The Medieval World
The Role of Women
The quality of a civilization is reflected in its treatment of its women. It is interesting that in an era of social, economic and cultural revolution, the basic lot of women does not change.
This essay, in placing women within their medieval context, will look at medieval concepts of women, their status within the legal system and the Church, their various roles and the limitations placed upon them according to class, as well as the medieval practice of sexuality and birth control.
I hope to answer the question that is often asked of women and society: to what extent did the women of the High Middle Ages in fact control their own lives?
From the outset I would like to clear up a number of points. Firstly, that women's behaviour and writings need to be placed into the context of medieval social, economic, ecclesiastical, theological and devotional traditions which are very different from our own twentieth century idealism.
Secondly, most information about women comes from male biographers, and thus the age old historical problem of perspective comes to the fore.
The stories told of women are often not about feminine achievements but of those things that men admired or abhorred. Thirdly, historical research of women is plagued by two points of view, which tend to highlight specific areas to the detriment of others.
Feminist research gravitates towards the negative stereotyping of women's sexuality, as well as their lack of worldly power and sacerdotal recognition. Traditional medievalists have focused on male religiosity and asked questions about women based on those usually asked about men
I will show that women, had a unique place within religion, and so these questions have not been relevant for women.
In the Middle Ages public opinion and the legal system were controlled by the Church and the aristocracy. These two authorities agreed that women should be placed as subservient to man, and thus the law did not see her as an individual in the same sense that it saw the man.
Woman's inferior status was governed completely because of one fatal failure: her sex. The Church blamed Eve for the Fall of Man and thus the woman was in fact an instrument of the Devil, to be feared more than the poison of snakes.
They further backed up their stand by quoting Paul who, in Ephesians 5:22-23, requires of women to be submissive and subject to their husbands. This was extended to single women and widows who were subject to the feudal lord, their father, brother and even their son.
Women were objects who were bought and sold. Girls were punished for reducing their value by losing their virginity.
Perhaps the best summary of the medieval view of women is quoted by Wood: "A woman," it was said, "is more carnal than man. Defective in formation from the outset - the bent rib, bent in a contrary direction to man, therefore she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives. It is not good to marry.
"What else is a woman, but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours ... all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in a women is insatiable..."
On the other hand, there are records in existence which refer to women as "preferred to man" and that in fact, "women are exalted above angels" and it was for this reason that Jesus was born to a woman. Thus there existed this dichotomy.
Woman was both revered and abhorred; she was seen as a necessary evil but, because of the nature of medieval life, women were of as much value to the smooth functioning of daily life as men were.
In fact, there does appear even in the writings of Churchmen an element of affection. Peter Lombard explained that women were made from the rib of a man so that she could be his companion and friend.
As I have already stated, a woman passed from the subjection of her father to that of her husband about whom she had little choice. Widowhood brought her an element of independence but only if she did not own land. (This will be explained later.)
She was considered an object which could be bought and sold. This was not conceived of in the middle ages. An Anglo-Saxon law declared that, "should a freeman lie with another freeman's wife, he should pay the husband a sum of money and buy the husband another wife."
According to the law, a woman's public rights were determined by her marital and class status. She was not allowed a say in the government of the kingdom or of society. She was prohibited from holding any political, professional or public office.
In so far as the guilds were concerned, women were allowed to practice specific trades but were never allowed to wear the full guild colours. This honour was reserved for men. If a woman did inherit a fief that carried with it an office, the office was sometimes given to a man to perform, although sometimes she was allowed to perform it herself.
Although she was not accorded any civil rights, a townswoman or countrywomen was expected to pay tax (the nobles of both sexes were usually exempted from taxation). When she married, her husband had to pay her taxes.
Legally, women were not allowed to appear in court at all. The only exception to this rule was if she appeared on behalf of her husband. She did have property rights but as a married woman could only bring a suit with her husband's permission, unless she was an independent merchant.
Only unmarried women could draw up contracts, wills, or borrow money. Any women could, according to criminal law, press charges for bodily harm, rape and insult, but in no other matter.
