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Transcript - Medieval Women's Rights: Setting the Stage for Today

The medieval church gave birth to the misogynistic rhetoric that continues to hinder women’s progress in the West today, but it also witnessed the first real “feminist” rumblings of discontent.

Medieval women were not content to be victims of oppression: they challenged the rhetoric, and when that didn’t work, they found ways to work around it. In this podcast, historian Sara Butler speaks about women in the Middle Ages and how they faced many of the same challenges that we do today. Sara Butler is a Professor and the King George III Chair in British History at The Ohio State University Department of History.

[Listen to the podcast here.]

Transcript Begins Here:

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Welcome to "Medieval Women's Rights: Setting the Stage for Today" brought to you by the history department, the Clio Society in the College of Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University, as well as by the Bexley Public Library. My name is Nick Breyfogle. I'm an associate professor of history and director of the Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching. And I'll be your host and moderator today. Thank you for joining us. As we celebrate International Women's Day today, and Women's History Month this month, we welcome Professor Sara Butler, who will speak to us about women in the Middle Ages. The medieval church gave birth to the misogynist rhetoric that continues to hinder women's progress in the West today. But it also witnessed the first real feminist rumblings of discontent. As Professor Butler will discuss, many of the women were not content to be victims of oppression. They challenged the rhetoric, and when that didn't work, they found ways around it. Let's get to know our speaker today. Dr. Sara Butler is the King George III Professor of British History at Ohio State University, a graduate of Dalhousie University, she spent most of her career at Loyola University New Orleans. She came to Ohio State four years ago. She has written three books. Her most recent is entitled Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England. Her research focus is the social history of the law. She's written on a wide variety of subjects from abortion, alimony, child abuse, divorce, domestic violence, to juries of matrons, regulation of medical practice suicide, and violence in sacred space. She resides in Bexley, Ohio, with her husband and three kids. You'll often see her walking her dogs in the evening. With that introduction, let me mention the plan for today. Professor Butler will offer an overview of women in the Middle Ages, and then she'll take your questions and we'll open things up for discussion. If you're interested in asking a question, and we hope that you will be, please write it in the question and answer or the kind of Q&A function at the bottom of your screen on soon. And then I'll pass the questions on to Professor Butler. Now, without further ado, let me pass you over to Professor Sarah Butler, who will take us on an exploration of Medieval Women's Rights: Setting the Stage for Today. Professor Butler.

Dr. Sara Butler 
Thank you, Nick. First, I'd like to say thank you very much to Nick and the Goldberg Institute as well as the Bexley Public Library for having me today. I'd also like to make sure everyone notices on this first slide that I have my email address and my Twitter handle up there. So if anybody wants to get in touch with me for questions that we don't have time for today, or any, you know, thoughts that come to you later on, please do get in touch for women's history. But I think it is very useful for us to stop for a moment and consider women's advances throughout history and try and get a better sense of some of the obstacles that have stood in the way of gender equality, but also some of the ways that women have worked around those obstacles to obtain power, and a society that has worked very hard to prevent them from having it. And to do this, I'm going to be asking us to reach back into the Middle Ages. And I know for a lot of people who don't know very much about the Middle Ages, that probably seems like one of the worst times to go looking for women who were trying to fight back against the patriarchy. And I'm going to say some of this has to do with the image of women out there in society. So of course, this is a Halloween outfit about the Middle Ages, a medieval wench costume replete with beer accessory. Well, this is the image in particular that Hollywood has given us of women in the Middle Ages, because honestly, Hollywood is not that interested in looking at women pushing the boundaries in the Medieval Era and fighting the patriarchy. But I think again, that has a lot more to do with the fact that the movie business is interested in good battle scenes and not much else, right? So the reality of women in the Middle Ages is very different than what this costume encapsulates. And what I want to do today is show you why every good feminist needs to know something about the Middle Ages, and I thought we would try to frame today's talk as lessons I've learned about being a feminist from studying the medieval period.

Dr. Sara Butler 
So let's start with lesson number one. Lesson Number One is conspiracy theories. While fun, they have no basis in reality. So what do I mean by that? When I first started out in women's history, I started with the conspiracy theory, i.e., I assumed that the oppression of women was really because men wanted to feel more important than women. Oppressing women is fun, right? Obviously, that's where it comes from. That's where I started. And I quickly realized that that is absolutely dead wrong. Because it's far more complicated than that. The oppression of any group does not exist independently. Oppression is tied intimately to economics, political, and social structures. And in a very religious society it is also very much tied to a woman's role within the institutional church. So just to give you a sense of this, in the high Middle Ages, we see a serious reorganization of society in response to the onslaught of Viking raves, they needed to create a society that was better prepared for war at a moment's notice. So they needed something akin to a standing army. So what we see is the development of feudalism. And I'm sure you've all encountered this at school at some point, but I've got a nice little feudal pyramid over here on the left-hand side of the slide. In theory, the king owns everything. He then takes the land, loans it out to the barons, and says you can have this land providing you, in turn, give me a military when I need to go to battle. Those barons take out land, subdivide it and give it knights, so they've got their military. And of course, at the very bottom of this pyramid, are all of the farmers in society, peasants, freemen, serfs. They may be 90%, but they are the 90% that doesn't really count. Now the problem with an organization like this, as you can see, all of these people are represented by men. Because this is an organization that is established to prepare for war. Even the church played a really important role in war in the Middle Ages, because battles are won when God is on your side. So this is all about men. The only role women can play in a society like this is to give birth to warriors. So this is one element that is very problematic. Having a society that focuses entirely on war and organizes for war leaves no place for women.

