But though the form became grotesque, and died in a state of frenzy, the important end achieved by the spirit of true chivalry ought not to be forgotten. It stood in the place of laws, when laws could not have been enforced, and it raised woman to a moral rank in society unknown to the most refined nations of antiquity—a rank she can never entirely lose, and from which her comparative freedom is derived. It taught monarchs to lay the foundation of a beautiful social system by introducing the wives and daughters of the nobles at court, where none but men had previously been seen. “A court without ladies,” said Francis I., “is a year without a spring, or a spring without roses.”
Beyond the walls of the castle, and having no relationship of their own with feudalism, to which the foregoing discussion has almost exclusive reference, lay two other great classes of the population. First, there were the inhabitants of the towns, who embodied, perhaps, to a greater degree than any of the others, the spirit of social and political freedom and progress. The other was to a great extent a servile class, attached to the ground, or personally to the lord of the domain, reduced to servility through conquest, and largely intermixed in the course of time with slaves reduced to that condition by means. Among the masses, in both these classes, there was far less of social refinement than among the feudal or gentle class.
Among the Masses
For our knowledge of the women among the masses at the time we must look to the fabliaux and popular tales, to the farces, and to the popular literature generally, and there we shall find it pictured pretty fully, and it must be confessed in not very amiable colors.
The generality of the burgher women were represented as ill-educated, course in language and manners, and violent in temper. They tyrannize over husbands, and beat them, and are often beaten in their turn. They love gadding about. This is perhaps easily understood, when we consider that town life, as far as the male sex was concerned, was very much out-of-doors, and that the women were left to themselves, and therefore sought society among themselves, and, as they had not this at home, they sought some common place of meeting. This place was the tavern, which, in the medieval town, was the great place of rest for both sexes.
The love of women for the tavern is continually alluded to by the early popular writers. The farces of those writers were first made to enliven the dull mysteries, or religious plays, with which the medieval clergy sough to edify their congregations on certain occasions. When the bearers appeared to be too much wearied with the religious piece, or when it was judged probable that they might be, one of these farces was introduced between the scenes, the subject usually taken from vulgar life.
A Medieval Picture
In the middle of the religious play of the Life of St. Fiarce, a farce is introduced, the subject of which is a scene of popular life, the characters being men of the country instead of the town, whose manners appear not to have differed. A scuffle has taken place between a yeoman, a sergeant (or bailiff), and a brigand, in which the sergeant’s arm is broken. The wives of the bailiff and yeoman meet in another scene, and the latter tells the former of her husband’s mishap, at which she expresses her joy, inasmuch as he had beaten her severely the night before, and she hopes he may be disabled from doing it again.
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.