6) Noblewomen: the first ladies!

by Jan-Olov von Wowern
The role and position of noblewomen in later medieval Europe is a subject about which comparatively little has been written. The noblewomen, particularly those of the higher nobility, usually found themselves in a situation where it was taken for granted they would marry and strengthen the position of the family by forming a union with a man of similar (or better) standing. Then, as now, the importance of the continuation of the family line was a constant concern. For gentlemen who were “upwardly mobile” the marriage to a noblewoman of high standing could be the means of getting estates and allies.

It was not unusual to find noblewomen holding and inheriting land and estates. She could have inherited them from her father, brother or a deceased husband, and in many regions this was fully accepted. The male line in a noble family could become extinct for a number of reasons: the sons could die on the battlefield, they could die of one of many diseases, some would go into the Church and be celibate, etc. So in many cases the continuation of the entire family depended on the succession through the female line, which (certainly in the case of absence of male heirs) was usually accepted.

There was the problem with the dowries, and to avoid the breaking up of the estates there was during the later 13th century and onwards a growing emphasis on male primogeniture, that is, the firstborn son inherited the estates (and where appropriate the title that went with it). The dower became more and more restricted over time during the later Middle Ages, until they were finally abolished and became more of a symbol. This helped to stop the dispersal of the estates outside the original family.

Another important factor in the growing emphasis on male primogeniture was the forming of political alliances through marriages. When arranged marriages became increasingly important as a tool in the political formation of Europe, high social status by birth (and the benefits it brought along) was considered a powerful assset. But many noblewomen were not passive spectators, though the emphasis on the male line of descent meant that their financial and political activities of more and more depended on their male relatives: husband, father, sons, brothers. In many cases, however, the noblewoman was not completely subsumed in the families of her male relatives. There is evidence that noblewomen continued to use the seals, surnames and titles that was theirs by right of birth even after getting married.

In my own family tree I have found several examples of the importance of the role of noblewomen. In some cases on eof my ancestors married a lady from another important noble family, and this was recorded as a significant financial and political alliance. In other cases a lady from our family had a successful career of her own (e.g. as Abbess of a convent). In many cases the coat-of-arms of a noblewoman who married into our family was recorded and quartered in the arms of that branch of the family.