— view of the Fontevrault Abbey
Politically Correct Multi-Culturalism (PC MC) has a long list of people, ideas, works, and historical eras whom they assume are deplorable because they don't reflect their politically correct multiculturalist values. “The Middle Ages” is one of them (often amped up for good measure by substituting “Middle” with “Dark”).
One way out of this brainwashing straitjacket is to educate oneself by good teachers (and the ability to even find a good teacher often takes some doing).
Régine Pernoud is one such good teacher. Among many other books she has written, the first I will read with pleasure is Pour en finir avec le Moyen Age ("Done with the Middle Ages"), since I have heard much about it over the years, and have read extracts from fan websites, as well as big chunks of the English translation, available for partial preview on Google Books.
Pernoud's overarching thesis is that the so-called “Middle Ages”, in contrast to their denigration by later Moderns (where modernity began with the 14th century Renaissance), were actually quite progressive and arguably, in many ways, superior to the eras that succeeded them. In addition, this bias against the “Middle Ages” not only is largely false, according to Pernoud, and not only was created in early modernity: it also has survived as a prejudice into our own post-modern world (the 20th century for Pernoud, as she passed in 1998).
Just to take one example -- the treatment of women -- Pernoud writes:
If one wants to get an exact idea of the place held by women in the Church in feudal times, one must wonder what, in our twentieth century, would be said about of convents of men placed under the authority of a woman. Would a project of this kind have the least chance of succeeding in our time? This was, however, achieved with great success, and not without providing the least in the Church, by Robert d'Arbrissel at Fontevrault, in the early part of the twelfth century. Having resolved to situate the extraordinary crowd of men and women who were in his footsteps -- for he was one of the great converters of his time -- Robert d'Arbrissel decided to found two convents, one for men and one for women; between them rose the church. which was the only place where the monks and nuns could meet. Now this double monastery was placed under the authority, not of an abbot, but of an abbess. The latter, through the will of the founder, was to be a widow, having had the experience of marriage. Let us add, to complete the picture, that the first abbess, Petronilla Chemillé, who presided over the fortunes of this order of Fontevrault, was twenty-two years old.
About this abbey at Fontevrault, by the way, the Catholic Enyclopedia tells us:
At the death of Robert d'Arbrissel [its founder], in 1117, there are said to have been at Fontevrault alone 3000 nuns, and in 1150 even 5000.
And Pernoud goes further:
If one examines the facts, the conclusion is inescapable: during the whole feudal period, the place of women in the Church was certainly different from that of men... but it was an eminent place. which, moreover, symbolized perfectly the cult, which was likewise eminent, rendered to the Virgin among all the saints.
She adds that it was only at the very end of the 13th century when Pope Boniface VIII ruled for the strict cloister of nuns. “In consequence,” Pernoud adds,
...women religious would no longer be allowed to mix in the world. Consecrated laywomen, such as the béguines, who, in the thirteenth century, led a life like everyone else's but were consecrated by vows, would no longer be tolerated. In the seventeenth century in particular, the Visitation sisters, meant by their foundress to mix in everyday life, were obliged to adapt themselves to the same cloister as the Carmelites, so that Saint Vincent de Paul [1581-1660], in order to permit the Daughters of Charity to render service to the poor, to go care for the sick and to help families in need, was very careful not to treat them as religious and make them take the veil; if he had, their fate would have been that of the Visitandines. It was by then [centuries after the “backward Middle Ages”] inconceivable for a woman, having decided to consecrate her life to God, not to be cloistered; although in the newer orders created for men, such as the Jesuits, the latter remained in the world.
It suffices to say that the status of women in the Church is exactly the same as their status in civil society and that gradually, after the Middle Ages, everything that conferred on them any autonomy, any independence, any instruction, was taken away from them. Now, at the very time when the University -- which admitted only men -- was trying to concentrate knowledge and teaching, convents gradually ceased to be those centers of study that they had been previously... women thus found themselves excluded from ecclesial life just as from intellectual life.
Pernoud notes that this situation only got progressively worse, until the solidly modern period, the end of the 18th century, where in a backhanded way, by virtue of the fact that many (if not most) orders of women religious became more and more corrupted by various influential sorts indulging the insouciance that is one hallmark of the modern secularism:
[These female orders] also ceased, and rather rapidly, being centers of prayer... The best example remains the order of Fontevrault, which became [in the sixteenth century] a sanctuary for old mistresses of the king... If some orders, like those of Carmel or the Poor Clares, kept their purity thanks to the reforms, most of the monasteries of women, at the end of the Ancién Régime [the close of the 1700s], were accessible houses where the younger daughters of large families received a large number of visits and where cards were played, as well as other “forbidden games”, very far into the night.
Pernoud then embarks on a discussion of ordinary women in the Middle Ages: “...women who were neither great ladies nor abbesses nor even nuns: peasants and townswomen, mothers of families and women practicing a trade.” The source material, Pernoud explains, is both less distinct in terms of pinpointing data, yet far more copious, where the historian finds:
...thousands of small details, gleaned by chance and without any preconceived order, which shows us men and women through the small facts of existence: here the complaint of a woman hairdresser, there of a woman salt merchant (trading in salt), of a woman miller, of the widow of a farmer, of a chatelaine [a castle owner], of a woman Crusader, and so on.
Pursuing this thread, Pernoud expatiates:
It is through documents of this kind that one can, piece by piece, reconstruct, as in a mosaic, the real story. There is no point in saying that this story is in appearance very different from that provided by the chansons de geste, the chivalric novels, and the literary sources that have so often been taken as historical sources!
The picture that comes into focus from the whole of these documents presents for us more than one surprising trait, since one sees, for example, women voting like men in urban assemblies or in those of rural parishes...
In notarial acts, it is very common to see a married woman act by herself, in opening, for example, a shop or a trade, and she did so without being obliged to produce her husband's authorization... tax rolls... show a host of women plying trades: schoolmistress, doctor, apothecary, plastered, dyer, copyist, miniaturist, binder, and so on.
[taken from pages 107-111]