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A Medieval Life

Judith Bennett

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Cecilia Penifader

Though the court rolls and manorial records of Cecilia’s time offer a wealth of information about her actions, there is virtually no documentation that offers an accurate glimpse into Cecilia’s thoughts and feelings. We can assume, however, that Cecilia was a survivor and a striver and that she likely possessed characteristics that promoted the prosperity she enjoyed. At the core of Cecilia was her hardiness. Blessed with good health and a family that nurtured and provided for her into adulthood, Cecilia demonstrated a resilience that was the hallmark of peasant life. From a young age, she likely helped with chores, including watching animals, supervising her younger sister, cooking, gardening, brewing ales, tying bundles of grain at harvest, and foraging for nuts and berries. As she grew older and had several acres of land to manage, she probably did some of the harder work that men did, which indicates both hardiness and independence. Further evidence of both her hardiness and independence rests in Cecilia’s choice of lifestyle. A singlewoman her entire life, Cecilia eschewed the economic security that marriage typically guaranteed in favor of living on her own.

In order to succeed as Cecilia did, she had to be flexible, intelligent, and even ruthless. Because she was a woman and could not reap the benefits of being an officer, Cecilia probably relied on her network of family and friends to protect her interests at court. With so much land, she had much at stake, and she walked a fine line between garnering either respect or resentment from her poorer peasant neighbors. This balance required a shrewdness that Cecilia likely employed in the management of her lands as well as in her social relationships. Perhaps inherent in Cecilia’s shrewdness was a willingness to get ahead at the expense of others in the community. Bennett notes several instances of Cecilia’s neighbors accusing her of stealing grain from them, an act that seems unusual and risky given Cecilia’s relative affluence. Additionally, Cecilia’s seminal land acquisitions occurred during the Great Famine, when lands could be purchased at a bargain, which suggests that she was profiteering. In this light, Cecilia’s surname Penifader—derived from Pennyfather, or pennypincher—was perhaps well-deserved.

The most interesting mysteries about Cecilia are those that surface in the records just enough to titillate our curiosity before receding into darkness and uncertainty. One such aspect is Cecilia’s appearance. Beside the court record detailing Cecilia’s will and last testament, there is a scribble of a tall, thin, curly-haired, pointy-nosed woman that may very well be the clerk’s rendition of the deceased Cecilia, drawn from memory. The most apparent question about Cecilia, though, is why she decided not to marry, a somewhat unusual life choice in the Middle Ages. Bennett offers a practical explanation: marrying would have required Cecilia to cede herself and all her lands to her husband, a concession she may have been unwilling to make. But there are other explanations as well. Cecilia came of age during the Great Famine and certainly saw many acquaintances die. While highly improbable, it is not implausible that the love of Cecilia’s life numbered among the dead. Perhaps slightly more probable, Cecilia may have had a lover who was her social inferior and could not marry him for fear of losing her standing in the community. Bennett wonders what relationship Cecilia had to Robert Malin, to whom she bequeathed a third of all of her landholdings. Once again, it is improbable but not implausible that Cecilia may have had an intimate relationship with Malin.

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