Contemporary society has discovered—or in some cases been forced to discover—the worth of women. Historians have provided valuable insights into the social, cultural, and legal status of women in an effort to highlight the roots of attitudes that have excluded women from positions of power in the western world. Much of this research has focused upon new ways of viewing history, and the fine series of monographs Women in Culture and Society being published by the University of Chicago Press provides a prime example of the new awareness of the distaff side of history. Yet, little attention has been paid to some of the most basic assumptions of past generations of medieval historians about women and society. The claim that male chauvinist attitudes are founded in the primative Germanic concept of a warrior fraternity from which women were physiologically excluded from membership was already hoary when Fritz Kern published his classic account of medieval law and society in 1914. The comitatus band of Tacitus has been seen as a central component of the leitmotiv that produced chivalry. The chivalric love ethic has, of course, received great attention from women's historians, but the chivalric orders into which such views were distilled have been largely ignored.
The traditional view of the chivalric orders as fossilized parodies of the values they espoused so eloquently advocated by Johan Huizinga's The Waning of the Middle Ages still holds the field. Only in the last year have the chivalric orders been rehabilitated as genuine expressions of the human values of their age. The position of women within the tradition of the chivalric orders is worth a look for the intrinsic interest of the subject and for the insights that the investigation provides into the shifts in attitudes toward females over the centuries. The chivalric orders, and the Arthurian legends that inspired them, placed a high value on women, much higher than the earlier chansons de geste. While it is true that this tradition tended to place the lady upon a pedestal from which her daughters have fought to climb down, the greatest and longest lasting of these late-medieval chivalric fraternities, the Order of the Garter, also gave women a role in its celebrations.