It must be noted that if she fell pregnant as the result of a rape, her suit was thrown out of court because, according to medieval biology, a woman had to secrete a seed to conceive and this only happened if she was sexually satisfied.
The laws on rape differed throughout Western Europe though. In England and France, it was a criminal act and punishable by blinding, castration or the putting to death of the rapist. (In the case of peasants, however, the penalty was usually a monetary fine.) A sure way of being pardoned was for the rapist to agree to marry his victim, and the courts encouraged such unions.
Fortunately for women, the jurists of the day did not always adhere to the letter of the law. Evidence given in court by a woman was sometimes accepted and, if a woman filed for divorce because of her husbands impotency, women were sent to investigate the allegation. In cases of rape, women examined the victim.
Where infanticide was suspected, the accused's breasts were examined by a woman. In fact, men were not allowed to give evidence in these cases. But although a woman's own legal status was extremely limited, she could be sued in the same way as men, regardless of her marital status. A favourite accusation of townswomen was that of excessive opulence in their dress.
A charge of adultery usually resulted in both culprits receiving the same penalty but it does seem that more judicial separations occurred on the grounds of a wife's adultery than a husband's. Frederick II of Sicily legislated that the adulterous wife should have her nose cut off.
Criminal punishment of men and woman varied throughout Europe, and this included the executionary method. In France, Germany, Italy and Brabant women were either burnt at the stake or buried alive, whilst men were usually hanged.
It was acknowledged that these were far more agonizing deaths, because men were only executed in this manner for crimes that were considered to be the most outrageous and threatened the town with the wrath of God.
A Parisian chronicler records that it was for reasons of modesty that women were put to death in these ways. He also notes that there were 26 public baths for the use of both sexes, and prostitution was a recognized "profession" in Paris.
This may sound horrifying to the sheltered twentieth century reader, but the truth is that medieval women lived in an age in which acts of cruelty were carried out in public, and watched enthusiastically by men and women alike.
Matrimonial law was the strict concern of the ecclesiastical courts until the fourteenth century. There were three stages to a properly conducted marriage ceremony. These were the family negotiations, betrothal and marriage ceremony which took place at the Church door.
The bride's dowry and the groom's portion of his property which were to become the wife's, should he leave her as a widow, were also pledged at the Church door. Marriage was based on the mutual consent of both parties except under Germanic law, where the father's consent was all that was required.
It would seem therefore that marriage was a decision based on mutual agreement but the fact was that marriage was a means of improving one's station in life and so generally arranged by the families for this purpose. Daughters usually complied.
Thus, once again, the dichotomy between what was law and what was practised is evident. No doubt there were marriages that were contracted on the basis of love but there were many that took place due to family pressure and the promise of increased wealth.
What then was the situation for widows? Until the fourteenth century, widows were protected by the Church because they were classified among the oppressed.
The dowry which she had brought into the marriage once again became hers, as well as the portion of her husband's estate promised to her on the steps of the Church. At her death all this passed to her deceased husband's family.
In the case of women who had married a number of times, this law led to much litigation, especially if no contracts had been drawn up at the time of her marriages.
Due to the practice of compelling ladies to remarry for political and economic reasons, an English heiress is recorded as paying a large fine for the privilege of not marrying again for five years. I will pursue the nature of women and marriage in a bit more detail when I look at the class structure.
Hollister says that the High Middle Ages were characterized by "a drift towards emotionalism." This was clearly evident in the marital epics of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The troubadours of southern France idealized women and placed much emphasis on gallant knights who suffered much in his attempts to please his lady.
The themes of the Middle Age's literature oscillated between that of the courtly romance with its emphasis on unrequited love, and the fabilaux which was the vernacular literature of the bourgeoisie. The latter sought, with much crudity, to ridicule conventional morality and, of course, women. The impact of this literature on medieval behaviour was limited.
Wood asserts that to understand menstruation is to understand the principles of the entire medieval thought process. So it is to the subjects of contraception, birth and life expectancy that we now turn. The view of women as the "concupiscent" sex originated with the belief that the menstruation was the overflow of sexual build up.
Albertus Magnus explained that the monthly cycle allowed for the purging of all her accumulated poisons. He also said that a woman's menstrual blood was injurious to a male penis and to any plant she may touch.
