Women in the Middle Ages

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Christian convents in the Middle Ages provided women one alternative to married life.

Women in the Middle Ages occupied a number of different social roles. During the Middle Ages, a period of European history lasting from around the 5th century to the 15th century, women held the positions of wife, mother, peasant, artisan, and nun, as well as some important leadership roles, such as abbess or queen regnant. The very concept of "woman" changed in a number of ways during the Middle Ages[1] and several forces influenced women's role during the period.

Early Middle Ages (476–1000)[edit]

Spinning by hand was a traditional form of women's work (illustration c. 1170).

The Roman Catholic Church was a major unifying cultural influence of the Middle Ages with its selection from Latin learning, preservation of the art of writing, and a centralized administration through its network of bishops. Historically in the Catholic and other ancient churches, the role of bishop, like the priesthood, was restricted to men. The first Council of Orange (441) also forbade the ordination of deaconesses, a ruling that was repeated by the Council of Epaon (517) and second Council of Orléans (533).[2]

With the establishment of Christian monasticism, other roles within the Church became available to women. From the 5th century onward, Christian convents provided opportunities for some women to escape the path of marriage and child-rearing, acquire literacy and learning, and play a more active religious role.

Abbesses could become important figures in their own right, often ruling over monasteries of both men and women, and holding significant lands and power. Figures such as Hilda of Whitby (c. 614–680) became influential on a national and even international scale.

Spinning was one of a number of traditional women's crafts at this time,[3] initially performed using the spindle and distaff; the spinning wheel was introduced towards the end of the High Middle Ages.

For most of the Middle Ages, until the introduction of beer made with hops, brewing was done largely by women;[4] this was a form of work which could take place at home.[3] In addition, married women were generally expected to assist their husbands in business. Such partnerships were facilitated by the fact that much work occurred in or near the home.[5] However, there are recorded examples from the High Middle Ages of women engaged in a business other than that of their husband.[5]

Midwifery was practiced informally, gradually becoming a specialized occupation in the Late Middle Ages.[6] Women often died in childbirth,[7] although if they survived the child-bearing years, they could live as long as men, even into their 70s.[7] Life expectancy for women rose during the High Middle Ages, due to improved nutrition.[8]

As with peasant men, the life of peasant women was difficult. Women at this level of society had considerable gender equality,[3] but this often meant shared poverty. Until nutrition improved, their life expectancy at birth was significantly less than that of male peasants: perhaps 25 years.[9] As a result, in some places there were four men for every three women.[9]

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a wealthy and powerful woman.

High Middle Ages (1000–1300)[edit]

Hildegard of Bingen conducted a number of preaching tours around Germany.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204) was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages. She was the patroness of such literary figures as Wace, Benoît de Sainte-More, and Chrétien de Troyes. Eleanor succeeded her father as suo jure Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers at the age of fifteen, and thus became the most eligible bride in Europe.

Herrad of Landsberg, Hildegard of Bingen, and Héloïse d'Argenteuil were influential abbesses and authors during this period. Hadewijch of Antwerp was a poet and mystic. Both Hildegard of Bingen and Trota of Salerno were medical writers in the 12th century.

Constance of Sicily, Urraca of León and Castile, Joan I of Navarre, Melisende of Jerusalem and other Queens regnant exercised political power.

Female artisans in some cities were, like their male equivalents, organised in guilds.[10]

Regarding the role of women in the Church, Pope Innocent III wrote in 1210: "No matter whether the most blessed Virgin Mary stands higher, and is also more illustrious, than all the apostles together, it was still not to her, but to them, that the Lord entrusted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven".[11]

Late Middle Ages (1300–1500)[edit]

Christine de Pizan became a professional writer after the death of her husband in 1390.

In the Late Middle Ages women such as Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila played significant roles in the development of theological ideas and discussion within the church, and were later declared Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. The mystic Julian of Norwich was also significant in England.

Isabella I of Castile ruled a combined kingdom with her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Joan of Arc successfully led the French army on several occasions during the Hundred Years' War.

Christine de Pizan was a noted late medieval writer on women's issues. Her Book of the City of Ladies attacked misogyny, while her The Treasure of the City of Ladies articulated an ideal of feminine virtue for women from walks of life ranging from princess to peasant's wife.[12] Her advice to the princess includes a recommendation to use diplomatic skills to prevent war:

"If any neighbouring or foreign prince wishes for any reason to make war against her husband, or if her husband wishes to make war on someone else, the good lady will consider this thing carefully, bearing in mind the great evils and infinite cruelties, destruction, massacres and detriment to the country that result from war; the outcome is often terrible. She will ponder long and hard whether she can do something (always preserving the honour of her husband) to prevent this war."[13]

From the last century of the Middle Ages onwards, restrictions began to be placed on women's work, and guilds became increasingly male-only.[10] Female property rights also began to be curtailed during this period.[14]

Medieval Peasant Women[edit]

Medieval Society was patriarchal. Theoretically, men oversaw and controlled women's movements and activities.

