WOMEN IN EVERYDAY LIFE

Ordinary people as well as activities and scenes of everyday life surrounding them usually stay hidden from early medieval sources. Written sources do not report on traditional female roles, motherhood, married life, everyday chores or even of beauty care. The female figures who appear in these sources are usually wives of kings, holy women, nuns retiring into monasteries, or maybe poor female servants. Neither is there an impressive, archeologically traceable imprint of women’s manifold activities to be documented in contemporary burials. Primarily, tools used for basic activities and everyday chores as well as personal articles were placed in the graves. However, the Hungarian Conquest Period is an exception from this general practice, otherwise characteristic of the Migration Period as well as the Carolingian Period. Namely, in Conquest Period graves, tools related to traditional women’s activities can be considered even rarer, even if not completely unprecedented. May it be the wife of a common peasant or a daughter born to a high-ranking family, women have traditionally spent most of their time with the production, mending and decoration of linen (clothes, blankets, carpets, bed linen). They were concerned with cooking and preserving food, feeding the family as well as several agricultural tasks which did not require a strong physique. In addition, many of the women living in this period could have been skilled riders, with horse-riding being an everyday activity to several of them. Women’s horse-riding way of life in the Conquest Period is evidenced by horse bones and horse fittings included in their graves.

DAILY CHORES

Tools of textile production and household work

In the early Middle Ages, women spent most of their time with the production and mending of the family and household linen – beside child care, cooking and tending to the house and its garden as well as domestic animals. Even the highest-ranking women are mentioned in the written sources to have occupied themselves with sewing, embroidery, and the making of carpets when having nothing else to do. Although missing from truly elite burials, spindle whorls made of clay are the most frequent objects in graves of poorer and richer women. Beside these, needle holders made of sheet metal or lathe-turned bone, including different types of needles from small straight pieces to large packing needles and curved upholstery needles were brought along to the afterlife by their one-time owners. In the Carpathian Basin, thimbles only occur very rarely as evidences of late antique influence in communities which also imitated other ’achivements’ of Roman lifestyle. Tools of textile production were not only utensils but work equipment. Since the Roman Age, spinning and weaving as well as related tools were symbols of women’s chastity and diligence, later of marital loyalty, thus became emblems of womankind. Whether people living in the early medieval times were aware of this fact is hard to prove. Looms were made of organic material, thus have not been preserved; we can guess at large-sized vertical looms based on related elements such as loom weights, which occur in the archaeological material of settlements. Depending on the historical period, loom weights could have had different forms: Gepids and early Avar Period Germanic peoples mainly used cone shaped weights, while Langobards and women of the Carolingian Period rather utilized clay weights of pressed spherical form, decorated with simple incisions or impressed patterns.

One of the period’s most characteristic female grave goods is the iron knife, worn on the belt itself or in a sheath attached to the belt. These knives belonged among the personal articles of women; often beautifully crafted pieces with non-ferrous metal coating come to light. Presumably, the knives were used for eating but also other purposes.

Carolingian Period knife handles with antler scales (either undecorated or adorned with point-circle motifs or other simple, incised decoration) provided a steady grip, while the narrow blade allowed light and fast cutting, chopping, cleaning, etc. Initially, the exact function of these knives has been considered to be filleting or cleaning fish, but their usage was probably more universal than that, and they could have been appropriate for other crafts or household activities as well.

In the graves we often find vessels which included food and beverage provisions for the journey to the afterlife. This tradition could vary depending on time and space as well as the burial customs of a certain community: from the Hunnic Period to the early Avar Period mostly drinking vessels (characteristic jars, mugs, cups) were included in both men’s and women’s graves. In contrast, in the late Avar Period small, one-person cooking vessels for the provision of food comprised the majority of vessels were placed in burials. Although in the first half of the Carolingian Period the habit of providing the deceased with food or drink was still popular, from the middle of the 9th century, in the cemeteries of the Christianized communities no vessels occur anymore; though, they appear again it the burials of the conquering Hungarians.