Dr. Sara Butler 
At the same time that we had this reorganization of feudalism, they also brought in a new method of inheritance, primogeniture. Primogeniture means everything goes to the eldest son. Well, the problem obviously, with a system like this is while it is good to make sure that a land descends down the ranks of the generations as a package, rather than being, you know, divided up into little pieces and eventually whittled away, it ends up ousting a lot of people from inheritance. Obviously, women are ousted from inheritance, and they don't have that many ways to access property. Perhaps even more importantly, though, it means every younger son is also ousted, and the only way that younger sons are given an opportunity to make a place for themselves in society then, is through marriage. And this is because even though the land was supposed to descend intact in one lump sun, fathers knew that they couldn't get their daughters married off unless essentially, they paid someone to take them. That payment is called the dowry. So every time a woman married, her father had to chop off a little bit of that inheritance and make sure to give it to her. Now granted, that dowry is something that went from a father's hands to the woman's husband's hands. So even though it is property that transferred with her, she had no access to it. The only other way a woman was able to get her hands on property was through the death of her husband. And the property she got at that point was a third of her husband's property referred to as either the widow's third, or a dower. So when her husband died, she got her dowry back and her dower and that's one of the few situations where a woman actually could access property or own property and be powerful if she was able to remain single, unmarried. And this is the problem. Those younger sons, the only way they were going to be able to do anything in the world was through marriage to gain their wives' dowry, and hopefully a dour. As Georges Duby has written about in the later Middle Ages, there were roving bands of young nobleman wandering around European Society trying to find wives through kidnap. Even Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, was almost kidnapped twice. One of them was actually her future brother-in-law. But again, that highlights the difficulties of a system in which women are tied extensively to property. They don't have access to their own property in a society when you know property equals power. But they become their property. Women become their dowries, in terms of how they are represented to others in society. This is particularly apparent in the medieval Mediterranean for example. There they placed greater emphasis on the dowry as a means to pass on family wealth. So when a man was ready to get married after he'd done some sort of apprenticeship, so 30s 40s, somewhere in there, he was ready to become, you know, a full partner in a business. So what did he do? He married and then used his wife's dowry to invest in that business so he could become a full partner. This means that fathers saved up their whole lives to marry off their daughters, because those dowries had to be enormous, which is fine if you have one daughter. What happens when you have two daughters, or three, or six, or nine? Medieval Mediterranean folks seem to have had a lot of children? Well, the convent was one solution for rich families. But even then, a father still had to give a convent a dowry to pawn his daughter off. So we discovered that the medieval Italians essentially dealt with this in the same way that the Chinese dealt with their surplus population of daughters in the 20th century. They got rid of them. In fact, infanticide was so bad in medieval Italy, that the church had to institute these foundling wheels. This founding wheel was a great way to drop off your daughter anonymously, because you could put her into this hatch, turn it around, and she would suddenly be inside the orphanage.

Dr. Sara Butler 
So the reason I'm telling you all this, I think that this tells us an awful lot about a woman's place in society, and how it's tied to other factors. And in particular, a woman's position and value in society is very much tied to political organization and economic systems. I think one of the reasons that women are more liberated in the West today is because we have broken away from inheritance as the chief means of support in society. But in places in the world where women continue to be represented by their dowries, women will continue to be treated as property, the property they very much represent. I think one of the other lessons to learn from this, though, is none of this, none of this was direct oppression. This was all indirect. It's not like men sat down at some point in time and said, hey, women are getting too powerful, we need to do something about that. All of this happened as a result of other changes that indirectly affected a woman's place.

Dr. Sara Butler 
This brings me to Lesson Number Two: progress is not inevitable. So keep on working. What do I mean by that? I think our ideal is that when we work hard to achieve something, it creates a lasting difference. And this is very much seeing then, history as a story of progress. But unfortunately, it doesn't really work that way. Real life is messy. We have our ups and downs. Sometimes that progress is lost because of other changes in society. And I'm going to go back to the early Middle Ages, in some respects to make this point. I suggested that all of those changes with feudalism and inheritance happened in the high Middle Ages, and it had a major impact on women's society. Before that some historians have argued that women in the early Middle Ages were in a position of rough equality with men. Now, I think that's actually a bit of an overstatement. But it does make the point, women were in a much better position in early Middle Ages than they were in the later period because of other changes in society. And to give you a sense of what I mean by that, when we go to the early Middle Ages, we discovered that we had female priests and female bishops, female deacons. There have been two books written on this subject that are both excellent Joan Morris in the 1970s, Garry Macy in, I think that's about 2007. But these have been really important studies to document how women in the early church played a very key role in recruitment and missionary efforts. And in fact, they infiltrated every level of the church hierarchy. The evidence is extensive, and it is irrefutable. There's also lots of evidence to discover that once the church began to get more organized and more political, it became primarily male.

