Régine Pernoud is my favorite medieval historian. She is best known for her writings about Joan of Arc and has received an award from the Académie française for her scholarship. She has worked as a curator for the Museum of Rheims, worked at the Museum of History in France, at the National Archives, and at the Centre of Joan of Arc.
Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, written by Pernoud and translated by Anne Côté-Harriss, should be a required starting point for anybody studying medieval history or literature. Women is a survey, a broad summary that lights on particular individuals in an attempt to give the reader a clear picture of typical life for women during the Middle Ages. It’s not a primary source for high-level research, but it’s a perfect source for general knowledge. The footnotes give examples of places for further research since many of the figures mentioned can be easily researched in more depth. Pernoud’s motivation for writing Women came partially from the fact that while much of its information is well-known to the scholarly community, much has not yet penetrated general society. Pernoud’s research deals mostly with France, but she provides information to extrapolate where circumstances were similar or different outside of France.
Pernoud begins with a brief picture of women’s positions and rights in the 5th century to have a point of comparison with the Middle Ages. Next, she moves on to the circumstances that allowed for a change and greater freedom of women’s rights during the Middle Ages. The biggest factor was Christianity, so many of her early examples concern nuns or women with professed religious lifestyles.
Pernoud does not limit her arguments to the religious, however. She deals with women of high and low birth alike, town women and country women. The cultural climate of the Middle Ages means that religion was an enormous factor in most of these women’s lives, but it is not the only factor. She cites examples of women who owned wielded power in political, military, and economic matters. She discusses property ownership, dominion of estates, education, laws regarding marriage, courts of love, femininity, and how the idea of womanhood influenced the way women conducted their affairs.
My favorite aspect of this book is how it places the relevant male figures in the real, complex relationships that they expressed with the women around them. Pernoud does not spend time lamenting the unfairness of misogyny or list examples of men who behaved inappropriately towards women. Such ideas inevitably pepper every classroom discussion of feminism, but Pernoud omits them. She has all the information she needs to present a complete picture of women who led free, fulfilling lives without blaming the other sex for the shortcomings that became the norm in the sixteenth century. Overall, Pernoud’s primary interest is to show that women had a great deal of power and freedom in the Middle Ages.
If you speak French, you can easily buy a cheap copy of this book. For Côté-Harriss’s translation, the cost is expensive: $50 for a used copy, $450 for a new one. I easily found a copy in my community library, so if your library does not have one, finding one through an inter-library loan program should be no difficult feat. If this book still exceeds your grasp, try Those Terrible Middle Ages, which I will be reviewing next week. I haven’t read any of Pernoud’s other books, numerous as they are, but I assure readers that with her credentials, they must be as wonderful as these two.