Noble WomenWhile life for women during the late middle-ages was oppressive, by our standards, there was opportunity for women to enhance their position and move up the social ladder. Marriage was but the first step to offer women the possibility of authority. Marriage was the major means for women to enjoy upward social mobility. Fathers would marry off their daughters to young noble men for a variety of reasons, to join great estates, fill depleted family coffers or to move themselves via the daughter's marriage to a greater place of prestige at Court.
In most cases when a nobleman had no male heirs he was forced to leave his land to his daughters. According to Jennifer C.Ward author of English Noblewomen in the Middle Ages, marriage to such women was the road to success, especially to impoverished second sons of noble families as the rule of primogeniture provided that one first-born sons would inherit the entire family estate. Marriage to such noblewomen could only serve to increase the holdings of the husband-to-be.
In many cases, the suitor or his family would approach the young lady's mother to negotiate an arranged marriage as mothers exercised some control in the choosing of a husband. Sometimes the marriage negotiations involved important social and political connections which required the skills of both a strategist and tactician. Mothers could manipulate the arranged marriages to further their own political and social aspirations while furthering the ambitions of their own husbands.
The vicarious political control women wielded through their husbands continued even after their death. Widows had more control over the lands and estates after hubby's death than she ever dreamed of while he lived. In most cases women received their husband's land after his death. In the middle ages land meant wealth and widowed noblewomen would use the wealth land gave them in much the same manner as did the men. A noblewomen could use the income from her holdings to influence lesser nobles, even financing military campaigns. While men generally gathered power and prestige through martial skills, women did so as the beneficiaries of estates.
During the middles ages a women's real power was in the prospect of remarriage. When a nobleman died, his widow retained most, if not all, of his land. Widows knew they wielded greater social power if they did not choose a new husband, although the social customs of the time pressured widows to remarry. Being unmarried was socially unacceptable, but women could, and did, make good use of remarrying in enhancing their social standing and prestige. According to the laws and customs of the middle-ages, when a widow remarried, all of her estate joined with those of her new husband's, under his control. However, widows, unlike unmarried daughters, had a free choice in their selection of husbands. Knowing that he would gain control of her land and estate, widows could choose the husband that offered the best possible means to advance their medieval careers.
Women of this time had an extremely confined existence. Of themselves they could do nothing and virtually lived through the men in their lives. No matter how intelligent and strong, a woman had few opportunities to fulfill her potential. Therefore, women would often enjoy reflected glory by supporting another's (usually a man's) projects. Such support comprised of financial, social and political help. This was known as "patronage". A wealthy woman could be a patron of the arts or even of adventure. There were many women who increased their standing in the community and their purses by investing in merchant voyages and exploration of new lands. Thus, a rich widow could enjoy her protege's artistic acclaim or be told of successful ventures. Although she would never have direct contact with the objects of such success, she would have the knowledge that without her and her influence nothing would have been possible.
There were unfortunate souls who were denied the financial power of being a patron, usually by having a living husband. It was fortuitous for these women that husbands of the late middle ages were gone a great deal of the time on the king's business, away at Court or in military campaigns. As was customary, when the master was away, women ran the entire household. The mistress of the house did not just run the house, she presided over it. The most important of all of her activities was to present herself and her family to the world by way of entertaining the neighbors. Entertaining was the means by which the wife displayed power and status through the food and drink that she served and the splendor and magnificence of her setting.
Women of the late middle-ages, though the term would not be invented for four to six hundred years, were experts in the art of networking. They used every person and social gathering to increase their network base. They fostered children of one another's families and strengthened ties in the kingdom with both friendship and kinship.
For those women that did not marry, or even remarry the church offered the only other avenue of prestige and political power. It is during the middle-ages that religious institutions become open to women. The church of the middle ages was an awesome institution, it offered women the same things as it did for men, the opportunity for powerful social and political authority. Women in the church exercised the same power as noble widows did in organizing and running their own households and estates. A women could control an entire abbey, and through it an entire town.
Noblewomen during the late-middle ages did far more than sit in their drafty towers doing needlework and weaving clothes. The women of this time took an active, but not direct, role in shaping their destinies. While men during the late-middle ages primarily used military means to achieve their political aspirations, the noblewomen of this period used what little powers they had were allowed with equal dedication. The social customs of the era dictated that women be passive, and women (especially noblewomen) used those limited avenues allowed to them by law and custom with great skill to shape their society.