A major problem for the student of a relatively new discipline or sub-discipline is the construction of a framework within which to operate. In the case of the economic, social and legal position of women in the Middle Ages the only clear thing is that the lines are slowly being redrawn, although more perhaps with respect to the central Middle Ages than to the earlier period. In fact, despite the paucity of evidence there has always been a surprising degree of agreement about the early Middle Ages. A wide range of authors from Lina Eckenstein to Eileen Power, Lady Stenton and Suzanne Wemple have regarded the period, from roughly the sixth to the ninth centuries, as one of `rough equality' (to use Stenton's words) between men and women in general, and as a period of veneration, even elevation, of female religious.(1) As for the later period, there is a much wider range of opinion, much of it conflicting. Speaking of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, in a popular general work, conclude that: `Evidence of the general improvement in the status of women is fairly extensive.'(2) The elevation of marriage to sacrament status in the twelfth century is undoubtedly seen by some as part of this process: `C'est dans la reforme du mariage qu'il faut chercher les germes les plus vigoureux de l'amelioration dont beneficie la condition feminine a partir du XIIe siecle, meme si cette amelioration n'est ni continue ni generale.'(3) By contrast, other works suggest that an earlier golden age for women came to an end in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as an even more male-dominated feudal society reached its zenith in terms of order and definition.(4) According to Susan Stuard: `The late eleventh and twelfth centuries stand in many ways as a watershed between the greater opportunity for women in early medieval times and the more confining circumstances of life in the later Middle Ages.'(5) And, in a more specifically religious context, Sir Richard Southern's view is that: `In the great period of monastic foundation from the early tenth to the early twelfth century the position of women in the monastic life suffered a sharp decline.'(6) In the domestic sphere too Dyan Elliott detects a progressive subordination of wives to husbands in the misogynist climate of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.(7)
With the exception of the recent works of Constance Berman on southern France, Judith Bennett and Barbara Hanawalt on England, and more generally David Herlihy, the contributions of socio-economic historians to this debate have been relatively scarce, especially for the eleventh to thirteenth centuries.(8) For the most part conventional economic history, especially for the pre-industrial period of European history, focuses on such matters as trade routes, prices and wages, grain production and livestock farming, the size of farms and tenements, the organisation of estates, wealth distribution and social structure (largely in class terms), most of which are investigated in a gender-neutral way. It is generally assumed, however, that it is men who are the merchants, the landlords, the peasants and the heads of households; in short, the principal agents of economic activity.
In the more specialised field of monastic estate history one of the main obstacles has been the existence of a fairly well-established routine: first, the details of the foundation, then the accumulation, often haphazard, of estates and other property and privileges, followed by the rationalisation and consolidation of that property, a history of its profitability or otherwise, expanding and contracting demesnes, the size and composition of tenant holdings (generally assumed to be male controlled), all culminating in the later Middle Ages with problems of change wrought by demographic decline, the Black Death, religious and moral change, anticlericalism, and, in the case of England, the dissolution of the monasteries.
There can hardly be a better example of the way in which history, even quite dry economic history, can be kept alive through the process of asking different questions of the same old material than the current concern to achieve a fuller appreciation and acknowledgement of the role of women. The purpose of this study therefore is to focus attention on the women recorded in the eleventh- to thirteenth-century charter and survey material of the abbey of Holy Trinity in Caen, Normandy. These include the more obvious activities of the abbesses on behalf of the convent, the social origins of the first generation of nuns, and the status of female tenants on the abbey's estates in Normandy and England.
Although a good deal of caution needs to be applied in trying to extract general ideas on the status of women from the lives and actions of the more eminent, our first area of concern will be the status, contribution and role of the principal women involved in the first half-century of the abbey's history.(9) This period, c. 1059 to c. 1113, owed much to initiatives taken by Matilda, the wife of William the Conqueror, and Matilda, the first abbess. In the later stages of Abbess Matilda's rule Cecilia, a younger daughter of William and Matilda, became increasingly active and was abbess in her own right from 1113 to 1127.(10) One question arising from the role played by both the abbesses and the senior nuns is the extent to which they acted independently both of men in general and of the dukes of Normandy in particular.
