Noble women

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Noble women form a disparate group, which has evolved over time, the noble women having the main point in common of being linked to the nobility by a man: the father or the husband. Ennoblement of women is a rare occurrence. However, women of the nobility assumed political functions, participated in the art of war and took on religious responsibilities. This is why there is an art of living, of dressing, and access to education and the arts, which are specific to them. The theme is a subject that is studied by the social sciences.

Titles of nobility for women

Noble women have an important place in nobility because they are often heiresses who transmit titles or property. They are distinguished by titles of nobility and by appellations to which they are entitled by their birth, marriage, or both when there is accumulation of functions. They often have the title of lady, damsel, princess, baroness, countess, queen, duchess, archduchess, empress, etc.. Although the practice is currently being lost and it is not reserved for the nobility, the marriage contract with a noble could provide for a clause such as the dower, for queens for example. Thus, in the event of widowhood, we then speak of a dowager queen.

In hagiographies, many female saints have noble origins. We can cite Saint Bathilde, wife of Clovis II in the 7th century, and being at the origin of the very first act in the known world having as its object the abolition of slave trafficking; or a little more recently Saint Jeanne de Chantal in the 16th century, born and wife of a nobleman before entering the orders.

In Europe, the life of women under the Ancien Régime was specific. Both with regard to their formation and marital alliances. Manuscript sources dealing with the subject are few in number. Nobiliary historiography especially gives place to alliances and titles of the nobility. However, in certain countries such as England, titles of nobility could sometimes be transmitted through women. Likewise, the titles attached to certain lands could be transmitted to their descendants by the women who owned them.

Political and religious functions

Women participating in the Estates of Brittany, (bottom left of the image) in the XVIIIth century.

It was common for a woman born noble to run an abbey, take important responsibilities in the clergy or become a canoness. For example, proof of nobility was mandatory to join the chapter of Epinal. This is the case of Hildegard von Bingen, who in the 12th century was abbess of the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg and founder of Rupertsberg Abbey. Considered for her intellectual talents, she was recognized as a Doctor of the Church · .

Hersende of Champagne is co-founder (with Robert of Arbrissel) and first grand prioress of Fontevraud Abbey, mother house of the order of Fontevraud, in the 12th century.

We observe responsibilities by women of the nobility in several European territories, such as in Scotland. Another example, women of the nobility were admitted to the Estates of Brittany.

Art patronage

Ermengarde de Narbonne, viscountess in the 12th century, surrounded herself with a court mixing numerous arts, troubadours, doctors and jurists: she thus promoted the intellectual development of Narbonne in Occitania.


The role of education was also important. We can cite the example of Marie-Elisabeth von Humboldt, in the 18th century, who structured very precise instruction, allowing her children, Alexander and Wilhelm, to access courses of a very good level of science and knowledge.

Women as knights

Order of the Hatchet.

There are several orders of chivalry open to women or even exclusive to them. As for men, these distinctions can be honorary. We can cite: Order of the Hatchet, Order of the Ermine, Order of the Ladies of the Cord or even female order of the Band. These distinctions made it possible to reward acts of bravery and to organize groups of women, they also made it possible to have places for discussion and exchange, and to obtain advantages. Another order is inspired by orders of chivalry without being one, Order of the Starry Cross. It is reserved for ladies of the high nobility and is intended to reward their virtue, their good works and their charity. The order, still active, was created in 1688. Its grand mistress is still a princess of the House of Austria.

Art of living

Noble families, to educate girls, must choose between convents (preferably noble chapters) and family homes. Many women testified to their education and their moral, religious and intellectual instruction, in their memoirs or their correspondence. We can cite the example of Christine de Pizan, poet, philosopher and woman of letters from the 15th century, author of works entitled: The Treasure of the City of Ladies and The Book of the City of Ladies.

Many women of the nobility were perfectly proficient in writing and reading. They could be sponsors or recipients of works such as books of hours.


See also


  • Jennifer Ward (2013). Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 1066-1500. Manchester Medieval Sources. Manchester University Press.
  • Christian Auer; Armel Dubois-Nayt; Nathalie Duclos (2012). Femmes, pouvoir et nation en Écosse du XVIe siècle à aujourd'hui. Domaines anglophones. Presses universitaires du Septentrion. BNF42786095.
  • Sophie Cassagnes-Brouquet (2013). Chevaleresses: Une chevalerie au féminin. Pour l’histoire. Paris: Éditions Perrin. BNF43751147..
  • Eugénie Pascal (2004). Liens de famille, pratiques de pouvoir, conscience de soi. Princesses épistolières au tournant du XVIIe siècle (Thèse de doctorat en Littérature). Université de Paris III – Sorbonne Nouvelle.
  • Marie-Anne Vannier (2016). Hildegarde de Bingen. Une visionnaire et une femme d'action. Sagesses Eternelles. Paris: Entrelacs. BNF45073254.
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