Stages of Sexual Maturity and the Duties to Household
The female body was an important enigma during the Middle Ages.  The nature of the womb and childbirth, menses and milk were studied medically, theorized about philosophically, and utilized as allegory religiously.  The primary female figures for moralistic study in the Catholic Church were Eve and Mary.  Eve's transgressions in disobeying God and eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge created Original Sin, which was passed from mother to offspring.  Due to her parents' cleansing rituals at the Jewish Temple, Mary was born without this black mark.  As a woman who became pregnant through the will of God rather than through standard sexual means, Mary also bypassed some of the biological aspects of standard womanhood.  Utilizing both women to represent the extremes of the feminine psyche meant that  the ideology of the Middle Ages tied  the fate of women's morality to both biology and spirituality.  Women were to bear children, which required sexuality, but maintain the pure morality produced by Christian teachings (Leyser 93).  

The Catholic Church described itself as the bride of Christ.  Though headed by a patriarch-based political structure, the Church was contemplated as a feminine form.  It seems natural for the Church to align itself with benign body of Mary:  As Mary produced Jesus who transformed the social order of the world, the Church birthed the social order of the European continent.  Additionally, medieval folklore believed that breast milk was reprocessed menstrual blood reabsorbed by a woman's body during the time of pregnancy.  The concept behind the transformative element of blood to breast milk, a source of sustained nourishment for a child, was equated to the practice of transubstantiation of the communion wafer, a source of sustained nourishment for the soul (Leyster 216).  Thus, motherhood was an important element within society and was held in great esteem. 
Though this seemed a positive step for women of the era, the forward movement was quickly slowed by Thomas Aquinas who brought the sins of Eve back into the limelight.   Mary, like the Church, was an exception to the rule of the feminine.  Based upon the model of Eve, Aquinas believed that women were designed by God at creation to be inferior to men (18). As an omniscient figure, God knew that Eve would disobey him and He allowed this to happen.  This meant that Eve, by design, was made to be morally weaker by God.   By this logic, then, women were naturally untrustworthy and were inherently the progenitors of evil.  
Aquinas further merged medieval beliefs on pregnancy with Aristotelian theories to create a unique system of childbirth (Bullough and Campbell 324).  Women were robbed of the spiritual element and took a secondary position as mere instruments of gestation. They provided the matter for the fetus while the male contribution was the spiritual and active forces of life (Leyster 216-217).   Bartholomeus Anglicus, a scholar and teacher in France and Germany, augmented this theory once again in the thirteenth century.  He combined prior theories with the works of Galen to create the Encyclopedia of Bartholomew the Englishman. He noted that during pregnancy a baby was fed with the blood of the mother, which, at birth, was transformed into breast milk. However, he also gave a nod to the ease of pregnancy with a son, since presumably a boy's stronger nature drew less from the body of the mother. The mother pregnant with a son, he believed, suffered less and had better coloring and easier movement. His work studied the physical changes of pregnancy which included enlarged breasts, circles under the eyes, and uterine growth.  He also described nausea and vomiting, feeling heavy, being unable to work, and craving different foods.  Finally, he noted that the labor process was painful and dangerous to women, though he did add that the more she suffered in giving birth the more a mother would love the child produced (Leyser, Medieval Woman 124 - 5).
This sets the backdrop for a list of women in various sexual stages within the pages of the Danse des Femmes.  These include the Girl, the Virgin, the Bride, the Newlywed, the Darling Wife, the Pregnant Woman, and the Old woman.   For purposes of this project, I have selected the Pregnant Woman and the Darling Wife for closer contemplation. 

The Pregnant Woman
The Pregnant Woman has fulfilled her wifely duties and is preparing for her "first labor" (32: 10) when La Mort comes for her.  The woman is to die in a state of gestating new life -- life and death have trapped her in opposing forces, though Death is destined to win.  La Mort behaves in a manner of uncharacteristic softness, advising the dying woman to  "relax" (32:1)  as her death is "God's pleasure and command" (3).  The woman must have lived a moral life since Death tells her that she is "sending your heart to heaven" (32: 6), a good outcome despite the tragic circumstances.  
The Pregnant Woman  does not hesitate to "commend the fruit to God along with my soul"; she accepts that her fate and that of the child are intertwined.  However, she expresses sadness as she "carried great joy in [her] womb"  (32: 14).  However, the Pregnant Woman is a reminder that there are no guarantees of survival in any stage of life; none are immune to death, which causes "Fortune [to change] and ends things quickly" (32:  16). 

The Darling Wife
The translated title for the Darling Wife is taken from the French word femme and combined with the term mignote or mignon, a darling. This woman appears to be one whose husband adores her but does not offer her proper moral guidance.  She  is a pampered and delicate woman who La Mort describes as "kept in the lap of luxury" and "sleep [ing] until dinner" (40: 1-2).  Her husband treats her like he would an affectionate pet: she has few regulations and sees little need to work on her own morality (Harrison, Fifteenth Century 411).  Indeed, her depiction shows her dressed well with an air of well maintained beauty but little else. 
She performs few wifely duties.  She does not maintain the household nor has she had children.  Indeed, the Darling Wife is not particularly protofeminisitic for most of the poem.  She describes her life as provided by a "successful husband" (40: 12).  She sees her own success as an extension of what he can provide:  clothing and comforts including  "rings, dresses, nine or ten pair" (40:  15).  In a tragically humorous way, she calls out for someone to "go get the doctor or apothecary" (40: 9) to save her from death; her unrealistic trust in the medical field perhaps gives an artificial sense that she can use this wealth to outmaneuver  death.  As the Danse attests, this is simply not possible. At the end of her stanza, the Darling Wife sees her fate and acknowledges her failures.  This may be the first self-determined action of her lifetime which is, ironically, done at her death.  Her last line makes her the voice of a standard medieval morality lesson to women: "A woman in sin dies with regret" (40: 16). 

​                                                                                                            Works Cited

Bullough, Vern, and Cameraon Campbell. “Female Longevity and Diet in the Middle       Ages”. Speculum 55.2 (1980): 317 – 325. JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2016.
Harrison, Ann Tukey. “Fifteenth-century French Women’s Role Names”. The French Review 62.3 (1989). 436 – 444.           JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2016.

Harrison, Ann T., ed. The Danse Macabre of Women. Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994. Print.
Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women:  A Social History of Women in England 450 – 1500. London:  Phoenix, 2003. Print.

                                                                                                         Images Cited

Unknown artist. "Darling Wife."  Danse Macabre des Femmes. Project Gutenberg. January 15, 2008,

Unknown artist. "Pregnant Woman."  Danse Macabre des Femmes.  Project Gutenberg.  January 15, 2008,