Dr. Sara Butler 
Then we see this, that by the Seventh Century, women have lost their place in the upper ranks of the church. Plus, the church, since that time, has spent a very long time trying to cover up some of the evidence that women had an earlier prominence, or the very least, misinterpreting it. Again, these books have been around for a while, and not acknowledged by the church. So this is an instance where, you know, we once had female bishops. We don't anymore, and I don't think anyone would even contemplate it today. To give you another sense, Nicola de la Haye, a woman who was around in the 13th century, she is one of England's only female sheriffs in all of English history. This lovely plaque that you see on the left side of the slide is actually something that was created about a month ago. It's a totally new plaque to commemorate her. She was constable of Lincoln Castle. And because of that, also Sheriff of Lincoln, this was a hereditary position, and she was the only one in the family who was able to inherit it. And you know, she even managed to defend Lincoln Castle when it was under siege for 40 days in 1191. Now, despite her fabulous achievement, totally unexpected in many ways, for even a woman at that time. What we discover is that she is not the first in a long line of sheriffs. She's actually one of the only ones and if you start looking around, female sheriffs are even rare today. So it doesn't necessarily matter how great a job a woman does. The point here, my students are constantly telling me that the job of feminism is over. But I think that we need to learn from the history. Because it seems though even when we have big advancements, an important person, and an important place, for example, someone like Kamala Harris today as Vice President, it doesn't mean that things have gotten so much better and are going to continue to get better. Gender equality is a constant battle. Women need to guard their gains, and make sure that changes in the economy, for example, don't send them scuttling back to the kitchen.

Dr. Sara Butler 
Lesson Number Three: history is written by the winners. And in this case, that is a group of celibate men, highly educated ones called monks. Now what's really important here is in the 11th century, we see the church getting reorganized, and as a result, trying to make parish priests who were Christ representatives in society to the ordinary person, trying to make them more like monks. In particular, they told parish priests, it's time to get rid of the wives. Priests should be celibate, like monks are. And how do you convince a group of men to abandon their wives, to abandon women entirely? You write horrible stories about women that exaggerate all their flaws, and essentially make them walking sins, a constant danger to a man's soul. And that's one of the major reasons why the Middle Ages seem so misogynist. These monks wrote a lot of really terrible stories about women. Granted, that was also fairly easy for monks to do. Many monks spent their entire lives in monasteries. They were donated there as children, and because of this, they had no contact with women. Monasteries were worlds without women. So for many monks, women were mythical figures, very much the medieval equivalent of the Boogey Man. So you can write really awful things about women as monsters. When you don't know women, you're certainly not worried about offending anyone. And from their perspective, there are really only three women who ever matter. Obviously the most important one is Eve.

Dr. Sara Butler 
Woman, all women are descendants of Eve. And as we know from the story of Adam and Eve, woman is very much a temptress. Poor Adam, as you see him below in this image, had absolutely no opportunity to fend off Eve. Despite the fact that she's a vulnerable woman, you can see how she is overpowering him. All because of her seduction, we also see through this image and this is Eve twice in the same image, Eve is talking to the snake. The snake in the Middle Ages usually had the head of a woman, just to emphasize that the snake was going to appear, if you know, the devil was going to appear to anyone, of course, he would appear as a woman. Well, because of this, they truly believed in medieval society that women had a close relationship with the devil. BFFs all right. Great image here of a woman riding with the devil. And because of that, women were more vulnerable to possession. On the left we see an image of a woman being exercised. Women were also far more likely to be witches and spend their lives worshipping devils. Indeed, we end up with a whole witch craze, where up to 60,000 people were put to death. Because of this idea of women's close relationship with the devil, women were also very much considered to be gossips, because when they speak, they don't know how to speak appropriately. Because if a women knew how to speak appropriately, then Eve never would have spoken to the serpent. So there's a lot of concerns about women getting together and gossiping. Now, we have all those ideas about Eve that are really terrible. Granted, we have another woman who would seem to redeem all women, the other woman, the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin Mary is everything that is wonderful. And she is even the Queen of Heaven, so someone very important. Granted, she's also best known for something that no other women can do, having given birth, while never having had sex. And we have to remember that a lot of women in the Middle Ages were actually pushed into marriage as teenagers. So they were very much aware that this wasn't even a possibility for them. Most women instead aspired to be this woman, Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was a much more reachable goal, because she is someone who was a terrible sinner. They believe she was a prostitute. But she was still a prostitute who eventually reformed and managed to become a Saint. So that certainly gave them at least some inspiration. But I think it's important to recognize the long legacy of these ideas about Eve. I know we're all tired of hearing about Eve, but Eve dominates the Middle Ages. Because anytime anyone does anything, anytime a woman does anything wrong, everyone is reminded it's because of Eve. So just like Eve, modern women don't know when to stop talking. I pulled this poster out from World War II, sailor beware, loose talk can cost lives. This was one of the main themes of a lot of these posters from this era. Don't tell your wife or girlfriend anything. She's probably working for the enemy, or she'll inadvertently through gossip tell people the wrong thing. We also get the enduring legacy of Eve the seductress. Again, a lovely poster for World War II to remind us of the dangers of seduction. But I think that we see this in everyday life, even there's very much the idea that if men feel lust, it is because of women. That is a legacy of the story of Eve. So this is just a reminder of how important some of these ideas are that we need to recognize and attempt to eradicate them from society.