Definitely, one of the most basic tasks of women was to care for their family. Most certainly they spent a part of their days around the fireplace or the oven, among cooking and baking appliances.  The majority of the settlements’ archaeological material consists of ceramic vessels used for cooking, eating and serving food. In the Carolingian Period Mosaburg (today’s Zalavár), the varied vessel set was produced in homogeneous good quality and industrial quantities. Beside small-sized pots and large-sized cooking or storage vessels, the vessel set contained flat bread baking plates, vessels for keeping food warm, serving platters, cups and bottles to store liquids just as well as clay baking pans and coarse bowls used to dry and roast cereals.

The preparation of harvested grains has also been done domestically, this is what millstones – a characteristic find type in settlements – were used for. Grinding by means of a millstone has been documented in the Legenda maior S. Gerardi (The Passion of Saint Gerard).

“Sometime around midnight, a certain serving maid, while grinding grains by turning a mill with her hand, eased the grimness of her labour by singing. Waked (by the singing) and asking for the attendant, the pater [Gerard] inquired what it was. The attendant reported to him the occasion truthfully. Immediately, the pious pater was overwhelmed by tears: “Blessed is the person (homo)” – he said – “who, though under the mastery of another, performs her duty leniently and without grumbling.”

“MIRROR, MIRROR…”

Articles of beauty care from the early Middle Ages

Women have always been eager to be beautiful and attractive. Already from prehistoric times, certain finds have been preserved which prove that women depoyed various practices to achieve this goal. The Roman Period cult of beauty as well as its extensive cosmetic practices (perfumes, paints, ointments) did not reach the Barbaric peoples to the full, but stayed an almost unattainable luxury. However, from the Hunnic Period to the middle of the 7th century, cosmetic sets of various composition attached to straps hanging down from the belt did appear – even if rarely – in the graves of the highest-standing women. Articles belonging to cosmetic sets may include pins with a spoon-shaped head, nail- or toothpicks: rods with clawed ending, cosmetic knives, sieves as well as small metal cones with hair remains which could have belonged to brushes. Beside personal hygiene, the brushes could have been used to apply paints and perhaps a make up. In the case of sieves the theory arose that these may have been used in a ritual related to Arianism (a branch of Christianity), but as they always come to light among other cosmetic tools, it is more likely that they were accessories of some kind of beauty treatment.

One of the most ornate of such cosmetic sets came to light in Bácsordas. The high-born lady buried in the middle third of the 5th century wore her cosmetic tools on a ring attached to her belt, which was decorated with spiral motifs and held together by a large silver buckle. Among the cosmetic tools there was a small-sized silver sieve, two rods and a brush- or mirror handle decorated with spiral motifs as well.

Metal mirrors also appear in 5th to 7th century female graves, athough they rarely come to light intact. Mostly only fragments were thrown into the graves as part of some kind of a ritual, presumably related to the deceased’s soul. These early Migration Period objects were made of a special alloy, similar to bronze but with a paler shine. Nomadic type mirrors from the Hunnic Period are small-sized (4-12 cm in diameter), round, with a convex decoration on their back. As a grip, a thin wooden cane could be inserted into a handle attached to the reverse. Their polished face was similarly obscure once as it is today, the reflection they provided could have never come close to the clear image visible in modern, silvered glass mirrors. 

In the Migration Period both men and women used combs; women frequently sticked them into their bun (during excavation, combs are usually found next to the head), while in men’s graves we find them placed along the side of the deceased.

The traditional approach which attributes the concept of beauty, cleanness and tidyness to women, can only be poorly documented in the Carolingian Period archaeological material. The only cosmetic tool which refers to women’s beauty care is the comb. Combs assembled from carved antler plates were mainly decorated with simple, incised geometric patterns. Most of them were one-sided however we also know two-sided cosmetic or chingon combs. Nevertheless, a well-groomed appearance was not only women’s privilege: combs also appear in the satchels of Migration Period Germanic as well as 8-9th century men.

FEMALE DESTINIES IN THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES 

In her everyday life, the early medieval woman occupied various roles. She tried to live up to the expectations of her environment: in her family as well as in the society. Within the family, first she was someone’s daughter, later presumably became someone’s wife, after which – as the most important expectation – she became a mother; finally, in her old age, she helped the young with her knowledge and life experience. In the period in question, graves in particular testify about the role of women within the family through the quantity, quality and types of jewellery and personal articles, as well as the costume style they were laid to rest in. In some cases, based on the examined anthropological material it is possible to determine if the women had any illness or injuries, and on rare occasions we can even learn about their eating habits and food options. The daily rituals of their life, individual destinies, personal qualities and skills mostly remain hidden from us, however a few exceptional cases can shed light to the extraordinary life and unique personal stories of certain women.

