they harbor and welcome and nurse within themselves evil and crooked thoughts like thorns, and cherish these thoughts so passionately that they doggedly reject every- thing which could minister to their correction. Hence, feeling no love or pity, good-will or tenderness in your attitude towards them, they have in future no faith in your goodness but believe that all your actions proceed from hatred and malice against them. The deplorable result is that as they grow in body so their hatred in- creases, together with their apprehension of evil, and they are forward in all crookedness and vice. They have been brought up in no true charity towards anyone, so they regard everyone with suspicion and jealousy.” …

from Letters of Anselm to fellow monks (late eleventh century)

Brother Anselm to Dom Gilbert, brother, friend, beloved lover [dilecto dilectori] … sweet to me, sweetest friend, are the gifts of sweetness, but they cannot begin to console my desolate heart for want of your love. Even if you sent every scent of perfume, every glitter of metal, every precious gem, every texture of clothes, still it would not make up to my soul for this separation unless it returned the separated half. The anguish of my heart just thinking about this bears witness, as do the tears dimming my eyes and wetting my face and the fingers writing this. You recognized, as I do know, my love for you, but I did not. Our separation from one another has shown me how much I love you; a man does not in fact have knowledge of good and evil unless he has experienced both. Not having experienced your absences, I did not realize how sweet it was to be with you and how bitter it was to be without you. But you have gained from our separation the company of someone else, whom you love no less—or even more—than [you love] me; while I have lost you, and there is no one to take your place. You are thus enjoying your consolation, while nothing is left to me but heartbreak.

[Anselm] To Gondulph— I put no other or longer salutations at the head of my letter, because I can say nothing more to him whom I love. All who know Gondulph and Anselm know well what this means, and how much love is understood in these two names. … How could I forget thee? Can a man forget one who is placed like a seal upon his heart? In thy silence I know that thou lovest me; and thou also, when I say nothing, thou knowest that I love thee. Not only have I no doubt of thee, but I answer for thee that thou art sure of me. What can my letter tell thee that thou knowest not already, thou who art my second soul? Go into the secret place of thy heart, look there at thy love for me, and thou shalt see mine for thee. … Thou knewest how much I love thee, but I knew it not. He who has separated us has alone instructed me how dear to me thou wert. No, I knew not before the experience of thy absence how sweet it was to have thee, how bitter to have thee not. Thou hast another friend whom thou hast loved as much or more than me to console thee, but I have no longer thee, thou understandest? and nothing to replace thee. Those who rejoice in the possession of thee may perhaps be offended by what I say. Ah, I let them content themselves with their joy, and permit me to weep for him whom I ever love.

from The Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 22: How the Brothers [or Sisters] Are to Sleep

Let each one sleep in a separate bed. Let them receive bedding suitable to their manner of life, according to the abbot’s directions. If possible let all sleep in one place; but if the number does not allow this, let them take their rest by tens or twenties with the seniors who have charge of them.

A candle shall be kept burning in the room until morning.

Let them sleep clothed and girded with belts or cords—but not with their knives at their sides, lest they cut themselves in their sleep—and thus be always ready to rise without delay when the signal is given and hasten to be before one another at the Work of God, yet with all gravity and decorum. The younger shall not have beds next to one another, but among those of the older ones. When they rise for the Work of God let them gently encourage one another, that the drowsy may have no excuse.

from Anonymous, A Relation, or Rather a True Account, of the Island of England, with Sundry Particulars of the Customs of these People, and of the Royal Revenues under King Henry the Seventh (late fifteenth century)

The following is from a report written by a Venetian official who visited England in 1496-97.


[The English] have an antipathy to foreigners, and imagine that they never come into their island, but to make themselves masters of it, and to usurp their goods; neither have they any sincere and solid friendships amongst themselves, insomuch that they do not trust each other to discuss either public or private affairs together, in the confidential manner we do in Italy. And although their dispositions are somewhat licentious, I never have noticed anyone, either at court or amongst the lower orders, to be in love; whence one must necessarily conclude, either that the English are the most discreet lovers in the world, or that they are incapable of love. I say this of the men, for I understand it is quite the contrary with the women, who are very violent in their passions. Howbeit the English keep a very jealous guard over their wives, though anything may be compensated in the end, by the power of money.

The want of affection in the English is strongly manifested towards their children; for after having kept them at home till they arrive at the age of 7 or 9 years at the utmost, they put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another 7 or 9 years. And these are called apprentices, and during that time they perform all the most menial offices; and few are born who are exempted from this fate, for everyone, however rich he may be, sends away his children into the houses of others, whilst he, in return, receives those of strangers into his own. And on inquiring their reason for this severity, they answered that they did it in order that their children might learn better manners. But I, for my part, believe that they do it because they like to enjoy all their comforts themselves, and that they are better served by strangers than they would be by their own children. Besides which the English being great epicures, and very avaricious by nature, indulge in the most delicate fare themselves and give their household the coarsest bread, and beer, and cold meat baked on Sunday for the week, which, however, they allow them in great abundance. If they had their own children at home, they would be obliged to give them the same food they made use of for themselves….

Source Texts:

Capellanus, Andreas. De Amore Libri Tres. The Latin Library, n.d., and is licensed under no known copyright.


Eadmer. Eadmeri Historica novorum in Anglia; et opuscula duo de vita sancti Anselmi et Quadem. Longman, 1884, is licensed under no known copyright.


Gairdner, James. The Paston Letters: 1422-1509, Vol. 1, Chatto and Windus, 1904, is licensed under no known copyright.


de Pisan, Christine. “Seulete Suy.” Oeuvres Poetiques de M. Christine de Pisan. Johnson Reprint Corp.,  1886 is licensed under no known copyright.


Le tresor de la cité des dames de degré en degré: et de tous estatz selon dame cristine, Project Gutenberg, 2006, is licensed under no known copyright.


Thatcher, Oliver J. “The Laws of Aethelbirht.” The Library of Original Sources, University Research Extension, 1907, is licensed under no known copyright.


A Relation, or rather a True Account, of the Island of England; with sundry particulars of the customs of these People, and of the royal revenues under King Henry the Seventh,” about the year 1500, Camden Old Series, 1857, is licensed under no known copyright.


Schroeder, H.J. “Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation and Commentary, B. Herder, 1937, is licensed under no known copyright.





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