The Unaccompanied Woman

This is another error that I come across often in historical novels, especially in the type that I write: romances. ‘Error’ is probably the wrong word to use here, though, as I’m fairly certain the novelists know that what they’re doing is misrepresenting what really could or could not happen in the Middle Ages. The heroine of a romance novel, in this case of noble birth, will often be alone, sometimes even travelling away from home unaccompanied by a maidservant, and, as I discussed last week, sleeping alone in a bedroom.

It’s easy to see why a novelist might do this, as the heroine has to meet the hero and get to know him somehow, and the purpose of the maidservant is to prevent just this kind of thing from happening. For my part, I quite like the challenge of working out how they can meet despite the maidservant.

The maidservant was supposed to be with the noblewoman day and night, which usually meant sharing a bed with her, although there might not be much room if there were sisters and female cousins in the household. It was a great responsibility, so the maidservant had to be someone of good character. We’ll see, though, that maidservants, and servants in general, were only human.

What was the point of this? The daughter of a nobleman or a king was really a political object. Her marriage would confirm or deny an alliance with another family and her sons would be noblemen. No nobleman really wanted to take the chance that he was bringing up someone else’s child as his heir, and, given that women in this class usually married when they were little more than children and might be easily led astray, there had to be someone to keep an eye on daughters of noblemen at all times.

It clearly was possible for young women to meet and to be alone with a man despite having a maidservant, though. The wealthy heiress Joan of Kent famously met, married and, according to her later testimony, was bedded by, Thomas Holland when she was twelve years old and a member of Queen Philippa’s household. This had all been done so secretly that no one believed her when she said that she was married and she was forced to marry the heir of the earl of Salisbury. I wonder how much it cost her or Holland to bribe the servant who was supposed to keep an eye on the woman who wasn’t just the richest woman in the country, but also the king’s cousin.

I’m afraid some dreadful things have happened to maidservants in my novels, not because I want to get them out of the way so that the heroine can spend time with her beloved, but because they’re characters who inhabit a world where dreadful things happen sometimes and I like them to be something other than a generic servant.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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30 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Marriage

30 responses to “The Unaccompanied Woman

  1. I would think the maid and her ward would become good friends spending so much time together,

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I think getting around the maidservant ‘problem’ would make for more interesting, inventive storytelling as well as avoiding anachronisms.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I agree that this limitation provides great fodder for creativity, April! What was your source for this post?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m usually a fan of historical documentaries – but I have to say, there was one on Elizabethen times (Elizabeth I) that dove into the life of women, noble women and servants and what happened, how it happened and what the accepted rules/punishment for breaking them, were, was so blatantly told, and so sickening to my modern ‘wtf? really?’ heart that I couldn’t finish it – the main thing most of the tales had in common? The very sad, sorry tale of women – no matter their station born to in life and how one false move/mistep or doing what one was told could still end up in terror/death for them – sigh – sometimes? I’m okay with fiction writing a different world – if I want to be appalled and said, there are volumes and tomes of man’s inhumanity to man (or women/women) over and over and over to be read elsewhere – – ๐Ÿ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    • Life was dangerous for everyone in the sixteenth century, but it’s always been easy to repress women.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I love history and am not unaware of how brutal medieval life could be, the laws, etc., but that series dove so deeply into the absolute terror a lord/lady of the manner could be, on their servants AND be within their legal rights – I confess – I intellectually understood the freedoms we have today are relative new, but it was so graphically displayed through court records, trials and punishments, that it rather just made me down for the whole day! It’s almost as if there is a deep down blood lust within human nature that must always be guarded against via systems to hold it in check – – and yes, the oppressed, whoever they are/where ever they hail from, are always the ones that pay the biggest price –

        Like

  5. Pallet and trundle beds were much used in chambers, and would be removed before the main occupant(s) arose. Female relatives or peers would more likely share the bed itself while servants took to pallets. Young girls and marriageable maidens rarely spent time alone. They were in the care of a group of women who tended to the Lord’s womenfolk. The women stuck pretty close together.