Even Thomas Aquinas, who is noted for his more liberal view of women, wrote that "the gaze of a menstruating woman can dim and crack a mirror."
The Church took exception to the use of contraception. Abortion was strictly prohibited, even if it was necessary so as to save the life of the mother. The Church condemned sexual relations for the sake of pleasure because chastity was believed to be a supreme Christian objective.
Thus, if sexual relations were to take place within marriage, it had to be for the sole purpose of procreation. Theologians and canonists therefore prohibited both the use of contraception in marriage and any form of intercourse which did not cause impregnation. This included "unnatural intercourse". The simple fact of the prohibition indicates that contraception was practised.
Modern science says that the methods used were largely ineffective, yet Riddle contends that there is sufficient evidence to believe the contrary. Herbs such as juniper, rue, pennyroyal, the squirting cucumber, wild carrot and tansy, which have been observed to decrease fertility and cause abortions in animals, appeared in the salads which both men and women ate.
In a time in which many women died in childbirth, it is difficult to believe that they would not have explored contraceptive options.
Female medical practitioners, although explicitly restricted from practising, did so anyway. They did not concentrate only on female patients, although a large portion of their practice was concerned with gynaecological issues.
Male medical practitioners certainly dominated the medical arena, as they still do today, and they fought hard to keep women out of the profession. This did not prove difficult as women were prevented from entering universities, although a twelfth century abbess, Hildegard of Bingen, wrote knowledgably on all aspects of female related issues.
The women's role in society was to have babies. Peasants needed farm hands. The nobility required heirs to ensure the continuation of the family line and the protection of familial alliances.
Yet in an age of modesty it was not considered moral for a man to examine a woman, so the "doctors" discussed and taught midwives in the art of birthing. This method in turn overcame the problems that women no doubt had in revealing intimate details of their ailments to men.
The actual lifestyle of the woman varied, as it did with men, according to their class. Amongst the peasantry a close partnership existed between the man and wife, who worked side by side in the field. In fact, the young peasant male was expected to marry before he could inherit his land because, without a wife and children, he would have been unable to work the land.
Work was segregated. The men of the family did the heavy ploughing, while the women ran the home and looked after the livestock and vegetable garden. Spinning and the making of the family's clothes was also the job of the womenfolk, who joined their menfolk at reaping, sheep shearing and haymaking time.
When anyone became ill there was no medicine, and women had to endure one pregnancy after another. Historians agree that peasant women especially had a tough life, this was more so when they were young.
As with women at all levels, peasant women were barred from holding any kind of official office within the community. In most regions, daughters were allowed to inherit but the rights of sons took precedence. Daughters of peasants were able to choose their own partners, while the lord of the manor extracted a fine for the match from her father. This was called the "merchet" and was a source of revenue for the feudal lords.
If the marriage was an unhappy one the partners often separated and lived with new partners, something that did not easily occur within the middle and upper classes. Peasants often beat their wives cruelly, and so women had good reason to fear their husbands.
A peasant woman's rise in status occurred with the cessation of her menses. This is a common feature of primitive societies where social status is determined by physiological changes.
Little is known of the role of peasant women as mothers. What is known is that, unlike the other classes, peasants breast-fed their own children. Children began work at an early age, either on the lands or were sent to town to learn trades.
Babies were often left to the mercies of their siblings and so infant mortality through accidents, especially fires and carelessness, cost many youngsters their lives. Much has been said of the seeming lack of affection between parents and children of the Middle Ages but Ladurie says that this was untrue of the peasants.
Education was something that few peasants were able to afford. Certainly no women were educated. Thus it is without any written documentation by peasants themselves that the story of the peasants lifestyle has been re-created by historians. This is an arduous task and information is scant.
With the development of the towns, medieval women came into their own, as far as they were allowed by men. The formation of trade guilds and the access which women were given to them, enabled them to carve a niche, however small, for themselves.
Most of the trades were dominated by men and the guilds formed tended to treat apprentices, both male and female, as second-class workers. Only masters were allowed to wear the distinctive guild livery and, as women were never allowed to qualify as masters, they never wore the livery.