Holy Trinity represented part of a dual foundation by William and Matilda, and as such it is possible, at least to a limited degree, to gauge its fortunes and treatment against those of its twin, St Stephen's.(11) First of all, from a technical and legal point of view the foundations were hardly made on an equal footing. Although the popular tradition is to think of St Stephen's (L'Abbaye aux Hommes) as William's foundation and Holy Trinity (L'Abbaye aux Dames) as Matilda's, a comparison of the early charters of both abbeys, especially their consecration charters, makes it quite clear that whereas Holy Trinity was considered to be as much William's foundation as Matilda's, the reverse did not apply, i.e. St Stephen's does not appear as a joint foundation.(12) Similarly, the confirmations of estates, rights and privileges to St Stephen's were drawn up exclusively in William's name, whilst those for the nuns were invariably drafted in the names of William and Matilda, presumably with a view to affording the nuns greater protection.(13) Even within the collective confirmation charters, or pancartes, individual grants and purchases of land made by Queen Matilda on behalf of Holy Trinity were invariably made with her husband's agreement and consent. Only one gift to the abbey appears in Queen Matilda's name alone: that was her will in 1083.(14)
On the other hand, a simple comparison of the original endowments of St Stephen's and Holy Trinity (such as that conducted by Jean Birdsall in 1925) illustrates a fairly equal treatment in terms of the number and geographical distribution of estates, together with their churches and mills, and privileges, both commercial and ecclesiastical.(15) Furthermore, this evenhandedness extended into the immediate post-Conquest period with the donation to each abbey of a similar number of manors -- though
not churches -- of comparable size and value in England.(16) In short, in economic terms, the nunnery does not appear to have suffered an obvious `poor sister' relationship. In fact, there is good reason to believe that both the appointment of a head and the commencement of building works at Holy Trinity preceded those at St Stephen's by three or four years.(17)
Compared with what is known about the first abbot of St Stephen's, Lanfranc, formerly prior of Bec, and later archbishop of Canterbury, very little is known about the first abbess at Holy Trinity, Matilda. There is no biography, no writings in her name, and uncertainty exists even as to her parentage and the length of her abbacy. According to her mortuary roll, published in Leopold Delisle's Rouleaux des morts, Matilda was of noble stock and moved to Caen from the nunnery of St Leger des Preaux (20 kin north-west of Bec).(18) The same mortuary roll, which circulated throughout England and northern France, contains a passage composed by a nun at Auxerre (140 km south-east of Paris) attesting in jocular fashion to Matilda's reputation for strict discipline.(19) According to Orderic Vitalis (1075-c. 1142), `She ruled strenuously for 47 years and wisely educated and regularly instructed Cecilia, the king's daughter, and many others in the household of God.'(20)
As an administrator, Abbess Matilda appears to have been at least as active as the queen in consolidating and rounding off the estates of the abbey through exchange and purchase. The pancarte of 1066 records several exchanges of distant, awkward pieces of property for land nearer Caen, as well as a number of recently purchased acquisitions. For example, in a period of considerable viticultural activity in Normandy (which declined in the course of the twelfth century, according to Delisle)(21) first Queen Matilda and then the abbess purchased vineyards for the nuns, particularly in the Argences region south-east of Caen.(22) Interspersed with the record of these purchases were the equally significant purchases of urban property south-east of the abbey in an area known as Calix, part of the later Bourg l'Abbesse. In 1083 more than 12 [pounds sterling] of the abbey's `works' money' (nummi operis) was spent in obtaining land there.
The abbey's urban rights, jurisdiction and privileges, however, were not limited to Calix and the area east of the castle. Apart from the possession of the church and tithes of St George within the castle grounds, the nuns also acquired, in the same agreement with the bishop of Bayeux, the churches and tithes of St Stephen the Elder and St Martin, both parishes in the vicinity of the monastery of St Stephen west of the castle.(23) Not …