State Formation and Society
November 1, 2000
The Rise of Women in French Society
During the Middle Ages, French society, along with the rest of Europe, revolved around the warrior class. In order to gain land and power nobles gave their services in the military and lived violent lifestyles. Treatment toward women during this period was harsh. “In a society of landed nobility dispersed fairly loosely across the country in their castles and estates, the likelihood of a preponderance of the man over the woman and thus of a more or less unconcealed male dominance, is very great.” (Elias, Page 325.) Men beat their wives and typically had little respect for them. Marriage was based not on love but on increase in influence and wealth. “But often enough we hear of the other side, of a warrior, whether a king or a simple seigneur, beating his wife. It seems almost an established habit for the knight, flying into a rage, to punch his wife of the nose till blood flows.” (Page 324.) However, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries dramatic political changes emerged throughout Europe and a high court system developed in France. Power shifted to revolve around the monarch who created palace life. “By and large it can be said that a more peaceable social life formed about the lady of the court” (Page 325.)
When feudalism ended, so did the glory of battle. France was in a relatively peaceful state. Thus, in order to gain favor and prestige interests shifted. People now favored social status, land, exemptions from taxes, etc. The bourgeoisie had grown and taken power away from the warrior class of nobility. “Thereby the equilibrium is slowly established which gives optimal power to one man, the central ruler. The kings during this era created a luxurious palace court system that brought families and nobility together in close proximity. Under the watchful eye of society, men were less prone to physical violence and the importance of the woman grew. “Social life” began to grow and more importance was placed upon literature and the fine arts, skills that women had long been schooled in. In the past, it was the women and clergy who had been taught to read and write, as there had not been much importance for it during the days of wars and political unrest. “For the master of the court, his function as knight and military leader was still the primary one; his education too was that of a warrior centered upon the wielding of arms. For just this reason the women surpassed him in the sphere of peaceful society.” (Page 326-7.) At the end of the Middle Ages, women became assets to their families. The battlefield for power had changed from bloodshed to skill. A daughter who possessed great social graces could bring a family closer to the monarchy and insure it’s members a greater ranking in court life.
Emphasis began to be placed on beauty and love, an emotion virtually void in the warrior society. Troubadour poetry and minnesang rose, creating a social elite of women. They became figures of lust and desire, and men of lower social status admired those of high ranking. This was important for women because they had previously been regarded as inferior to men. “There is little talk of ‘love’ in this warrior society. And one has the impression that a man in love would have appeared ridiculous among these warriors. Women were generally regarded by these men as inferior beings. There were enough of them available. They serve to gratify drives in their simplest form.” (Page 327.) When society changed from the warrior class to a court system, this love poetry and admittance of love to society made women seem difficult to attain and thus placed importance and status on them. “This is the situation, this the emotional setting of minnesang, in which henceforth down the centuries lovers recognize something of their own feelings.” (Page 328.) Society became more refined and this centered on the figure of femininity as women are traditionally seen as the softer, gentler sex. The court life revolved around social games and flirtations and at the core of this was the woman. Men strove to impress and women gained importance because of this.
With the fall of wars and brutality and the emergence of a close knit, flamboyant nobility living close to one and other and at the critique of others, the role of women in France was dramatically heightened. The absolute monarchy that existed in France under Louis XIV and others allowed for the woman to flourish and blossom, liberating her from the previous cruelties that the Middle Ages embodied. The creation of court life and the refinements it offered such as poetry, emotion, and beauty brought females into the public eye which gave them a greater form of power in society.