Women in medieval society

From attitudes to original sin to the roles of wives, mothers and nuns, Dr Alixe Bovey examines the role of women in medieval society.

Miniature of Christine de Pizan in her study, from 'The Book of the Queen'

A woman studying

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Most people in medieval Europe lived in small rural communities, making their living from the land. Peasant women had many domestic responsibilities, including caring for children, preparing food, and tending livestock. During the busiest times of the year, such as the harvest, women often joined their husbands in the field to bring in the crops. Women often participated in vital cottage industries, such as brewing, baking and manufacturing textiles. The most common symbol of the peasant woman was the distaff - a tool used for spinning flax and wool. Eve is often shown with a distaff, illustrating her duty to perform manual labour after the fall from Paradise. An image often seen in medieval art is a woman waving her distaff at a fox with a goose in its jaws; sometimes, in satirical images, women are even shown attacking their husbands with a distaff or some other domestic implement.

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Women living in towns had similar responsibilities to those in the countryside. Just as rural women helped with their husbands' work, urban women assisted their fathers and husbands in a wide variety of trades and crafts, including the production of textiles, leather goods, and metal work, as well as running shops and inns.

Original sin

According to the Bible, Eve was created from Adam's rib and, having eaten the forbidden fruit, was responsible for man's expulsion from paradise. In medieval art, the responsibility of women for this 'original sin', is often emphasised by giving a female head to the serpent who tempts Eve to disobey God. The story underlined the belief that women were inferior to men, and that they were morally weaker and likely to tempt men into sin.

Miniature of the temptation of Adam and Eve, from John Lydgate's The Fall of the Princes

The Temptation of Eve

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Throughout the Middle Ages, the place of women in society was often dictated by biblical texts. The writings of the apostle Paul, in particular, emphasised men's authority over women, forbidding women from teaching, and instructing them to remain silent. However, the Virgin Mary was a contrast to this negative image: as the mother of Christ, she was the channel through which Christians might be saved. She was sometimes described as the 'second Eve', as she was seen to have made up for Eve's sins. Throughout the Middle Ages, Mary was seen as the most powerful of all saints, as well as a strong (if paradoxical) model of chastity and motherhood.

Miniature of an abbess kneeling at the feet of the Virgin and Child, from 'The Shaftesbury Psalter'

Abbess kneeling at the feet of the Virgin and Child

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Women and power

There were some women who exercised power, providing a challenge to the stereotypical image of medieval women as oppressed and subservient. In the church, women could hold positions of great responsibility as abbesses of convents. In some instances, such as monasteries that housed communities of men and women, the abbess had seniority over monks.

Drawing of nuns at a procession to mass, from a collection of moral tracts

Cistercian nuns

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Outside monastic walls, women could wield political power, especially as queens and regents who exercised royal authority on behalf of absent husbands or underage sons. A number of powerful queens can be noted in English history, of whom one of the most remarkable was Queen Isabella (1295 - 1358), who (in collaboration with her lover, Sir Robert Mortimer) brought about the end of the reign of her husband, Edward II (1284 - 1327).

Miniature of the procession of Queen Isabella, from Jean Froissart's Chroniques

Queen Isabella in procession

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Wives and nuns

Yet however powerful some women were in the Middle Ages, it is important to remember that the overwhelming majority were not. Most women, even those in privileged circumstances, had little control over the direction their lives took. The marriages of young aristocratic women were usually arranged by their families (but here it is worth noting that their husbands, too, had little choice in their partners). Once widowed, such women had legal independence and, in many instances, autonomy over considerable financial resources.

The two main alternatives for a medieval woman were to marry, or to 'take the veil' and become a nun. Almost all female orders required women to live behind the walls of a monastery or within an individual cell, living a life of contemplation, prayer and work. Though the appeal of this way of life might be difficult to grasp today, for a medieval woman, one of its attractions must have been freedom from the dangers of childbearing.

Most women, however, were married, usually as teenagers. Afterwards, they were responsible for managing the household, whether this was a great castle or a small peasant hovel.

Miniature of an aristocratic marriage, from Jean d'Arras's Roman de Mélusine

A aristocratic marriage

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Wealthy women had servants, who assisted them with cooking, cleaning and childcare, and so were left time to engage in other pursuits. Popular diversions for aristocratic women included religious activities, hunting, dancing and playing games.

The Queen Mary Psalter

Women hunting rabbits

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Pregnancy and childbirth

Pregnancy and childbirth were risky in the Middle Ages: complications that would today be considered relatively minor, such as the breech presentation of the baby, could be fatal for mother and child. The Caesarean section, known since antiquity, was normally only performed if the mother was dead or dying as it was inevitably fatal for her.

Illustration of the birth of Caesar, from a compilation of ancient history

Birth of Caesar

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Labouring women were attended by midwives, whose understanding of childbirth was for the most part attained through practical experience rather than formal training, though by the later Middle Ages the profession began to be formally recognised. Midwives were responsible for performing emergency baptisms in instances where the infant's life was in danger, as well as caring for the mother.

Drawings of foetal positions in the womb, from a gynaecological text

Foetal positions in the womb

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Sources

Although historical sources about medieval women are not as numerous as those relating to men, they are much richer than is often supposed. Through surviving documents, literary and other texts and images, it is clear that medieval women were resilient, resourceful and skilled. Moreover, in exceptional instances they were capable of exercising political power, learning and creativity outside the domestic sphere.

Miniature of women in a counting house, from Treatise on the Vices

Women in a counting house

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It is, however, dangerous to generalise about the status and experience of medieval women, whose lives were shaped by as many different considerations as they are today. Interpretations of women's place in medieval society have to strike a balance between exceptional individuals, who by dint of their wealth, status and achievements are often relatively well documented, and the experience of ordinary women, whose lives tended to leave few traces on the historical record.
  • Alixe Bovey
  • Alixe Bovey is a medievalist whose research focuses on illuminated manuscripts, pictorial narrative, and the relationship between myth and material culture across historical periods and geographical boundaries. Her career began at the British Library, where she was a curator of manuscripts for four years; she then moved to the School of History at the University of Kent. She is now Head of Research at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

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