Medieval Women in Montaillou and Prato

It’s International Womens’ Day today and, since I’m writing a novel set in the 14th century, I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned about what a (European) woman’s life looked like in the 1300s.

I’ve been reading two great books that offer vivid pictures of the daily life of women who really existed. One is Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294-1324 by Emmanuel Ladurie and the other is The Merchant of Prato: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City by Iris Origo. The first presents a rare glimpse of peasant life in the Ariége department of France; the second details the domestic existence of a Tuscan merchant and his family.




Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294-1324 by Emmanuel Ladurie

This is a micro- study of early 14th-century life in a tiny village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Because it was a holdout for the Cathar heresy, it excited the interest of inquisitor and bishop Jacques Fournier (later Pope Benedict XII). Beginning in 1317, Fournier commenced an investigation and took meticulous records of his interrogations. In the words of blogger Robert Wernick:


For eight years the Bishop devoted an extraordinary amount of his precious time, a total of 370 working days, to this task. Hour after hour, month after month, he smoked out evasions, caught up contradictions, compared every line of what one witness said with every line the others said on the same subject. As Inquisitor he had powers to ask questions and get them answered in ways not available to policemen and historians and journalists today. But he preferred not to use torture He depended on his zeal for the truth, his patience and obstinacy, and his complete understanding of the dodges and deceits of the peasant mind, the mind of the people among whom he had grown up. He makes the truth come out of us like lambs from their mothers, said the poor souls who passed through his ceaseless relentless cross-questionings.

Ladurie has taken the Fournier records and extrapolated from it a remarkably compelling picture of village life. It’s not exactly light reading—I found it hard to keep all the names in my head, and the detail can be overwhelming (not to say tedious), but it’s a rich source of information and occasionally throws up some bizarre fact that makes you realize how weird those people were.

One of his chapters is called “Marriage and the Condition of Women,” so this is where I’ll start. The first paragraph states cheerfully, “Every married woman could expect a fair amount of beating some time or other” and this gives you an idea of how much fun it was to be a woman in Montaillou. One of the (male) villagers offers the view that, “The soul of a woman and the soul of a sow are worth one and the same thing—in other words, not much.” Another proclaims, “Women are devils.”  In marriage, a man could expel his wife, but she could not expel her husband.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom; although husbands often insulted their wives, children often revered their mothers. What’s more, in certain situations a woman might inherit a household and so become its mistress and make all the important decisions of the household. What’s more, women could have professions such as that of wine-seller, cheese-maker, inn-hostess, wool-worker, ‘healer of eye diseases’, shepherdess.

They had to work pretty hard, especially when you consider that a lot of the tasks listed here could be divided up into a lot of smaller tasks:


“The women were in charge of water, fire, the garden, cooking and gathering kindling. They cut the cabbages, weeded the corn, tied the sheaves, mended the winnowing fan, washed the pots at the well and, each balancing a loaf of bread on her head, went harvesting with the migrant workers. Women had a hard time of it, especially when they were young.”

Being in charge of water didn’t mean turning on the tap; it meant walking out to the well or river, filling it up and bringing it home with the jar balanced on your head.  Baking bread might mean sifting the flour, kneading the dough at home and then taking it to a neighbor’s house to bake it. And there were a lot of other things to be done too, depending on exigency or on the season. In winter they had to ‘swingle and comb’ hemp. In the evenings they spun wool or mended clothes.

As for sex, Ladurie says the young women were perhaps even more in danger of rape than those of other regions at that time. At the same time, they were constantly aware of the fundamental role of vergüenza, which combines shame, modesty, care for one’s feminine honor. It is a value that can only diminish, never increase. On the up-side, “a woman acquired consideration and respectability when, with the coming of age, she gradually ceased to be regarded as a sexual object. The change of life brought power.”  By contrast, a man was in his prime in his thirties but by fifty he was old and his prestige did not increase with time.

