Financial experts from a range of companies including Westpac, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and KPMG gathered at the Sofitel Wentworth, Sydney, for Bank of New York (BNY) Mellon’s International Women’s Day event on 8 March.

The keynote speech was given by author and historian Blanche d’Alpuget who compared the life of women in twelfth-century England with the life of women today.

D’Alpuget delved straight in by highlighting the misconceptions about the twelfth century.

“There’s a common misbelief that people in the twelfth century were not much bigger than hobbits and dead at the age of forty,” she said. “Wrong – fake news!”

“Graves in London have proved that ordinary working women back then were slightly larger than women in the twentieth century. Women in aristocracy, with more protein in their diets, were larger still.

“As for men, Richard the First – son of Henry the Second – was six foot five. His father was of average height for a man of his rank, that is, about five foot 11. We know their heights from their armour.”

The theme of d’Alpuget’s speech was based on a quartet of novels she has written which are yet to be released.

Blanche d’Alpuget delivers a keynote speech at BNY Mellon’s International Women’s Day event.
Blanche d’Alpuget delivers a keynote speech at BNY Mellon’s International Women’s Day event.

“They took me seven years of research and writing,” d’Alpuget told The CEO Magazine. “It’s half a million words so I’m very familiar with this period. I’d been reading about it since I was in my twenties.

“So, as it’s International Women’s Day 2018, [!i!] natural to compare the lives of women then, which I knew very well, to the lives of women today, which I also know very well.”

D’Alpuget’s speech continued with the misconception of life expectancy.

“If a woman didn’t die in childbirth, she had a good chance of living to her late seventies or even into her nineties if she were in a convent,” she said.

“Recent scientific archaeological examination of teeth reveal that 75 was a normal age.”

D’Alpuget added that, except during times of war, women had a steady, healthy rhythm.

“Women were much more relaxed then, than we are in the twenty-first century,” she said. “There were no clocks and there was plenty of physical exercise.

“Riding [!horses!] took strength and agility, which perhaps accounts for the fact that those women were bigger than twentieth century women are.”

Women were much more relaxed then, than we are in the twenty-first century.

In the twelfth century, the rich rode horses; the poor, donkeys; and the poorest walked. But walking in itself was different because of the shoes that were worn and this was something that proved beneficial for women.

“Shoes had no heels, they were more like leather socks. Instead of walking heel-toe as we do, they walked toe-heel. This is a more natural way to walk with the construction of our bodies. Lower back pain was hardly an issue.

“The way of walking also made childbirth easier.”

And of course, there was marriage. While marriage back then was arranged, and used for money and power, d’Alpuget noted that men “could not, with impunity, treat their wives badly”.

‘BNY NY International Women’s Day’
(L-R) Darryl Ede, Country Head, BNY Mellon Australia, author and historian Blanche d’Alpuget and BNY Mellon Asia Pacific Chairman David Cruickshank

“In the twelfth century, marriage restrained violent husbands. There were fathers, brothers, uncles and the local bishop to reckon with.

“Communities were small and tight-knit, all the neighbours knew each other, the aristocracy was interrelated and all the servants gossiped. A husband could not get away with beating his wife without it becoming known.”

D’Alpuget also mentioned how alcohol was much weaker back in the twelfth century – extremely heavy drinking was required to become inebriated. This, again, was a positive for women.

“The horrifying statistics of women murdered in Australia – more than one a week – are nearly all fuelled by alcohol and drugs like ice,” d’Apluget said.

“Instead of strangling, stabbing, shooting or throwing women off balconies, agro party boys worked off their excess testosterone and adrenaline in hand-to-hand fighting against other men or out hunting game.”

And of course, in the twelfth century, there was no social media filled with trolls shamming and verbally abusing women online.

David Cruikshank, Chairman of BNY Mellon Asia Pacific, said talks such as d’Alpuget’s were extremely important for showcasing diversity and inclusion in today’s society.

“From all perspectives it’s great because diversity and inclusion are key drivers within our company,” he told The CEO Magazine.

“We like to think that it’s not just about diversity, its more about inclusion because that drives diversity.”

So was life actually better for women in the twelfth century?

According to D’Alpuget, “In many ways, yes”.

“The women were more physically and mentally robust than many women today who seem notably fragile in comparison.

“They lived without noise and air pollution and food degraded by chemicals. Their children did not commit suicide from bullying.”

But she also stated that in many ways it was much worse, with women being forced to have marital intercourse with men they may have found repulsive – to which the only escape was to become a nun.

“On the whole, they had less power but much greater respect. The church had not yet demeaned women the way it would within less than a century,” d’Alpuget continued.

“Many females ran businesses or managed vast estates.

“On balance, I believe their lives were more content than ours. But whether they were better, you decide.”