I was once talking to a couple of friends who belonged to a fairly conservative Christian church. They’d recently got married and the wife mentioned that in the wedding service she’d promised to obey her husband (far from typical by the late 1980s). So I asked them jokingly if she did obey. She said yes; her husband said no.
I’m writing a piece about Carolingian women at the moment and I keep on coming back to this question: what was it really like for them? I looked briefly at Helene Scheck’s recent book Reform and resistance: formations of female subjectivity in early medieval ecclesiastical culture and was unimpressed by its rigid polarisations. To Scheck, periods of ‘reform’ (such as the early Carolingian period) see women only as supplementary subjects or abjected, and there is no possibility of an ‘autonomous female subject’. Yet there is also ‘resistance’ to such a view, both from women and also from some of the reformers themselves. In contrast to Scheck’s book, I’m getting far more from Hans-Werner Goetz’s Frauen im frühen Mittelalter. Frauenbild und Frauenleben im Frankenreich, which frames the question of Carolingian women’s role in terms of limitations and possibilities, and is far more conscious of the ambivalent attitude of Carolingian men to women.
I think one of the reasons I found Scheck so irritating is that she’s still buying whole-heartedly into the claims from 30 years ago (by Suzanne Fonay Wemple and Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg in particular) about the Carolingian period being worse for religious women than the Merovingian period, without paying attention to the major flaw in their studies: that they were often basing their assessments on Carolingian hagiographies of Merovingian women. So maybe I need to start by reframing the question slightly: what’s distinctively Carolingian about Carolingian patriarchy? I’ve talked about this before but I’m still not sure I’ve captured the specific flavour of patriarchy in the period, and particularly how it’s enforced. This is another attempt to try and fit a few more of the pieces together, focusing inevitably largely on elite women, because they’re the ones we know most about.
A lot of traditional discussion on how Carolingian patriarchy works tends to focus on ‘law’, whether it’s capitularies or canons. But the more I read about dowries (and I’ve been reading a lot recently, the more I am sceptical about the early medieval idea of law and ours having much resemblance (and I feel rather the same after reading Alice Rio on formularies and slavery). To the Carolingians and the Merovingians, written law appears to count as nothing more than a starting point. And sometimes not even that. Consider one of the Merovingian formulae that Alice has translated (Marculf II, 12), which starts:
To my sweetest daughter A, B. An ancient but impious custom is held among us [a reference to Pactus Legis Salicae 59, 6], that sisters may not have a share of their father’s land along with their brothers. But I, carefully considering this impiety [say]: just as you were equally given to me by God as children, you should also be loved by me equally, and enjoy my property equally after my death....’
How do we understand this text? As an act of ‘resistance’ by some proto-feminist father? But this model document is repeatedly copied throughout the Merovingian and Carolingian period: it’s not marginalised or suppressed. It always remains as an option, but then so does the Pactus.
Looking at dowries also argues against economic pressures being one of the main methods for enforcing Carolingian patriarchy. It’s clear that women overall have less property than men, and that’s probably true at every social level. Trying to work out in general what control they have over their property seems to me to be near impossible. There isn’t a nice clear divide between when women have usufruct over the dowry and when they have full ownership (even assuming that what charters say full ownership, they actually mean it), and you can make specific arrangements over control via dowry charters, which themselves are the products of negotiations between the families of the couple. What isn’t really visible, however, is the existence of specific tools to bully recalcitrant women into obedience: complete control of property by husbands or disinheritance of recalcitrant daughters.
Similarly, while male violence was a key part of Carolingian patriarchy, I’m increasingly coming to think that the Carolingian preference was for patriarchy via indirect violence. The reformers do not encourage violence against wives or daughters, even as they do encourage it against sons. Instead, the (largely implicit) threat for women is the withdrawal of male protection for them, which will expose them to the dangers posed by other men. What I’m not sure is whether this meant that women ‘lived in fear’, as some scholarship presumes, especially when almost all men have to face the repeated threat of violence as well (between lordly oppression, elite warfare and ‘pagan’ attacks, who was free from worries about violence other than occasionally Charlemagne?)
