Why Feminists Should Celebrate the Middle Ages (and the Catholic Church)

Contrary to popular belief, the decline of women’s rights in history has always corresponded to a retreat of the Church within Western societies, especially from the Renaissance onwards, for the Church has been the most zealous advocate of women in history.

‘The Knighting’ by British artist Edmund Leighton (1901)
‘The Knighting’ by British artist Edmund Leighton (1901) (photo: Public domain)

It is hard not to shake one’s head when hearing feminist activists describe misogynistic speech and other attacks on women’s dignity as “medieval” — especially for those who have taken the trouble to read the great medievalists such as Régine Pernoud (1909-1998).

Indeed, it is this 20th-century French historian and archivist whose prolific work has done the most to dispel the particularly tenacious myths and prejudices of our time with regard to the Middle Ages, a period that spans a millennium (from the years 500 to 1400 approximately) and is considered to have witnessed the pinnacle of the Catholic Church in the West.

In this multifaceted universe, she devoted a large part of her work to the question of the status of women, a question that was not without cultural and political stakes in a 20th century that saw the emergence of the most radical feminist movements (which spawned some of the “woke” movements we know today), against a backdrop of massive de-Christianization.

In this relatively unequal ideological battle — for in post-World War II Europe, the world of culture and education was often dominated by the anticlerical left — Pernoud’s encyclopedic knowledge and inexhaustible rigor provided invaluable intellectual weapons for those who believe in an immutable human nature and in the unique worth of the Christian message and anthropology.

Her original approach to the complementarity of men and women is distilled in her numerous historical works on the Middle Ages and her monographs on the great saints of Western history — particularly well summarized in her book Women in the Times of the Cathedrals (1980), in which she masterfully demonstrates that women reached their zenith in feudal times (between the 10th and 13th centuries).

Aware of the controversy her theories could arouse in the academic circles of the late ’70s, where existentialist feminist currents of thought were spreading like wildfire, she was careful to point out in the preamble to her work that “if the analysis of the facts is questionable, the facts themselves are in any case incontestable.”

The Rise of Christianity and the Blossoming of Women

In fact, while it took a certain amount of intellectual courage to assert, in France at the time, that the cause of women was inseparable from the defense of the Middle Ages, it took even more to maintain that the first carrier of women’s emancipation in history was none other than Christianity and that women’s loss of ground socially always corresponded to a retreat of Christianity in the societies where it had taken root.

Indeed, Christianity developed and initially took root so profoundly, according to Pernoud, mainly thanks to the massive adherence of women, of all social ranks, precisely because as Christians they enjoyed a much higher status than pagan women in the world at large. She points out, relying on numerous legal and historical sources, that in Rome, women were not subjects of law, but merely objects at the mercy of their fathers, who had the right of life or death over them, their husbands or their fathers-in-law.

Their world was entirely revolutionized by the preaching of the Gospel and thus by the affirmation of the intrinsic dignity and autonomy of the human person — identical for both men and women. Realizing that what Christ, and after him his apostles, had given them, and that no law of the Roman Empire would ever similarly confer such rights, they were at the forefront in proclaiming the Good News, claiming their right to choose their spouse or to remain virgins “for the sake of the kingdom of God,” often at the price of martyrdom. Indeed, Pernoud points out that encyclopedias of second- and third-century history list far more women than men as great saints of the Church, from Zenobia and Faustina to Agatha, Agnes, Cecilia, Lucy, Catherine, Margaret, Eulalia, Blandine and many others.

She also tells explains that the first hospital system was founded by St. Fabiola at the end of the fourth century and that the earliest treatise on education was written by a Christian woman named Dhuoda in the ninth century, representing a sum of erudition particularly rare for the time. Moreover, the slave-emancipation movement found one of its main advocates in Melania the Younger, who freed no less than a thousand slaves. And it was the arrival of a Christian woman in power, Clotilde — wife of King Clovis whom she converted — that gave birth to the history of France.

The Golden Era of the Middle Ages

While the spread of the Gospel in the first centuries after the birth of Christ enabled women to achieve positions of influence like never before, it is truly during three centuries of the feudal age — the 10th to 13th centuries — that the historian situates their peak in the eyes of history, , whether they were powerful queens, zealous saints, abbesses on horseback, theologians, regents or landowners.

In this period, which also marked the golden age of Christianity in Europe (the monk Raoul Glaber wrote at the dawn of the 10th century that “the world was covered with a white mantle of churches”), girls reached adulthood at the age of 12, two years before boys, and could practice any profession. Some of them even took part in the Crusades.

