Documents relating to medieval women's life in the towns

Translated by Helen Nicholson




1. Down and out in early medieval Nantes in La Belle Hélène de Constantinople, ed. Claude Roussel (Geneva, 1995).

This was a well-known story, here retold in a mid-fourteenth century verse epic. Hélène is the daughter of Anthoine, emperor of Constantinople. As her mother is dead, he decides to marry Hélène instead. Hélène, horrified, flees and arrives in England, where the king, Henry, marries her. But in Henry's absence in France she is betrayed by her jealous mother in law, who accuses her of sleeping with beasts and giving birth to animals. One of her hands is cut off and she is set adrift in an open boat with her twin baby sons. Arriving in France, her sons are carried off (and brought up safely elsewhere). Hélène, who remains pure and sinless despite all that has happened to her, sets off on the road and eventually reaches Nantes. She believes that her father is still seeking her to force himself on her, and that her husband Henry is seeking her to kill her. In fact both are seeking her to apologise and make her queen of England again.

I will stop talking about the children now and tell you about the beautiful Queen Helen. She was at Nantes in great poverty. She was lodging with a poor woman. At that time there were no Christians there. Helen lodged, as I said, with a shapely woman who had lived off begging all her life and laundering the clothes of the good city. With her one hand, Helen often scrubbed the clothes by the river. She was very poor but the lady did not think that this mattered at all if one trusts in God who saves all.

When the queen had been there for 17 years she considered her situation and decided that she would have been forgotten by everyone and no one would be looking for her. So healthy-bodied Helen decided to go to a land where people believed in God and in the Trinity and in God's Mother, the lady of pity.

(lines 6492-6513)

She goes to a Christian city, where she lodges in a hostel and goes every day to the bishop's palace to take her share of the food which is given out to the poor, a portion of which she is expected to take back to her landlady as her rent. At last she is recognised at the bishop's palace and, thinking that her family still want to kill her, flees the city. Eventually she reaches in Rome, where she is at last reconciled with her father and husband, and recovers her children. Shortly afterwards she dies.

The audience must understand that Hélène was so saintly and good that no man on Earth deserved to call her his own - and after all she had gone through because of the failings of the men in her life, we can hardly blame her for not wanting to go back to them. Despite her sufferings, she triumphs because she never loses her faith in God; she never despairs; her spirit is never broken. She is an example of a 'type' of female martyr which was very popular in the medieval period.


2. Down and out in England and Asturias: Meliadice in Cleriadus et Meliadice, ed. Gaston Zink (Geneva, 1984).

This fifteenth-century adventure-romance, dated to the 1430s, tells the story of the love of Cleriadus of Asturias for Meliadice of England, both the eldest children of the rulers of these countries. Cleriadus is absent on crusade; Meliadice has been accused of treason. She is condemned to die, but her executioners allow her to escape in her underslip, and run away barefoot through the forest. She comes to a village, where she knocks at a door, but the woman who opens it refuses to help her. Coming to another house, the woman who lives there lets her in and feeds her, but says she cannot stay there. She must go to a commère of hers (a gossip, a friend)…

'I will take you there, if you like. My friend dabbles a little in merchandise and sometimes employs maids who assist her; so I wish us to go to her.'

The woman takes Meliadice to her friend and introduces her.

'My friend, see here a young girl who is seeking employment. I've brought her here and I beg you as dearly as I ever did to take her into your service. When you go to Asturias, you will need to hire a maid to look after your merchandise, and she will serve you very well.'

The lady of the hostel replied, 'Well! My friend, you are giving me this girl and you don't know where she comes from and neither do I, or whether she's reliable or not.'

Then Meliadice began to speak. 'Lady,' she said, 'don't doubt me, for, by my soul, I'll serve you well and faithfully.'

Then for pity's sake and for charity and through the requests of her friend, she took Meliadice on. Her friend thanked her, and Meliadice said to her: 'I pray Our Lord will reward you for your good deed, and don't worry about me, for I will serve your friend so well that, as Our Lord pleases, you will be content and so will she.'

The good lady then left, and Meliadice went back with her mistress. She said to her, 'Come on, my friend, I'll tell you what we need to do. There is a boat full of sailors who are going to the country of Asturias. We must go there, for the boat is waiting for us on the short nearby, and we must carry bundles of wool down to it.'

…..Then Meliadice took a bundle on her head, tired and worn out as she was, and carried them all to the boat. When there was only one left, her mistress took a little bundle which was there and Meliadice took the last, and shut the door of her lodging and they went down to the boat and found it all ready, for the sailors were only waiting for the lady, who was a merchant trading in wool and other things. The merchant woman and Meliadice got into the boat.

The sailors left the land and put their sail to the wind and took good care. They had a good wind and sailed by day and night so that in a brief timethey arrived in the country of Asturias and disembarked. The people of the boat found wagons at the port and they got themselves and their merchandise loaded into them and came into the town where the count of Asturias and his wife was. This was the town where the count and countess stayed most of the time because it was the largest and best town in the country.

