Women in medieval society
- Article by: Alixe Bovey
Miniature of Christine de Pizan in her study, from 'The Book of the Queen'View images from this item (1)
The Luttrell PsalterView images from this item (7)
Copyright: © British Library
Original sinAccording 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 PrincesView images from this item (1)
Miniature of an abbess kneeling at the feet of the Virgin and Child, from 'The Shaftesbury Psalter'View images from this item (1)
Women and powerThere 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 tractsView images from this item (1)
Miniature of the procession of Queen Isabella, from Jean Froissart's ChroniquesView images from this item (1)
Wives and nunsYet 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 MélusineView images from this item (1)
The Queen Mary PsalterView images from this item (2)
Pregnancy and childbirthPregnancy 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 historyView images from this item (1)
Drawings of foetal positions in the womb, from a gynaecological textView images from this item (1)
SourcesAlthough 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 VicesView images from this item (1)
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