Women were known for gathering around a fire to gossip, or to shout conversations from house to house. Occasionally, too, they indulged in a good spat. From the testimony of one woman:


 “With Alazais Rives we used to quarrel often. We only stopped quarrelling the day when each of us found out the little heretical secrets of the other, which put us in a position to betray one another before the Inquisitor. So then we stopped quarrelling.”


It wouldn’t be a book about the Middle Ages without some reference to personal hygiene and Ladurie states explicitly that people neither bathed nor swam. In fact, an important form of relationship-building was to delouse somebody. This was women’s work (of course) and implied a tie of kinship or intimacy. For example a girl might delouse her lover and her lover’s mother.


Social currency in Montaillou


The last thing I want to mention is the traditional lamentu or ritual wailing after a death. This was something women were expected to do on the death of a family member. It was also a common practice in ancient Greece and Rome, though there it also involved pulling out hair and scratching one’s own breasts.


Decorated pinax (funeral plaque) by the Gela Painter. The dead is lying in state and women are mourning and tearing their hair.


The Merchant of Prato: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City by Iris Origo




The eponymous merchant is Francesco di Marco Datini, a self-made man from Prato who lived from 1335 to 1410. During his lifetime he collected every single letter and business document he received. In his will he instructed that they be preserved in his house. Three-hundred years later they were found in sacks under a staircase, which is close enough I suppose.

Origo uses these letters to piece together a picture of Datini’s daily life, a portrait of the man and the people around him.

Both of his parents died of the Black Death in 1348 and he was raised by another woman who signed her letters to him ‘Your mother in love’. He was very affectionate towards her:


I have never made any distinction, nor shall I, between you and me, even as I would not between me and Monna Vermiglia [his mother], were she now alive. You will find me until my death—if you yourself live so long—the same Francesco you knew up to my fourteenth year. This I say to you, once and for all: you may do with me and with my possessions as with your own, for that is how I consider them, and always have.


Datini left marriage late—he was in his forties when he got around to it—and many letters from his friends and foster-mother before that time remind him that it is his duty to get married and leave heirs. According to Origo, it was absolutely typical of the Tuscan mind to place such strong emphasis on la famiglia.

Although he was in Avignon at the time, he chose a Florentine girl who lived there too, sixteen-year-old Margherita di Domenico Baldini. From the start, he boasted about putting her to work sewing helmets (he was an arms dealer) while her peers attended frivolous parties.

One of the remarkable aspects of the Datini collection is the record of 27 years’ of correspondence between him and Margherita. They spent a lot of time apart as he was based in Florence or Pisa and she kept house in nearby Prato, so they kept up a steady exchange of letters dealing with day-to-day business. As Origo says in her introduction:


Francesco sends his wife minute instructions as to every detail of the household management; and Margherita, in reply, accounts for all she has done, or offers much sound advice. Moreover, a great many things which, if the couple had lived together, would no doubt merely have been said in moments of exasperation, were thus put down on paper.

The chapter “Husband and Wife” details their relationship, which was clearly quite unhappy despite their material riches.

Cracks started to appear when, after seven years, the couple was still childless. Francesco already had at least one illegitimate child in Avignon but he really wanted an heir. Friends and family bombarded them with fertility advice, starting with moving back to ‘maschili e multipricativi’ (male and fertilizing) Tuscany. When that didn’t work, they advised Margherita to put a stinky poultice on her belly and to feeding three beggars on three Fridays. None of it worked and the sense of failure gnawed away.

Meanwhile Mona Margherita worked hard, handling the Prato household by herself. The tasks a housewife was expected to do then were listed in a sermon by contemporary preacher San Bernadino:


“The good housewife is one who looks to everything in the house. She takes care of the granary and keeps it clean, so that no filth can enter. She sees to oil-jars, bearing in mind, this is to be thrown away, and that kept…She sees to salted meat, both in the salting and the preserving. She cleans the meat, and decides—this is to be sold, and that kept. She causes the flax to be spun, and then the linen to be woven…She sells the bran, and with the profits she gets the linen out of pawn. She looks to the wine barrels, if any are broken or leaking. She watches over the whole house.”

