Medieval Women: Love, Marriage, Family and Livelihoods.
Nobles or Commons? Who matters in Medieval History?
The medieval period ended with the beginning of the Renaissance. Central to any study of the Renaissance is a study of the powerful Medici family who sponsored many groundbreaking artists and thinkers. Prime movers in the Medici family included many famous women, including Catherine d' Medici portrayed above.
For some people, it is the famous and powerful people in history who should be studied. It is the leaders of a society who determine where it is going and what important events occur. For others, the lives of ordinary people are just as interesting and just as important. Each country has a way of doing things and this is determined by the behavior of a broad range of people. Even in the medieval period, ordinary people mattered.
If you are interested in the lives of famous or powerful medieval women there is a list of websites at the foot of the page. This article contains an overview of the lives of ordinary women in Medieval Europe- particularity England.
Understanding the lives of Medieval women is less easy than you might think. There is not a lot of evidence to base an understanding on. Iy is especially difficult to get a good picture of the lives of the 'common' people. Often, the only evidence of their existence are church records- birth, marriage and death.
Often what evidence remains after five hundred years needs to be interpreted by historians. This has led to many different views of medieval women. Some writers emphasize the romantic aspects of medieval life- chivalry and damsels in distress. Others paint a grim picture of plagues, famines, witch hunts and servitude to lords and masters. More recently, many historians (especially American historians) have focussed on the positive aspects of being a women in the middle ages.
Was Life better in the Medieval Period?
This may seem a strange question but how people chose to see the past is important if you want to understand any historical subject.
When the Industrial Revolution first began to transform England in the late eighteenth century many writers and painters were appalled by the pollution of industry, the unregulated growth of modern cities and the equally unregulated behavior of their new inhabitants.
A whole range of Romantic movements grew up which painted the medieval period as a time of knightly chivalry, innocent maidens, simple faith, individual creativity (handicrafts as opposed to mass produced goods) and social harmony.
The Pre-Raphaelite painters produced stunningly beautiful representations of Medieval women which still color our perceptions today. One of the most striking images of this time was the Lady Of Shallot, shown to the right. Dante Gabriel Rossetti produced many paintings of how he imagined great Medieval ladies would have appeared. Holman Hunt portrayed country people living an idyllic life amongst their crops and livestock.
Other writers saw the medieval period as a time of ignorance, excessive control of the individual by the church and aristocracy and grinding poverty. Thomas Hobbes description of life as 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short' summed up medieval life for many who wanted something better. For these people, the new cities were centers of great enterprise and individual opertunity. They would write very different histories and it is their. more progressive views. that color academic histories nowadays, whilst Romantic conceptions still often dominate Hollywood movies and popular images.
Medieval Women and Marriage
Marriages were carefully considered transactions in the Medieval Period.
Romantic love was less important than securing a sound economic base for a secure relationship where children could be raised. A bad marriage could mean the dilution of the power and wealth of a family- if a women married below her status, the exchange of goods and land, common at the time, would be disadvantageous. In the worse case it could mean a life of poverty for the newly weds.
Family, friends and church would all take a role in deciding what marriage would bring most benefits to the families and the community.
Amongst the very poor, property was less of an issue and there was more freedom to chose on personal preference- although sometimes marriage and children might not have been affordable at all.
There is a myth that, in the medieval period, many girls were married before they even reached their teenage years.
Amongst rich and powerful families, very young children could be promised in marriage as a way of cementing alliances. Sometimes, actual marriage ceremonies of children would take place but the couple would not live together until they were considered adults. The Church also allowed the betrothed the right to renounce these child marriages when they came of age.
Recent research suggests that marriage age for ordinary people was little different in the medieval period then it was a hundred years ago.
In Italy the average age for marriage was 17; in France 16 years old; and in England and Germany 18 years old.
Medieval Households” by David Herlihy, Harvard University Press, 1985
Romantic Love in the Medieval Period
Marriages may have been arranged but people still fell in love. Some of the most popular stories of the time concern young lovers who were kept apart by their families.
Piramus and Thisbe was a Roman tale popularized by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century as The Legend of Good Women. Two lovers whisper through a wall whilst fearing discovery by their parents...
Medieval Poets writing about love often have very recognizable woes:
I will have revenge,
for all that Love has made me suffer,
all I must still suffer,
until she heals the heart she ravaged,
The Italian poet Petrach, mid-fourteenth century.
Terry Jones (of Monty Python Fame) takes a look at relationships between men and women
Women as Witches
Although poets could write thousands of lines comparing the woman of their dreams to an angel, sometimes a quite different perception of women could grip a nation. The Medieval period saw the beginnings of a taste for witch hunts in Europe.
