History's Women: Misc. Articles: General Conditions During the Dark Ages from 500-1100 A.D. - Rise of Chivalry

Rise of Chivalry

The lady of the castle, as the head of the household, represented womankind in full consciousness had been communicated to the rest of the sex within the castle walls. When woman obtains this position, it immediately makes itself felt upon the other sex, and under it the harshness and ferocity which were naturally among the first characteristics of feudalism were gradually exchanged for elegance of manners and sentiments which were new to society. Out of this state of things arose two words which will never be forgotten. These words are courtesy and chivalry. Courtesy meant simply the manners and sentiments which prevailed in the feudal household; and was, above everything, that which distinguished the society inside the castle from the people of the country, and it is universally allowed that it was the influence of the female sex which fostered it. Chivalry arose from the opposite source, but took on bolder forms and addressed itself to a somewhat task. The knight learned to look upon woman as his patron and mistress and upon himself as her servant, and as bound to her offer himself in her defense.

But though all the principles of chivalry and gallantry were universally acknowledged and talked of, the things themselves sank into forms and matters of show and ostentation—to the tournament and the joust—and left their greatest impress on romance and letters.

Morals and Amusements

Feudal society was, in comparison to what had gone before it, polished and brilliant, and presented many great qualities, but under the surface it was far from being pure. The whole society in the castle mixed together on something like a footing of equality, and where the lord of the castle appointed one of the young bachelors to serve one of his daughters, it might and according to the romances, sometimes did, end in marriage. During a considerable portion of the day, the inmates were engaged in playing together at different amusements and games, and we can perceive in the descriptions given, that these were often suggestive of anything but chaste feelings, while the language in common use among both sexes was far from delicate. All these were combined with an extreme intimacy between the two sexes, who commonly visited each other in their chambers or bedrooms. Thus we may easily understand how all these customs would join in giving great license of tone and character to female society during the feudal period.

Elevation of the Wife

It has been stated that feudalism raised woman to a higher place in domestic life; that whereas before she was in a state of subjection, under the feudal household certainly gave the lady of the house a dignity and imposed upon her responsibilities which secured her respect and gave her freedom of action. She was called upon to direct a little army of subordinates, and was her husband’s partner and equal. But this improvement in the status of woman is not discernible except in the governing classes. The women without title, rank, position, wealth, the women of everyday life, profited little. They shared in the subjection of their fathers, brothers, and husbands, and they enjoyed none of the privileges which the feudal system conferred on their more highly placed sisters. In a state of society where the mass of people were in a dependent position, it is not likely that any special freedom would be granted to or even claimed by women. Under feudalism there was no sort of independence possible to women who were not born to wealth or rank.

Legal Restraints

Women were under a twofold sovereignty—that of the feudal lord and their male relatives. No woman in any position of life could be said to be a free agent.

If she were a great heiress, she was disposed of in marriage as best suited the king and his council without regard to her wishes. In the case of a vassal’s daughter, the consent of the feudal lord must be obtained to her marriage. Every tenant paid a sum of money to the lord on the marriage of his daughter, and his tax was even levied in the case of granddaughters. A couple could not be betrothed without the permission of their feudal lord, and if they failed to obtain his consent they were subject to a fine. A woman living on the estate of a feudal lord was regarded as, in a manner, his property. If she married a stranger and left the manor, the lord was entitle to compensation, as being deprived of part of his “live stock.”


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.