Marriage to a guild master, on the other hand, brought certain advantages. The woman was allowed to work alongside her husband and thus learned his trade secrets. At his death she continued his business.
In a completely male dominated environment, any trade that was run by a woman was never accorded the full status of a recognised guild. In the case of the Parisian silk-spinners and purse makers, despite the all-female membership, it was still administered by a man.
Nevertheless women seemed to pervade every facet of medieval crafting and it was not unusual for one woman to be involved in more than one trade.
Modern feminist medievalists tend to quote the restraints placed on women crafters as further proof of male subjugation of women but seen in the overall light of medieval society, these changes in the social order must be viewed positively.
Aside form her business ventures, the townswomen, like all women of the time, had to make space in her regimen for the birthing of children. Unlike the peasants these ladies usually did not suckle their young. They kept wet-nurses or else sent their babies to the wet-nurses in the villages, and thus did not see them for long periods, sometimes even years.
Again the question of parental/children relationships has been raised, and the existence of wet-nurses cited as proof of the poor relationships. Churchmen are recorded as warning fathers not to smile at their daughters too much, and mothers not to caress their sons.
These warnings can be taken as confirmation that such behaviour did occur. Boys were sent to universities at the age of 12-14. Girls were usually tutored at home but generally married young and were thus mothers sometimes by the age of 15.
Besides being involved in crafts, women were legally allowed to earn a living as prostitutes. Prostitution was consistent with the medieval belief of women as insatiable carnal creatures. St. Augustine equated prostitutes with palace sewers, without which the whole place would be filthy.
Prostitution was viewed by the Church as a check on licentiousness. It was considered better for a man to visit a prostitute than to seduce virgins or engage in extra-marital relations. The prostitute herself was seen as despicable because her life was devoted to the lusts of the flesh.
This was the prime sin. Nevertheless the supply and demand for prostitutes was great. They were visited by both married and single men, the latter being either university students or apprentices too poor to marry. Prostitutes in turn traded at monasteries, markets, fairs and Church councils.
A women became a prostitute of her own free will, and without doubt the reasons have altered little with time. Since prostitution was not considered fornication or adultery, their "care" fell under the urban courts. There were serious penalties for the rape or assault of prostitutes.
The courts also exacted taxes from brothels. Prostitutes even had their own patron saints, who were usually repentant prostitutes who had become nuns and saints. They were not banned from attending Church, just told where to sit.
Although prostitution was a recognised profession, the women were still despised. This is clear from the fact that they were generally only allowed to trade in certain streets. Thomas Cobham, a twelfth century cleric, wrote that prostitutes should be "counted among the wage earners".
He said that although it was wrong for a woman to hire out her body, nevertheless, if she did, she was providing a service and thus should be paid for it. If she enjoyed what she did, the wage became as evil as the act itself.
Along with being restricted by the area in which they could work, the law prescribed what distinguishing clothes they should wear and they fought to be allowed to wear what they chose. Transgressors were fined and their garments and jewellery confiscated.
The medieval lady, on the other hand, had a number of important functions. According to the chivalric code she was the adored one. As a land-owner she was invaluable. She ran the manor during her husband's presence and absence. And she produced heirs.
The lady represented by courtly literature was a beautiful but distant and unrealistic figure. Thus it seems that, just like today's romantic novel, this literature represented an escape from reality. But, as a landowner and especially a single one, she was a force to be reckoned with.
Her legal status as a single women was on a par with men. Marriage divested her of these rights as well as of her lands. Any children born to her inherited her property.
Marriages were often arranged before the child reached the age of seven and sometimes they were even sent to live in their new homes with the family of the proposed spouse. This spouse was usually much older than the girl and she was thus completely at his mercy.
The advantages of land ownership by upper class women, was definitely outweighed by the fact that marriage was a business contract and child marriage the procedure of the day.
There are cases where marriages were annulled for real or fictitious accusations of adultery. Acts of vengeance against wives for adultery characterized the nobility more than the other classes. This was because a wife's adultery was deemed to be an offence against the honour of the entire dynasty.
