The Fairer Sex: Medieval Women

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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The Fairer Sex: Introduction

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Today I’m tired of remaining silent. So I am starting a nine week series about the oppression and inequality of women throughout history and in the US. This is an introductory post and will outline what I am trying to accomplish and the topics in the subsequent weeks ahead.

For the longest time, women have been considered lower than men. Generally considered less intelligent, even to the point of being considered stupid, weak, to be eye candy for men, and just in general to be quiet, stay at home, clean, have babies, and cook. (A quick note, I am not saying that women should not be housewives, I am saying however that this is a generalization that is then used to abuse women.)

This is an issue.

Everyone is to be treated equally, not just in the workplace. But in the world. Sadly this is not the case. Women are being raped by their supervisors at work. The sex trade is the biggest is ever been in the whole history of the world (According to USA Today’s Story in 2012, 2.4 million people are victims of human trafficking and 2 out of every 3 victims are women.) and makes its money through porn. Women are stuck in dark cults that suppress them.

I hope that my series will help and make people think about the treatment of not only women in the world, but the women they work with, are friends with, or just the women you see on the street.

Now before I give you my outline for my series, I want to make a couple things clear.

1. By writing this series I am not in any case suggesting that all men are suppressing women. There are good men out there in the world who are supporting this cause.

2. I am not a feminist, I am Egalitarian. I believe that men and women were created equal in the eyes of God and although we have differences, both in tendencies toward certain personality traits and biological differences, we are built to work together.

3.If you have nothing helpful to say, then keep your mouth shut. I will not tolerate trolls in my comment threads.

If you have anymore questions, please feel free to ask.

Here’s the outline for my series:

Week 1: Introduction

Week 2: Ancient Women

Week 3: Medieval Women

Week 4: Victorian Women

Week 5: Women’s Right To Vote: Susan B Anthony

Week 6: World War Women

Week 7: Modern Women

Week 8: Religion and Women

Week 9: Conclusion

I hope you will take the time out of your day to read each post as they come out. I will do my best to research each topic diligently and give an accurate and historical account.

Thank you and God Bless.