When the travellers reached the suburbs of the town, Meliadice's mistress made her get down with the merchandise and paid the carters who had carried her merchandise very well, and went into a garden because she wanted to talk with Meliadice before she saw her female cousin. Meliadice carried all her bundles of wool, and joined her there. Her mistress said to her, 'Now, my friend, I have hired your to be with me and to leave you most of the time with my lady cousin, whom you'll meet in a moment. I want to beg and request that you behave so well that I will be happy with you and if you do so I will share the little God has given me with you. But I still don't know your name.'

'I'm called Ladiree', replied Meliadice. 'And I promise you, lady, that I'll do all you ask me, as God pleases.'

'Come on,' the merchant woman said, 'I want you to take off that old sack and I'll dress you.'

She gave her a new underslip and a simple cotte (overdress), a purse and a mantle and hood, leggings and shoes. So Meliadice - calling herself Ladiree - was dressed, and gave thanks to Our Lord in her heart for the good he had done her.

(pp. 307-11)

Ladiree-Meliadice serves her mistress, carrying her bundles of wool, serving at table and making the beds, doing the washing up and looking after the house before she goes to bed herself. The next day she carries a bundle of wool to the marketplace for her mistress who sells her wool there, buys other merchandise and returns to her cousin's lodging to dine. When she goes back to England, she leaves Ladiree-Meliadice with her cousin. Ladiree-Meliadice asks the cousin's permission to buy silk and gold thread, and takes up making purses and head-coverings, to earn some money. The quality of her work is so outstanding that she comes to the attention of the count and countess (p. 319).

Eventually Cleriadus returns to England, and is devastated to learn that Meliadice is, supposedly, dead. He is very relieved to find her safe and well and supporting herself in Asturias.


3. The Lady merchant who earns an honourable living: from Les Enfances Vivien (The Childhood of Vivien), ed. Magali Rouguier (Geneva, 1997).

Vivien is one of the great heroes of old French epic; his death as a martyr at the beginning of La chanson de Guillaume, and the later version, Aliscans, is one of the most poignant and memorable moments in medieval epic literature. In epic tradition, he lived in the early ninth century, and was son of Garin of Anseüne, who was captured in the defeat at Roncevalles, and nephew of the great hero William Shortnose or Fiercearm or Shortnose(hero of his own cycle of epic poetry). At the beginning of the poem about his childhood, dating from the early thirteenth century, Vivien is aged seven years and 4 months. Much against the will of his father and relatives, Vivien is sent to the Muslims in exchange for his father's freedom. The Muslims plan to kill him, but Vivien is saved by a surprise attack on the Muslim fortress by King Gormant of Nubia. The king takes Vivien captive.

Lords barons, you have heard that the castle and the town were captured. King Gormant didn't dare to stay long - in the morning, as dawn broke, he retreated to his kingdom of Nubia. At sea, on an island, the soldiers offered their booty for sale, including Vivien and the other male and female captives. The merchants came from lands afar. Lady Mabel the merchant, who was doughty and noble, came from Portugal. She was the wife of Godfrey of Salindre, a merchant who was rich and moneyed. She bought Vivien for 100 marks of silver, and gave another 100 pounds for him because she saw him looking so doleful.

The rich merchant who bought Vivien in his childhood was very doughty. She put 100 marks of silver in the weighing scales for him, and plenty more that the Turks did not want. In the morning she set off across the sea, sailing and voyaging in great joy, and Vivien with her, who played and sang for them.

The rich merchant called him. 'Where were you born, friend, fair youth?'

'By my faith, fair lady,' Vivien said, 'I am son of Garin of Anseune the great castle, and nephew of William Fiercearm of Orange, but I was led into Spain as a hostage, to a strong king who wanted to hang me yesterday. But now things are going well for me, rich lady.'

'Yes,' she said, 'alas for you, poor youth! If the unbelieving people had killed you, I would have been very upset and sad. If the Lord God brings my husband back to me - whom I have not seen for seven years come September - I will make him believe and understand, son Vivien, that you are my child. So you'll learn to exchange money and sell, from which you'll earn your food honourably. There will never be a day when you want to spend 20 marks when you don't get 30 back.

'Great thanks, fair lady,' said Vivien.

(lines 531-534)

Godfrey's ships appear in the distance soon afterwards, and the two merchants, husband and wife, are reunited. Godfrey is delighted that he has a son, and begins to train Vivien in trade. But Vivien, as a warrior's son, has no head for figures and is only able to spend money or give it away, not make it. He maintains that what God wants most is people who will fight for Him, not people who earn money. Eventually he engages his fosterfather and the other merchants to form an army to go and attack the Muslims. The merchants then show that they can not only make money, but also fight well for God! The story is an effective but good-natured satire against the warrior class, who have no idea of practicalities and can only fight, hunt and spend money.