Other reasons for seeking annulment were that the match was an unpleasant one or a new match was politically more advantageous.
Joining a nunnery was the only alternative to marriage and many girls escaped joyously to the convent. I will expand on this aspect later. The role of the lady of the manner was no less involved than that of the peasant women.
Due to the constant wars of the time, she was often left with the complete responsibility of the manor and lands in her husband's absence. A castle occupied by a lady was as much a target as any other, and her only defence was her ingenuity which often proved sufficient.
Duties as a mother were not exactly exhausting as the ladies' only responsibility was to give birth to the children. Wet-nurses fed the babies, whereas boys and girls were sent to other households to learn proper manners.
The children of the rich were better cared for and thus the infant mortality rate was lower than in the other classes. Due to a more consistently good diet, the fertility span of the couple was exploited to its full. Some women had 15-20 babies.
In the letters between Helo‹se and Ab‚lard, we see a lack of emotional ties to their child, who only seems to have been mentioned once between them. Thus although the children of the wealthy were better cared for physically, there is evidence to support the view that they were emotionally neglected by their parents.
Of course there must have been loving mothers but the education system and social mores would have made expression of these feelings difficult to make and maintain.
By contrast, the housekeeping of these castles was no small undertaking. Most of the food was grown and prepared on the lands. It was the task of the lady to see that there was always a fresh supply of bread, ale and dairy products to the table.
The provision of clothing for her household was also her duty, as well as the making of candles and the salting of winter meat. Obviously she did not have to perform all these functions personally but she did have to co-ordinate the effective work of her many servants, not a simple task.
Ladies of the castles were expected to know how to ride, to breed falcons and release them during the hunt. Chess and backgammon, dancing, singing, reciting of poetry and telling of stories were all part and parcel of the expertise the nobility expected of their womenfolk. They attended tournaments and sometimes constituted the prize.
One of her more important jobs was that of de-lousing her lover or husband. Due to the lack of personal hygiene, the people were generally infested with vermin and the ceremonial delousing of friends and lovers was not the duty of the servants. Indeed, through all the classes, delousing was an opportunity for intimacy and news swapping.
Noblewomen were generally taught to read and write but that was the full extent of their education. Some did have private tutors, as in the case of Helo‹se and Ab‚lard, whilst others went to nunneries where they furthered their studies.
The area of literature was thus a field open to women of the Middle Ages. Therefore the courtly love stories might be considered to be a type of protest against the situation of the woman. As I have already said, little real change in behaviour was exhibited by the target audience.
Interestingly, this courtly poetry never demanded a change in status but seems to be the expression of an inner need in a purely male society.
The question of whether or not women were accorded any status within medieval society has been answered in part. What little power they did hold was severely restricted. Thus it was through the Cult of the Virgin Mary and religious piety that woman carved a respected spot for themselves.
Theologians of the day believed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, not only was the recipient of the Immaculate Conception but remained a virgin.
Because of the belief that Original Sin was passed through sexual intercourse and because Mary had, according to the Church, remained a virgin throughout her life, it followed that she was sinless.
Further to this was the notion that, because death came into the world through sin and Mary was without sin, it was probable that she did not experience a normal death. They believed that, in the manner of Jesus, she had been assumed bodily into heaven.
The Cult of the Virgin Mary removed her totally from all aspects of sin. The problem then for the theologians of the day was how to explain the possibility of her suffering from menstruation - the natural monthly purging of the poisons which continually accumulated in a woman's body, due to her lascivious nature.
They simply denied the possibility that she had a regular monthly cycle. The Song of Songs was quoted as a prophecy of the birth of Mary and she was, according to them, referred to as being without spot. Mary epitomised all that was feminine by modern standards, yet was without blemish.
The theologians acknowledged that she had all the attributes of women which had been traditionally denigrated but was the personification of modesty. The Virgin Mary was a pure spirit and hailed as the Queen of all virgins.
Ab‚lard, in a letter to Helo‹se, wrote that Mary had redeemed Eve's sin even before Adam's was absolved by Christ. He further pointed to the women of the bible who prayed and were responsible for the resurrection of the dead.