BALTHILD OF ASCANIA: THE COMPELLING LIFE OF A SAINT

This life story full of twists an turns, resembling an adventure novel or even more a tale, opens up for us the colourful world of the early Middle Ages: a period when anything could happen to a person – especially a girl or young woman. Several versions were created and disseminated across Europe of the original legend written in the end of the 7th century, until – over time – it has swelled into an adventurous life story incorporating historically barely reliable, rather fabulous elements. The Anglo-Saxon name Balthild(e/a)/Baudour/Bauthieult is already tell-tale: it means ’bold sword’ or ’bold spear’. Balthild was born around 626/630 in Britannia. Sources are not consistent about her provenance, she is variously reported to be the descendant of either a poor, or an elite, perhaps even a royal family. Nevertheless, it is a fact that she was still a child when captured by Normannic pirates and dragged to Frankish land as a slave. She served at the court of Erchinoald, mayor of the palace of Neustria; this is where her beauty could have caught the eye of Frankish king Clovis II, who took her as his wife in 649. Balthild, now queen, gave birth to three sons and after the early death of her royal husband she acted as a regent (a person appointed to govern pro tempore in place of a regnant monarch) of her unerage children. After her sons reached adulthood, the dowager queen withdrew to an abbey near Paris which she herself had founded, and spent the last ten years of her life there as a nun, until her death in 680. Balthild supported the Frankish Church all her life, she made generous donations and founded several monasteries. According to a story that was preserved to us, after the death of her husband she had her splendid royal jewels smelted so that a worthy reliquary could be made of them. Her tradition emphasisez that even as a queen and later a ruler, she remained humble and modest; however, she was a capable stateswoman who ruled her country with a firm hand, and her provisions served the protection and reinforcement of Christianity all along. It is because of a famous provision attributed to her, through which she secured the safety of Christian children against slavery, that she became the patron saint of Christian children. Her cult took root in her deeds during her lifetime as well as in miracles which happened at her grave. Probably these led the Carolingian king Louis the Pious to have her grave reopened in 833. During the exhumation, the body was found unspoiled and perfectly intact, providing major proof of the holiness of Balthild. Her ornate funeral garment featuring an embroidered cross has been preserved in an almost perfect condition, and is being kept at her burial site up to this day. The Merowing queen was canonized in 880 by Pope Nicholas I. Although we can find Balthild among the saints of the Hungarian Catholic Church, the origins of her veneration in Hungary are unclear. We do not know if her cult aready reached Pannonia during the short Catholic Carolingian Period, or perhaps her legend has spread in Hungary only later, through medieval or post-medieval interconnections.

WOMEN ON HORSEBACK IN THE CONQUEST PERIOD

Although objects related to traditional women’s chores were quite common among grave goods in earlier eras, in the Hungarian Conquest Period this practice was not really characteristic. In contrast, not only men but also women, at times even children were buried with their horses during this period. Together with the horse bones – or on many occasions, without them – horse equipment was also buried, including the saddle predominantly made of wood, stirrups, bit, strap buckle as well as the harness, sometimes richly decorated with precious metal fittings.

Apart from a few fortunate exceptions, not much has been preserved for research of the Conquest Period saddles themselves. Particular elements of contemporary saddles could have had a carved or painted decoration or – in the case of high-standing owners – have been fitted with metal embellishments or carved bone plates. Impressive examples of these latter are the saddle plates which came to light close to the palace of Sándor Blaskovics in Soltszentimre. From the grave of the high-born lady buried here, a pair of stirrups as well as horse harness fittings resembling flowers (so-called rosette-shaped fittings) also came to light apart from the saddle. The carved bone plates decorated with palmette motifs adorned the front saddle arch or pommel (the saddle arches were meant to prop the rider’s waist). The reconstruction drawing of the object was done by Gyula László. This interpretation – with some alterations – defines our knowledge of the structure, size and form of Conquest Period saddles up to this day. 

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