Dr. Sara Butler 
All this brings us to Lesson Number Four, which is, the answer is never as simple as you think it is. I know I've just told you a whole bunch of really terrible things about the medieval church, how it participated in creating misogyny, how it very much worked at oppressing women. The church was also the greatest champion of women in the Middle Ages, giving women a place of authority in an era that generally denied women authority and allowing women to use the church as a platform to voice their opinions. Some of the coolest women of the Middle Ages just happened to have been nuns. And we see them doing some incredible things. Say Hildegard of Bingen is one of my absolute favorites. She was actually sainted under Pope Benedict the 16th, so rather recently. She was a woman of many talents. In particular, she was a musician, you can actually ask Alexa to get amazon prime to play some Saint Hildegard of Bingen's music. She was a philosopher, a mystic, a visionary. She wrote medical treatises. She went on preaching tours, and yes, preaching tours were the concert tours of the Middle Ages. She was also an advocate for women. Here's one of the important statements she made, "For humanity is God's complete work. Man and woman are in this way so involved with each other that one of them is the work of the other. Without woman, man could not be called man. Without man, woman could not be named woman. Thus, woman is the work of man. While man is a site full of consolation for woman, neither of them could henceforth live without the other." She also argued that Jesus took his body from a woman, and it is woman then rather than man who best represents the humanity of the Son of God. Now, other great women from the period: St. Catherine of Siena. She was an influential mystic, a doctor of the church and incredible letter writer. Her letter writing brought the Babylonian captivity of the church to an end by convincing Pope Gregory the 11th to return to Rome, after the papacy had been resident in Avignon for decades. We also have St. Julian of Norwich, a woman despite the name. She was an anchoress, who lived in a tiny little cell, cut off from the world, but she spent most of your time thinking deep thoughts and thankfully wrote them down. Her book, "The Showing of Love," includes an amazing refrain where she says, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," a message, I think we could all use at the moment. And this is a message that brought a great deal of comfort to a world torn by war, pestilence and rifts within the institutional church. She also was an advocate for women. And she wrote all about Jesus as a mother figure, nurturing, and loving humanity. None of these women could have did what they accomplished without the support of the church. So again, history is never black and white. It's not all the churches bad, or all the churches good, it's somewhere in between. We also discover that some problems just won't go away. So, for example, the wage gap. According to the United States Census Bureau, the year 2019, women were earning roughly 79% of what a man earns, so for every dollar a white man earns, a white woman earns 79 cents. Well, let's compare this to medieval England. In medieval England, women earned roughly 73% of a man's wages,

