This is a study of noblewomen in twelfth-century England and Normandy, and of the ways in which they exercised power. It draws on a mix of evidence to offer a reconceptualization of women's role in aristocratic society, and in doing so suggests new ways of looking at lordship and the ruling elite in the high Middle Ages. The book considers a wide range of literary sources—such as chronicles, charters, seals and governmental records—to draw out a detailed picture of noblewomen in the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman realm. It asserts the importance of the life-cycle in determining the power of these aristocratic women, thereby demonstrating that the influence of gender on lordship was profound, complex and varied.
This chapter discusses the difficulties of analysing images of noblewomen in contradictory sources at a time when the historical discourse was evolving, owing to broader societal cultural shifts. It is also concerned with the difficulty of measuring the power of noblewomen, given the complexities of the sources. Orderis Vitalis' view of women's power in the context of their political and warlike activity, like his view of men, is ambiguous, and by no means monolithic. Orderic's portrayal of Mabel of Bellême is reflective of both contemporary clerical distrust of women in power and the nature of contemporary politics in Normandy. William of Malmesbury shows the role of wives in supporting their husbands in 1141. The Countess Mabel of Gloucester, or Nichola de la Haye acted as powerful individuals at the heart of the power structures of the aristocratic and noble élite of the twelfth century.
The importance of witnessing as a measure of consent to a transaction is particularly difficult to verify, since the references to consent in charters are inconsistent. The historiography of witnessing turns on two axes within broader debates about the nature of charter evidence. There is important evidence to suggest that when husbands and wives acted as joint witnesses they did so as conjoint lords. The presented examples of noblewomen who conjointly witnessed charters with their husbands show conjoint action of husband and wife in their capacity as superior lords for their tenants in their seigneurial court. The ranking of witnesses is an indication of the interaction of gender and status. Women participated as witnesses in land transfers as wives, widows and as part of family groups. By the end of the twelfth century, witnessing had spread through society so that women of all ranks of landholder participated as witnesses.
This chapter reveals that the interaction between gender and social status defined the place and role of noblewomen in society. The role of women as witnesses, as givers and receivers of countergifts and in the affidation ceremony showed the complexity of noblewomen's involvement in land transfers. The texts of women's seals reveal the significance of land tenure and the female life cycle in defining the legitimate place of noblewomen as landholders in society. The Rotuli de Dominabus et de Pueris et de Puellis de XII Comitatibus make it clear that noblewomen's tenure of land underpinned their status, dower was the principle form of land tenure by which widows were supported and the practice of endowing daughters with maritagium was restricted. The status of women is fundamentally linked with land tenure and with socio-economic and political factors as much as marital and family status.
The secular women's seals present the historian with unique opportunities to study the portrayal of female identity in twelfth-century England. Seals were visual representations of power, and they conveyed notions of authority and legitimacy. Women's seals have been particularly poorly served. They also identified women's power in the context of land tenure, lordship, social status and the female life cycle. Additionally, they signified both gender and status in different ways. The representational forms of noblewomen's seals symbolised noblewomen's cultural identities and served to endorse gendered norms of women's role in lordship. The use of seals by twelfth-century noblewomen reinforces the argument that noblewomen had important roles to play within the construct of lordship in the specific context of land transfers.
This chapter explores the female patronage of St. Mary's, Clerkenwell by the Munteni family in the second half of the twelfth century, and reveals how land tenure and kin connections could underpin active female patronage over two generations. It also examines the interactions of the female life cycle and social status upon the participation of wives and widows in land transfers. A discussion on female lesser nobility is presented, including the examples of noblewomen who exerted power more formally, perhaps as public office holders. The evidence shows how the roles of lesser noblewomen could resemble those of women of higher status. Women's power to grant land in the context of religious patronage gave them a public role which was considerably magnified if the woman was an heiress or a widow. There is evidence that women could hold public office if they had a claim through patrilineal hereditary right.
This chapter concentrates on charter evidence relating to those aristocratic women who were explicitly accorded the title comitissa, or else were married to men of comital rank, or were born into such families. Ermentrude's role assumed a new prominence in the affairs of the honor when as widow she had an important role to play as guardian of the heir. There is a continuity in the role of Lucy of Chester in religious patronage. The coexistence of two dowager countesses, Matilda and Bertrada, posed a potential threat to the Chester patrimony. The charter evidence has shown how in the twelfth century the countesses of Chester performed various functions at both the honor and royal courts, and reveals that there was continuity in an active public role from marriage to widowhood. The public roles of countesses of Chester were explicitly linked with their position as wife, mother and widow.
The Rotuli de Dominabus et Pueris et Puellis de XII Comitatibus of 1185
Susan M. Johns
This chapter investigates the 1185 Rotuli de Dominabus et Pueris et Puellis de XII Comitatibus in order to consider the way that royal authority and the law shaped the experience of noblewomen, but also to provide a cautionary account of the degree to which such sources present an external view of the societies in which noblewomen exercised power. Rotuli de Dominabus is a rich resource for the history of noblewomen in the twelfth century and for the study of social history. It also presents an unusually large sample of information on the value of noblewomen's lands. It confirms that dower was the principal form of the female land tenure of widows in late twelfth-century England. It then affirms that noblewomen had significant and important roles to play in the two dominant power structures of the twelfth-century, kinship and lordship, and the document shows that royal government recognised this.
This chapter addresses the importance of material, as distinct from spiritual, countergifts given to secular noblewomen as a guide to their power. The analysis puts into the context of an appraisal of the importance of gender, lordship and the way that family connections were indicated through countergifts. It is argued that an analysis of countergifts should properly be studied in sociocultural contexts but with an awareness of the impact of gender and the demands of tenurial lordship. Gender, social status and land tenure interacted to define the sorts of gift that noblewomen received. The presented examples show that countergifts could symbolise complex meanings and that noblewomen received countergifts in a variety of contexts. Evidence of female participation in twelfth-century affidation ceremonies are described as a guide to the power of noblewomen in the context of an analysis which considers the impact of gender, social status and lordship.
This chapter describes women's participation in spiritual relationships with churchmen. The role of twelfth-century secular noblewomen in procuring, commissioning and selecting literature is developed here in an examination of their role as patrons of books and literature. Spiritual relationships were an expression of aristocratic social cohesiveness and a route whereby women could exert power. There is evidence that secular women of the lesser nobility patronised writers and poets, actively fostered the production of books and were themselves literate. Geoffrey of Monmouth's view of women gives an insight into the ideal roles of women in society. Women's acquisition of books, historiography, genealogies, prayers, poems and saints' lives was an important channel of political, religious and social influence. The examples of Alice de Condet and Constance fitz Gilbert illustrate that some twelfth-century women of the nobility were able to read and participate in the production of literature.