The image painted of medieval women in history is often not an accurate one. It seems that women were often forced to take a step-back by the then male dominated society. Sources from the middles ages heavily emphasised traditional male roles. History was often concerned with males and females were seldom mentioned. Ruling was conducted by men as were politics and military affairs. The influence of the Church also played its part in the sidelining of women, as it had a very misogynistic point of view. For these reasons our picture is often inaccurate.
This essay will look at the lives of medieval women of all classes and the reality of their lives during the middle ages. For many medieval women their day would have been centred around tasks of the home. Men would often, it has been said, need to keep a close eye on their wives as a result of a woman’s perhaps voracious libido. This view of woman’s sexual behaviour would have been common among men of the medieval period and gives us an understanding into why there was such male disapproval of women.
A man was seen as having authority over his wife and was to use her to satisfy his appetites with prudence and regularity and without abandoning himself to any vertigo of the senses, that might diminish his authority” Women and the Family – Christiane Klapisch-Zuber (1987). This statement highlights common male attitudes towards their women and also suggests that a man should beware of his senses so as not to succumb to a woman in case of loss of authority. Women may have been looked upon as need to be kept under control which would therefore keep a medieval woman’s day quite busy.
For example a wife would have been required to carry out homely tasks such as preparing bread , curing meat, cooking, brewing, up keeping of the house and making clothes, which in medieval times would have been quite time consuming. Upper class women would be given embroidery to consume their time. Upper class women would often be given needlework as a means of keeping their minds from wandering it could be suggested, almost a way of preserving a kind of innocence in a woman. A medieval woman’s journeys from home would also b controlled by the male in an attempt to supervise his wife and exercise his authority.
Men would need to keep watch on his wife as much as possible. The routes she used would be supervised and her destinations limited to places like the church and the public oven. Most aspects of a woman’s life would have been controlled wimply because of the fear that his wife might stray from him. Women not only faced the disapproval of men but also of the law, which would have been controlled by men. This was weighted against them. Laws were in placed so that when a woman was married she gave up her possessions to the male and also a husband was entitles to beat his wife if he thought there was justification.
For example if she had perhaps spoken bad of him to others. It was the refusal to allow women to participate in most activities, whether it be in law or not, that gave men the crucial advantage in keeping control of women, It reinforced men’s attitudes towards the opposite sex. From the legal establishment to the ecclesiastical we can gather more evidence of the attitudes towards women. This is highlighted by the pronouncements of the Church. Medieval People by Eillen Power (1924) tells us of how the Church had to control the way in which nuns dressed to try and prevent them from becoming “worldly ladies”.
The life of a nun would be quite controlled even needing a licence to leave the confines of the convent. Their dress would have been made of simple cloth and not accompanied by fashionable accessories that were popular, however frowned upon by the authority. “Bishops and archbishops shook their grey heads, over golden hairpins, and silver belts jewelled rings, slashed tunics, low necks and long trains” Medieval People Eileen Power (1924). The attitudes of the females sexual nature were looked at askance by the Church.
One source states (The Damsel and the Church – Terry Jones, 2004) that it was argues that women were the “cause of all evil” because they “tempted men”. This kind of view would have gathered great support because the male dominated attitudes that the Church as an establishment held. The Church can be seen to exercise its power in its holy war against women by stripping women of their lands on the basis of accusations of fornication. The Church during the medieval period tends to look at women through the story of Adam and Eve. Eve, was the one who ate the fruit of the tempting snake and was cast out of Eden for doing so.
It is almost as if blame is pointed at the female as a species. As women faced the general disapproval of men they had to endure a more personal form of disapproval from their husbands. Having authority was in the hands of the husband and it was important that he upheld his authority, often being quite dominating and exercising his right to beat his wife. This would be common place among spouses. Things like the woman’s nature were required to be managed, and as a mother she was required to set an example to her daughters to be the same. A wive’s daily tasks, were designed to keep her docile and obedient to men.
Wives were not always confined to the home however. It has been suggested that lower down the social scale women had more freedom in the form of working in fields and even in their husbands shops. A wife was also to be used to produce many young. A lot of the time a woman would be pregnant and it was a requirement of the wife to produce young as much as it was for the husband to do the same. Women faced the peril of childbirth in medieval society. “Pregnancies occupied close to one-half of the lives of married women under the age of forty” Women and the Family – Christiane Klapisch-Zuber (1987).
Pregnancy was required of a couple to ensure a healthy lineage. The regularity of a woman being pregnant highlights the dangers of bearing a child. Giving birth in medieval times would have been a risky procedure as techniques and medicine would have been far less advanced than they are today. The procedure would have been completely natural leading to many complications. Often a woman could die in child birth and her offspring with her. The need for many offspring came from the survival rates of those offspring. Census documents have shown that medieval households had an average of barely more than two living children” Women and the Family – Christiane Klapisch-Zuber (1987). Although the middles ages was a male dominated society and the picture painted of women doesn’t seem to be a positive one, this is not the complete picture. Medieval women often show that they were not always subject to a man’s domineering attitudes. Some women in a man’s absence had to take the reins and gain control. If a man owned a business, a bakery or a brewery perhaps and had been called away, it would be the woman’s responsibility to take over.
Women were thrown into male roles when men were not around. For example if men were called to the Crusades,or were taken by the Black Death had caused women to take on male roles as a result of their husbands death. This gives us an insight into how women were looked at in a practical manner, not always being gentle and the picture of deference but of independence and wilfulness. As well as seeing that business ran as usual, women took part in government also, an establishment seen to be very much the dominion of men.
Richard II’s queen, Anne of Bohemia was known to take part in the decisive politics that concerned her husband the King. Some women were also considered to be intellectuals, being well read and sharing in the intellectual community of scholars etc. Women would often read to each other and often with upper class women their bed chambers would be considered as places of entertainment and learning for her and her female friends, where they would read aloud to each other(as reading to yourself was seen as being suspect and anti-social).
One intellectual woman of the time, Christan de Pisan decided to attempt to change the way men had wrote about women and in doing so a source she wrote tells us of how she quite easily out wits the words of a royal secretary who attempts to put her down. The Church paints a picture of women’s sexuality as them being “the seducers” and certainly the female would not have been passive. The source Constructing the Damsel in Distress – Terry Jones (2004) tells of the expectations of women to be sexually active and how they in turn would have the same expectations of her husband.
If a man could not live up to a woman’s expectations then it has been known for her to make this clear to everyone. Also in Terry Jones’s “The Middle Ages” he writes of a man who had this experience, Walter de Fonte. In 1292 his wife claimed he was impotent and was forced to perform infront of a bed chamber of wise older women who could then decide the truth of the accusations. It seems that the lives of medieval women do not lie on just one side of the coin.
There appears to be a kind of tug of war as regards to their historic experiences where women are seen as being male dominated which is the traditional view to revisionist historians telling us of the opposite. It is true that women worked hard and so much was expected of them and that they faced legal complications and they also faced the influence of the Church but there are enough exceptions to know that life as a medieval women could have been quite balanced. Terry Jones describes their relationship in history as a “varying dynamic”, as it is still.