Powerful Women in a Patriarchal Society: Examining the Social Status and Roles of Aristocratic Carolingian Women

Women depicted in Leiden Aratea, a Carolingian codex containing Germanicus' Latin adaptation of Aratus' Phaenomena.

Powerful Women in a Patriarchal Society: Examining the Social Status and Roles of Aristocratic Carolingian Women

By Kristen Blankenbaker

The Purdue Historian,Vol.5 (2012)

Women depicted in Leiden Aratea, a Carolingian codex containing Germanicus’ Latin adaptation of Aratus’ Phaenomena .

Introduction: Throughout history, men have dominated the pages of books – achieving great feats, triumphing over barbarous foes, and innovating law and technology. But behind those omnipotent men lie a more subtle figure, one that eludes annals and epics. These seemingly spectral figures are, in fact, women. While they lived in a patriarchal society, women are the little-acclaimed individuals who supported society and made the heroic deeds of men possible. Especially in the Carolingian Empire, women held positions vital to the sustainability of Carolingian culture and society. Not only did they support men in traditional roles as virtuous mothers, nurturers, and models of beauty and morality, but they also controlled massive amounts wealth, protected against armed revolts, and preserved family lineages. Although the majority of Carolingian texts are authored by men and concern masculine activities, brief glimpses of the lives of aristocratic women can be deciphered through careful examination. In addition, history has a tendency to view women through a modern feminist lens, which leaves pre-modern women subject to assumptions of vulnerability, subjugation, and passivity. But these assumptions are not necessarily true. Although they lived in the constraints of a patriarchal society, Carolingian aristocratic women held a high status and role achieved through law and politics, economic and managerial pursuits, religious ties and family bonds, as well as education and domestic leadership.

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Before examining the status and various roles of Carolingian aristocratic women, it is necessary to establish a background of their lives and experiences to better understand their impact on society. There was no homogenous standard of life; women in the Carolingian Empire differed in their ethnic backgrounds, roles in religious or lay settings, and responsibilities. Even the simple idea of marriage during this time had different definitions as Muntehe, Friedelehe, and concubines existed simultaneously. It is therefore important to take these differences into consideration and further define the differing statuses of women in order to better understand them.

For the majority of Carolingian aristocratic women, marriage and the bearing of heirs served as the best and easiest means to secure stability for their own life as well as increase opportunities for advancement. Aristocratic families maneuvered themselves to find the best male suitor that would simultaneously increase their families’ prestige and create stronger political and military alliances. As a result, families might betroth girls to their future husbands at young ages and marry them at around fourteen years of age.

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