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Pauline's Fantasy Reviews

Reviews of fantasy books, plus some mystery, sci-fi and literary works, and my random thoughts on book-related matters.

Currently reading

Dragon Queen (The Memory of Flames, #5)
Stephen Deas
The Splintered Eye (The War of Memory Cycle #2)
H. Anthe Davis, Erica Dakin

Women in the Middle Ages

Women in the Middle Ages - Frances Gies, Joseph Gies I read a lot of fantasy novels, many of which are set in a gloomy created world not unlike the European middle ages. This book was my attempt to see whether the truly dismal picture painted therein has any truth in it.

The book discusses the life of women in the thousand years or so from around 600AD to 1600AD, illustrated by a detailed look at the lives of a few specific women of whom accurate records exist. It's fairly dry, academic stuff, but there is a great deal of information in there.

How accurate are the fantasies? It's true that women's lives were very hard, and few below the level of royalty were able to sit around waited on by servants while they embroidered. Childbirth was risky, children routinely died before maturity, and adults, too, were often carried off prematurely by illness or accident. Medical knowledge was rudimentary, at best. Wealthier families had to fight to maintain and improve their position in society (sometimes literally) while peasants struggled to find enough to eat and pay their rents.

It's true, too, that women were regarded as subservient to men - their fathers, brothers, husbands and local lords (but men were also subservient to their masters and lords). Nevertheless, they could and did work and run businesses on their own account, they could inherit property and land, they could resort to law to defend their rights. Widows in particular could take over the rights of their dead husband, carrying on his business or craft, training apprentices and so on. And although marriage was an economic, not romantic, proposition for all ranks, wives were an essential adjunct to the partnership and (royalty apart) not just there to produce children. So although inequality was enshrined in law, the practical application was very different.