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  • Chapter 6:The Women of Flanders and Their Husbands: The Role of Women in the Liber Floridus
  • Kristi DiClemente

The medieval county of Flanders, in northern France, had a surprisingly female-friendly political climate. According to Karen Nicholas, "The countesses of Flanders played important political roles in the history of the county from the time of its Carolingian origins";1 from Judith2 in the ninth-century to Jeanne and Marguerite3 in the thirteenth-century, the women of Flanders held a surprising amount of political and social power, especially relative to contemporary women of the same social status in other parts of Europe. In general, medieval male authors were critical of female rulers, and if they appeared to be successful in their endeavors the authors "gave all credit to the exceptional presence of male capacities in their bodies and minds."4 In order to become compatible with contemporary thinking and to make female political power acceptable, many medieval male authors characterized this power as virilis.5 Although male authors in the Middle Ages saw female attributes as inferior to male ones, and described good female rulers in masculine terms, the political and social power of these women was not diminished. Churchmen in particular aimed to obtain the assistance of women in order to achieve their particular goals; these men felt that female power was acceptable for a good cause, namely their own.6

Flemish women held political power not only at the comital level of society but also in the lower administrative positions.7 They gained this political power through their husbands, as did many women in Europe, but also through inheritances from both male and female family members. This unusual power is reflected in the Genelogia Comitum Flandrie, Genealogy of the Counts of Flanders, in Lambert of Saint-Omer's encyclopedia, the Liber Floridus. By looking at this genealogy of the counts of Flanders in relation to the other genealogies that Lambert included in the book, his acknowledgement of the political and social power of the women in Flanders is evident. Lambert illustrated the power of Flemish countesses in three [End Page 79] ways; first in the number of named females presented in the genealogy, particularly in relation to the other genealogies that he included in his text, second in the quality of the narrative about the women that he described, and third in the relationship between the women of Flanders and outsiders mentioned in the text.

The role of the author is extremely important in this particular manuscript. Most of what modern scholars know about Lambert is found in this work. Lambert was born around 1060 and in his text he called himself a canon of the church Our Lady in Saint-Omer. He entered the monastery of Saint-Bertin as a child, which is where he received his education. The Liber Floridus itself is not an overly impressive example of a medieval encyclopedia; the entries are not organized in any particular way and the Latin is mediocre. According to Albert Derolez, it is possibly the first example of an illustrated encyclopedia that we have.8 Among its folios is information regarding numerous diverse topics including plants and their medicinal usage, maps of Europe, and several genealogies regarding the history of the world and one of the kings of France and one of the Dukes of Normandy. Lambert gave particular attention to a genealogy of the counts of Flanders. A possible reason for the attention was that it was his local history and he had access to documentation because of his location in Saint-Omer and his proximity to Saint-Bertin.

Lambert completed his Liber Floridus in 1120 or 1121. From the little that scholars know about Lambert, it appears that the Liber Floridus was the one of his few literary achievements and it is the only one that survives. Fortunately, Ghent, University Library, MS 92 is the autograph manuscript, which allows the authenticity of Lambert's voice to be maintained. The manuscript contains 287 numbered folios with multiple folding leaves where parchment was added to the original folio.9 The transmission of the manuscript from the twelfth-century can be easily traced; the manuscript was held...