Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 6: Wives as Chattels

Dr. Schrader concludes her series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that women, particularly wives, were mere "chattels" in the Middle Ages.  It is a topic she has taken on before and revisits here.

"Tree of Affinity" Manuscript Illustration from Fitzwilliam Museum MS262
It is still common today to find people (even novelists writing about the Middle Ages!) claim that "women were mere chattels in the Middle Ages." The persistence of this notion is incomprehensible to me as it was very patently NOT true. Indeed, as the noted French historian Regine Pernoud makes exquisitely clear in her comprehensive book on the subject, Women in the Days of the Cathedrals (Ignatius, 1969) women in the Middle Ages enjoyed substantially more status and legal rights than women in the so-called Renaissance and Early Modern periods -- indeed until the 20th century.

It is true that they did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as 21st century women in advanced, post-industrial, Western societies, but they were not at any time in medieval Europe (400 – 1500 AD)  “chattels.”

Let me start by reminding you what the word chattel means. Webster’s Dictionary, Second College Edition, states that a chattel is: “a movable item of personal property, as a piece of furniture, an automobile, a head of livestock.” In short, a chattel is by definition property, an object without rights. It is something that can be disposed of, sold, or destroyed by the owner. Humans who are property are called slaves. Women in Medieval Europe were not slaves—of their husbands or anyone else. Period.

These women -- sold at auction by ISIS -- are "chattels." This was unimaginable in the Christian Middle Ages!

I could end this essay here, but the persistence of the misconception induces me to go a little farther.
Nothing increased the status of women in any period and anywhere in the world so much as the spread of Christianity. In fact it can be argued that Christianity itself was the single most important factor in increasing the status of women in Europe and around the world to this day.

I'm not talking here about “equal rights,” but about the fundamental fact that nothing degrades or devalues women more than polygamy. Fatima Mernisse (a Muslim Professor of Sociology) notes: “Polygamy…enhances men’s perception of themselves as primarily sexual beings and emphasizes the sexual nature of the conjugal unit. Moreover, polygamy is a way for the man to humiliate the woman…. ‘Debase a woman by bringing in another one in [to the house].’” (Mernissi, p. 48) The Christian Church diligently opposed polygamy and succeeded in eliminating it from Christian society before the start of the Middle Ages.

Divorce in pre-industrial societies disproportionately benefits men and harms women. I understand that modern (Western) women want the right to divorce, but modern women in advanced, western societies have the benefit of birth control, education, equal opportunity, and many other hard won rights. In the Middle Ages, when women did not enjoy all those privileges/rights, divorce was (and in many non-Christian societies still IS) used overwhelming by men, almost never by women. Divorce enables men (but not women) to discard partners who have grown old, fat, less attractive or simply fail to produce children. In the absence of polygamy, which allows men to simply add another wife to replace the one they’ve grown tired of, divorce is the best way for men to ensure their personal satisfaction with their sexual partner at little personal cost.  The fate of most repudiated wives, on the other hand, was (and is) dismal. 

Thus the Christian Church’s insistence on marriage as a life bond was a truly revolutionary innovation that dramatically increased the status and financial security of women. If a man could not simply toss a woman out and get a new wife, he had no choice but to try to come to terms with the wife he had. His wife was elevated from interchangeable sexual object to life-time partner. 

Yes, I know a bad marriage can be hell, but a woman in the 5th to 15th century couldn’t just move to a new city, get a new job and start a new life. Her only option was going back to her own family (if they’d have her) and generally becoming a resented and humiliated “reject,” kicked around and abused by her sisters, sisters-in-law etc.  

And, yes, men, particularly wealthy and powerful men, in Christian kingdoms in the Middle Ages still found ways to set aside their wives, but the Church’s stance made it more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was a whole lot better than what had gone before—and still prevails in many parts of the non-Christian world. 

Last but not least, contrary to what you have heard people say, the Roman Catholic Church was not unremittingly misogynous.