Beneath these levels of patriarchal control are the ones we can barely glimpse at all in the kinds of sources we have: social sanctions (disapproval/shame/ostracism etc) and the internal caging of men and women’s minds via the effect of patriarchal ideology. We’re still waiting for the study of Carolingian honour we really need, but my sense is that social sanctioning works differently in particular societies depending on the importance of social/political patronage. If you have to network hard to maintain your position in a society, there’s an incentive not to destroy the position of other people if they might possibly be valuable to you. You can only decide to snub the people who call a lavatory a toilet if you’re very sure you’ll never need their help in any way.
The one form of elite female behaviour that Carolingian society does seem to have imposed heavy social sanctioning on (extending into violence) is sexual misconduct. Yet even here, there are some odd exceptions. Ingiltrude gets away with running off with her lover and never returning to her husband Boso, despite all the efforts of several popes. Apparently, her relatives were still prepared to support her efforts to avoid going back to Italy, as was Archbishop Gunther of Cologne. And there are a few other similar, if less blatant cases in ninth century papal letters of wives successfully abandoning their husbands.
As for patriarchal beliefs held by both women and men in the period, there tends to be a divide between those like myself or Katrien Heene who stress the relatively low levels of misogyny in Carolingian sources as compared to late antique or eleventh century texts, and other scholars who point out Carolingian texts which refer to female inferiority. Maybe we need to think more creatively about how sexism and respect can co-exist not only within cultures, but within individuals.
The nearest I can get to characterising Carolingian attitudes is in them seeing Woman as inferior, but not necessarily women. Any society where the dominant ideology starts from the premise of female inferiority is faced with the problem of how to reconcile that belief with experience. It’s fairly easily to sustain the claim that women are physically inferior, for most, but not all definitions of physical activity. Claiming that women are intellectually or morally inferior is much harder, given the empirical evidence in every society of considerable numbers of intelligent and/or virtuous women along with stupid and/or vicious men. It is possible for a society to get round the problem of intelligent women by refusing to educate them properly and then calling them ignorant, and the moral problem by deployment of double standards, but both require particularly concentrated forms of self-delusion. The easiest solution for believers in male superiority is therefore to retreat to the proposition that on average women are intellectually or morally inferior. This is very difficult to disprove conclusively, even with advanced experimental techniques, particularly given the psychological effects on women themselves.
Saying that women are inferior on average is also a very flexible strategy, because it allows variation on how much overlap there is between the ‘worst’ men and the ‘best’ women. At one extreme a few exceptional women can be grudgingly admitted to be up there with the lowest men. At the other end, any number of individual women can be recognised as morally or intellectually excellent, just as long as a few men are still on top (so that it doesn’t matter if more women than men go to university, as long as most Nobel prize winners are male).
The latter seems to be nearer the view adopted by at least one Carolingian commentator. When Lupus of Ferrieres is trying to console Einhard on the death of his wife Imma, he says:
Indeed, even though she had learned many things from your association, so that she surpassed by far not only the average of her own sex, but also the crowd of men in her distinguished prudence, dignity and honesty...and although female in body, had advanced to male in mind, she would scarcely have climbed up to the height of your wisdom’
Certe illa etsi ex vestro consortio multa didicerat, ita ut non sui sexus modo, verum etiam turbam virorum sua insigni prudentia, gravitate atque honestate... longe superaret, ac corpore femina, animo in virum profecerat, ad sapientiae vestrae fastigium numquam penitus aspirasset (Lupus, Epistola 4 MGH Epp 6 p 12)
Lupus’ views may be expressed in sexist terms, but he clearly considers Imma the superior to most men, if not quite to Einhard. And though such a view can be used to address women in a controlling way (‘you’re not like the rest of those inferior women’), that hardly seems likely here, when he’s talking about someone dead.
How do we put all these pieces of Carolingian patriarchy together? One way is to talk in terms of restrictions combined with room for manoeuvre, which is how Hans-Werner Goetz frames in. Yet it’s surprisingly hard to find absolutely hard and fast restrictions. It’s not quite true to say that a woman could do anything if she found someone powerful enough to support her: she couldn’t become a cleric, for example. But Ingiltrude could get away with adultery; Charlemagne’s daughters could get away with ‘living in sin’ while he lived; Liutbirga could abandon convent life for the secular sphere at a countess’ request and still be seen as holy. The need for the approval of some man was still almost always there. But a woman who was lucky and also adept enough to be able to work the Carolingian system could, I think, do more than in many other patriarchal societies before and since.