    A misconception is that a maidservant was always near the same age as the ward. It seems safer to assign a matronly type to the role, or even related spinsters or widows, who relied upon the Lord of the manor for maintenance. Such people would lose everything to let a ward become compromised. They were also valued for the instruction they could provide of which a young maid would probably be less apt (spinning, embroidery, personal care, simples, demeanor, etc.). Such a woman would be more a warden than a companion.

    Young maidservants would be there for companionship, as well as learning the tricks of the trade, to join the ward’s household upon marriage. I seriously doubt they would be tasked with protecting the ward’s maidenhead.
    Medievals believed women were very sexual, and needed a great many constraints. It’s no wonder so many female saints were virtuous virgins. Examples, examples, examples! No one really wanted a Magdalen for a daughter, regardless of how much Jesus forgave her!

    BUT, for a modern story’s sake, a warden MIGHT sympathize with her charge. and occasionally abet a bit of kanoodling, for whatever reasons lay in her heart. THAT is the teaser by which a story snares the reader! All in good fun! Otherwise only dedicated historians would care to read it.

    Most people would be put off by the reality of the Middle Ages, so modern readers need something alluring to catch their imaginations. Personally, I see little harm in mixing a bit of modern mores in historical FICTION, as long as context is not buried.

    It’s up to each reader to decide how much leeway to accept. Those more intrigued in the past (like the good people who like and respond to April’s posts) have probably done some depth of research on the subject. I haven’t read any complaints in this forum, and I greatly respect the readers who have responded. All seem to love history and April’s works. A win-win! โ˜บ

    April, thankfully, is ably capable of making it all work, and shares her research with readers unstintingly. So glad I happened into this merry band! โ™ฅ

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. You make a good point about the age of the maidservants. I think they were probably more mature women, possibly poor relatives.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think Juliet’s nurse in Romeo and Juliet
      might be an early-modern example of the “abetting warden” as a plot device.

      Liked by 2 people

      • And the English at that time enjoyed stories about supposedly hot-blooded mainland Europeans, especially those of the Italian peninsula. It’s why so many romance, comedy and adventure plays involved them as characters. Poking fun at other cultures was quite popular (still is; my fellow Americans do it far too much).

        Not familiar with concurrent stories and plays from other European countries. Would like to know if England was similarly treated. Do know Viennese diplomats tended to praise English women and castigate their menfolk, but don’t know if this was reflected in their literature.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I remember some mid-twentieth century author explicating how the English attributed all kinds of license and perversion to the decadent French (I’m sure as an aspect of a larger hot-blooded-Mediterranean trope,) who in turn ascribed the identical qualities to the decadent English.

          Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were a canon of those undoubtedly complex female relationships of support and suppression, guidance and frustration, to rival the tropes of master and apprentice/novice and king and prince and rule-bound lieutenant and loose-cannon-who-gets-results cop, etc.? Female power relations, played out (mostly) inevitably in domestic contexts–so familiar and so international but invisible as a vampire in the mirrors of culture.

          Reminds me of April and I trying to figure out where a woman would go to buy quotidian sewing supplies (i.e. not at a fair)–something like every Englishwoman of every class who had hands would know, but which even diligent research really can’t resolve. The evidence just isn’t…there.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Another fascinating read, April. Not being particularly into medieval romances, I must confess it’s not something I’d thought about a great deal. As you say, there must have been ways round the restrictions, otherwise some of the things that happened never would have. I do get irritated by blatantly silly inaccuracies in historical film/TV dramas, merely to pander to a modern audience. There is a danger of the story becoming a 21st century one, but in costume and without technology.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. As with simples, women’s lore wasn’t considered important enough to waste on good paper. What a coup when discoveries come unearthed! ๐ŸŒน

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very enlightening, thank you for sharing! Itโ€™s eye-opening how much of the consequence fell on the shoulders of a child (calling a 12 year old a woman is beyond me ๐Ÿ™‚ ), rather the (I believe) older male who was probably responsible for the bulk (or moreโ€ฆ) of the seduction.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Then I’m now sure who’s responsible for the seduction (vs. who, as you described, took the punishment)… ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

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