Let's start with the fact that the mother of Christ was venerated above all other saints in the Middle Ages. The rosary evolved, and Mary’s status as an intermediary between man and God was propagated. Medieval Catholicism thus gave to a women a status unknown in any other religion: Mary was revered not for her fertility or her ability to satisfy man’s lust, but for her virtues: love, generosity, kindness, forgiveness etc. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary inspired imitation, and soon there were a host of other female saints revered for their piety and devotion to God even onto martyrdom. 

Christ holds his arm around his mother's shoulders in this lovely mosaic from Santa Maria de Trestevere, Rome
On a more mundane level, the Medieval Church offered women places of refuge from the violent world around them. Convents offered women an opportunity to pursue scholarship and avoid the often wretched life of wife and mother. Abbesses were usually aristocratic women with excellent connections to the powerful families of their society. As such they could be politically influential, and carried on correspondence with everyone from the pope to kings and emperors.  Some transcended their roles in exceptional ways, such as Hildegard von Bingen, who is revered to this day as a composer, writer and philosopher. But even less exalted and less well-connected women in religious orders could do things like run orphanages and hospices that were above and beyond the purely domestic or commercial activities of their secular sisters.

Over the next weeks, I will examine the status and opportunities for women in medieval society in more detail.  Meanwhile, the women in my novels are medieval women in all their complexity, power, and independence without ever stepping outside the roles and societal norms of the period.

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Friday, March 9, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 5: Filthy Pigs

Dr. Schrader continues with her series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that people in the Middle Ages rarely bathed, knew nothing about hygiene and generally lived like filthy pigs. 

A favorite Hollywood convention is to portray people in the Middle Ages as filthy. Mice run across dinner tables while dogs fight over bones at their feet. Noblemen wipe their mouths on their sleeves (or hair!), and toss the bones from their plates over their shoulders. The poor are consistently depicted in filthy (and usually ragged) clothing and mud encrusted boots. Yet the evidence we have from the Middle Ages belies this image. 

First, we should remember that although the "Middle Ages" started with the "fall" of Rome that refers to the political and military might of Rome not Roman civilization. The  customs and habits of people across what had been the Roman Empire from Yorkshire to Palestine were not suddenly extinguished or forgotten simply because the political and military structures that had made it possible to rule an Empire from Rome were gone. Rome fell, Roman thought, customs and knowledge remained in the hearts and minds of people all across the former Empire. That culture included bathing....
Image courtesy of Crystalinks.com

Across the Middle East and Muslim controlled territory in Cyprus, Sicily and Spain as well as in the Eastern Roman Empire bathing and bath-houses remained a feature of daily life just as it had been in Roman times. In the West, the situation was less clear cut because this is where the “barbarians” had the greatest impact. Nevertheless, we know from the rule of St. Caesarius, writing in the very start of the 6th century, that nuns and monks were expected to bathe regularly for hygienic purposes. Other texts recommend washing face and hands daily, as well as washing and brushing hair frequently, and keeping teeth "picked, cleansed, and brushed [sic!]" (Pernoud, Regine. Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. Ignatius Press, 1989, p. 84.)

Furthermore, bathing and washing are referred to in romances and depicted in manuscript illustrations throughout the Middle Ages. Washing hands before meals was part of the ritual at every manor and castle as well as in monasteries and convents. Washing clothes was so important that washer women ― always identified as older, respectable women very different from prostitutes ― accompanied armies. Women washing and hanging out clothes to dry are also a motif in medieval manuscript illustrations.

By the 13th century, possibly as a result of renewed contact with the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire and with the Muslim world during the crusades, bathing became very popular and prominent. Not only did public bath houses become numerous, but wealthier citizens invested in elaborate baths which by the 15th century including hot-and-cold running water fed from roof-top tanks. Even before that, the Franks in the Holy Land built aqueducts, bath-houses and sophisticated sewage systems. 

