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Dena L. Moore

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The Medieval Noble Lady and the Peasant Woman: Who should we envy, who should we pity?
By Dena L. Moore   

Last edited: Sunday, June 02, 2002
Posted: Friday, May 31, 2002

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The Medieval noble lady and the peasant woman appear to be worlds apart; indeed, in the dual vision of femininity in the Medieval world, caught up in the Eve versus Mary mentality, the noble lady was likely to be envisioned on the pedestal while the peasant woman adamantly attempted to evade the fires of hell. This article looks at women's roles in the Medieval world.

The Medieval noble lady and the peasant woman appear to be worlds apart; indeed, in the dual vision of femininity in the Medieval world, caught up in the Eve versus Mary mentality, the noble lady was likely to be envisioned on the pedestal while the peasant woman adamantly attempted to evade the fires of hell. Over five hundred years later, the noble lady is still highly esteemed and envied in comparison to the peasant, who is considered to have led a miserable life. Was the peasant woman as pitiful as she has been portrayed, and did the noble lady truly lead a life worth envying?

Despite the diversity of roles fulfilled by noble and peasant women, these two classes share significant similarities. The life of a noble was different than the life of a peasant, but different does not mean superior. The negative view of women, which likened the female to Eve and, therefore, evil, affected both the loftiest royal and the poorest of the female cottars, albeit on different levels. The noble lady and the peasant alike were considered to be less valuable than a man who shared the same status as she did in society due to the belief that men were morally superior to women, and the fact that the work of a woman, particularly the work of a noble woman, was less evident than that of her husband, brother, or father and rarely received recognition.

The noble lady played an important part in the efficiency of running the estate of her husband. She was the person who made sure everything ran smoothly, from the provisioning of the keep to the defense of the estate while her husband was absent. Depending on her family's rank, the noble woman could also be in charge of many of the household chores in addition to her supervisory role. The rank of a noble corresponded accordingly with the actual amount of physical and mental labor a woman put into the household, with the highest ranking women supervising officials who, in turn, directed the rest of the staff. The management position held by many noble women wasn't a visible one in comparison with the men in her family, who could be seen traveling to, or holding, court, riding about the estates checking with the officials, or engaging in battle during war.

The peasant woman, on the other hand, did have a very visible role to play in her household, but, she too was affected by the negative view of women. The married peasant woman worked very hard to help support the family. She kept the house, cooked, did the wash, made the cloth and clothes,7 milked the cows, tended the fire, cared for the children, and basically took care of any other task her husband did not have the time for, and, on top of all this, she often earned extra income outside of the home. There were numerous opportunities available to the peasant woman to make money, including the making and selling of cheese, butter, and ale, as well as offering to do odd jobs for others who were more prosperous. The chance to earn extra money through labor was not an option for the noble lady, but the noble lady usually had no need to earn money, as she was generally well provided for by her husband and dowry. Despite all the duties of the peasant woman, she did not attend court, join tithings, or hold any manorial office, much as the noble lady didn't attend the feudal court, or hold any office in her own right.

The other view of women, which is often perceived as the positive view, generally affected the nobility and was just as damaging to the noble lady as the negative view. This notion placed women on a pedestal with Mary, claiming that noble women were pure, innocent, and good, while baser women were wicked and enjoyed luring men from their duties. Troubadour poetry, which often represented noble women as being able to awaken men to higher aspirations, and courtly chivalry helped to set the unrealistic ideal of the "perfect" lady, an ideal impossible for any real woman to live up to. The medieval model of female perfection made it even more difficult for noble women to compete with men, and kept them hidden in their secondary roles. Taken in this context, the ~sant woman cannot be pitied over the noble lady; the noble woman was thrust from one facet of the medieval mind to the other, never knowing where she stood in the world and trying to climb up the pedestal without falling. The peasant woman knew she was viewed as evil and, because she knew that she was not, went about her business of surviving.

