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Throughout the Middle ages, women in society were completely dominated and controlled by men, making their life’s difficult and unequal at the time. They were taught to be obedient and subservient to their male counterparts, which in turn gave them little chance for any independence. During this period, a woman’s role and duty was to be a wife, housekeeper and mother, as Kay Eastwood writes “the kind of life medieval girls and women led depended on where they lived, how wealthy their families were and if they were unmarried/married or if their husbands had died. Many young married women were mothers by the age of fifteen. They also ran the household, helped their husbands with their jobs and sometimes had a business of their own. Girls and women had fewer opportunities than men to hold jobs outside the home and become leaders in the community”. Notably however some women in the Middle Ages were able to break the force of traditional gender roles, prime influential figures like Joan of Arc and Heloise. Both of these women exercised power within their society, in which they rightfully provided a challenge to the stereotypical image of medieval women as oppressed and submissive.
At only the age of nineteen Joan of Arc managed to transcend all gendered societal boundaries and save her country from a certain ruin, which is notably why many historians regard her as the “most famous figure in medieval history”. Being “born in 1412 to a prosperous peasant family, she grew up in a time of crisis in a politically divided France, facing defeat by the English in the conflict known to historians as the Hundred Years War”. Within such period, peasant women were not given the opportunity to be educated, instead their day to day roles was to help their peasant husbands with their daily chores, attend provisions and cook up daily meals as well as other duties. In saying that, before Joan took the role of a solider as a young girl her role was to guard the sheep, “spin and sew exemplarily and plough the farm with her father”. More importantly from saying that, it can clearly be seen that women within her class lived a hard-difficult life, although women in a higher-class lived an easier life. Principally all medieval women from every class experienced a life of devaluation and inequality in comparison to their male counterparts, in which Maryanne Kowaleski notably writes “Medieval society, with its war, territorial struggles, and violence, seems particularly hostile to the exercise of female initiative and power. Indeed, the prevailing cultural attitudes of the Middle Ages considered women, as the descendants of Eve, intellectually and emotionally inferior to men and thus incapable of wielding authority effectively. Women could not vote or run for public office, nor could they participate fully in other power structures such as the church, military or the guilds. Denied access to institutions of higher learning and handicapped by legal bands or fathers, medieval women had few opportunities to enjoy public power”.
This is why it is truly astonishing and remarkable that within a period of male dominance, a female so young with no previous education and military experience obtained the male role of not only a solider but a leader and extraordinarily presented the fluency of gender roles and division for women in Europe. The way she became a woman of such power was by claiming to hear 3 voices “a voice from God to help her and guide her”. This voice came to her first when she was in her father’s garden during a summer’s day in which Joan states first time 6“she was much afraid”. In fact, Anne Barstow writes “Later she confirmed that the voice was really three voices, that she not only heard but saw and even touched them, that they were, in fact, Saints Catherine and Margaret and the archangel Michael. Joan claimed that she saw them every day, sometimes three times a day, sometimes more. They appeared to her in the woods, in church, in battle, in the courtroom, in her cell where her guards made so much noise that she could not follow what the voices were saying”. More importantly the voices claimed to Joan that she would save the country from the English for God and place the Dauphin on the throne of France. As Helen Caster writes “Against all the odds, she reaches the dauphin Charles, the disinherited heir to the French throne, and convinces him that God has made it her mission to drive the English from his kingdom. Dressed in armour as though she were a man, with her hair cut short, she leads an army to rescue the town of Orleans from an English siege”. After a number of significant and successful victories against the English, Joan of Arc was eventually and unfortunately captured by the Burgundy and sold to the English, from where she was taken to Rouen for trial and later executed. Her reason for trial was being guilty of heresy in which she became a liability to the French and therefore killed.
In saying that it is essential to note that Joan was wrongfully killed for heresy, in which Prudence Allen writes “Joan was an illiterate, uneducated girl at time of the trials and had no advocate to defend her. Yet she used discursive reasoning to defend herself against what she believed were unfounded accusations of heresy, cooperation with evil spirits, and witchcraft. Several observers at the original trials noted that Joan was frequently interrupted by the questioners, that subjects of the questioning were suddenly shifted, in an effort to confuse her and lead her into faulty responses. In nearly all of these attempts to deceive and catch Joan, she was able to find her way out of the trap, using a meticulous memory, consistent principles and direct responses. Additionally, the author also notably writes “It is worth reflecting again on the extraordinary situation that Joan faced, as a young woman, constantly being pressed by a number of men to testify in such a way that she would incriminate herself. It was a situation of enormous imbalance of power between the two genders, and it can stand as a symbolic reference for the extreme gender polarity situation that existed in parts of European society at the time”. Joan’s heroine had a powerful influence on all woman showing that woman within her period were capable of having equal power as men, which is why she is rightfully considered as an symbol of France and a true feminist icon, a woman who ignored her social rank and gender despite living in a time where as mentioned earlier woman were required to stay in the house and do work like take care of children and clean. The idea to even fight for a cause as a female was seen ridiculous and pathetic, as women did not engage in political arguments with men or superiors. More notably she influenced the idea that men and women could be equal in both an intellectual aspect as well as a physical aspect, proving to society that females could fight and had the strength of men.