Dr. Sara Butler 
We really have only gone up about 6% in 600 years. We also discover that in general, women were paid best when there weren't enough men around to do the work. So for example, after the outbreak of the Black Death, men were particularly vulnerable to the plague bacillus and died at a much higher rate. So there were a lot more women around in society than men, and with a labor crisis, women were suddenly paid well, and working in fields that we'd never expect. I've got what we call the medieval Rosie the Riveter over here on the right with women as blacksmiths at a time when women didn't do that kind of work. But just like we saw with World War II, when there were enough men to do the job, women went back to the kitchen, their regular jobs, and they were given less money. Now, another continuing problem, there's often a sense that when women's work happens in a household that isn't really work. This was true in the Middle Ages, as well, where men were named after their professions and women were named after their husbands. On top of that, women had to figure out how to deal with this imaginary labor, and still manage to raise a bunch of kids. And we discover women doing this balancing of work and family. Quite literally, as we'll see, with this woman balancing her jug on her head. They came up with some pretty inventive ways to keep children safe, while they could still get their jobs done. And one of my favorite ways is to note that they did this in part by getting men to help out. I will say, having spent a lot of time reading Coroners' Rules, that wasn't always a good idea. But as our belabored man over here on the left helping out, this is Joseph helping Mary with children. And this wonderful image on the right of baby walkers, which, if any of you remember, they were around, I think until they were banned in 1980s. They had those in the Middle Ages to keep children safe, so women could still get their work done. We also discover that some things were done better in the Middle Ages. And here, I know I have a picture of domestic violence. I don't mean that they did that better. I mean that sometimes they handled it better. One of the things I always tell my students is that the problem really is with the modern era, we have this strange notion that marriage is a private relationship between two people. We think because of that what goes on in a marriage is nobody else's business. Well, the medieval world would have thought that we were crazy, and that we were engaging in some pretty risky behavior. Marriage in the Middle Ages was very much public. Most marriages were arranged marriages of sorts. And I don't mean that the bride and groom didn't have any say in it. But it would have been vulgar to get married without talking to your family and your friends and getting all of their input, too. But because families and friends worked so hard to bring a couple together into the ideal marriage, they were invested. And there was no way that we're just going to leave it at that. So communities very strongly believed that it was their responsibility to supervise marriages. And when things went wrong, they leaped in, intervened, and helped out. And when things were really not going well, they worked to help that couple get a divorce whenever it was possible. And here's where I also put in shameless plugs for my books. I have a book on marital violence, and one on divorce. And I know most people think divorce didn't happen in the Middle Ages. It did, and there were a lot of ways to accomplish it. Now, one of the other things that we start discovering is women were blocked from a lot of positions of authority in society. And yet somehow, a lot of women managed to get themselves into authoritative positions somehow. So what we have to do is find those ways that they worked around oppression. I come up with a few good tips, some of them more relevant than others to the modern era. Tell them St. Michael made me do it was Joan of Arc's explanation. Joan of Arc was one of our first cross-dressing saints. She wore armor, she wore men's clothes, she chastised kings, she goaded men into going to war and she led armies into battle. These are not at all typically feminine activities. But she managed to do just fine by telling them St. Michael made me do it. I think we might leave the story there with her, instead of, of course, pointing out that she was eventually sold out by the Burgundians and burned at the stake by the English. But until then, it all worked just fine for her.

Dr. Sara Butler 
Another piece of good advice. Don't be afraid to annoy people. After 14 children or so Margery Kempe decided that she wanted to become a saint. She became a born-again virgin. Wearing only white, she started fasting constantly. Although she did eventually trade in the fasting for not sleeping with her husband. She wandered around town crying non-stop about the Passion of Christ. She was one of the most annoying human beings my students have ever encountered, to the point where her fellow pilgrims abandoned her on an island on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem because they just couldn't take it anymore. But she was a world traveler. She spoke to a lot of important people. She wrote the first autobiography in the English language, and we still teach about her in school today. Dieting has its perks. This one I will say, don't try this at home. Many medieval women achieved autonomy and celebrity by miraculously subsisting on odd and unusual foods. Carolyn White Walker Barnum has documented 45 different medieval women who chose this path, the sanctity. Just to give you some examples St. Catherine of St. Catherine of Siena just ate the Eucharist. Colette of Corbie didn't eat at all. Princess Elizabeth of Hungary knew she was a saint when she started giving away all of her husband's food. If anything, I think these women can remind us that women sometimes seize power in unusual and unexpected ways.

Dr. Sara Butler 
Lesson Number Eight: women can do wonderful things within education. One of my favorite women from the period is Christine de Pizan. Now her father was a physician for King Charles the Fifth of France. He never had the son that he wanted. So instead, he treated his daughter like a son and educated her just like he would have a son, even though his wife said that it was unladylike. And at 25 when her father had passed away, and her husband died and she found herself a single mom raising two kids and supporting her mother, what did she do? She used that education to support herself as a writer. And she wrote prolifically, but she also wrote things that we wouldn't expect a woman to write, like, for example, a treatise on chivalry. She also was a very keen defender of women. Not only did she respond to misogyny, and society by explaining that it was wrong, she demonstrated to people why it was wrong, arguing how women had contributed to the greatness of society, and how if women were educated, more women would be able to participate in creating a better world. I always equate Christine de Pizan as sort of the fore runner of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Women many, many years later. Christine is one of the first scholars out there who tries to explain misogyny. She blamed it on self-love, lack of talent, a male need to feel superior to women, and a disdain that stemmed from frustration of male sexual impulses. Moreover, she reminded everyone that the world in which they live it really is men who do all the damage. Women kill no one, wound no one, torture no one. They are not treacherous. They set no fires, disinherit no one, poisoned no one, take neither gold nor silver, cheat no one out of his wealth or inheritance, make no false contracts, nor bring any harm to kingdoms, duchies or empires. In other words, all the problems of the world really springing from men. So yes, give a woman an education, and she'll shake things up.