Looking at the position of the noble woman in the working world, the peasant woman worked harder physically, but the role of the noble lady was much more stressful mentally. The management of such a large household while maintaining appearances would be quite a burden, and as there is no obvious tangible return for a noble lady's labor, such as the peasant had in bringing home income to help the family prosper, it would be a very onerous position to uphold. Perhaps the noble woman received personal gratification in the knowledge that she did a good job, but the peasant had that as well. Like the noble lady, the peasant woman had to keep up appearances, but on a much smaller scale; a peasant woman could do anything work-wise and still hold her place in society. The noble woman was very restricted in her place; for example, a duchess would be ridiculed if caught out in the fields harvesting the crops.

Upon maturity, the peasant woman had more options than the noble. As a single adult, the peasant woman usually worked as either a wage laborer or a live-in servant. As a wage laborer, the woman would work at haymaking, thatching, reaping, or as a washer woman. If she could find work as a live-in servant for a richer peasant, or even up at the manor house, the peasant woman would engage in child care, clothes washing, and any other odd job desired by her employer. If the woman could not find work, and the Lord allowed it, she could make her way to town and seek out a living there. When the peasant woman married, she became mistress of the house and took up her position as a wife, but marriage did not necessarily put an end to the woman's wage earning, nor did the peasant woman have to marry. The noble lady, however, had no place in the world if she did not marry or enter a nunnery. Society dictated that it was her responsibility to marry and bear as many children as possible, and if she choose not to, then she had to enclose herself. Some noble girls were forced to join a nunnery in order to prevent them from claiming inheritance rights, and others were given to the convent to prevent them from needing a huge dowry. Customarily the dowry needed to enter a nunnery was much less than one expected by a future husband. Of these girls, some were unhappy in their enclosure and managed to escape when they were grown. Entering the convent was not an option to many peasant women, although a few orders, such as the Gilbertine Order, did accept the poor. This alternative was an important one for the noble and often offered the lady more freedom and power than marriage could provide. Within the nunnery, a woman could rise to the position of an abbess and acquire authority in a male-dominated society, as well as receiving a more formal education than her married sister.

Despite the opportunities offered by the convent, most noble women were not allowed to make any decisions regarding her future, and many were betrothed from a very early age, even from birth. The women usually had no say in who was chosen to be her husband because her marriage was arranged by her parents or guardians for social, political, or economic gain. The marriage contract was drawn up upon the noble lady's betrothal and specified the dower, dowry, and the disposal of property if the marriage was barren. The peasant woman's marriage could bear similarity to the noble's, an arrangement made by the family, or it could be remarkably different. Some peasants were allowed to marry for personal reasons, such as compatibility or love, but more often marriage was for financial gain for both families and involved the entire family, church, lord, and the community as a whole due to the collective nature of the manor.

Children were considered assets by the nobility and peasantry alike, but there was a marked difference between the relationship of a noble woman and her children and a peasant woman and hers. Children were viewed as assets by the nobility because they were useful in forging future alliances, however, the noble lady was advised to put her husband before her children, which often led to an absence of emotional bonding with her children. There were many other reasons for this lack of bonding, the most important being the short life expectancy of children. Other explanations include the idea that reproduction was a male function (that the man sowed the seed and the woman was merely the field in which it grew) , the bearing of heirs was seen as a duty, the legitimate offspring of the marriage was rarely the result of love, and the fact that the children were often cared for by nurses when they were young, and, at about the age of seven, were sent into other households to learn skills and to further their education. Because, in many circumstances, there was little attachment between a mother and her children, medieval noble women were rarely depicted as mothers in contemporary art or literature.

The children of a peasant women were usually seen as assets because they could help with the family land and chores, and the older children could help take care of the younger children. Unlike the noble woman, peasant women were expected to love their children and to personally care for them most of the time. The neighbors in the community generally disapproved of neglect and abuse, and could use their voice in the village and at manorial court to rectify the situation. Due to the personal time put into caring for her babies, most peasant women formed a loving relationship with their offspring. Although most peasants viewed children as an economic resource and loved their youth, some saw their offspring as a burden because of extreme poverty, which sometimes stepped in and led to horrific treatment of children, including infanticide such as "accidental" overlaying, and abandonment. Other parents sold their children on the black market and into slavery, or artificially stunted a child's growth to create a dwarf, who was worth a lot on the market and much sought after for aristocratic amusement.

