'One Who Does Not Need the Help of a Man': Women in Medieval Letter Collections

Rachael Haslam | 28 September 2020

Gender History | Medieval History | European History | Religious History

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the church of Fontevraud Abbey. Photograph by Adam Bishop, 2011. Image licensed under Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en. 

Letter writing was an important part of the transformation that notable medieval scholar Charles Homer Haskins describes as the ‘Twelfth Century Renaissance’.[1] This, among other changes, was a time of great intellectual progression in Western Europe. The ars dictaminis, or ‘art of dictating a letter’, was laid out in manuals to be studied, which included collections of letters written by famous scholars. 

Peter of Blois and Hildebert of Lavardin, both French ecclesiastics, wrote extensive letters during the eleventh and twelfth centuries that were admired by many long after their time. Their collections are complicated historical sources as they were heavily and carefully edited, often with a view to how they would be perceived by future audiences. While this must be taken into account when approaching these sources, they can also provide interesting insight into the contemporary views and aims of the writers. In this blog, I explore how the letter collections of the two famous writers help us to gain a better understanding of their attitudes towards women. In doing so, what stands out to me is the restriction placed on the letter writers’ abilities to communicate their views.  

Hildebert of Lavardin’s letter collection is recognised as one of the most important and influential manuscript collections of the Middle Ages. Indeed, Peter of Blois acknowledges that Hildebert’s work had a huge influence on him, having been made to memorise it during his own education. Hildebert’s collection portrays its author as a spiritual guide, advising people on matters ranging from their conversion to Christianity to the death of their loved ones.

He had many friendly relationships with powerful women, such as Matilda, the wife of Henry I, and Adela, Countess of Blois. Hildebert advised Matilda about death and mortality as well as the importance of marriage, virginity and motherhood, concepts traditionally associated with femininity. To Adela, he wrote three or four letters consisting of polite praise and requests, for example when he asked her for the chasuble, or liturgical vestment, she had promised him. Advising her on her regency in the absence of her husband, he wrote that she ‘does not need the help of a man’ to rule. He emphasised the power she had and advised her to show clemency to the realm. Additionally, when she decided to enter into a religious order, he wrote to praise her and to advise her on the virtues necessary to succeed there. 

It is worth noting that religion often acted as a leveller in gender relations as monks and nuns were treated equally, without the social hierarchy that prevented women from rising in lay circles. Adela’s decision therefore removed a level of paternal guidance from Hildebert’s letters and after her decision he advised her on qualities that he, as a deeply religious man, was also striving to adopt. 

Nevertheless, Hildebert’s letters do not come across as particularly personal. The letters all have a familiar tone, even though he often wrote to people he could not have personally known. This tone was used regardless of the people he was writing to and the relationship, or lack thereof, that he had with them. Due to this, his real feelings may have never been preserved, demonstrating the restrictions to expressing personal opinions that letter writing entails: the personal voice has been stifled by the rise of a formulaic approach to writing in which the author’s own motivations and their calculation of how to speak to the target audience interplay. 

Peter of Blois was also well-known for his collection of letters. Based on biblical teachings, he wrote on the importance of women choosing their own paths in life. In his correspondence with the archdeacon of Poitiers he criticised the latter for forcing his niece into a cloister and openly supported her decision to choose her own future. When the niece finally did become a nun, Peter wrote to her directly, congratulated her and advised her that it was a wise choice. He also wrote to his own sister and encouraged her in her life as a nun. He treated her with respect and motivated her to take responsibility for her own choices. Similarly to Hildebert, Peter’s writing concerning women is filled with paternal advice and he treats members of religious orders with great respect. 

Probably the most widely read of Peter’s letters today is his open correspondence with Eleanor of Aquitaine, attempting to stop her during her revolt against her husband, Henry II. Here, he took a completely different approach and made no pretence of equality between Eleanor and Henry. The famous medievalist Eileen Power, writing on the somewhat paradoxical view of women in the Middle Ages, states that women were constantly moving ‘between a pit and a pedestal’, with their status remaining confused.[2] Women gaining power were seen as dangerous, and powerful women were therefore in need of constant restraint. Power writes that women sometimes experienced a form of equality in this way, since, for example, Eleanor’s choice had the potential to destroy a powerful kingdom. This is reflected in the letter, where Peter often quoted scripture and warned of the doom of the kingdom in order to implore Eleanor to return to her husband. 

Peter’s other letters to women include advice and encouragement on many different matters. His letter to Eleanor is not an accurate portrayal of his feelings towards women in general, however, but a demonstration of how outside motivations can impact what a person is able to write. Peter’s patron, the Archbishop of Rouen, instructed him to write on these issues, probably on separate instructions from Henry II himself. Therefore, the letter should be seen as part of a long tradition of fearing women in positions of authority. His promotion of gender equality on the one hand and preaching on the required subservience of women on the other at first seems confusing but can be understood as the actions of a man who needed to impress his masters. Peter later took up a position under Eleanor, and removed this particular letter from his collection, demonstrating the impact of patronage on the letter collections that survive today.[3]

There were many day-to-day issues limiting medieval men from portraying their true feelings towards women in their writing. Factors such as patronage, politics and social norms often seem to have limited these men in their ability to treat women as equals. The collections discussed here have, in some ways, still succeeded in demonstrating how these men saw women. Much like today, an individual’s personal views were overshadowed, not only by the opinions prevalent at the time but also by their desire to maintain their own social status. 

Rachael Haslam is a final-year History student at the University of Sheffield, looking to embark on an MA in Medieval History. She is particularly interested in twelfth century gender and intellectual history. This blog is based on a project supervised by Dr Danica Summerlin. 

Further reading


[1] C. H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1971)

[2] E. Power, Medieval Women (Cambridge, 1978)

[3] It is possible that Eleanor herself implored him to remove it. However, it is more likely that Peter took it out as a courtesy to the person he worked for. Either way, his removal of it demonstrates that he did not feel strongly about the views it presented towards women.