Women’s Rights: Property Inheritance in Medieval Society

For a woman of wealth and status in medieval times, her most important role was to produce a suitable male heir (Medieval Women). In the tradition of patrilineality and primogeniture, the inheritance of titles and property in medieval times was passed through the male line to the oldest son (Wikipedia contributors: Patrilineality; Jewell 60). In situations where there is no son and only a single daughter, she was sole heiress. In the case of several daughters, they were treated as coheiresses and partition of property would result (Jewell 122) In birth order, the eldest daughter was immediately ousted as heiress with the birth of a brother, and inheritance diminished with the birth of each sister (Jewell 20).

"Eleanor of Aquitaine"
Mural in the Chapel of St. Radegund
(Wikipedia contributors)

As king Louis VI of France (aka Louis the Fat) lay on his death bed, word was brought of the death of Guillaume, Count of Poitou and duke of Aquitaine (Kelley 1). The untimely end of this feudatory and the lack of a male heir left Guillaume’s eldest daughter Eleanor the duchess of a particularly influential feudal territory (Kelley 2). Not to mention that she was only fifteen at the time (Kelley 6). As King Louis’ vassal, Eleanor’s marriage contract was his prize to bestow as he wished. Under the circumstances it best suited his interests to peacefully unite Poitou and Aquitaine with his own lands, more than doubling his own feudal lands in the aquisition (Kelley 2).

Because of Eleanor’s inheritance it was decided that a hasty union between the duchess and Louis the Young, second son and heir to the throne of France following the death of his elder brother Philip, would be favorable (Kelley 2). Though young, she had spent much time traveling throughout the fiefdom and had experience with ducal business (Kelley 6). Upon the death of Louis VI, and her union with Young Louis (only two years her senior), the duchess of Aquitaine became Queen of the Franks in late summer of  1137.

Following the unsuccessful Second Crusade, Eleanor sought an annulment of her marriage (Wikipedia Contributors: Eleanor of Aquitaine). In early spring of 1152, Louis agreed to the annulment, Eleanor’s lands were restored to her and she later married Henry, Count of Anjou (Kelley 82). With this union she  became the Duchess of Normandy and Poitou, and the Countess of Anjou (Kelley 83).  She also enjoyed new freedom from restraint and surveillance, allowing her to diffuse ideas from the enlightenment throughout her domain (Kelley 85). Eleanor was young, rich, liberal and ambitious, demonstrating that while women were somewhat disadvantaged in their right to property inheritance, it was not an impossibility to create or become part of a powerful, successful, wealthy fiefdom.

Works Cited:

Jewell, Helen. Women in Medieval England. Manchester University Press: 1996. Google Books. Web. 19 Apr 2012. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ud_BAAAAIAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR6&dq=property+rights+for+women+in+medieval+times&ots=-8l854uoVC&sig=Nn2AAb4gBG0gzdnJodckKCjqqfs#v=onepage&q=primogeniture&f=true

Kelley, Amy. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. Massachusetts: 1950. Google Books. Web. 19 Apr 2012. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Qts7Heh3_sMC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=eleanor+of+aquitaine&ots=N3dpHU5XRV&sig=eVYbuumvZFzWdCRqwqgKVksAfPI#v=onepage&q=eleanor%20of%20aquitaine&f=false

Wikipedia contributors. “Patrilineality.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.

Wikipedia contributors. “Eleanor of Aquitaine.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.

Wikipedia contributors. “Women’s Property Rights.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.

“Medieval Women.” History Learning Site. Web. 19 Apr 2012. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_women.htm

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