Dr. Sara Butler 
Lesson Number Nine. Behind every great man, there's a great woman. How did Richard the Lionheart manage to spend all but six months of his reign on crusades fighting Saladin while he was supposed to be running a country? Behind Richard was his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who ran the country in his absence and did a much better job than he would have anyways. And when he got captured by the Holy Roman Emperor, who raised his grandson? His mom, who continued to fight for institutional poverty after St. Francis passed away. Only some of his friars did, but his childhood friend, St. Clair made it her life's passion. And when Emperor Justinian was ready to flee Constantinople just because of a little riot in the Hippodrome, who reminded him that she intended to die in purple, so man up and deal with the riot? I'm paraphrasing a little. This was Empress Theodora, his wife. So behind every man is a great woman.

Dr. Sara Butler 
And my final message, sisters are doing it for themselves. This is a lesson I learned from other medievalists out there. Women's history as a discipline wouldn't even exist if women hadn't pushed and pushed and pushed and reminded people that this stuff is actually worth studying. And as I've tried to point out today, learning about women in history means you learn a lot more about the society in which they lived, about economics, about power structures, about how oppression actually works. And these are the larger lessons that come from paying attention to marginal people's wins. Historians have also been the ones out there pointing this out and saying, we want to understand racism, you need to understand all forms of oppression first. I'm still convinced that understanding history is the best way to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. So women's stories have constantly reminded us, as well, that women have done some pretty amazing things in history. Perhaps it is time that we should recognize them for it. Thank you.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Sara, thank you so much for the fascinating, fascinating, fascinating talk. And if anybody asks, we'll tell them that St. Michael made you do it. No, that was just great. I wanted to, I wanted to open up for questions from people in the audience. We've had several that have come in while while Professor Butler was talking. And if you have other questions, please, please, please feel free to put them into the Q&A function just at the bottom of your screen. Just type them in and we'll try to answer as many as we can in the time that we have. So let's jump in with a few questions from our friends in the audience. So Abigail Christensen, I think, was interested in finding out do people in the Middle Ages ever consider allowing women to fight in wars? You began with the idea that the whole feudal system was designed in some ways to kind of structure for war and that men were the core of that. Was there ever consideration of, of a kind of Amazonian option?

Dr. Sara Butler 
They never had women fighting in the wars. However, I will say that women still played a prominent role in wars. For example, a lot of the research that has been done on women during the crusade period has demonstrated that women played an important role. Expanding the ranks, they would often march around with pots on their heads. So the enemy would think there were more soldiers than there actually were. They also brought water to men on the battlefield, because they didn't have handy little canteens, etc. And that meant a lot of women ended up losing their lives. They did a lot of nursing. They did the laundry. They played an important role as prostitutes for soldiers, as well. So they certainly did have roles to play in war.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
We also have a question from Elizabeth Drake and I think it's an interesting one, and I'm gonna expand on a little bit. She says that she went to St. Catherine's School, which is in Bexley, Ohio, for elementary school, and they never taught her or any of the other students, just what you shared about St. Catherine. And so she's curious if you've ever considered speaking at St. Catharine's. But I think that leads to larger question, what? Well, really actually two larger questions. One is what happened afterwards? I mean, why how have these stories become lost? Why did this change? And also, how does the Catholic Church today respond to the kind of research that you are talking about today and the ways in which we're now kind of re-seeing the medieval period and closer to how it was than to how the stories are being told?

Dr. Sara Butler 
I have to say, I think that a lot of the history that gets dug up these days about women within the church, honestly, is mostly ignored by the church. Not entirely. I mean, please note, I did say that Hildegard of Bingen was just recently sainted. So there is certainly an appreciation. And I think that there will always be an appreciation for St. Catherine of Siena. I think it is unfortunate, though, that for a lot of elementary and high schools, the people working there generally know very little about church history. And I would certainly say that if St. Catherine of Siena school called me up and asked me to come in and give a talk, I'd be there in a minute. I also think that unfortunately, there's a lot about St. Catherine of Siena's life that is not exactly G-rated, she had a very involved relationship with Christ that is a little complicated. Being a bride of Christ in the Middle Ages sometimes meant a bit more than we would expect.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Okay, I won't ask you to elaborate on that, then. We have a question about? Well, in some ways, how do you? How do you approach studying women in the past? Given the reality of sort of modern feminism or even the #MeToo movement today? You know, sorry, it's, this is someone, Jenna Bresindy, and I hope I am pronouncing your name correctly. You know, as someone who studies women in history, could you discuss your thoughts on this? And then how do you talk about actions agency through the lens of modern, through the world we live in today, as you think about the past?