Thus nuns were accordingly revered, whilst women who functioned sexually were still "inferior beings who aroused revulsion." An interesting statement from a man who was castrated for his love affair with Helo‹se. Through this cult, women were acknowledged as believers who were faithful, sacrificial and able to pray for the souls of the dead.
Nuns were prevented from holding any kind of ecclesiastical office. They were not even allowed to touch the bread and wine of the sacrament. The nun was the target of pollution fears. Why then did she take the veil?
Reasons varied: being sent by wealthy families because there was no prospect of their spinster days being ended through marriage, to an escape from unhappy marriages, to being abandoned by their families because they were retarded. Genuine piety too cannot be disregarded. It is possible, therefore, for the first time in history, to identify a woman's movement.
Women flocked to the heretical movements, such as the Cathars and the Beguines, because they were given equal status with men. Yet the majority of female mystics remained under the auspicious of the Catholic Church.
They renounced sexual gratification just as men did, and lived very devout lives, all without seeming papal acknowledgement. What then made these holy woman worthy of remembrance? Their visions, fasting and self inflicted penitence often pointed fingers at the lack of commitment displayed by many priests.
In the High Middle Ages devout Christians fasted before communion. They believed that in this one ritualistic moment, they received God as food. So it was that eating and not eating became the code by which female mystics made their mark on the Church. Women used their food practices to shape their experience and manipulate their families and the clergy.
Medieval people associated a woman's body with food because breast milk was an essential part of human survival. Christ's suffering was described by both men and women as a birthing and lactating mother.
A woman's suffering was thus a means whereby she could identify with Christ. Male and female writers of the time recorded many visions of being nursed by Mary and, in some instances, by Jesus himself. Women sometimes had erotic visions of physical unions with Christ, or of breastfeeding the Christ child.
Fasting became a complete way of uniting with Christ through suffering. In a period in which suffering was an accepted part of life, this was not considered foolhardy but rather representative of true devotion. Records show that women fasted anything from seven weeks to seven years.
Biographers interpreted such fasting with a renunciation of the world and seldom referred to it as an attack on the body. Such excesses were seen rather as an effort to gain complete mastery over the body.
As has been explained, food and its preparation was the domain of women. Not eating was easy, yet should the fasting disrupt the preparation of food for the family, it could wreak havoc with relationships and in this way became an effective form of manipulation.
During the fasts it was customary for women to subsist only on the eucharist, i.e. God. Not only did they control their own bodies but their families, religious superiors and God himself. Their suffering was considered by people as a worthwhile task which resulted in the redemption of both individuals and the cosmos.
The experiencing of pain was an accepted aspect of male and female piety, yet it does seem that women punished themselves far more easily and frequently than men.
Women, both married and single, fasted as a means of cleansing themselves of the sin of sexuality. This was a most noteworthy act. Thus it can be seen that women's food behaviour, that of fasting and feasting, was an effective manner of gaining respect in a society where no respect was deemed suitable for women.
Bynum suggests that this radical abstinence was a method of rebelling in an accepted way against the medieval Church's emphasis on moderation. Food asceticism, distribution and the eucharist were for medieval people a vehicle to the throne room of Christ.
Medieval women's asceticism, however, cannot be seen as a complete rebellion against societal norms because these excesses took place in a society which exalted extravagant penitential practices. Nor was this behaviour a reaction against their own bodies which were considered as the root of all evil.
Medieval women had found a method whereby they themselves could forge a path to the Father, completely and utterly by themselves. This earned them respect. Their bodies became for men and women symbols of and a means to approach God.
Women of all classes exercised little control over their lifestyles but then the men did not have much say in whether or not they wanted to go to war. As a married woman, she lost all legal rights save the right to appeal for justice in the case of bodily harm.
Wife beating was a canonised method of gaining feminine subjugation. Daughters generally waived their rights to inherit in favour of sons. Education was a luxury awarded only to a select few ladies and limited to what was considered necessary for women to know in order to fulfil their roles as wife, mother, and nun.
Thus the role of women within the society of the High Middle Ages was a dichotomous one. She was abhorred for her part in the Fall of Man, yet revered for her redemptive asceticism.
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