Marxist historian Chris Middleton made these general observations about English peasant women: "A peasant woman's life was, in fact, hemmed in by prohibition and restraint." [15] If single, women had to submit to the male head of her household; if married, to her husband, under whose identity she was subsumed. English peasant women generally could not hold lands for long, rarely learnt any craft occupation and rarely advanced past the position of assistants, and could not become officials.

Middleton provided some exceptions: English peasant women, on their own behalf, could plead in manorial courts, some female free-holders enjoyed immunities from male peers and landlords, and some trades (such as ale-brewing), provided female workers with independence. Still, Middleton viewed these as exceptions which only require historians to modify, rather than revise, "the essential model of female subservience." [15]

The question of women's class and status was considered a source of the attitude toward women of the period. In 1981, Middleton indicated that this type of patriarchal control was assumed. Women were naturally to fall under male control regardless of class.[16]

Peasant women had numerous restrictions placed on their behavior by their lords. If a woman was pregnant, and not married, or had sex outside of marriage, the lord was entitled to payment. The control of peasant women was a function of financial benefits to the lords. They were not motivated by women's moral state. Also during this period, sexual activity was not regulated, with couples simply living together outside a formal ceremony.

Overview of Medieval European Economy[edit]

In medieval Western Europe, society and economy were rural-based. Ninety percent of the European population lived in the countryside or in small towns.[17] Agriculture played an important role in sustaining this rural-based economy.[18] Due to the lack of mechanical devices, activities were performed mostly by human labor.[17] Both men and women participated in the Medieval workforce and most workers were not paid by wages for their labor, but instead independently worked on their land and produced their own goods for consumption. [18] Whittle cautioned against the "modern assumption that active economic involvement and hard work translate into status and wealth" because during Middle Ages hard work only ensured survival against starvation In fact, peasant women worked as hard as peasant men, but they suffered many disadvantages such as fewer landholdings, occupational exclusions, and lower wages. [19]


To prosper, Medieval Europeans needed rights to own land, dwellings, and goods.[18] Land-ownership involved gendered patterns. Overall, Medieval men owned more land than women.[20]

Female land-owners, single or married, could grant or sell land as they deemed fit.[20] Women often managed the estates because their husbands often left for war, politics, and pilgrimages.[20] Nevertheless, as time passed, women were increasingly given, as dowries, movable properties such as good and cash instead of land. Even though up the year 1000 female landownership had been increasing, afterwards female land-ownership began to decline.[21] Commercialization also contributed to the decline in female landownership as more women left the countryside to work for wages as servants or day laborers.[17] Even so, many widows independently managed and cultivated their deceased husbands' lands.[21]


Generally, research has determined that there is limited gender division of labor among peasant men and women. Rural historian Jane Whittle described this gender division of labor as thus: "Labor was divided according to the workers' gender. Some activities were restricted to either men or or women; other activities were preferred to be performed by one gender over the other:" e.g. men ploughed, mowed, and threshed and women gleaned, cleared weeds, bound sheaves, made hays, and collected woods; and yet others were performed by both, such as harvesting.[17]

Both peasant men and women worked in the home and out in the fields. In looking at coroner records, which represent the lives of peasants more clearly, Barbara Hanawalt found that 30% of women died in their homes compared to 12% of men; 9% of women died on a private property (i.e. a neighbor's house, a garden area, manor house, etc.) compared to 6% of men; 22% of women died in public areas within their village (i.e. greens, streets, churches, markets, highways, etc.) compared to 18% of men. Men dominated accidental deaths within fields at 38% compared to 18% of women, and men had 4% more accidental deaths in water than women did. Accidental deaths of women (61%) occurred within their homes and villages; while men had only 36%. This information correlated with the activities and labors regarding the maintenance and responsibilities of working in a household. These include: food preparation, laundry, sewing, brewing, getting water, starting fires, tending to children, collecting produce, and working with domestic animals. Outside of the household and village, 4% of women died in agricultural accidents compared to 19% of men, and no women dies from labors of construction or carpentry. The division of gendered labor may be due to women being at risk of danger, like being attacked, raped and losing their virginity, in doing work in the fields or outside of the home and village.

