The Fairer Sex: Medieval Women

As of April 17th, 2019 I would encourage you to read this post.

Hey, I am so sorry that this post is late. Work has been hard this week and I was doing some extra studying for this week’s topic. As for last week I was really busy. So instead of this week’s topic I posted this instead.

This week’s topic is Medieval Women. If you remember from two weeks ago we were talking about women in Antiquity. We explored a couple ancient cultures and saw how women were treated.

Now we are moving up to the Middle Ages. Our story continues after the collapse of the great Roman Empire. Christainity is the main religon of most kingdoms at this time and the world is trying to reorder itself.

Now women’s role change very little- if at all- during the Middle Ages. They were the main caretakers of the home. Poorer women would care for the children, sew, brew beer and spin. Among this, they might help their husbands out in the field, or if he was wealthy enough to own a shop she might help him with the shop. A wealthier woman would overlook the household, checking finances, preparing the menus for the meals and the like.

It was hard for women to earn a living. They were paid less than men. For reaping, a man typically would be paid 8 pence a day. However for a woman, she would get 5 pence. And for hay making, men could earn 6 pence a day while women got 4 pence. Sometimes a woman would have to get several jobs just to make ends meet.

This poem was written by William Langland and it speaks of the tragedy of the Lower-Class Woman in the Early Middle Ages:

“Burdened with children and landlords’ rent;
What they can put aside from what they make spinning they spend on housing,
Also on milk and meal to make porridge with
To sate their children who cry out for food
And they themselves also suffer much hunger,
And woe in wintertime, and waking up nights
To rise on the bedside to rock the cradle,
Also to card and comb wool, to patch and to wash,
To rub flax and reel yarn and to peel rushes
That it is pity to describe or show in rhyme
The woe of these women who live in huts;

In this age women had limited life choices. If you had to simplify it, it was be married to go to a convent. In noble families, children would often be betrothed, even married by the age of 7. However the marriage was not sealed until consummated. Since in poor families it was all hands on deck to make sure the family didn’t starve, a woman might not marry until she was 20. Poorer families couldn’t afford to loose a worker.

In wealthy families (and I’m sure for poorer families as well) it was important that a woman produced a boy so that the family name could be preserved. But pregnancy was a dangerous thing. In the medieval ages there weren’t many doctors, so many children and women died during childbirth. It is speculated that 20% of women died in childbirth.

If a woman didn’t want to risk childbirth or marriage, she might ‘take the veil’ and join a convent. While the rules at a convent could be strict, sometimes they would be taught to read and write, something that not most people knew, much less something that was taught to women. (A quick note aside: we should all be grateful that we can read and write. Just imagine not being able to read these very words. We wouldn’t be able to read books, letters, even our own bibles!) When a woman became a nun she had to take three vows.

The Vow of Poverty: A nun had give up worldly possessions. She couldn’t own anything, everything belonged to the community.

The Vow of Chastity: A nun couldn’t marry or have sexual interactions.

The Vow of Obedience: She must obey her Abbess.

A nun’s life was about living as a bride for the Lord both in prayer, meditation and in works of charity. In fact when a novice became a nun it was celebrated much like a wedding, the nun was even given a wedding ring to wear because she was married to The Lord.

But now what happens when you are a woman in the middle ages and your husband dies? Well if a woman’s husband dies and she has either no sons or underage sons, she could inherit whatever her husband left behind. A widow strangely had many more freedoms then a married woman. According to the book: The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London it states this:

A widow had a unique status in both borough and common law. She was not under the legal guardianship (Mund) of either her father or her husband. While the moral literature perpetuated the image of widows as poor and devout women, another image of widows was also prevalent in Christian Literature. Widows could be potentially independent, powerful individuals and sexually aggressive. Chaucer portrayed such a widow in “The Wife Of Bath.” A widow could enter into contracts alone, sue for debt, run her business or till her land and marry off her children. She could also choose her own husband the second time around.”

Even though she could choose her husband for the second time, she didn’t have to remarry and if she didn’t remarry she could keep those freedoms. If she did remarry, all the land, money and titles were transferred over to her new husband’s name.

Speaking of widows, there was an important woman born in the Late Middle Ages. Her name was Christine de Pisan (sometimes spelled Pizan) an Italian French woman born in 1364 was an author. Her father Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano (or just Thomas de Pizan) was a astrologer for the French Court. Christine received a magnificent education she not only learned how to read and write, but she learned to speak Latin, (Only extremely intelligent and wealthy people learned to speak Latin) she learned philosophy, and the sciences known in the medieval world.

At fifteen, Christine married Etienne du Castel, a royal secretary, who died in 1389. She had three children two of whom died in childhood and her surviving daughter- Jean du Castel- became a nun.

When Christine’s husband died, Christine looked for a way to support her mother, niece and three children. She turned to writing and became a court author, writing poems and ballads of love for nobles.

Christine’s most famous work is “The Book Of The City Of Ladies” written in response to Jean De Meun’s poem Roman De La Rose (Romance Of The Rose) which criticized women as seducers and that their only purpose is to seduce men and cause them to fall. In this book Christine defends the female gender against the unjust prejudice they receive. If you’d like to read a short biography on Christine de Pizan as well as excerpts from her first book click here. Christine also wrote a sequel called “The Treasure Of The City Of Ladies” in which Christine lays out ways that women can influence her society for the better despite her position.

Christine de Pizan is one of the earliest feminists and Simone de Beauvoir in 1949 wrote:  “[This is] the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex”. If you ever have time I strongly suggest reading her books. I personally am still searching for her first book, but I am in the process of reading her second book and it is life changing. But that is for a different post.

In conclusion, life was rough on Medieval Women, things were getting a little better but not too much. Women could now inherit from their fathers and husbands (Supposing they had no brothers or sons). And if they were widowed a woman could have unimaginable influence in the region she lived in. Now we skip ahead 340 years to The Victorian Age. An age of sophistication, strict morality, and peace. Until next time.

References and Citations


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