Life for Women in the Late Medieval Period
As I concluded one of my lectures last year on the Middle Ages, I proudly and excitedly announced to my students: ‘Next week we will be looking at medieval women’. One of my students commented that it would be a rather short and boring lecture because women didn’t do much in the Middle Ages.
I growled (rather unprofessionally I know) and then told him (at length) that women did perform important roles in this period, as indeed they have done throughout history.
The experience of women in the later medieval period did rather depend upon her class. The life of a peasant woman would be rather different from that of a queen. However, all women regardless of class or status performed vital functions in society.
Women as Inferiors
Medieval society (dominated by men) used the Bible to justify women’s inferior status. Eve had fallen into sin in eating an apple from the forbidden tree in the garden of Eden. Not only that, but she had also led Adam into sin by encouraging him to also eat the apple. God then expelled the couple from paradise and thus Eve was held responsible for the fall of Mankind. Because of this, women were deemed inferior to men, they were considered sinful creatures who needed to be controlled by their superiors, men. According to late medieval society, all women were inferior to men.
The Role of Women in Late Medieval Society
Women were considered to have one main purpose in life; to give birth to raise children. This applied to all women in medieval society. In order to fulfil this role of motherhood, women were to marry and be faithful and obedient to their husbands. (Girls could be married from the age of 12 and boys from the age of 15). These expectations were taught to women from early childhood; as children, they would watch their mothers and learn certain behaviours from them.
People in the Later Middle Ages attended Church on at least a weekly basis. The priest would remind women of their motherly and wifely duties using stories for the Bible as examples. The Virgin Mary was upheld as a model of womanhood – she was chaste, a caring and nurturing mother, an obedient woman carrying out God’s wishes, as well as an obedient and devoted wife to her husband, Joseph. Mary was quite often depicted in paintings in this period, she usually appears in royal blue to signify her royal status. Taking the Virgin Mary as an example, women were then expected to try their best to emulate her.
Peasant and lower-class women would work alongside their husbands to support the family. If her husband was a farmer, the wife would assist him in this role and in his day to day duties. Lower class women could not afford to restrict themselves to the home, they had to ‘muck in’. Women higher up the social scale would assist their husbands in different ways. If he were a king, the queen would work ‘behind the scenes’ exercising her queenly power and influence to support her husband. Life for higher-status women was in some ways more difficult, they were vulnerable to political intrigue and attack and could find themselves in extremely dangerous situations. (Such as several of Henry VIII’s wives did).
Suitable activities for women or ‘hobbies’ were very different to those enjoyed by men. Men would hunt, an extension of their role as ‘hunter gatherers’ providing for their families. Or perhaps visit the tavern and drink ale. Whereas hobbies for women were very much centred around the home. Spinning (clothes making) was a popular pastime as was embroidery (for those that could afford such luxuries).
The Dangers of Women
Although medieval society (dominated by men) treated women as their inferiors, men also feared women and considered them extremely dangerous. Women were thought to be temptresses, alluring men into lustful behaviours. History was written by men, it is called history for a reason (His-story). Most men who wrote were monks and had vowed to not engage in sexual intercourse with women. Perhaps men complained of the dangers of women because they were unable to control their own desires!
One way to ruin a woman’s reputation in the late medieval period was to denounce her as an adulteress, as promiscuous. For example, when Henry VIII wanted to rid himself of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, he accused her of adultery. Not only that, he also accused her of the most monstrous crime of incest with her brother. In reality, Anne was probably faithful to Henry (there is little evidence to suggest otherwise), however, this accusation was a useful tool to use against a woman. Once Anne’s reputation lay in tatters and her supporters had ultimately abandoned her, Henry could easily order her execution.
Intelligent women were also feared – it was considered foolish to educate a woman too much because with knowledge, women were dangerous creatures.
Women stepping out of Bounds
So, theoretically, women were to be obedient to the will of their husbands, to be good mothers and wives, to be meek and mild. However, we have evidence from the late medieval period to suggest that women did not always conform.
Joan of Arc (1412-1431) is a prime example of a woman ‘stepping out of bounds’. Joan lived during a time known as the ‘Hundred Years War (1337-1453) which saw England at war with France. Joan was a French peasant girl who decided to fight the English. The problem was that women were not allowed to take up arms and fight in this period. Nevertheless, Joan claimed that God had instructed her to fight and so she wore men’s clothing and armour and even led an army. She was a rather successful military commander, gaining some territories for France. She was eventually captured by the English army and put on trial for heresy. She was burnt at the stake on 30th May 1431 at the age of 19. Joan managed to challenge the expectations placed upon and is held up as a prime example of a woman who stepped out of bounds.
One of my favourite medieval women is undoubtedly Isabella of France (1295-1358). She was the wife of King Edward II of England and the mother of Edward III (she married Edward when she was 12 years old). Somewhat unusual for the period, Isabella was said to be very intelligent and well educated. Her husband, Edward II was rumoured to have been a homosexual, enjoying spending his time and his money with his male favourites, rather than the beautiful Isabella. Edward was also a weak king and unpopular with many in his own kingdom. Ultimately, Edward and Isabella fell into conflict, he confiscated her lands, property and also her children from her care. Isabella mounted an attack on her husband, gathering an army with the assistance of her lover. Edward abdicated and their son, Edward III ruled jointly with his mother until he was old enough to rule for himself from 1330. Isabella, like Joan of Arc was far from a meek and subservient woman.
Many women produced texts in this period and were renowned for their writing, women such as Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) and Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). Sometimes, women ruled in their own right as queens, women such as Mary I of England who ruled 1553–1558 and was succeeded by her sister, Elizabeth I ruling from 1558 to 1603.
Life for women in the Later Medieval Period was certainly different to the experiences of women today. In theory, women were barred from political life, however, in reality, some women quite often took up these powerful positions. Yet for most women, life was centred around the home in a male-dominated world.
I often think back to my very traditional grandparents; on the face of it, my grandfather made all the household decisions and was the master of his house. But I remember things quite differently; in the privacy of the family home, my Grandmother would tell him where to sit, what he would eat and when he could leave the house. She would spend his money as she saw fit and quite often nag him on rather pointless matters. It was in fact she who was in charge, despite the image my Grandfather projected to the world. I like to think that things have always been the same, that behind every man in history, there is a woman, his mother or his wife who ultimately calls the shots!
To find more history posts, browse my history category.