Dr. Sara Butler 
I think that the world we live in today actually helps us to come up with a lot of our historical questions. So for example, divorce is rife in the world that we live in, and is something that certainly caused me to start thinking about when women in the Middle Ages were in a marriage, and it was unhappy, what did they do about it? I knew that the church had rhetoric that marriage should be permanent, like Christ's relationship with the church. But does that mean women just, you know, put up and shut up? Well, these are the kinds of things that you start looking at and wanting to know more about. Something like the #MeToo movement in particular, I would also like to emphasize is really key. That is, I'm part of a group of scholars who are all focused on domestic violence run out of a university in Finland, that we have been meeting monthly, actually, since the pandemic began, to talk about domestic violence and how it has gone up during the pandemic. And to talk as well about women and women's bodies and how women's bodies are perceived in society. Certainly, one of the big reasons why women, I think, often are an object of violence today, or ownership issues over women's bodies, is because it's a site of reproduction. And it's simply thought that women shouldn't be solely in charge of reproduction, when it means the production of heirs. That's created problems. I certainly, I've written about that issue with marital rape, for example, but it's got us thinking about some questions I'm not sure we would have been thinking about otherwise.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Actually, to build off of that, Kate Aspeck asks, what would medieval history tell us about birth control, about childbirth, about women's reproductive health?

Dr. Sara Butler 
I teach about this in my medieval women course. There actually are a lot of different medical recipes for contraception in the Middle Ages. Granted, there's also some really bad advice. Apparently, after having sex if you sneeze really hard or jump backwards nine times, it's supposed to be helpful to make sure you don't give birth. Please don't try this at home. Again, though, there are a lot of recipes. But many of these seem to have been better, perhaps as an abortifacient. So after you're already pregnant, causing a miscarriage, and many of them seem to have been quite dangerous. Granted, I think, actually, it was very difficult for women to get pregnant more often in the Middle Ages, because their diets were not very healthy. And women didn't menstruate very often. So getting pregnant seems to have been a greater problem than we would imagine, particularly in a society where people really wanted children. And there was a high death rate of children as well. So you had to have a lot of births in order to have a number of live children. So yes, I mean, certainly all of this existed, but it was certainly not as effective as people would have liked. And childbirth was an all-woman process. So it's a little bit harder to get at. But there is a lot of written advice in the vernacular. So in a language that women at least in the later Middle Ages sometimes could read. So it does seem like they had pretty good control of this. And midwives could even occasionally perform a cesarian section, providing after the mother had expired.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
We have a couple of questions about, kind of representations of women, that I'll kind of bring together for you. So it's kind of two coming, one has to do with literary representations. And so how much do literal representations of women by men accurately reflect lives of real women, such as Chaucer, Chaucer's "Prioress" and "Wife of Bath?" And the kind of second related question is, you know, were there kind of women artists whose work has survived from that time? So in addition to written sources, are there kind of female women artists that we can look to in terms of the accuracy of their depictions, what they talked about, what they depicted, I should say.

Dr. Sara Butler 
Those are both great questions together. Okay. So the literature is really interesting. But you always have to look at its purpose. So for example, there's an awful lot of literature out there on saints, and there are some female saints who did some amazing things. But it's also greatly exaggerated to turn these women into heroines. So that's a challenge. When it comes to something like the women that we see in Chaucer, again, a lot of these are intending to teach moral lessons. There is a sense that like the "Wife of Bath" actually is tied to a real person, a woman named Alice Kepler who actually was charged with trying to poison several of her husbands, and then escaping off to England. But again, that just tells you, this is very much an attempt to teach you how not to act as women. So you have to be careful when you approach the literature. When it comes to the arts, one of the biggest problems is that a lot of medieval art is actually anonymous. However, we do know that women worked as illuminators in this period. Women, this is nuns, in particular nuns, are in scriptorium. They worked as illuminators. So they were definitely involved in some of the art. It's just unfortunately, we often can't point to and say this, this was a piece put out by women. This wasn't that I couldn't necessarily always say this is a piece put out by men definitively either. The anonymous nature of it makes it difficult.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Very, very interesting. We also have somebody watching who's really interested to kind of understand, if you can, what are the factors that really contributed to, to the decline of women's status in the medieval period, particularly given some of the kind of real sort of highlights and unexpected kind of moments that you've pointed to. We looked at the economy and military, again, are there other factors that...

Dr. Sara Butler 
There are other factors. In particular, the Black Death is a really key moment and which makes sense you know. You have any sort of horrific trauma, traumatizing experience that eliminates such a large percentage of the population like, something like 40% of the population, was eliminated because of the bubonic plague striking in the 1340s. But even worse, it kept on coming back. So it kept people very stressed out about society. And they interpreted the plague as God is angry at us for not being good enough Christians. And every time the plague came back again, the obvious answer was, well, God is still angry at us for not being good enough Christians. And the sin they worried about more than anything else was the sin of sex. This is one of the hangovers of the stoics from the classical era, a terrible anxiety about sex. And because of this there is a real clamp down in society on sin. Even at a municipal level, you start seeing a lot of people turning their neighbors in for sins in a way that they never would have before. But your neighbor's sin could get you in trouble by having God release another plague that did not care whether it was taking out sinners or good people. It hit everyone in its path. So suddenly, everybody had to care about their neighbors. And this is one of the reasons why you see at the end of the Middle Ages, and in particular, a serious contraction of women's rights and freedoms so that they could be held more responsible for a lot of the sin in society that was taking place.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Linda Taylor asks, wasn't the church opposed to male clergy marriage because of the need to preserve church property because children for marriage would need to be provided for? Also the example of Peter Abelard, who was in the lowest clergy, once he married, he couldn't join a monastery unless he joined a convent or Heloise joined a convent, as well.