Three main activities performed by peasant men and women were planting foods, keeping livestock, and made textiles, as depicted in psalters from southern Germany and England. Modern historians assumed that only women were assigned childcare and thus had to work near their home, yet childcare responsibilities could be fulfilled elsewhere and -except breastfeeding_ were not exclusive to women.[21] Even though free female workers could not contract out their labor services without their husband's' approval,[22] widows have been recorded to act as independent economic agents in spite of the patriarchal and misogynistic Medieval European culture,[23] which posited female inferiority and opposed female independence.[18]

There were evidence that women performed not only housekeeping responsibilities like cooking and cleaning, but even other household activities like grinding, brewing, butchering, and spinning produced items like flour, ale, meat, cheese, and textile for subsistence and for sale.[19] An anonymous fifteenth-century English ballad appreciated activities performed by English peasant women like housekeeping, making foodstuffs and textiles, and childcare.[19] Even though cloth-making, brewing, and dairy production were traded associated with female workers, male cloth-makers and brewers increasingly displaced female workers, especially after water-mills, horizontal loom, and hop-flavored beers were invented. These inventions favored commercial cloth-making and brewing dominated by male workers - who had more time, wealth, and access to credit, and political influence and who produced goods for sale instead of for direct consumption. Meanwhile, women were increasingly relegated to low-paying tasks like spinning.[24]

Besides working independently on their own lands, women could hire themselves out as servants or wage-workers. Medieval servants performed works as required by the household, with men cooking and cleaning and women doing laundry. Like their independent counterparts, rural wage-laborers performed complementary tasks based on a gendered division of labor. Women were only paid as half as much as men even though both sexes performed similar tasks.[25]

After the Black Death killed a large part of the European population and led to severe labor shortages, women filled out the occupational gaps in the cloth-making and agricultural sectors.[26] Simon Penn argued that the labor shortages after the Black Death furnished economic opportunities for women, but Sarah Bardsley and Judith Bennett disputed that women were paid about 50-75% of men's wages. Bennett attributed this gender-based wage-gap to patriarchal prejudices which devalued women's works, yet John Hatcher disputed Bennet's claim: he pointed out that men and women received the same wages for the same piece-works, but had lower day-wages because they were physically weaker and might have had to work fewer hours due to domestic duties. Whittle stated that the debate has not yet been settled.[27]

To illustrate, the late medieval poem Piers Plowman paints a pitiful picture of the life of the medieval peasant woman:

"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;"[28]

Peasant Women and Health[edit]

Peasant women during the time period were subjected to a number of superstitious practices when it came to their health. Many of the health providers of the era were women. Women were healers and were involved with medicine. In 12th century Salerno Italy, Trota, a woman wrote the "Trotula" texts on diseases of women. Based on information developed in Greek and Roman practices, the texts discuss symptoms and cures.

The Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, wrote in the 12th Century, "Physica and Causae et curae", writing on women's health. Attention is paid to the both the theory and the physiology of women's medicine.


Medieval marriage was both a private and social matter. According to Canon Law, marriage could be proclaimed in secret by the mutually consenting couple, or arranged between families as long as the man and woman were not forced and consented freely. Peasants, slaves, and maidservants needed the permission and consent of their master in order to marry; and if they did not they were punished (see below in Law).

Marriage also allowed for the couples' social networks to expand. According to Bennett (1984) who investigated the marriage of Henry Kroyl Jr. and Agnes Penifader, and how their social spheres changed after their marriage. Due to the couples' fathers, Henry Kroyl Sr. and Robert Penifader being prominent villagers in Brigstock, Northamptonshire, approximately 2,000 references to the activities of the couple and their immediate families were recorded. Bennett details how Kroyl Jr.'s social network expanded greatly as he gained connections through his occupational endeavors.

Agnes' connections expanded also based on Kroyl Jr.'s new connections. However, Bennett also signifies that a familial alliance between the couples' families of origin did not form. Kroyl Jr. had limited contact with his father after his marriage, and his social network expanded from the business he conducted with his brothers and other villagers. Agnes, though all contact with her family did not cease, her social network expanded to her husband's family of origin and his new connections.


According to Laws of the Salian Franks, a Germanic tribe that migrated into Gaul and converted to Christianity between the 6th and 7th centuries, crimes and determined punishments were usually orated; however as their contact with literate Romans increased, their laws became codified and developed into written language and text.

Peasants, slaves, and maidservants are considered as property to their free-born master(s). In some or most cases the unfree-person could be seen as the same value as their master's animals. However, peasants, slaves and maidservants of the king, were more valuable and even considered to be same value of free-persons because they were proponents of the king's court.

