In this fortress, placed at a distance from all social life without, the lord and his lady lived in a complete state of isolation. Without occupation in this solitary abode, life at home must have been so wearisome that the great desire of the male part of the household would be to be absent from it; and hence we find the possessors of fiefs passing their time on the high road, in adventures of every kind, wars, plunderings [sic], and anything that promised violent activity. The coarseness and ferocity which arose out of this life threw a new impediment in the way of social and intellectual improvement, and these early ages of feudalism were, indeed, ages of darkness. Yet, as one of the ablest of our modern historians has observed,
“at the same time that castles opposed so strong a barrier to civilization, while it had so much difficulty in penetrating into them, they were in a certain respect a principle of civilization; they protected the development of sentiments and manners which have acted a powerful and salutary part in modern society; everybody knows what domestic life, the spirit of family, and particularly the condition of woman in modern Europe are highly developed.
“Among the causes which have contributed to this development, we must reckon life in the castle, the situation of the possessor of the fief in his domains, as one of the principal. Never in any other form of society, has the family been reduced to its most simple expression, the husband, the wife, and the children, and been so bound, so pressed together, separated from all other powerful and rival relations. In the various other states of society, the head of the family, without quitting home, had numerous occupations and diversions, which drew him from the interior of his dwelling, and prevented it from being the center of his life. The contrary was the case in the feudal society. So long as he remained in his castle, the possessor of the fief lived there with his wife and children, almost his equals, his only intimate and permanent company. This being obliged to live habitually in the bosom of his family with his wife and children gave rise to domestic ideas of great influence.”
Moreover, when the possessor of the fief left his castle to see war and adventures, his wife remained in it, and in a situation wholly different from that in which women had hitherto always been placed. She remained mistress, chatelaine, representing her husband, charged in his absence with the defense and honor of the fief. This elevated and almost sovereign position, in the very bosom of domestic life, often gave the women of the feudal epoch, a dignity, courage, virtue, and a distinction, which they had not displayed under other circumstances, and contributed, no doubt, to their moral development, and to the general progress of their condition.
This is not all. The importance of children in the feudal mansion, of the eldest son more especially, was much greater than anywhere else. This brought forth not only natural affection, and the desire to transmit his property to his children, but also the desire to transmit to them that power, that superior position, that sovereignty inherent in the domain. The eldest son of the lord was, in the eyes of his father and all his people, a prince, an heir presumptive, the depository of the glory of a dynasty.
So that the weakness as well as the good sentiments of human nature, domestic price as well as affection, combined to give the spirit of the family more energy and power.
Add to this is the influence of Christian ideas, which we have merely noted in passing, and it may be comprehended how this life of the castle, this solitary, gloomy, hard situation, was favorable to the development of domestic life, and to that elevation of the condition of woman which holds so great a place in the history of civilization.
Advance of Woman
As a wife, at the time of the fullest development of the feudal system, woman had become, instead of the slave and property of her husband, his equal, and, in most relations of life, an independent agent. She had become capable of holding independent power of her own, which was something more than reflecting that of her husband. She was now an heiress, carrying with her as her dower, castles, and domains, and provinces, with numerous vassals; she could be guardian of the manor, regent of the state, and as such, sign deeds and share in all obligations imposed by peace and war. Many of the great ladies of the middle ages ruled over extensive territories, and took a very active part in political affairs. In the household her position had been equally advanced, and she was looked upon with a different kind of respect. Instead of serving the wine to guests, she sat at the table, and hers was the place of honor, by the side of her lord. When her lord was absent, the lady of the house was at the head of the board. The lady of the castle, too, had the direction and control of the whole family, which was often very numerous, and entailed large responsibility.
Under these circumstances, there arose a peculiar form of sentiment between the two sexes, one of which had not been known in the same guise before.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.