Another factor of motherhood, breast feeding, was also dramatically different for the noble lady and the peasant woman. The noble could employ wet nurses to nourish and care for their children, and commonly did. In fact, noble ladies weren't expected to feed their young. Breast feeding in general ties a woman to her baby for extended periods of time and, thus, a noble lady gained greater freedom and mobility by not breast feeding. She had more time to pursue her other roles in life, particularly the role of the household manager. A significant drawback to not breast feeding, other than the lack of bonding between mother and child and the child's loss of the immune effects of colostrum (not recommended in medieval times because it was believed to be unhealthy) , was the loss of breast feeding's contraceptive effect; therefore, noble women became pregnant much more often than the peasant and had to contend with the risks of childbirth and the high rate of child mortality, risks which were heightened by the close spacing of pregnancies.

Unlike the noble, the peasant woman was tied to her children for many hours a day during breast feeding, and it was not uncommon to breast feed for the first two or three years of a child's life. Breast feeding robbed the peasant of free time to earn extra money and made it much more difficult to fulfill her obligations to the Lord and her family, but the resulting effect of fewer, and healthier children, with pregnancies typically spaced two or more years apart, more than made up for the sacrificial years of breast feeding. It seems likely that breast feeding would have also helped those few desperate peasants who already had too many mouths to feed, thereby reducing the rate of infanticide.

Another circumstance that shows that the gulf between the noble and peasant is not quite as wide as it appears is the treatment of women upon her husband's death. When a peasant woman's husband dies, the Lord of the manor took heriot and the Church took mortuary. The heriot often consisted of a large part of the household, usually all the metal objects, the best beast, uncut cloth, and all the pigs. Sometimes other payments were required in addition to the heriot, usually a fine for the privilege to take over the husband's holding. As if matters were not desperate enough after the lord's scourging, the Church claimed as mortuary the second best beast of the household. This left many women and children in extreme poverty, sometimes with less than half of their previous possessions. In the worst cases, a widow would not be allowed to take over her husband's property because of her dire poverty brought on by the Lord and the Church and the family was ordered out of their home.

When a noble lady was widowed, she, too, was mistreated. A lady was as desirable as her dower, and upon her husband's death, she became a ward of the court, and, depending on her status, was given in marriage by her Lord or the King. The noble lady was not usually given the choice of her future husband, and to make matters worse, she had to pay a fine to the Lord or King in order to remarry. To escape remarriage, she could often pay an exuberant fee, and due to the fact that the fee was often higher than the worth of her dower, she was prevented from remaining single or controlling any property in her own right. This situation was remedied upon the reissue of the Magna Carta, which clarified the position of widow's housing. The widowed lady no longer had to remarry or pay for her own dower, and was usually allowed to live off of her dower if she so wished. This did not give her control of her deceased husband's property, although in some instances a woman was allowed to hold the land in her son's name until he reached majority.

A superficial difference between the noble ladies and the peasant women often leads many to assume that the noblewomen had a much better life than the peasant. This difference was in the way the two classes dressed. The noble woman spent considerable amounts of time worrying about her appearance, and spent enormous sums of money purchasing cloth to create lavish gowns. Many fabrics were imported including sheer linen, silk, cotton, taffetas, velvets, brocades, and damasks. The lady would outfit herself outrageously in an attempt to out-dress other nobles, because to a noble, dress exuded status. Furs were reserved for a certain class of noble; Queens wore ermine, magnate's wives wore squirrel, and the lesser nobles were allowed to wear rabbit. Also adopted into fashion were unique types of headgear such as double horned hats, conical steeples with hennins, and many types coifs. The peasant woman typically wore long, loose gowns with aprons and wimples that were made of homespun and died with natural dyes. The dress of both the noble and the peasant were fitting for the roles they played in life. The noble could wear uncomfortable, close-fitting gowns because they did little physical work, but the peasant could never have survived in such outlandish clothes. The peasant needed freedom of movement for the many types of work they had to take care of, and the loose fit likely helped when it was time to feed the babies.

