Inasmuch as it tells a tale of class and classism (which we began to describe in our last post) Maid Julie also depicts the interaction between differing gender roles during the Middle Ages.
Weren't They Women?
Believe it or not, among the peasant servants working on medieval fiefs, there was often little difference between the perceptions of men and those of women. Women in this lowly station of life had to work just as hard as men and couldn't make excuses for themselves, so it was difficult to view them as particularly feminine. One is reminded of the immortalized speech "Ain't I a Woman?" originally by Sojourner Truth hundreds of years later. American women of color who were by-and-large all living in slavery at the time found that their hardiness and capacity for back-breaking work kept many from seeing their womanhood. They knew that they were not perceived as "women" as much as they were "female"--much like livestock.
Women who were serfs in medieval settings also couldn't afford to devote much time or energy to what was viewed as the most feminine of professions--child-bearing. Peasants would continue to work their master's lands all throughout pregnancy and would need to return to their duties as shortly after giving birth as possible. A few of those who had given birth recently would often serve as wet-nurses for many of the babies born around the same time so that the majority of the mothers could return to work right away.
After all, the manor could not run without them.
The Lot of Ladies
The nobility's "ladies" on the other hand, enjoyed a very different life. Their womanhood required they adhere to specific rules of conduct regarding femininity, modesty, decorum, etc. Their days were spent in the leisurely professions of mostly discussing tournaments, poetry, affairs of courtly love, as well as local betrothals and marriages with their ladies-in-waiting and tutors. They were sometimes provided with entertainment by minstrels or jugglers, but all in all it was a dull and listless life designed to keep the lady from exerting herself too much while she awaited a marriage arrangement.
This is largely because noblewomen were viewed as fragile and in need of protection from strenuous tasks or shock. This burden on their masculine counterparts to protect was also linked to the fact that ladies' bodies were the key to the survival of the "noble race" as it was called. Ladies, like peasants at times, would not breastfeed or care for their own infant children, but this often continued throughout noble children's development as the children were raised by nurses and tutors.
Ladies were also required to appear as pure, virtuous, and incorruptible. Ever since the account of Eve tempting Adam into sin, women have been mistrusted as vile temptresses meant to lead honest men astray. This mindset was at it's height in the Middle Ages, so it was imperative to keep noble women from any scenario that could give an image of impropriety. This is why Lady Julie's decision to spend the holiday evening with her servant Ian is so dangerous in our Maid Julie. A lady spending time alone with even an honorable man, let alone a serf, was cause for scandal and disgrace. Women accused of sexual misconduct (the accusation, not the act itself was what mattered) were often disinherited by their family's estates, ineligible for good marriages, etc. No noble family would take on the burden of a fallen woman.
The important thing to remember is that most medieval women, even those in the most privileged circumstances, had little control over the direction their lives took. The best thing to do, after all, with a fragile and dangerous woman was to marry her off to whoever would take her and take care of her. I wonder how our Lady Julie would handle such a fate?