Another significant French woman of the Middle ages, is a scholar and nun known as Heloise who is most famously known for her love affair with Peter Abelard a wealthy, French philosopher, theologian and a leading thinker of the Middle ages. More importantly Heloise is seen as an important female in French literary history and in the development of feminist representation and like Joan she is a woman who exercised power and became famous despite living in the dominance of men during her era. Her writings “give us an insight into the thoughts of a woman at a time when women were largely excluded from intellectual and literary activities”. However, unlike Joan who exercised power despite coming from a poor family ranked in the lowest social class, Heloise was the niece of a secular canon of Notre Dame who was known as Fulbert, in today’s presentence he would be known as a priest. Being a canon, he played an important role in his society and held position of power. Heloise as Peter writes was 10“so much loved by him that he had done everything in his power to advance her education in letters”. In fact, she had already been very well-educated before meeting Peter, in which Fulbert wanted her to continue her studies with one of the best teachers at the time Peter.
Notably the way Heloise exercised power within her period was by being a woman of high-quality education, intelligence and literate primarily due to the position and opportunity she was in also combined with family relations and wealth as Susan Dreyer writes “Heloise is one of many secular or religious women who acquired and benefited from a classical and well-developed education in this medieval period of France. Wheeler, in her much-admired analysis of Heloise in Listening to Heloise (2000), writes in the introduction that “Heloise is a model of the French public female intellectual, the first and one of a very few such figures before modern times”. Having such intelligence, education and family relations allowed her to be seen as a powerful woman within her society, it allowed her to be more superior to men, primarily because many men feared of woman knowing too much as Denis Howard Green writes “Men’s fears about allowing women to know too much include the ability to read as is sometimes made explicit”. Additionally, “Gary K. Albaugh notes that “Phillippe of Navarre (1301–1343) in Les quartre temps de l’homme writes “One should not teach a woman letters or writing unless she is a nun, because a woman’s reading and writing leads to great evil”. However such education greatly benefited Heloise as it enabled her to connect and develop her relationship with Peter in which Susan Dreyer writes “This relationship was gained because Heloise was also, herself, a great moral theologian and thinker, and because she was so highly literate and motivated to refine her viewpoints and actualize them through their relationship. Together, they founded and offered spiritual leadership and guidance to the nuns at the Paraclete, the Benedictine abbey in the diocese of Troyes, where Heloise was the respected abbess most of her life”.
In comparing Heloise to Joan, we can see how differently these women came into power within their society, for a woman to hold power in Medieval France it all depended on two prime factors which were social rank and wealth, by having a high social rank and wealth this period of France actually provided woman with opportunities of education and jobs as Dreyer writes 11“there was a culture of Latin literacy active and available to women in the twelfth century and that the medieval period in France between the eleventh century and the thirteenth century was one of creative opportunity for women, especially for women that are of the nobility, either high or lower nobility”. As we can see with Heloise, she was lucky to have a family relative who held such position of power and provided her with the most noble education available at the time. She also took full advantage of such education and was seen as an remarkable intellectual by many including Peter himself as he writes 10“In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme” and Elizabeth McNamer also writes “Heloise’s intellectual and educational accomplishments were of great renown in her day”. As stated earlier being such intellectual benefitted her in being able to hold a relationship with her lover Peter and more notably to been seen as a woman of power and feared by men.
In relation to Joan of Arc, she was also a woman lucky to have held position of power during her life by claiming to hear voices, just not as fortunate as Heloise. Being in the lowest ranks of social class she was unable to have the same opportunities that Heloise had resulting in no education and a more difficult hardworking life which started from a young age evident from her account in helping her mother and father around the house. Although there were opportunities for woman to be educated at this time and secure jobs, it all depended on the two crucial factors mentioned previously which were wealth and social rank. The more respected wealth and social class the more opportunities were available to you, and unfortunately around 80-90% of the whole population of Middle Age France and Europe were made up of social ranks of Peasants which why is only a distinct amount were able to avail of such opportunities. It is why under these circumstances Joan’s ability to gain and exercise power was truly an remarkable miracle, as stated earlier a young woman with no education and military experience becomes a male solider and leads her country to vital victories against the English, having such power benefited her in being feared by men as she was seen as both a true warrior and leader and rightfully later on as a true icon of heroine and feminism.
Ultimately, both Joan of Arc and Heloise were without a doubt two very unique and extraordinary woman within their era, they both showed to their society that woman were capable of being much more than housewife’s, they showed that woman could be as equally intellectual and physical as men, in which we see Joan being a masterful solider and Heloise a striking intellectual capable of exercising power during a period where men were believed to be more superior and dominant than woman. To conclude, without these two figures perhaps a challenge to the stereotypical image of medieval women would have never occurred, these influential icons have inspired centuries of women to transcend biases against them and believe in their own, real power to change the world.
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