It is a common belief that women of 12th Century England were generally held at a lower esteem than men. Although women certainly were seen as inferior, not all would have agreed in holding them at a position of inferiority, as the general consensus might have us believe. In Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth, many accurate 12th Century England views of women are portrayed from several points of view, not only to entertain on Follet’s fictional behalf, but to historically inform as well. Follet skillfully crafts each main character a temperament towards women.
The powerful William Hamleigh offers an extreme view of women’s subordination and inferiority; the humble Prior Philip hints towards equality; and Aliena, the bold heroine, displays women’s determined and self-reliant progress. Using multiple characters’ points of view, Follet accurately portrays views of inferiority and equality towards women of 12th Century England. In the life of the 12th Century English commoners, women were undoubtedly inferior to men. They were not respected as equals, were seen as weak, they depended on men to provide, were left to simple and menial labor, and were subordinate in and out of marriage (ZinePress).
In his novel, Pillars of the Earth, Follet uses several examples to display this sexist lifestyle. At one point in the novel, young Aliena tries to sell a sack of wool, which was a rather lucrative commodity at the time. Lucrative to men, at least, for Aliena is only offered half the normal pay because she’s a woman. Later, Aliena marries a man who forces her to sleep at the foot of their bed, and even attempts to rape her. However, by law it was not rape, for she belonged to him and had to follow his orders as long as they were married.
The greatest suppressor of feminine equality is easily the novel’s antagonist, the powerful William Hamleigh. In his eyes, women are objects at the will of men. This is seen many times through Pillars of the Earth, as William often seeks the company of prostitution and violently rapes whomever he pleases. His only love for women is the control he is shamelessly able to hold over them. The one exception to William’s power lust is his love for his mother. Given his own personality and mores, it makes sense that his mother is also power hungry, conniving, and controlling.
William is not the only political leader that disrespects women. Follet refers to an old English custom, in which, on the night following marriage, a new husband’s wife must spend the night with their county’s earl. It is also well known that many of a king’s servant women were not just for cooking and maintenance. Although women were subordinate in marriage, in many cases marriage was also a partnership of near equality. In Pillars of the Earth, Tom Builder and his wife Agnes are very supportive of each other even in times of great hardship.
Tom not only loves Agnes as his wife, but respects her as a strong woman as well. Follet creates a similar case with Jack and Aliena. Jack sees more than the times suggest of women in Aliena. He loves her for her knowledge, her position of self-reliance, and, of course, her beautiful brunette curls. On the other hand, Tom, Agnes, Jack, and Aliena are the heroes of the novel, and therefore it is ideal that they are likeable by today’s standards of gender equality. A huge influence throughout medieval times was the Catholic Church.
Follet offers the view of Prior Philip, a textbook clergy leader who checks his own actions and thoughts in every situation. Although Philip never truly expands on his ideas of women, it is clear through his actions, such as helping Aliena, that the church and he respect them as equals. However, there are a few cases throughout Pillars of the Earth in which women are discriminated against as offenders. For example, when Philip learns of Tom and Ellen’s fornicating ways, Ellen is accused and punished as the main offender while Tom is only passively at fault.
Of course, Philip must abide by the rules of the church and the decisions of his fellow clergymen, thus it was not entirely his decision to exile Ellen. In contrast to the 12 Century English peasant lifestyle, a large handful of women found themselves in positions of power (ZinePress). In fact, it was not entirely uncommon for women to be business owners, earl leaders, and even queens. Leading women’s progress everywhere in Pillars of the Earth is the beloved heroine, Aliena.
Aliena goes from riches to destitution, from destitution to riches again, and finally to a position of power running the Earl of Shiring. However, none of this progress came easily for her. She had to battle the adversity of sexism like most women of her time, but with self-reliant determination and a bit of luck, she experienced more success than the average medieval woman. Although women had their foot in the door of equality in 12th Century England, the majority of them were suppressed by the sexist ideals of the time.
Despite the many queens and female business owners, women were often controlled by the men they married or by those in positions of economic and political power. Using the mores and views of multiple characters in Pillars of the Earth, Follet paints a full canvas of 12th Century England’s gender roles from the eyes of the heroes, the villains, and everyone in between. Works Cited Follet, Ken. Pillars of the Earth. —. “Modern Implications of Gender in Medieval Times. ” ZinePress. ZinePress RSS, 2007. Web. 4 April 2010. The Purdue OWL. Purdue U Writing Lab, 2008. Web. 27 Dec. 2008.