Obviously, “popular” and “frequent” bathing in the medieval context was fundamentally different than in the 21st century. It took much more effort to heat water over fire and coals, and (except for the very wealthy) it meant pumping or hauling water from a well and lugging it to a tub or going to a bathhouse. The later cost money. Not necessarily a lot of money, but it was not entirely free, and it was certainly less convenient that stepping into a shower at home today. So, yes, hygiene would not have been at the same standards as today, but that is still a far cry from kings wiping their sleeves on their velvet robes or having mice running across their banquet tables.


As for manners, descriptions and depictions of court rituals from coronations and weddings to religious processions and funerals make clear just how sophisticated and elaborate medieval manners and protocol were. Meals particularly were governed by elaborate rituals, starting with washing hands before meals and drying them on the towels provided by the server, and followed by clear protocols for pouring wine, for carving meat, and for assisting one’s table partner.

Likewise, there were rules of hospitality that included greeting a guest “courteously” and providing them with a bath and even a change of clothes, as well as a bed for the night, food and drink. Careful care of a guest’s horses as well as the guest himself was also expected, along with niceties such as holding the off-stirrup when helping a guest mount or dismount. 

While manners evolved without going away, in the early Renaissance, increasing urbanization led to increasing water contamination, which in turn led doctors to associate communicable disease with water. Water was seen increasingly as “unhealthy” just at a time when the Reformation frowned at the notion of men and women sharing public baths. Bath-houses fell into disrepute and increasingly disappeared from the scene ― without being replaced for several hundred years by private baths.  Thus, while the castles of the late 15th century had hot and cold running water, the palaces of the 18th century had no baths at all. Likewise, while people in the Middle Ages viewed bathing as both hygienic and pleasurable, by the 18th century bathing had been replaced by satchels filled with fat and blood to attract and collect flees and perfume to cover body odors. Development is not lineal.

The personal habits and manners of the Middle Ages is reflected as accurately as possible in my novels set in the 12th and 13th centuries.

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Friday, March 2, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 4: Clerical Ignorance and Bigotry

Dr. Schrader continues with her series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that the medieval Church was bigoted and hostile to inquiry, study and scholarship.

Clerical ignorance and bigotry is another popular theme in films and novels set in the Middle Ages. The Kingdom of Heaven comes readily to mind, from the evil priest in the opening scenes denying a woman burial to the Knights Templar transformed into mindless brutes, but it is by no means the exception. I could site at least a dozen modern novels in which clerics play the role of mindless fanatics, usually opposed to tolerance, compromise, and pure common sense -- but I don't want to be accused of simply bad-mouthing the competition so I won't list the titles here.

Of course, it is impossible to deny that the Inquisition was an institution established in the 13th century or that individual priests, monks and friars may indeed have been uneducated and fanatical. Certainly the ignorance of many parish priests was a scandal that fueled Luther's anger and led to the Reformation.  But Luther was not the first monk to bemoan the ignorance of his fellows and there had been many previous attempts to increase the standards of education for the parish priest. 

Yet, despite the above, it is nevertheless historically inaccurate to suggest that the Catholic Church as an institution was governed by bigotry and superstition or that it was inherently opposed to study, scholarship, and scientific inquiry.

Let's start with the simple fact that the Church, notably monasteries and nunneries, were the most effective centers for the preservation of classical literature and thought in the period immediately following the "fall" of the Roman Empire. This was especially so in the Eastern Roman Empire where monasteries were not immediately threatened, but more important in the West where they were. It is important to understand that it was in these religious institutions that the teachings not only of Christ but of Aristotle and Plato were preserved, copied, read, studied and analyzed.

Monasteries continued to be centers of learning -- not rote learning as in the Koran schools familiar across the world today -- but as centers of inquiry and study, even after the political situation had stabilized. By the 11th century they were very much centers of intellectual inquiry and debate. Peter Abelard (unfortunately more famous for his affair with Heloise than for his philosophy) is just one example of a critical thinker as a theologian, philosopher and logician. Hildegard von Bingen is, of course, another example from the same century. She wrote treatises on medicine and natural history characterized by a high quality of scientific observation. Later scholars of note included Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas. 