Noble women did not lead a better life than the peasant women. The similarities between the two classes are as great as the disparities, although the similarities are not always as obvious or blatant as the differences. The life of a noble lady had it's share of good and bad, just as the life of the peasant woman did. In working, the peasant woman had more recognition and likely more satisfaction, despite the physical aspect of her labor, than the noble. The peasant also has fewer people to care for, as a peasant household generally consisted of a single family instead of the multitude of servants, retainers, and guests of a noble household. The greater the status of a noble lady, the more she was expected to have everything perfect and the more people she was put in charge of, thus the more stress that was piled on her. The noble lady also lacked the opportunities that the peasant had as a single woman, and had little or no say in her marriage. In most circumstances, a noble woman was more likely to play the role of a birther rather than that of a mother and, although she had more freedom than a peasant who reared her own children, the noble also lost the chance to experience the unconditional love of her children. Because the noble did not breast feed, she forfeited the important contraceptive effect that could have prevented closely spaced subsequent pregnancies, which possibly caused more of her children to die in infancy, or even led to her own demise. The peasant that breast fed had fewer children, and likely experienced a closer bond with her children than that of the noble lady. Although some peasant women murdered their offspring, or sold them on the black market out of desperation, many more noble women gave their children over to wet nurses at birth and subsequently put them in monasteries or apprenticed them into other noble households at a young age.

Noble women had very few good personal relationships. Her husband was often a stranger, her children were more often than not cared for by another, her own parents were usually distant, both physically and emotionally, and she had great difficulty in making and maintaining friendships. The noble lady had trouble making friends because she was often sent to distant lands to fulfill her marriage treaty, and she lived on an isolated, rural estate with few, if any, women of her own class around, and she could not cross class lines to become friends with her servants. This contrasted sharply with the peasant woman, who ordinarily had not only her children, but her husband and both of their extended families surrounding them as well. The peasant woman could also make friends with other women, although her social ties were limited to her equals within the village.

In the case of widowhood, the noble woman and the peasant were both treated poorly, but the peasant woman usually took over her husband's property upon his death if she could satisfy both the heriot and the mortuary. The noble woman usually lost vast amounts of her husband's property, excluding her dower. One could say that the noble's dower likely far exceeded that of the peasant's land, but the reduction in her status was dramatic compared with that of the peasants. The only way the noble lady could retain her status was to remarry. The peasant woman, by comparison, usually lost possessions, not land, and she could, by hard work, gain back all she had lost and possibly even increase her holding.

The noble lady had money, good food, expensive clothes and possessions, a high status in society, lived in a castle or a manor, and was sometimes viewed as the savior of men. She also had few, if any, good personal relationships, was forced into a convent or a marriage in which she had no say, was in charge of a large household but rarely received recognition for her work, had to keep up appearances by wearing uncomfortable clothes and behaving in a manner befitting her station in life, and when her husband died she usually lost her status in society.

The peasant woman had less money and food than the noble, she wore plain, homemade clothes, had a low status in society, lived in a small hut or longhouse, and was often viewed as the debaser of men. She also had many good personal relationships, had some say in who she married, took care of a small, normally appreciative household, had the opportunity to increase her wealth through work, had fewer children than the noble, was less likely to die in childbirth because she bore fewer children, and when her husband died she lost many possessions, but generally had the chance to regain all that she had lost without remarrying.

Should the medieval noble lady be envied? Should the peasant woman be pitied? Both classes should be envied and pitied at the same time because the life of a noble was not as wonderful as it has been portrayed, nor was the life of a peasant as terrible as many believe. The noble lady and the peasant woman alike had their share of good and bad, but over all the peasant woman comes out ahead. Most of the noble lady's advantages were superficial and could not make up for a life lived in loneliness under stressful conditions. The peasant woman may not have had many material possessions, but she had her family, her work, and she accepted life more readily than the noble did. The peasant woman's life had more meaning because she had more recognition, and she had more sense of herself, something the noble lady failed to do so often because of the pressures dictated to her by society. The noble lady rarely had a self; she lived for her place in the world, however superficial and prescribed it may have been.


Bennett, H.S. Life on the English Manor. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Herlihy, David. Women. Family, and Society in Medieval EuroDe. Providence, RI: Berghahn, 1995.

Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women. New York: st. Martin's, 1995.

Power, Eileen. Medieval Women. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975.

Willams, Marty, and Anne Echols. Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner, 1994.

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