Sunday, August 7, 2016

Chattels - Or What Medieval Women were NOT


OK. I admit it, this entry is of a rant. I’m sick and tired of hearing that women were “mere chattels” in the Middle Ages because that was NOT true. It is true that they did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as 21st century women in advanced, post-industrial, Western societies, but they were not at any time in medieval Europe (800 – 1500 AD)  “chattels.”



Let me start by reminding you what the word chattel means. Webster’s Dictionary, Second College Edition, states that a chattel is: “a movable item of personal property, as a piece of furniture, an automobile, a head of livestock.” In short, a chattel is by definition property, an object without rights. It is something that can be disposed of, sold, or destroyed by the owner. Humans who are property are called slaves. Women in Medieval Europe were not slaves—of their husbands or anyone else. Period.



I could end this essay here, but the persistence of the misconception induces me to go a little farther.


The Christianization of Europe led to the gradual elimination of slavery across Western Europe. Former slaves were transformed into “serfs,” whose mobility and freedom was greatly inhibited, but who also enjoyed rights. Most simply and importantly, serfs could not be bought or sold—not even female serfs. Female serfs were not chattels—of their lords or their husbands.


    Furthermore, nothing — absolutely nothing — gives women more power and status than wealth. In societies where women cannot own property (e.g. ancient Athens) they are not only powerless to take their fate into their own hands in an emergency, they are also generally viewed by men as worthless.  Where women can possess, pass-on, and control wealth they are viewed with respect and coveted not only as sexual objects but as contributors to a man’s status and fortune (e.g. ancient Sparta.)

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the richest heiresses in history.
Medieval women across Europe could inherit, own and dispose of property. The laws obviously varied from realm to realm and over time, but the fundamental right of women to inherit was widespread and reached from the top of society (women could bequeath kingdoms) to the bottom, where peasant women could also inherit and transmit the hereditary rights to their father’s lands, mill or shop. Middle class women such as guildsman’s wives could inherit whole businesses. This made them very valuable as wives.


Widows were particularly well protected. Beyond what they personally inherited they had a right to a share of their deceased husband’s property. For noblewomen that could be vast estates, for poor women maybe little more than some furnishings and bedclothes, but the point is that their situation reflected their husband’s estate not their sex.

Women could learn and engage in trades and business. Skills even more than property foster economic independence and empowerment because property can be lost — in a fire, an invasion, from imprudence and debt — but skills are mobile and enduring, as long as one remains healthy enough to pursue one’s profession. Women in the Middle Ages could learn a variety of trades from brewer and baker to silk-maker, weaver, dyer, illustrator and more. 

The second most powerful means of empowerment is education. Medieval women had access to education (for the poor) in the nunneries and (for the rich) from private tutors.  Many medieval women of the upper and middle-classes were literate and numerate. In fact, women wrote books (and music) and were respected scholars. To name just a few examples, a certain Dhuoda wrote a manual for her son in the 9th century that has survived to this day. (How many mothers wrote similar texts that have been lost?) Mathilda of Anjou was another highly learned and respected woman, who headed the double (male and female) Monastery at Fontevrault in the 12th century; she was consulted by kings and popes because of her recognized learning and wisdom. Finally, there was Hildegard of Bingen who wrote poetry and music, but also on the natural sciences and medicine as well as theology.  She too was consulted by  kings, emperors and popes.

4   Medieval society was hierarchical. A woman’s status was dictated by her class more than her sex. A woman of the nobility had more respect and power than a man of the middle classes, and a middle class woman had more respect and power than a peasant man. Women of higher social class could command, control, and indeed oppress men of lower status. 



Women who ruled kingdoms — whether Eleanor of Aquitaine or Melusinde of Jerusalem — wielded power over noblemen, knights and bishops. They were not “chattels.” Women who wrote theology and corresponded with popes and emperors and controlled the wealth and inhabitants of religious communities like Hildegard von Bingen were not “chattels.” Women who pursued trades and ran businesses, amassing fortunes while holding authority over journeymen and apprentices were not “chattels.”



Another factor in the increased status of women in the Middle Ages was the spread of Christianity. In fact it can be argued that Christianity itself was the single most important factor in increasing the status of women in Europe. 

I'm not talking here about “equal rights,” ordaining women, or any other issue that agitates modern women, but about the fundamental fact that nothing degrades or devalues women more than polygamy. Fatima Mernisse (a Muslim Professor of Sociology) notes: “Polygamy…enhances men’s perception of themselves as primarily sexual beings and emphasizes the sexual nature of the conjugal unit. Moreover, polygamy is a way for the man to humiliate the woman…. ‘Debase a woman by bringing in another one in [to the house].’” (Mernissi, p. 48) The Christian Church diligently opposed polygamy and succeeded in eliminating it from Christian society before the start of the Middle Ages.


Divorce is pre-industrial societies disproportionately benefits men and harms women. I understand that modern (Western) women want the right to divorce, but modern women in advanced, western societies have the benefit of birth control, education, equal opportunity, and many other hard won rights. In the Middle Ages, when women did not enjoy all those privileges/rights, divorce was (and in many non-Christian societies still IS) used overwhelming by men, almost never by women. Divorce enables men (but not women) to discard partners who have grown old, fat, less attractive or simply failed to produce children. In the absence of polygamy, which allows men to simply add another wife to replace the one they’ve grown tired of, divorce is the best way for men to ensure their personal satisfaction with their sexual partner at little personal cost.  The fate of most repudiated wives, on the other hand, was (and is) dismal. 



The Christian Church’s insistence on marriage as a life bond was a truly revolutionary innovation that dramatically increased the status and financial security of women. If a man could not simply toss a woman out and get a new wife, he had no choice but to try to come to terms with the wife he had. His wife was elevated from interchangeable sexual partner to life-time partner. 

Yes, I know a bad marriage can be hell, but a woman in the 6th, 7th or 8th century couldn’t just move to a new city, get a new job and start a new life. Her only option was going back to her own family (if they’d have her) and generally becoming the resented and humiliated “reject,” kicked around and abused by her sisters, sisters-in-law etc.  

And, yes, men, particularly wealthy and powerful men, in Christian kingdoms in the Middle Ages still found ways to set aside their wives, but the Church’s stance made it more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was a whole lot better than what had gone before—and still prevails in many parts of the non-Christian world. 

3 
Last but not least, contrary to what you have heard people say, the Roman Catholic Church was not always and unremittingly misogynous. Yes, I know, you can find all sorts of quotes to prove the contrary. But “the Church” is not in fact monolithic or static. An 11th century French bishop went on record saying: “Of all the things that God has given for human use, nothing is more beautiful or better than a good woman." (Mount, p. 78) The 13th Century Master-General of the Dominican Order noted that at Christ’s resurrection it was a woman to whom He first appeared — a hugely important theological point, by the way. (Mount, p. 78)


 
Most important, the mother of Christ was venerated above all other saints in the Middle Ages. The rosary evolved, and Mary’s status as an intermediary between man and God was propagated. Medieval Catholicism thus gave to a women a status unknown in any other religion: Mary was revered not for her fertility or her ability to satisfy man’s lust, but for her virtues: love, generosity, kindness, forgiveness etc. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary inspired imitation, and soon there were a host of other female saints revered for their piety and devotion to God even onto martyrdom. 


On a more mundane level, however, the Medieval Church offered women places of refuge from the violent world around them. Convents offered women an opportunity to pursue scholarship and avoid the often wretched life of wife and mother. Abbesses were usually aristocratic women with excellent connections to the powerful families of their society. As such they could be politically influential, and carried on correspondence with everyone from the pope to kings and emperors.  Some transcended their roles in exceptional ways, such as Hildegard von Bingen, who is revered to this day as a composer, writer and philosopher. But even less exalted and less well-connected women in religious orders could do things like run orphanages and hospices that were above and beyond the purely domestic or commercial activities of their secular sisters.


Last but not least, the 12th century was the century in which the cult of "love" was invented. A treatise on love from this period summarized the ideology as follows: 

...each man must try to serve ladies so that he may be illuminated by their grace. And they must do their best to keep the hearts of good men intent on their good works and to honor them for their merit. For all good done by living beings is done through the love of women... (Quoted in Pernoud, Regine, p. 97.)

Pernoud points out that more than mere equality, courtly love raised up the woman over the man. The lady was the lord, to whom a man vowed homage and service. "He vows his fidelity to her. All his life, his actions, his poems are offered in homage to her....The lady therefore is the suzerain. He abandons himself to her will and find joy in doing it, even if he should suffer thereby." (Pernoud, p. 106)

 

So, in conclusion, were medieval women equal to men? No. Did they have the same rights and privileges? No. Could they do everything that men did? No. Were they often victims of violence and injustice? Certainly. But the world is not made up of black and white, pure good and pure evil, perfect equality or pure oppression. European women in the Middle Ages enjoyed far more status, freedom and economic empowerment than hundreds of millions of women living in the world today. Please don’t refer to them as “chattels.”





Mernisse, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Indiana University Press, 1987.

Mount, Toni. The Medieval Housewife and Other Women of the Middle Ages. Amberley, 2014.


Pernoud, Regine. Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. Ignatius, 1998.


In all my novels I attempt to portray women in roles reflective of their historical place in the society of the age described. The Balian trilogy contains a number of strong female characters, both good and bad.


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82 comments:

  1. I love this post. It's informative, engaging, and very much needed. I'm not sure why the myth that women were chattel is still so prevalent, but your post does a great job of dispelling said myth.

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    1. Thanks, Beth. I don't know where the myth started either, but there are many myths circulating about the Middle Ages -- like people didn't bathe often, or the crusaders were barbarians. All we historians can do is to keep reminding people of the facts. Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. Interesting essay on women rights. For me, anyway. As most of my writing has, in a way or other, a connection with the Medieval Ages, I find it extremely useful. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Glad you found it useful. Are you part of the Blog Party? I'd love to know more about your books.

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    2. No, unfortunately not! I'd have liked it but for me it's nor possible. For the moment, at least. Having no card- don't laugh, please - it's not possible to buy or pay anything via online. So I'm just a commentator from outside. Yet, I have author friends I befriended along the years who belong to this marvelous group. Here is my blog address
      http://shadowspastmystery.blogspot.ro/
      You can find more about my country, my books and about me.
      Best regards from Dracula's country!

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  3. I enjoyed reading your blog, and I usually don't get into anything historical. lol! Maybe I liked it because you threw a wrench into current, popular belief. It is interesting how many people rewrite history to serve their own purposes or views instead of telling it how it really was. It makes one wonder if what we've learned about the past is even really what truly occurred or what society wants to make us believe occurred. Hmmm...

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    1. Yvette, unfortunately you are all too correct. Hollywood, TV (including and especially The History Channel), social media etc. pass on a great deal of misinformation and half-truths. There is serious research going on and good history books, but unless someone chooses to study a particular period they are likely to accept the "popular view" as fact -- and it very rarely is. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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  4. Fantastic rant! Eleanor of Aquitaine is always one of my favorites. Great information!

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  5. Wonderful information. On the other side, too many authors try to instill 21st century values on women in historical novels. If a woman is accurately displayed according to the values and culture of their respective times, the author gets bashed for portraying a "weak" woman.

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    1. Also true -- although I find women operating within their own culture and values can be amazingly strong. Think of Ma in "Grapes of Wrath" -- hardly a feminist or a career woman, but what a pillar of strength!

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  6. I love history, especially history involving faith and Jerusalem! This is awesome, I really enjoyed reading your blog! I'll be coming back for more.

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    1. Tara,
      Thanks for stopping by again! Come as often as you like. I generally post once a week, on Fridays. Hope you're also now convinced you have to read these books sooner rather than later....

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  7. Yes, Helena, I will definitely check out your Historical novel. I love Historical Stories, and Romances! Your post tickles my curiosity. Enjoy your party today. Yesterday was awesome! :)

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  8. What a fascinating insight into medieval norms! Many thanks for sharing your research.

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    1. My pleasure -- I really did have to get this off my chest!

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  9. What a fascinating and informative post!

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  10. Helena, thank you for your incredible blog post. Your research is both clarifying and exciting. Earlier today I was focused on Karen King's biblical research, and now I discover you. Amazing! I truly look forward to reading your books!

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    1. Thank you, Gwen. I hope you'll enjoy the books when you get around to them!

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  11. This is quite the comprehensive guide to women in the Middle Ages. I usually just skim over the word chattel and go on with the story, but now this will give me pause.

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    1. Thank you! Makes all the effort of writing this post worthwhile, if I can make readers reflect a little and understand the medieval world better.

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  12. Dear Helena, I love both your post entries and hope this one stays and does not get lost in cyber space. I think you're doing a fantastic job with your research and most informative blog. All the best for today.

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  13. Thanks for an enlightening post about the stature of women in the Middle Ages. You opened my eyes to a number of things. As always, your research appears exhaustive. Thank you for sharing and all the best today!

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    1. Glad you found the post enlightening. No one can be an expert in everything so it's fun to have events like this where we all learn a little from each other. Thanks for stopping by.

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  14. Glad to be in Addis Ababa, Ethiopa, getting a lesson on women throughout the ages. If there is no women, there is no population. Women are very important but yet they are not always treated as such. Helena, its good that you are putting the spotlight on women -- a timely topic.

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    1. An eternal topic! Thanks for stopping by.

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  15. Wow. This topic is so interesting. I merely skimmed, need to read more of this page and your work. Anyone who sheds light on history AND uncovers the TRUTH is a gem. Thanks Helena and have a great day with the Blog Tour.

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  16. Both of your block party stops have been entertaining and educational, Helena. You've done a wonderful job. Best wishes.

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  17. So true, Helena! And thank you for your rant; it certainly clears up a few myths. Once again, your research blows me away. Keep on writing and posting! Best wishes with everything :)

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    1. Thank you! Frankly, I can't stop writing. I'm compulsive about it -- but it brings me great pleasure too.

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  18. Great post, Helena. I didn't take it as a rant and I hope it set some people straight about the role of Medieval women in Western Europe. Have a great day on the Block Party!

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  19. Thank you, Helena for providing the information about women in Medieval times. Not a rant, but a chance to clear up a misconception. This is a wonderful stop on the RRBC Block Party!

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  20. Another wonderful post. Sometimes we like to disregard the unappealing points of history and live in the fantasy. I think it's important to have a dose of reality.

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  21. Hi Helena - thank you so very much for your enlightening historical information. I am a fan of history - more ancient (Egypt/Greco-Roamn) as well as Civil War era US history. I find that in most cases the 'popular truth' that everyine knows is often wrong or so curtailed as to be very misleading. The MA is a fascinating period - such a lot of our cultural norms have roots in the customs of those times. I may have to pick up another historical period to read about...lol - Best regards MikeL

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    1. You are so right! I have an entire blog dedicated to countering popular misconceptions about Sparta (http://spartareconsidered.blogspot.com). Later in this blog party there's a stop there. Hope you'll drop by.

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  22. Reading this I was strongly reminded of a (male) friend's comments, many,many moons ago, that Eleanor of Aquitaine 'was the Jackie Onassis of her time'. I was never too sure whether he meant this as a compliment or not, but certainly the comparison stands scrutiny in modern thinking, although Eleanor didn't come by her power and influence merely by managing to marry well, as she was a ruler in her own right.
    Thanks Helena for a very interesting and thought-provoking post! :-D

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  23. Thanks for dispelling the chattel myth.Good to know her-story as opposed to his-story.
    Susan Joyce

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    1. My pleasure. I needed to get this off my chest!

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    2. Susan,
      You are the winner of an e-copy of "Envoy of Jerusalem"! Please contact me at hps_books@yahoo.com so we can arrange the best means of delivery!
      Helena

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  24. Really interesting post. I loved all the historical pictures and info. Thanks!

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  25. A very informative post, Helena. I think the Middle Ages was a far more advanced time than most of us are led to believe. The lack of solid teaching on this part of history is the reason for this and other historical myths of the time. I agree with your conclusion. Well done!

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    1. Thank you! Reading an excellent book at the moment called "Seven Myths of the Crusades" edited by Alfred Andrea and Andrew Holt. Well worth reading.

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  26. Awesome, educational, and entertaining. I look forward to reading this book. I read a number of books about King Richard, his father, and siblings. Love this era.

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    1. Sounds like you've been reading Sharon Kay Penman -- one of my favorite authors! I strive to be as good, but you'll have to be the judge of whether I succeed. Hope you at least enjoy the books.

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  27. Interesting Post, Helen. Coupled with your previous there is a lot of good information . Enjoyed your discussion on women's power.

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  28. Thanks for the accurate info on women in the middle ages. I love that you are blogging from Addis! My daughter is Ethiopian. What a country saturated in heritage and culture!

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    1. Ethiopia is amazing! I love it, and it is indeed saturated with history and culture. I slipped some Ethiopians into the first to books in the series because King Lalibela was an exile in Jerusalem in the second half of the 12th century before returning to Ethiopia to claim his throne. I'm often asked if I won't write about Ethiopia but I am daunted by the complexity of the culture. Hope you get there with your daughter now and again!

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  29. Hello Helen, so nice to meet you. This is an amazing page of information. I grew up reading historical romances and and in most of them women were definitely second class citizens who wielded power mainly through their sexual powers. Yet in Greek and Roman historicals they seemed to hold higher political and personal ranks. Good luck with your books which I will be checking out as time permits.

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  30. I thought it was less rant and more informative content based on your chosen genre. Great post! Have a wonderful week!

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  31. Thanks for sharing your research and thoughts.

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  32. Interesting history! I did not know much of the facts you listed. Great blog!

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  33. Very interesting and unique post. Women have always had to be very strong.

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  34. Your post was so interesting and everyone, especially women, should have an understanding of women's roles throughout the world and throughout history.You have begun to clarify the facts and in doing so intrigued me about the topic. Thanks.

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    1. Glad to hear that! I hope you dig deeper.

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  35. This has been one of the most informative and accurate posts I've read. The myth of woman as chattels in the Middle Ages continues. Posts like this one need to e read to help dispel the inaccurate perceptions that still continue. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

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    1. Thank you! Shares always welcome, of course.

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  36. Thanks so much for sharing this post, Helena - very thought-provoking! Take care and have a magnificent Monday! :) ~Stephanie

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  37. You have so much engaging information above. To this day, many still believe that women in the middle ages were chattel. Writers, such as you, are helping to bring to light the real truth. It would be nice if we could rid this beautiful blue sphere of life from polygamy.

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    1. Thanks, Mary. I'll keep working at it. Glad to have this opportunity to share.

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  38. Helena, thank you for sharing this piece with us. I think we all have the responsibility to learn and fully appreciate the roles women held in times before us. Your posts are thought provoking and deeply engaging. Thanks again for sharing.

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  39. Lovely and informative post. I love quality, well-researched historical fiction, so this true history really speaks to me. Nice work!

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    1. Thank you! Hope you'll buy, read, enjoy and review "Envoy of Jerusalem."

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  40. Wow, what a fascinating post! I love books that are set in the Middle Ages, but I've never read one that delves so deeply into the situations of women of that era. I'm looking forward to this novel being released.

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    1. Rhani, all three novels I refer to in the post have already been released. They are available on amazon and B&N, in both ebooks and paperback. Here's the link to amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Envoy-Jerusalem-Balian-DIbelin-Crusade/dp/162787397X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470777645&sr=1-1&keywords=envoy+of+jerusalem

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  41. Hello Helena! Love your subject! Will add your books to my TBR list. I know I'm late and not eligible for a prize. Just wanted to stop by and lend my support anyway. Cheers! S.J. Francis

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I'm always pleased when people find my content valuable. Hope you will eventually get around to reading one or the other of my books.

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  42. Frau Doktor Schrader, you linked to your post in an answer on quora, and since your answer on quora is cited on my blog, so is your link here.

    Here, if you like, is a link to my own blog post:

    Were the Middle Ages That Terrible? (Quora)

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I welcome feedback and guest bloggers, but will delete offensive, insulting, racist or hate-inciting comments. Thank you for respecting the rules of this blog.