Some medieval noblewomen, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, took an active hand in politics. Eleanor inherited vast lands in southwestern France.
Through two marriages, she became queen of France and, later, queen of England. For more than 50 years, Eleanor was a leading force in European affairs.
A woman's right to inheritance was severely restricted under the feudal system, although women did sometimes inherit fiefs. Land usually passed to the eldest son in a family. A woman frequently received land as part of her dowry, and fierce marriage negotiations swirled around an unmarried or widowed heiress. If her husband died before her, a woman gained her rights to her land.
Like their brothers, the daughters of nobles were sent to friends or relatives for training. Before her parents arranged her marriage, a young woman was expected to know how to spin and weave and how to supervise servants. A few learned to read and write. In her role as wife, a noblewoman was expected to bear many children and be dutiful to her husband.
In the later Middle Ages, knights adopted a code of conduct called chivalry. Chivalry required knights to be brave, loyal, and true to their word. In warfare, they had to fight fairly. For example, a knight agreed not to attack another knight before the opponent had a chance to put on his armor. Warriors also had to treat a captured knight well or even release him if he promised to pay his ransom. Chivalry had limits, though. Its elaborate rules applied to nobles only, not to commoners.
But chivalry also dictated that knights protect the weak, and that included both peasants and noblewomen. Few real knights could live up to the ideals of chivalry, but they did provide a standard against which a knight's behavior could be measured.
Chivalry raised women to a new status. In theory, if not always in practice, chivalry placed women on a pedestal. Troubadours, or wandering musician-poets, composed their love songs, praising the beauty and wit of women throughout the ages.
In epic stories and poems, they told stories of brave knights and their devotion to a beloved woman. Much later, ideas of chivalry would shape our modern ideas of romantic love.
How was warfare central to life in the Middle Ages?
The heart of the medieval economy was the manor, or lord's estate. Most manors included one or more villages and the surrounding lands. Peasants, who made up the majority of the population in medieval society, lived and worked on the manor.
Under the manor system, also called the manorial system, the lord of the manor exercised legal and economic power over the peasants who lived on the estate. The lord administered justice and provided land and protection. In return, peasants owed their lord labor and goods.
Historians have described several factors that contributed to the development of the economic system of manorialism. These were largely the same as those that led to the development of feudalism. Kings and emperors in Western Europe had become too weak to provide security. Trade declined sharply. Local communities had to become self-sufficient economic systems capable of meeting their own needs. These communities were manors.
This diagram of the lands of a manor during Middle Ages shows where the lord's family and peasants' families live.
How does this compare with the bird's-eye view shown later in the lesson?
Most peasants on a manor were serfs, bound to the land. Serfs were not slaves who could be bought and sold. Still, they were not free. They could not leave the manor without the lord's permission. If the manor was granted to a new lord, the serfs went along with it.