In choosing Cecilia Penifader as a biographical subject, Bennett proves that women can represent the common man, not just other women. In an interview, Bennett bemoaned the fact that most books about the medieval peasantry portray peasants as “inherently male.” Elsewhere in literature, women represent women, as Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë’s protagonists do, or women represent children, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice does, but women never represent mankind. In writing A Medieval Life, Bennett sets out to show readers that women can indeed embody the universal human condition as well as men can. While Cecilia did have characteristics and partake in activities that were drastically different from those of men, her status as a peasant was far more significant in dictating the terms of her life than was her status as a woman. As a peasant, Cecilia numbered among a group that comprised over 90 percent of Europe’s population and was subject to a lifestyle similar to other peasants around Europe, working in the fields to serve the ruling class’s interests. Thus, Cecilia’s gender has no effect on her ability to represent the common man’s lot in the Middle Ages—that of the peasant.
Aside from representing humanity in general, Cecilia embodied the unique experience of women in the Middle Ages, and, according to Bennett, many of the disadvantages to being a female peasant like Cecilia extended to women of every class. Though women in the gentry could expect deference from both male and female peasants, they, like their sisters in the peasantry, occupied what historians call a “fourth estate,” separate from and beneath the three orders of male warriors, male clergy, and male peasants. The law forbade women from serving in politics and did not protect women in matters of inheritance. Also, both peasant women and noble women legally ceded their property and individual rights the moment they married. In domestic life, the great majority of women could expect to bear and raise children, serve as helpmates to their husbands, prepare food, and repair clothes. Thus, gender rules proved in many cases to be strong enough to bridge great distinctions of rank and status.
Bennett’s detailed depiction of Cecilia’s life makes clear that Cecilia was born into a fixed society that did not allow for the possibility of social mobility. Unlike today, where society is somewhat fluid and allows individuals to move through its ranks, the medieval social system fixed the nobility and the peasantry in place. From a very early age, Cecilia knew that her station in life as a peasant woman was immutable and that efforts to rise above her caste would be both futile and unwelcome by her superiors. In a sense, her status at birth was her destiny. During the entire Middle Ages, a period of approximately 1,000 years, very few individuals were able to transcend the circumstances of their birth. Bennett’s mention of Robert Grosseteste, a twelfth-century peasant whose unequaled brilliance made it possible for him to teach at Oxford and later become a bishop, is the exception to the rule. Besides Grosseteste, medieval life was static to the extent that Cecilia, who never even met a member of the gentry, probably didn’t entertain the thought of what it would be like to live as a lady of the gentry. Instead, she likely limited her ambition to the peasant order, within which she was able to achieve relative prosperity and eminence.
Bennett’s constant references to Cecilia in the context of her kin emphasize the central role that family played during the Middle Ages. Not only was family the basic unit of social organization, but it was also the most significant determinant of an individual’s path in life. Since a person’s social standing was primarily determined by birth, his or her destiny depended entirely on the family into which he or she was born. Cecilia’s wealthy parents enabled her to succeed by providing her with the capital to purchase her first parcels of land; by nourishing her better than other families could nurture their own children; and by acquainting her with Brigstock and Stanion’s more important citizens. Cecilia was especially fortunate to have the parents she did, since custom did not require peasants to provide for anyone but their first-born sons. In this light, family is an even more powerful force in an individual’s life: it is the economic and social wellspring from which an individual emerges and the basic network through which an individual comes into contact with others.
The mantra “those who work, those who pray, those who fight” appears in various forms throughout A Medieval Life and clearly shows the social order of the Middle Ages. From an early age, Cecilia put the people around her into three categories: the peasants, who labored for the benefit of others; the clergy, who tended to the salvation of others’ souls; and the knights, who provided protection. This system of stratification was a solid, absolute law of existence, and people were expected to follow it as if God had ordained it. Indeed, in many cases the clergy did offer this tripartite scheme as divinely inspired, explaining that the three orders were interdependent and that each order worked for the other two orders’ benefit. In practice, the social harmony engendered by this system of social organization was fallacious because peasants were deemed of lesser value than the other two orders. This inequality led to the exploitation of peasant labor by the ruling classes. This tripartite idea reinforced a peasant’s understanding of him- or herself as one whom God put upon the earth to work.
Aspects of medieval life are often neatly divisible into three parts, and people probably considered the number three to have magical significance. Cecilia’s world is nearly entirely divided in threes: the social order consisted of three parts; the main political establishments entailed three overlapping institutions (village, parish, and manor); and there were three main economic markets (land, labor, and trade). The root of this fascination with three probably comes from the Bible, in which the number three is fraught with special meaning. The clergy surely employed this reasoning when relaying the Three Orders to the peasants, perhaps arguing that the organization of clergy, elite, and peasants was as natural as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The peasants demonstrated that they absorbed the weight of this concept when they devised a three-field system of farming, in which peasants rotated crops among three fields each year. If anything, this phenomenon suggests that the people of the Middle Ages tended to live in keen observation of and conformity to ritual and religious teachings.
When Cecilia was born, surnames were beginning to grow popular as a way to furnish information about an individual or family. Cecilia’s surname, Penifader, stems from the word pennyfather and perhaps indicates that Cecilia’s paternal grandfather was miserly or greedy. Robert Grosseteste, a twelfth-century peasant who was so intelligent that he rose to the rank of bishop, probably earned his name as a result of being so clever (“Grosseteste” translates to “large head”). In both cases, these surnames symbolize the power that society has over the individual vis-à-vis labeling and influencing public perception of that individual.
Many peasants readily believed that these two catastrophes were manifestations of God’s wrath. In response, the people prayed with renewed fervor, hoping that God would relent and end their suffering. Ironically, crime increased dramatically during the Great Famine, ushering in a new, less trusting era.