Crimes concerning Abduction

If someone were to steal another's slave or maidservant, and proven to have committed the crime, that individual would be responsible to pay thirty-five solidi, the value of the salve, and a fine for lost time of use. If someone abducts another's maidservant, they are fined thirty solidi. If someone seduces a maidservant worth fifteen or twenty-five solidi and that individual is worth twenty-five solidi themselves and proven to have committed the crime, they will be fine seventy-two solidi and the value of the maidservant. If a boy or girl domestic servant is abducted by someone, they will be fined the value of the servant (twenty-five solidi), thirty-five solidi and a fine for lost time of use.[29]

Crimes concerning Free-born persons marrying Slaves

A free-born woman that marries a slave will lose her freedom and privileges as a free-born woman. She will also have her property taken away from her and will be proclaimed as an outlaw. A free-born man that marries a slave or maidservant shall also lose his freedom and privilege as a free-born man.[5]

Crimes concerning fornication with Slaves or Maidservants

If a freeman fornicates with another's maidservant, and proven to have committed this, will be fined to pay the maidservant's master fifteen solidi. If anyone fornicates with the maidservant of the king and proven to do so, will be fined thirty solidi. If a slave fornicates with another's maidservant and that maidservant dies, the slave will be fined to pay the maidservant's master six solidi, may be castrated, or that slave's master will be fined to pay the maidservant's master the value of the deceased maidservant. If a slave fornicates with a maidservant and does not die, the slave will either received three hundred lashes, or pay the maidservant's master three solidi. If a slave marries another's maidservant without their master's consent, the slave will either be whipped, or fined to pay the maidservant's master three solidi.[5]

Peasant Women by Statuses[edit]

The first group of peasant women consisted of free landholders. Early records such as the Exon Domesday and Little Domesday attested that, of Rnglish lanowners, 10-14% noble thegns and non-noble free-tenants were women; and Wendy Davies found records which showed that in 54% of property transactions, women could act independently or jointly with their husbands and sons.[20] Still, only after the 13th century are records which better showed free female peasants' rights to land.[20] For example English manorial court-rolls recorded many activities carried out by free peasants such as selling and inheriting lands, paying rents, settling upon debts and credits, brewing and selling ale, and - if unfree - rendering labor services to lords. Free peasant women, unlike their male counterparts, could not become officers such as manorial jurors, constables, and reeves.[22]

The second category of Medieval European workers were serfs. Conditions of serfdom applied to both genders.[22] Serfs did not enjoy property rights as did free tenants: serfs were restricted from leaving their lords' lands at will and were forbidden to dispose of their assigned holdings.[30] Both male and female serfs must labor as parts of their services to lords, their required activities might be even specifically gendered by the lords.

When female serfs got married, they had to pay fines to their lords. The first fine upon a female serf getting married was known as merchet, to be paid by her father to their lord; the rationale was that the lord had lost a worker and her children.[31][32] The second fine is the leyrwite, to be paid by a male or female serf who had committed sexual acts forbidden by the Church, for fear that the fornicating serf might have her marriage value lessened and thus the lord might not get the merchet.[33]

Chris Middleton cited other historians who demonstrated that lords often regulated their serfs' marriages to make sure that the serfs' landholdings would not be taken out of their jurisdiction. Lords could even force female serfs into involuntary marriages to ensure that the female serfs would be able to pro-create a new generation of workers. Over time, English lords increasingly favored primogeniture inheritance patterns to prevent their serfs' landholdings from being broken up.[34]

Medieval representations of female activities[edit]

Difference between Western and Eastern Europe[edit]

