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Mythbusting: the truth about medieval France

History Hunter's report

In my new series, the first book features Cédric and Sophie, a young French couple living in medieval Rhodes under the rule of the Knights Hospitaller. To write about their early days in France, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about daily existence there 600 years ago, and what I’ve learned often contradicts stereotypes about medieval life. Read on for my surprising discoveries.

People liked taking baths. We have an image of medieval folk walking around filthy because they rarely bathed. This is untrue. Some cities and towns had bathhouses, and some wealthy people had their own private bathhouses. Anyone who could afford it owned a wooden tub that was regularly filled with heated water and often perfumed with herbs or flower petals from kitchen gardens. Soap was sold in the streets by vendors. Primary sources (such as the domestic guidebook written by 14th-century knight Guy de Montigny for his wife, which comes to life in Nicole Crossley-Holland’s book Living and Dining in Medieval Paris) contain clear descriptions of frequent bathing. Authors of child-rearing manuals at the time instructed that infants should be bathed up to three times a day. So if my French character Cédric arrives home exhausted and dirty from a long journey on horseback, the historical record shows he can expect a bath.

Children were loved, and mourned. Another stereotype about medieval folk is that they weren’t attached to children the way we are today—that they didn’t love their offspring in the modern sense and treated them as miniature adults. This is untrue. People adored their children and mourned their all too frequent deaths. According to Childhood in the Middle Ages by Shulamith Shahar, only fifty percent of children born in pre-industrial Europe survived to age 5. The loss of a child was deeply felt. Testimony from parents in the 14th century shows both mothers and fathers paralyzed by grief, afflicted with serious depression, struck by fits of wailing and weeping, devastated by their losses. This research guides my writing when it comes to parenting, loss, and grief.

Women participated vigorously in society at all levels. An image I used to carry around in my head of medieval women was composed of two figures: one, a peasant bent over crops in a field, metal scythe in hand. The other, a noblewoman trapped in a gilded cage, staring out the window of a tower with her embroidery in hand. The truth is far more complex, as illuminated in Margaret Wade Labarge’s book A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life.

Medieval women were considered the property of men, but they still joined trade guilds, ran their own businesses (or, in the event of widowhood, managed their late husbands’ businesses), and managed family finances. Noblewomen were expected to defend the castle in the absence of the lord. Abbesses enjoyed wide-ranging power and freedom in religious houses, many of which were richly endowed by royal and noble benefactors. The lot of serfs was generally terrible for both men and women, but free peasants could attain high standards of living. Women innkeepers and tavern keepers were fairly frequent. While girls were typically not afforded the educational opportunities of boys, there were many exceptions, especially if a family had no living sons and needed apprentices and a capable heir to take over the business. Some of the female characters in my new series have fathers with this atypical approach to parenting their daughters.

There were a lot of noble families in Auvergne I needed to create a wealthy, powerful noble character from the Auvergne region of France. My research showed a single dukedom of note during the early 15th century and one super-powerful family of counts, plus various lesser nobles. I did not want to base my character on a real person. If I could just find evidence of a few more counts in the area, I would feel comfortable fabricating one. So I dove down a rabbit hole and discovered two wonderful ancient documents that have been digitized for our viewing pleasure.

The first is the “Armorial of Guillame Revel”, a parchment manuscript dating from the 15th century that gives an illustrated overview of certain lands and nobles under the domain of French King Charles, including Auvergne. I loved exploring the rich colors and fine lettering of the drawings, which depict various nobles in jewel-toned garb, coats-of-arms, and detailed views of castles and towns.

The second is a collection of documents about noble houses and other possessions in Auvergne beginning in 1357. This is not as lovely or easy to absorb as the Armorial (much zooming was required), but I did find a long list of “Seigneurs” (lords) that included multiple counts and viscounts in addition to just regular old lords, so I’m confident now that my noble character is historically accurate.

And don’t even get me started on the ripple effects of the plague. People were quarantining and wearing masks at weddings in the 14th century. That’s the good news. There’s a lot to unpack here, but seeing as we’re in a pandemic, I’m going to keep a lid on it for now.

2 Comments

  1. Carol says:

    I’m very excited for this book! Is there a tentative idea of when it might be released or is it still too early to tell?

    It’s very much appreciated that you’re doing this research and trying to dig past the stereotypes. Re: Children being loved and mourned, I think someone put it perfectly (I want to say Therese Oneill in one of her books on the Victorian Era but I’ve spent an hour and a half scouring both books and can’t, for the life of me, find it!) when they said something along the lines that: it’s not that parents of the past loved their babies any less than we do today; they just weren’t as surprised when they died.

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      Hi Carol, thank you so much for your comment. The first few books of my new series will launch in 2021, but I don’t have firm publication dates yet. Yes, I think that sentiment sums it up exactly. (And I so know that feeling of combing through books in search of a quote I recall but can’t find!)

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