In the final part of her series of blogs on ‘Marriage at Court’, Laura Slater shows that privacy was a rare thing in aristocratic marriages, but that affection was still possible.
So what happened once you were married in the courts of medieval Europe? The Victorian idea of ‘separate spheres’- men dominating the public world of work and politics, women responsible for the private, domestic life of home and children- does not apply in the Middle Ages. We cannot make a clear distinction between the public and the private, or even between work and home.
Aristocratic men and women lived their entire lives in public. Although they could retreat to more private chambers, surrounded only by trusted servants and intimate friends, they were almost never alone. If you were sleeping with your spouse (or someone else), your servants and guards always knew about it. Some servants slept in their master or mistress’s bedroom, or even in bed with them, as a matter of course. Whether you were dining happily with your spouse, at prayer together, suffering from insomnia or having a row, somebody, somewhere, always knew about it. And knowledge was power. Strangers to the court wanting to make a good first impression, or get a successful answer to their request, would pay handsomely to know what topics to avoid or emphasise in conversation with the king or queen, to make sure such meetings went well.
So your ‘private’ married life could become very public. And your ‘private’ home was never closed to strangers. The noble household was a centre of business and administration, flocked to by public visitors and petitioners. Lavish feasts and entertainments, generous hospitality, the giving of alms and other forms of charity were integral to day-to-day public business. By showing off how rich, powerful and important you were, you could become even more so.
Noble landed possessions might be scattered across different territories, so managing those estates- not just accounting for their yields, livestock and crops, but sometimes physically making sure that your family or your tenants were still in possession of disputed manors- could mean long journeys across different areas of a kingdom by both husband and wife, just to keep track of everything.
Whatever their age or gender, medieval aristocrats were expected to rule- to make decisions, issue orders and give commands. A successful working partnership might be all either party expected from some unions.
In these images from the famous c. 1412-1416 Très Riches Heures, made for Duc de Berry, one of the sons of King Jean II of France, we can see his Paris residence, the Hôtel de Nesle, in the background of the calendar page for May. In April, another residence can be seen in the background: the Château de Dourdan. The reality of married life for aristocrats was an endless circuit of travel, from palace to manor to court.
A young noblewoman who had been married at twelve or thirteen to a man thirty years older than her would still be expected to start playing her role in the management of the family wealth, household and estates. And apart from her own personal servants, the rest of the household staff were almost certainly male. Whatever their age or gender, medieval aristocrats were expected to rule- to make decisions, issue orders and give commands. A successful working partnership might be all either party expected from some unions.
But love and affection certainly developed between some couples. Edward III and Philippa of Hainault’s union was a matter of diplomatic expediency on the part of Edward’s mother, Isabella of France. But the couple went on to enjoy an extremely happy and harmonious marriage, with Philippa giving birth to twelve children. The couple travelled together and spent most of their time together, frequently sending each other gifts. In their few surviving letters, Edward repeatedly addresses his wife as douce cuer (‘sweetheart’). So although love at the medieval court was rarely private, it was at least possible.
Many thanks to Laura for this interesting series on medieval courtly marriages. If you haven’t read them yet, do take a look at the previous entries, and let us know what you think.