This page offers an excellent history of some of the thinking and events that led up to the persecution of 'witches'.
There is also an interesting page here: Witchcraft-in-Early-Modern-Europe
Medieval Woman and Male Control
The Medieval Church was the Catholic Church- an institution that has always been dominated by men.. Then, as now, it took a strong interest in anything that related to the production of children. It was also very concerned with keeping strong passions from tearing communities apart. Communities needed to be united to prosper.
Mostly the Church (and respectable society in general) tried to instill a respect for the sancity of marriage but they were also careful to control women physically. Women were often under the formal and legal direction of men for their entire lives- first by fathers and after the women had been 'given' away at the altar, by the husband. Men could legally beat their wives or daughters.
Of course, the realities of family life could easily mean that a woman with a strong personality and superior intelligence could rule the roost. Many women were the power behind the throne in noble families too.
There is also plenty of evidence that many marriages were genuine partnerships with respect on both sides.
A list of books on Women and Gender in Medieval Europe http://academics.smcvt.edu/gdameron/women.gender.biblio.htm
Wife Selling in England
The right to sell a wife was not enshrined in law and sometimes the husband who sold his wife would be prosecuted. Even so, it happened for many hundreds of years and only died out in the twentieth century.
It was usually a way to end an unsatisfactory marriage and often both parties consented- though pressure might have been applied. The women was paraded publicly with a halter around her neck and then auctioned to the highest bidder.
The Mayor of Castorbridge by Thomas Hardy is a famous novel that deals with the issue.
Women's Occupations in Medieval Europe
The majority of women worked in the fields or as spinners of wool. Some were seamstresses. Brew wife (beer brewer) was an important occupation where women could run their own enterprise.
Women were excluded from many professions. They could not practice medicine though they could be midwives. They could not be apothecaries but they could be herbalists (in some periods this might mean being burnt as a witch). They could not train as painters though nuns could be illustrators of manuscripts. They could not hold politcal office like mayor.
Many of these restrictions have only been lifted during the last one hundred years in Western countries.
Below is a page of manuscript illuminations by women artists
Did Medieval Parents care about their Children?
In 1963, Philippe Aries wrote a famous historical work called 'Centuries of Childhood'. It broke new ground by inquiring into ordinary lives in a new way. Since the lives of ordinary people were not well documented, Aries was obliged to make inferences from the few sources of information that were available, like church records. 'Inferential history' has been controversial ever since.
Aries concluded from his study that from the age of 7, people were no longer children in Medieval Europe. They were grown ups who were expected to work in the fields or other business of their family.
This has prompted some people to believe that medieval parents did not care deeply about their children, For others, training as a farmer from the age of seven is not so very different to going to school and training for other roles in life.
CENTURIES OF CHILDHOOD By Philippe Aries. New York: Vintage Books
Medieval Woman as Mistresses of their own Fate
Women often came into their own when the powerful men in their lives had died.
There are many documented accounts of women who took powerful positions by inheriting property or businesses from fathers or husbands. This tells us that women were accepted in powerful positions and that they had the protection of the law and of custom.
Women could also take on the most powerful role in a kingdom- that of Queen. Some women ruled as queens in their own right. Some ruled through a male relative who was not yet of age. This could only happen if no male contender of equal rank was living.
The Black Death
The Black Death- a plague spread by rats- killed between 30 and 60% of Europe's population in the fourteenth century,
The shortage of men meant that many women stepped up to fill traditional male roles. This also happened in World Wars 1 and 2 when so many men were away fighting.
For women who were more interested in a career than motherhood, the Black Death was a great opertunity for advancement. The Black Death is also credited with liberating male skilled workers who could sell their labor freely in a buyer's market rather than being tied to a feudal lord as serfs,
Medieval Women portrayed in Paintings of the Time
The way that artists portray women can tell you a lot about how the attitudes and values of a society.
During the medieval period, ordinary women receive little attention- but then so do ordinary men.
When ordinary women are portrayed they are usually shown as modest and unassuming, Often their hair and even their faces are partly hidden by scarves or veils.
In paintings towards the end of the medieval period and certainly in the early Rennaisance, women tend to be shown as entirely wicked and seductive Eves or entirely virtuous and caring Madonnas with few shades of gray.
A student essay with something to say for itself: TheMedievalWoman.doc
Some Major Writers on Medieval Women
Medieval Women, Cambridge University Press 1995. An accessible, engaging and brief history from one of the most well respected historians : Eileen Power. Browse here :google/books
A classic and hugely influential study: English Social History by G.M Trevelyan
One of the Biggest Resources Online concerning Medieval Women with a section of Links to the lives of Powerful and Successful Individulas.
Dozens of links to medieval studies resources can be found here: medieval women
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