Indeed, the very concept of universities - places dedicated to learning and debate protected by the notion of academic freedom -- evolved out of the Cathedral schools of the Middle Ages. Pope Gregory VII in a papal decree from 1079 regulated Cathedral schools and is credited with thereby providing the framework for independent universities. The first such university was established just nine years later in 1088 at Bologna, Italy. It was followed by the University of Paris in 1150 and the University of Oxford in 1167.
The learning taught in these universities was not confined to scripture.  On the contrary, study of ancient Greek and Roman texts was an essential component of medieval higher education. It is a fallacy -- but a frequently repeated and propagated one -- that knowledge of classical texts  were "re-discovered" in the Renaissance after such knowledge was "preserved" by the Muslims. This is nonsense. The University of Bologna at its inception was focused on teaching Roman law -- that is ancient Roman not canon law! The principal sources used for teaching medicine in medieval universities were Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna. Aristotle and Plato were hotly debated in studies of law, politics, logic, and philosophy. Universities also provided study of mathematics and the natural sciences, based largely on classical but also Byzantine and even Muslim scholars. The university culture at this time, furthermore, was based on debates, disputations, and the requirement to read extensively in order to pass examinations, which entailed defending ones ideas before a panel of established scholars. The concept of "peer review" and defense of a doctrinal dissertation today is based on this medieval tradition.

Just one small example, the knowledge that the earth was a sphere was widespread in intellectual circles in the Middle Ages.  In the 6th century, for example, Bishop Isidore of Seville included the fact that the earth was round in his encyclopedia. The Venerable Bede writing roughly a century later described the earth was an "orb" at the center of the universe. Hildegard von Bingen writing the 11th century described the earth as a sphere, no less than did Dante's Divine Comedy written in the 14th century. Galileo was condemned NOT in the Middle Ages, but in the so-called Renaissance; furthermore, he was condemned not for saying the earth was round, but rather that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the reverse. 

This brings us to the fact that fundamentalism, the belief that all knowledge is contained in scripture, is inherently more bigoted and anti-science than was the medieval church. It was the Reformation, with its emphasis on the Bible -- and the Bible alone -- that bred religious bigotry in the West. Likewise it is Islamic fundamentalism, not enlightened Islam, that poses a threat to peaceful co-existence between peoples holding different religious beliefs to this day.

In all my works of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages I attempt to portray society as accurately as possible.

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Myths of the Middle Ages 3: Serfs like Slaves

Dr. Schrader continues with her series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that serfs were little better off than slaves.

The 20th century popular image of serfs was expressed in the Hollywood film “The Kingdom of Heaven” when the lead character (I hate to call him Balian d’Ibelin because he bore so little resemblance to the historical figure) says to the Hollywood Imad ad-Din that he “had been a slave ― or very like” meaning (inaccurately) that he had been a serf before coming to the Holy Land. 

The conflation of slavery and serfdom is not only inaccurate, it fundamentally inhibits our understanding of feudal society. As I noted in the opening essay on kings and subjects, feudal society was based on the concept of mutual contracts ― a fact that made medieval Europe very litigious by the way.  The fundamental difference between slaves and serfs was that the former (slaves) had no rights, while the latter (serfs) had very clear rights.

Let us start be looking at slavery. Slaves own nothing ― not even their own bodies. They can be mutilated, tortured, raped and killed by their masters without the latter committing a crime. Anything slaves produce, even their own children, do not belong to them. Their children belong to their master, who can choose to kill or sell them. As a result, slaves cannot and do not have families. They rarely even know who their parents, siblings and children are. The products of their hands, from crops to works of art, also belong to their masters. The magnificent pottery of ancient Athens, for example, was the work of slaves who might have been from any part of the ancient world.  

