Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 1066-1500

Author: Jennifer Ward

This book provides a broad-ranging and accessible coverage of the role of noble women in medieval England. Throughout the Middle Ages the men and women of the nobility and gentry occupied a position at the top of the social hierarchy. Marriage for noble and gentry children was arranged by their families, with the participation on occasion of their lords and of the king, and it was relatively rare for the children themselves to take matters into their own hands. As with marriage, the woman's relationship to her husband and children has to be seen within the framework of canon and common law, the Church being concerned with the marriage itself, and the royal courts with property. The crucial importance of land as the source of wealth for noble and gentry society has been underlined in the discussion of both marriage and the family. Women's landholding is well documented, the amount of land in their hands varying according to the accidents of birth and fortune. The household was the centre and hub of the lady's life and activities, and can be regarded as a community in its own right. Men and women of the nobility and gentry living in the world were encouraged to practise their religion through attendance at Mass, private prayer on behalf of themselves and the dead, works of charity, pilgrimage, and material support of the Church. Although many women's lives followed a conventional pattern, great variety existed within family relationships, and individuality can also be seen in religious practices and patronage. Piety could take a number of different forms, whether a woman became a nun, a vowess or a noted philanthropist and benefactor to religious institutions.

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