Women & Feudalism: Role, Models and Sources

Workshop leaders: Vuk Samčević(ISHA Belgrade) and Amar Đulović(ISHA Sarajevo)

“What is better than wisdom? Woman. And what is better than a good woman? Nothing.” 
Geoffrey Chaucer, English writer and poet from 14th century

When you think about feudalism you often imagine that well known pyramid of hierarchy where you have the king or the emperor at the top and a peasant at the bottom. Easy, right? But is it just linear? Does it change regarding the gender; is there also some kind of a parallel hierarchy? If you want to ask those questions, this workshop is for you!
We can trace feudalism from the Early Middle Ages in Europe up until the XIX century, depending on what you consider feudalism (can we use the term feudalism for non-European societies such as Japan? Or for existing feudal relations in a dominant capitalist environment? We leave that open to you). During this time role of a woman was very much shaped by religion, the saints and the Mother of God were the ideal role models as examples of virtue, but you also had women who were rulers (Irene of Athens, Helen the Gruba, Elizabeth I, Maria Theresa…), warriors (Joan of Arc) and writers (Anna Comnene) just to name a few. Alas how many more women were there about whom we don’t know anything for the lack of sources. It is hard to tell about the lower class of people in general, but especially women who were mostly mentioned when they were members of noble families or saints.
The life of women in the Middle Ages took place between extreme interpretations and contradictory attitudes. According to the medieval concept, women were weak, irrational, and subject to hesitation. In a sermon written about 1200, Jacques de Vitry, French theologian and chronicler, stressed the need for women’s obedience, and described women as insecure, unreliable, insincere, insidious; women were stubborn and ornery. But, was everything that bad for women in medieval period?! However, it is necessary to say that women have had certain advantages over men, no matter how insignificant they appear to be. For example, in addition to the more peaceful life they had, many women were literate and had at least elementary education. Beside that, in legal terms women were sometimes only partially responsible for their actions. The wife of the criminal, who participated in the violation of the law along side whit her husband, could defend herself with the statement that she had only executed his orders, and would avoid death penalty. Also, many high-status women shared the power, position and wealth of their husbands. Even widows did not mind association with their late husband if he was prominent. Women in towns could continue the work of their deceased husband, so many of them, with their merit and capability, achieved a great fortune and through that economic power also a significant social and political influence.
In this workshop we want to examine all those aspects of women’s role in a feudal society. What were the rights of women according to the Lombard law?; How literate were women in Byzantium during the Palaeologan Renaissance? or How much did women take part in the manufacture in the urban areas in the Low Countries? We’re interested in all aspects that you can think off. Maternity? Sure! Art? Absolutely! Warfare! Give it a go! About the sources and literature? Great idea! Of course, you can also give us a presentation of some interesting historical female figures such as Tamar of Georgia, Bloody Mary, Fredegund or Lucia de’ Medici but don’t limit yourself to that. Go beyond the mainstream topics regarding women and dig a litter deeper.
Every participant in this workshop will be required to read some articles or short passages from a book on this topic that will be provided by the workshop leaders (we will take in consideration what you have written about in the application form). Don’t be shy to write about cultures or systems that are not eurocentric, we would like to hear about them also! Just check first if that can have anything to do with feudalism.