Dr. Sara Butler 
So the property issue is certainly an important issue. They did not want priests to marry and have children and pass their property down to those children, definitely. But it actually wasn't as big a concern as the overall image of priests in the period that results. It's what they refer to as the metastasization of medieval society, taking monastic values, having them brought out from the monastery into society at large and trying to improve everyone and make them even more monastic. And that led to the demand for celibacy. Granted, again, one of the major concerns was wanting priests to be pure when they handled the Eucharist. A man should not have sex the night before he is going to be handling the Eucharist. That actually was considered to be a much greater concern even than the property. Peter Abelard. Yeah, I don't even want to touch Abelard. He's a person all unto himself.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
That seems fair, that seems fair.

Dr. Sara Butler 
That's a good conversation.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
We'll bring you back for a special Abelard meeting. On a different note, Amy Stalker was asking sort of as a feminist, has it been difficult for you to learn about women's rights or lack thereof in the past? Or does it give you hope, when you learn about progress that women made?

Dr. Sara Butler 
That's an excellent question. It can be difficult when you first start out in this until you start realizing quite frankly, it's so common that listening to the oppression, there's like, yeah, okay, this is actually normal. Granted, it makes me far more excited when I start realizing there are these really great moments for women in history. But unfortunately, a lot of them nobody's been paying attention to. I mean, really, no one started looking at women's history until the 70s. And it's been mostly women who have done this, and it's a relatively small group of women. And because of that, there's still lots more of wonderful moments in women's history for us to bring to the front, wonderful women that nobody has cared about. Because that's just not been the interest that people have had. What I have actually found to be most difficult, though, quite frankly, is teaching students today who are shocked by the idea that women were oppressed in history, who seem to have no idea that women were treated badly at all. That's what worries me. I think that women need to know this to make sure that it never happens again.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
It's such a very important point. Your answer just now just connects with another question that I think we just have some time for. Which is, I mean, the question is, you know, does your research reach into other than European women in the Middle Ages? I think we could also think about it as, what are the different ways in which we can explore the history of women, not just from the elites, which seems to be a lot of the women, you're able to kind of get sources for the Middle Ages, but the kind of broader segments of society, the peasantry, or, or many of the other people, the women who come into Europe or connect with Europe during that time.

Dr. Sara Butler 
Okay, so I will say my own individual research focuses on women in Europe. I do teach more broadly than that often. And I try to point out to my students as well, that some of the things that we are analyzing about women in European history could very much be applied to looking at women in third world countries today. And we try to do some comparisons of that, because I think that is very important. The issue of the dowry, for example, is very much a live issue in the world in which we live. So some of that happens. In my research, as well as teaching, I try not to look at just the elites because the elites are fun. All my students love learning about the elites. That's true. But I'm actually more interested in average people like me. I would like to know what a woman like me would have had happen to her in the Middle Ages. Which is why actually I do a lot with legal sources. The joy is the Middle Ages was a very litigious society, everybody went to court to solve their problems. And because of that, you can find poor people in courts all the time. You can find foreigners in courts. You can find anyone in the courts. And that's often one of the only ways to get at their stories. It's also part of the reason though, why often, a lot of this is just hidden. It's hidden because these records are so hard to read, that a lot of people just give up and don't bother trying. Yet again, that's another reason why I am eager to encourage people to learn how to read this stuff and get in there because it's, there's some pretty amazing women in history and we will only find them if we look through records that are grotty, disgusting, and sometimes eaten by rats.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Disgusting and sometimes eaten by rats, well, that may be a perfect place to end. We've done our best to make it through all your questions. And of course, as always the case, there are many others we didn't quite get to. And our apologies for that. It's not for lack of trying. And I am hoping you can all join me in thanking Professor Butler for sharing her expertise and her passion for history with us today. I will give, please join me in a kind of virtual round of applause, which is I guess all we get these days. And thank you all for joining us. And it's a real pleasure to have you come and be a part of this presentation. A recorded version of this presentation will be made available afterwards. We'll send out an email with the recorded version if you want to watch it again or pass it on. And I'd also just like to pass on a few other things to the College of Arts and Sciences, especially Clara Davison, Madey Khurma and Jade Loc. And also, the history department at Ohio State, the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching, the Clio Society, the Bexley Public Library and the magazine Origins, Current Events and Historical Perspective, all of whom provided sponsorship or technical support, all sorts of different things to make this possible. And once again, thank you for your excellent questions and for your ongoing connection to Ohio State. Thank you so much for coming today. And otherwise, a very Happy International Women's Day to everyone. Stay safe and healthy. And we'll see you next time. Thank you.