In order to best describe the role and position of women in the Middle Ages, it is first necessary to look at social standing of the women. In general, women at this point were considered inferior to men and their duties were primarily confined to the home and family life. A number of women, however, were able to transcend the confines of societal expectations to become prominent women in medieval society.
Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII
As with much of Western history, women are subservient to men in the Middle Ages. They are seen as weaker, less intelligent, and otherwise less fit than men for most tasks. However, women do maintain significant control within family life. While men are occupied with their respective duties and obligations, women typically found themselves maintaining the home and the family.
Poorer medieval families did not have many positions and typically lived in small quarters. It was necessary for the women to maintain the tidiness and cleanliness of the space as best as possible to make the most of living situations.
Wealthier women typically had several servants to take care of quotidian tasks such as cooking and cleaning, but it was her duty to manage the domestic end of the household. Noble women had leisure time available to develop skills in music and drawing, and those who were literate could spend time reading, provided she had access to texts.
Roles Available for Women
Not all women were to be confined to a life in the home, and some were able to balance the position of wife and mother with an outside occupation. In the peasantry it was common for women to assist their fathers and husbands with their occupation. Women would assist in the brewing of beer and wine, working the land, and maintaining livestock. Other occupations such as spinning, weaving, and embroidery, allowed women to work in or near the home so as not to neglect other duties.
Women were also able to commit themselves to the Church. Though the Council of Epaon of 517 prohibited women from obtaining leadership positions such as priesthood or becoming deaconesses and bishops, they were able to enter the Church as nuns, or sisters.
By entering a convent, women became married to the Church and, therefore, could not marry a man and bear children. Within the convents women were able to study and acquire academic knowledge, which was very rare for women, even in the upper classes. The one authoritative position women could achieve was the role of Abbess. This position of Mother Superior presided over the sisters and held certain influence outside the convent as well.
In the later parts of the Middle Ages, a specific profession from women arose – midwifery. It was not uncommon for women and infants to die in childbirth, but the development of this new trade allowed for more successful births. It was a position that began as experienced women helping those less experienced with childbirth, but it evolved into a science of its own. This is an somewhat anomalous occurrence in that it was a profession reserved specifically for women – men were not midwives.
In a small number of cases, women rose to prominence as writers and artists, though these professions were thought to belong almost exclusively to men. Artist representations show occasions of women defending a town from attack or hunting, or even instructing men, though presumably these instances were quite rare in the Middle Ages.
Though someone were able to improve their situation in life through education, religion, and some occupations, a significant number of women did work as prostitutes throughout the Middle Ages. With the growth of urban centers and towns, prostitution developed an increased presence. Attempts were made to regulate the practice such as laws confining prostitution to specific civic brothels or restricting prostitution inside the walls of the city.
The Roman Catholic Church, one of the most authoritative institutions in the Middle Ages, declared that prostitution and soliciting a prostitute were clearly sins, but determined them to be lesser sins than rape, sodomy, and masturbation, thereby instilling a small degree of tolerance of the profession.
A Selection of Notable Medieval Women
- Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179) became a Benedictine abbess, thereby giving her opportunity to arrange preaching tours to spread her beliefs and teachings on religion, mysticism, and philosophy.
- Constance, Queen of Sicily (1154 – 1198) reigned as monarch of Sicily. She married Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor and her son became Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. After the death of her husband, Constance made a number of significant decisions and was placed by Dante Aligheri in Paradise of the Divine Comedy.
- Christine de Pizan (1363 – c.1430) was a woman from Venice who could be considered one of the first feminists. She made a career as a professional writer, completing over 40 works. Using poetry and essays, de Pizan raised awareness of important women throughout history and questioned contemporaneous stereotypes of the female gender.
- Joan of Arc (c. 1412 – 1431) bravely fought in the French army during the Hundred Years War becoming the national heroine of France and a saint. Born of humble background, Joan of Arc believed herself to be on a divine mission and was eventually burned at the stake by the English for heresy.
- Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504) maintained ruled of the newly unified Spain with her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon. Throughout her reign, she was perceived as an equal to her husband and had significant contributions to world history, such as the funding of Christopher Columbus’s exploratory journey to the new world.
- Many women were canonized by the Church throughout the Middle Ages becoming some of the most well-known saints, including: Hilda of Whitby, Saint Walpurga, Columba of Spain, Saint Margaret of Scotland, Saint Rosalia, Elizabeth of Hungary, Catherine of Bologna, and many others.
Whether a woman in the Middle Ages held the occupation of mother, nun, artisan, peasant, or noble, her role in life was set from the beginning. Through marriage or prolific accomplishments, individual women were able to merit more respect from men or other women. Though in appearance and everyday activity poor women and rich women were worlds apart, they were both restricted by their sex and seen as inferior by men and society.
Header image courtesy: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons