Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Guest Post - Is It Better to Be a Medieval Abbess or Countess?

By Kim Rendfeld

I'm delighted to hand over the blog today to my guest, Kim. Over to you, Kim...

In Charlemagne’s day, noblewomen had two options: countess or abbess.

Actually, their families had the two options. The stakes were too high to leave to a girl, or an underage boy, for that matter. The family needed to figure out if they wanted to limit the number of claimants to the inheritance while providing their daughter land to rule or if they needed to build an alliance through marriage.

The 21st century feminist in me says abbess is the way to go. An abbess controlled land and got all the benefits that went with it. She was nominally under the authority of a bishop. But this was an era when a good day of travel for an army was 15 tedious, hazardous miles, so an abbess in essence ruled independently. 

She needed to be well connected and support the king who appointed her to reward her loyal family. She and her sisters (and brothers if she ruled a double monastery) would pray for the monarch and for victory in battle. Everyone believed in the power of prayer. She could also provide a tribute and soldiers from among her tenants.

While hagiographies have accounts of male and female saints following an austere lifestyle, that was a matter of choice. Many abbesses (and bishops and abbots, for that matter) did not give up luxuries a countess would have.

Not a bad deal. Except she had to give up sex. In medieval times, that was a sacrifice. The folk understood women enjoyed intimacy, and they thought the act was good for women’s health. Conjugal relations were as much a wife’s right as a husband’s.

A countess’s role was more complicated. A bride could be as young as 12 or 13. If the couple liked each other, it was a plus, but affection was not a primary factor. Modern eyes see the teenagers as pawns. Medieval ones see the girls as important partners.

If this was a first marriage for the husband, the wife’s chief responsibility was to bear heirs. But a noblewoman did more than make babies and rear children with the help of nurses. She commanded the servants, made sure the guards’ needs were met, and looked after the treasury. This freed her husband to govern and focus on the affairs of his estate. When he was away, she filled in for him. If he died while the son was underage, the countess could serve as a regent.

Besides the dangers of childbirth, a countess dealt with headaches an abbess didn’t. Wife-beating was a right, not a crime. If the count had a lover, there was nothing the countess could do about it. As long as he didn’t neglect his duty to her, what he did outside the marriage was between him and his confessor. If the other woman bore the man a child, he was expected to do the right thing and acknowledge the infant as his. The wife was responsible for the baby’s welfare.

If a countess didn’t bear the much needed son, her husband might try to get rid of her, but that action carried a great risk. Such an insult might cause her angry family to turn their backs on him in battle or worse might start a feud that could end in many deaths.

An honorable way out of such an uncomfortable situation was for the woman to take the veil. If appointed to rule an abbey, the woman got land and influence while the man was free to marry someone else.

Regardless of which path a noblewoman took, she was far from passive. Either way, she could influence the world around her. 


Kim Rendfeld is the author of two novels set in early medieval Francia and is working on a third. In The Cross and the Dragon, Alda, a young Frankish noblewoman, must contend with a vengeful jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband in battle. In The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, Saxon peasant Leova will go to great lengths to protect her children after she's lost everything else.

The Cross and the Dragon was rereleased Aug. 3, 2016, in print and ebook formats. You can order the book at Amazon 
Barnes and Noble 
and other vendors. 

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar will be rereleased in Nov. 2, 2016. Preorders are available at Amazon 
Barnes and Noble 
and iTunes 

Connect with Kim on her website, her blog, Facebook and Twitter 

Kim will also be my interview guest here on this blog on Sunday 6th November where she'll be chatting about her writing and research.
Make a note to come back and join us then!


  1. Hmmm. Countess or Abbess which would I have been? Ah, who am I kidding? I'd have been an impoverished peasant, lol. Still, a girl can dream.
    Nice article though. An interesting read.

    1. Give up sex you say..?

    2. I hear you. I'd probably be a peasant too.

    3. And if you enter the Church, there is that vow of chastity.

  2. Oh, yes! The vow of chastity. I forgot. :D