Of course, she had several slaves to help her but she was expected to supervise them from the time they got up to the time they went to bed. Almost every letter Francesco sent to Marghertia contained detailed instructions and orders.

She sometimes complained in her letters of Francesco’s long absences and that he treated her more like a servant or child than a trustworthy confidante. She occasionally reminds him that he is of humble birth while she has aristocratic ‘Gherardini blood’.

Compared to the rough-housing at Montaillou this might seem like tame stuff, but their bickering is clearly viewed by Francesco’s friends as something out of the ordinary even for the age. One of his friends writes:


“It is true that I eat roast chestnuts every morning before I set forth, but that is because my wife pampers me, as I do her. I do not behave like you, who are always wrangling with yours; and yet you say, ‘I am a good husband!’ Leave that rather to me, who give mine both words and deeds.”

Another friend says, by way of advice, “I live simply with my Francesca, and what she wants is what I do, too.”

When Francesco promises Margherita he will change, she expresses a dim view of the future, saying, “We shall both live a long time, and always in the same fashion.”

His notebooks reveal that he turned to other women including Ghirigora, a girl of fifteen who worked as a maid at Prato. On March 11 1387 he gave Ghirigora away in marriage to Cristofano, a man of Prato. In September she gave birth to a boy and named Francesco as the father. The baby was put out to nurse with the miller’s wife and afterwards passed around other nurses until he died before his first birthday. Francesco ordered that he should be buried at the foot of his own tomb.

Margherita knew about all of this, of course, and was even assigned to make a cover for the child. Three years later, Cristofano begged Francesco to take Ghirigora back as he himself was dying and she had a child at her breast, which meant that she and the child were vulnerable. Francesco accepted her, albeit grudgingly. What was Margherita feeling throughout—a combination of humiliation, jealousy, anger or resignation? Origo points out that it was a different time:


“The Tuscan famiglia of the trecento was a far larger and more elastic organism than the modern family: not only wives, but concubines, had their place there; not only sons, but bastards. Many a young bride, on arriving in her new home, might find among the maid-servants of the house some who were her husband’s concubines, and others who were his sisters, and not a few respectable householders, in reporting the members of their family to the tax-collector, would frankly include their illegitimate children—some of whom had slave-girls for their mothers….It was only when the mistress of the household was unusually straight-laced or jealous—or perhaps, like Margherita, embittered by her own childlessness—that the child would be sent instead to one of the foundling hospitals which existed in almost every city ‘to receive the children whom their father and mother, against the laws of Nature, have deserted—that is, the children who in the vulgar tongue are called castaways, i gettatelli.”

One of Francesco’s illegitimate children born to him by his 20-year-old slave-girl Lucia, was initially sent to such an institution, which suggests the extent of Margherita’s disgruntlement. But she the baby Ginevra was soon removed from there and sent out to nurse. Then at last, when the Ginevra was six years old, Margherita agreed the girl should come to Prato and be brought up as Francesco’s daughter. At the same time the slave Lucia was married off to another of Francesco’s servants with a good dowry. And Margherita’s niece Tina was also there for most of the year to keep Ginevra company.

Ginevra was brought up quite indulgently. She was taught to read and provided with fine clothes and musical instruments. Her own marriage was arranged by a broker. Francesco’s instructions were that she shouldn’t marry too high above her station (since her mother was a slave). Ginevra, at fifteen, was not present at her own engagement, which was normal. She was given 1,000 florins as a dowry, which was a huge amount. He arranged a sumptuous wedding banquet. At the end of the meal Margherita performed the symbolic act of placing a child in the bride’s arms and a gold florin in her shoe –to bring her fertility and riches.

After twenty years of marriage, with Margherita insisting she should join Francesco in Florence, he finally agreed but then promptly moved back to Prato, leaving her alone again. She threatened to leave him for good, he ignored her so she went ahead and moved back to her own home. They eventually patched things up after Francesco had a serious brush with illness, both of them softening in their attitude towards each other in the face of impending death.




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