In terms of education, historical reality once again seems far removed from the misconceptions that would have the Middle Ages hallmarked as an era of illiteracy and obscurantism, particularly among women. In this respect, Pernoud quotes the Romanist Karl Bartsch, who reported in 1883 that “women read more than men in the Middle Ages.”

Women’s names often appear among the copyists listed on the colophon record at the end of texts, suggesting that many of them not only could read, but also knew how to write.

One of the key examples the historian calls upon to illustrate the level of esteem in which women of the time were held is, unsurprisingly, that of the great German St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a woman of enormous influence who maintained correspondence with all the great men of her time. This female saint, who is now a doctor of the Church, also had two male secretaries to whom she dictated her works, the monk Volmar and Guibert of Gembloux (whose spiritual director she was).

Sts. Hildegard, Catherine of Siena and Joan of Arc
L to R: Sts. Hildegard, Catherine of Siena and Joan of Arc

She also notes that, in this feudal society marked by very distinct social categories, the prestige of women — like that of men — was generally linked to the nobility of their lineage, which did not prevent two women of modest extraction from fulfilling their exceptional destinies and being admitted to the pantheon of the most famous women in the history of mankind. These women are, of course, St. Joan of Arc (1412-1431), the daughter of peasants who single-handedly raised an army at Orléans, defeated the English and had King Charles VII crowned; and St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), who was destined to be, Pernoud recalled, “just a girl like any other,” but who had a decisive influence on the Pope’s return from Avignon to Rome during the Great Western Schism.

“The Order of Fontevraud, that still existed in the 15th century [later dispersed during the French Revolution], attested to a time when women were trusted, and the memory of [the queens] Eleanor [of Aquitaine], Blanche [of Castile] and so many others was far from faded at the time,” writes Pernoud.

Renaissance, Enlightenment and French Revolution ‘Obscurantism’

Already in decline at the time of Joan and Catherine, with the gradual marginalization of women in university training (women were forbidden to practice medicine from the 14th century onwards), this golden era was resolutely buried during the Renaissance (15th-16th centuries), which marked a rejection of the legacy of the Middle Ages, a profound crisis for the Church in the face of the Protestant Reformation, and a return to the fashions of Greco-Roman society through art, customs, literature and the reassertion of Roman law.

Pernoud — for whom the term “obscurantism,” generally associated with the Middle Ages, applies much more to the Renaissance and the centuries that followed — demonstrates with her talent as a popularizer how all of these factors were decisive in the deterioration of male-female relations in Europe and of the general status of women, whose age of maturity, for example, was pushed back from 12 to 25 in 16th-century France. This loss of ground intensified over time, and the Lumières movement and the subsequent French Revolution did nothing to help.

Indeed, the misogynistic views of many 18th-century thinkers are no mystery, with the emblematic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau deeming it “normal that woman, inferior in the natural order, should also be inferior in the civil order” (Emile or On Education).

With the advent of the French Revolution (1789-1815), which shook up European societies collectively, the bourgeois class that officially took power dismissed women from public life, notably through the abolition of women’s clubs in 1793. The strong religiosity of many women at the time, and their massive support for the clergy persecuted by the revolutionaries, had the effect of increasing mistrust and hostility towards them.

Pernoud has harsh words for the bourgeois values of the Revolution, which reached their height in 19th-century Europe with the promulgation of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s Civil Code (1804), adopted by almost all European countries, Latin America and the U.S. state of Louisiana. This code, in her view, relegated women to the status of “eternal minors,” totally submissive to their husbands, and placed them in total isolation from society and the unfolding of history.

While the women’s liberation movements that ensued in the 19th and 20th centuries are not illegitimate according to the historian, she already noted 40 years ago the “suicidal tendency” of many of them. According to her, they encouraged women to “deny themselves, to be satisfied with copying their partner’s behavior, seeking to reproduce it as a kind of ideal, perfect model, denying themselves any originality from the outset.”

“Why don’t we women invent our own solutions, as other women did in their time? Don’t we have anything original to offer the world, for example, in the face of today’s serious shortcomings?” she wrote. She goes on to conclude that “we can only assert ourselves by creating” and that “it is difference that is creative.” These were prophetic words indeed, a few decades before the emergence of ideological movements whose vocation is the pure and simple negation of the essence of beings.

All the great female figures to whom the historian, recognized by the Académie Française for her lifetime’s work in 1997, paid tribute embody a vibrant plea for a reaffirmation of the Christian conception of male-female relations in society — the Church having been the most zealous advocate of women in history, without ever compromising their complementarity with the opposite sex.