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

Serfs historically derived from Roman slaves. With the spread of Christianity in the 4th century AD, slavery became increasingly unacceptable because Christianity viewed each human as a soul loved by God. Within a few hundred years it was universally accepted in the Latin Church that no Christian could be held as a slave. But the economy of the period was still utterly dependent on the labor of those former slaves to plant and harvest the food needed by all. So the status of slaves was altered and became one of serfdom in which the former slave was still required to till the land and was not free to leave it, but was granted control of his person, the right to marry, have a family, and above all retain 50% or more of his produce depending on locality. Compared to slaves, serfs lived a very privileged life!

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

Furthermore, at the time this status evolved, the concept of being “tied to the land” was not seen as a brutal violation of a man or woman’s “human rights.” On the contrary, the contract between serf and lord gave the serf both physical and economic security. The lord was responsible for providing armed protection against outlaws and raiders, and the serf could no more be thrown off the land any more than he could walk away from it; he was guaranteed his share of the harvest not just one year at a time but for as long as he and his children and his grandchildren and their children etc. lived.

Renowned French historian Regine Pernoud points out in her book Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths (Ignatius, 1977, p.88):

It was this intimate connection between man and the soil on which he lived that constituted serfdom, for, in all other respects, the serf had all the rights of a free man: he could marry, establish a family, his land, as well as the goods he was able to acquire, would pass to his children at his death. The lord, let us note, had, although on a totally different scale, the same obligations as the serf, for he could neither sell nor give up his land nor desert it.

Furthermore, archaeology increasingly provides evidence of the very high standard of living serfs could attain. Clever peasants, like clever lords, made judicious marriages. Through good marriages and careful husbandry, peasants could accumulate more and more hereditary plots of land. It mattered little that they did not “own” the land in the modern, capitalist sense of the word; feudal lords didn’t own it either. The point was that some serfs accumulated the right to use the land and harvest its produce. Peasants that accumulated more land than they could themselves cultivate, hired laborers to work it for them. A wealthy serf could build a large house, purchase furnishings and other luxuries, and live like a lord ― just as long as he didn’t try to leave his land.

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

The standard of living among peasants increased as Europe became more prosperous and new technologies, from the horse collar and horse shoe to axles that swiveled and plows that could turn the soil, were introduced. These new technologies increased farm productivity dramatically. By using horses rather than oxen, for example, the amount of land one farmer could cultivate doubled. These technologies also enabled land that had previously been considered marginal to be brought under cultivation. With more land under cultivation, it was possible to introduce (in the eight century) the three field system, which left one third of the land fallow each year.  This enabled the soil to regenerate and so sustainability of agriculture was assured. As a result of these innovations, European serfs “began to eat far better than common people anywhere, ever. Indeed, medieval Europeans may have been the first human group whose genetic potential was not badly stunted by a poor diet, with the result they were, on average, bigger, healthier, and more energetic than ordinary people elsewhere.” (Rodney Stark. God’s Battalions. HarperCollins, 2009, p. 70.)

From the Duke of Berry's Book of Hours

As prosperity increased, so did the demand for goods, spawning an increase in industry and trade.  This in turn led to greater urbanization, and with improvements in transportation technology (think of the splendid naval architecture of the Vikings), trade started to spread farther and farther afield. The First Crusade (1097-1099) re-established regular contact with the Byzantine Empire and the Near East, and for the next three hundred years Europeans dominated the sea lanes of the Mediterranean. Pilgrim traffic, crusades and trade with the Levant produced a great economic boom that financed the great palaces and cathedrals, monasteries and guild halls, and many more humble dwellings as well.

Yet, urbanization also made serfdom increasingly burdensome. Serfs no longer feared losing their land, but longed for the greater opportunities in crafts, industry and trade that beckoned from the cities. Thus by the twelfth century, serfs were demanding their freedom and more and more mechanisms for emancipation evolved. By the end of the Middle Ages there were, in fact, many more free peasants than serfs in Western Europe. 

The crusader states were an exception to the overall feudal model. Founded centuries after slavery had disappeared from Western Europe and settled by free men (since serfs could not leave the land to pilgrim to the Holy Land) there were no serfs at all in the crusader states. 

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