The status of women differed immensely by region. In most of Western Europe, later marriage and higher rates of definitive celibacy (the so-called "European marriage pattern") helped to constrain patriarchy at its most extreme level. The rise of Christianity and manorialism had both created incentives to keep families nuclear and thus the age of marriage increased; the Western Church instituted marriage laws and practices that undermined large kinship groups. From as early as the 4th century, the Church discouraged any practice that enlarged the family, like adoption, polygamy, taking concubines, divorce, and remarriage. The Church severely discouraged and prohibited consanguineous marriages, a marriage pattern that has constituted a means to maintain clans (and thus their power) throughout history.[35] The church also forbade marriages in which the bride did not clearly agree to the union.[36] After the Fall of Rome, manorialism also helped weakened the ties of kinship and thus the power of clans; as early as the 9th century in Austrasia, families that worked on manors were small, consisting of parents and children and occasionally a grandparent. The Church and State had become allies in erasing the solidarity and thus the political power of the clans; the Church sought to replace traditional religion, whose vehicle was the kin group, and substituting the authority of the elders of the kin group with that of a religious elder; at the same time, the king's rule was undermined by revolts on the part of the most powerful kin groups, clans or sections, whose conspiracies and murders threatened the power of the state and also the demand of manorial lords for obedient, compliant workers.[37] As the peasants and serfs lived and worked on farms that they rented from the lord of the manor, and they also needed the permission of the lord to marry, couples therefore had to comply with the lord and wait until a small farm became available before they could marry and thus produce children; those who could and did delay marriage presumably were rewarded by the landlord and those who did not were presumably denied said reward.[38] For example, Medieval England saw the marriage age as variable depending on economic circumstances, with couples delaying marriage until the early twenties when times were bad and frequently marrying in the late teens after the Black Death, when there were labor shortages and economically lucrative to workers;[39] by appearances, marriage of adolescents was not the norm in England.[40]

In Eastern Europe however, there were many differences with specific regional characteristics. In the Byzantine Empire, Bulgarian Empire and Kievan Rus the majority of women were well educated and had a higher social status than in Western European.[41] Equality in family relations and the right to common property after marriage were recognized by law with the Ekloga, issued in Constantinople in 726 and Slavonic Ekloga in Bulgaria in the 9th century.[42] In some conservative regions in Eastern and Central Europe, when statehood was developed, the tradition of early and universal marriage (usually of a bride age 12–15, with menarche occurring on average at 14)[43] as well as traditional Slavic patrilocal customs[44] led to a greatly inferior status for women at all levels of society.[45] The manorial system had yet to penetrate into Eastern Europe, where there was a lesser effect on clan systems and no firm enforcement of bans on cross-cousin marriages.[46]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Allen 2006a, p. 6.
  2. ^ Thurston 1908.
  3. ^ a b c Pat Knapp and Monika von Zell, Women and Work in the Middle Ages.
  4. ^ Schaus 2006, p. 13.
  5. ^ a b c d Schaus 2006, p. 44.
  6. ^ Schaus 2006, p. 561.
  7. ^ a b Classen 2007, p. 128.
  8. ^ Shahar 2004, p. 34.
  9. ^ a b Wiliams & Echols 1994, p. 241.
  10. ^ a b Schaus 2006, p. 337.
  11. ^ Innocent III, Epistle, 11 December 1210
  12. ^ Allen 2006b, p. 646.
  13. ^ de Pizan 1405.
  14. ^ Erler & Kowaleski 2003, p. 198.
  15. ^ a b Middleton 2010, p. 107.
  16. ^ Middleton 1981.
  17. ^ a b c d Whittle 2010, p. 312.
  18. ^ a b c d Whittle 2010, p. 313.
  19. ^ a b c Whittle 2010, p. 311.
  20. ^ a b c d e Whittle 2010, p. 314.
  21. ^ a b c Whittle 2010, p. 316.
  22. ^ a b c Whittle 2010, p. 315.
  23. ^ Whittle 2010, pp. 315-316.
  24. ^ Whittle 2010, pp. 317-320.
  25. ^ Whittle 2010, pp. 320, 322.
  26. ^ Whittle 2010, pp. 313, 320.
  27. ^ Whittle 2010, p. 322.
  28. ^ William Langland, tr. George Economou, William Langland's Piers Plowman: the C version : a verse translation, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996, ISBN 0-8122-1561-3, p. 82.
  29. ^ Rivers 1986.
  30. ^ Middleton 1981, p. 139.
  31. ^ Vinogradoff 1892.
  32. ^ Middleton 1981, pp. 138, 143.
  33. ^ Middleton 1981, p. 144.
  34. ^ Middleton 1981, p. 137.
  35. ^ Bouchard 1981, pp. 269-270.
  36. ^ Greif 2005, pp. 2-3.
  37. ^ Heather 1999, pp. 142-148.
  38. ^ 2014. Medieval Manorialism and the Hajnal Line
  39. ^ Hanawalt 1986, p. 96.
  40. ^ Hanawalt 1986, pp. 98-100.
  41. ^ Georgieva 1999.
  42. ^ Dimitrov, D. 2011. Byzantine Empire and Byzantine world, Prosveta - Sofia, p. 83
  43. ^ Levin 1995, pp. 96-98.
  44. ^ Levin 1995, pp. 137, 142.
  45. ^ Levin 1995, pp. 225-227.
  46. ^ Mitterauer 2010, pp. 45-48, 77.


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