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.