Class Structures and Demands of Medieval Women
In the Medieval world there were several different levels of classes. At the top was the high class composed of rich, aristocratic nobility. According to the ideals of courtly love and the cult of chivalry, these ladies were adored and honored - but only in the very highest echelons of society, and there is doubt about how deeply these ideals permeated the actual social structure of the time. In reality the role of a lady had less to do with romance and more to do with the land that they were heir to and dowered with. Marriages were arranged based on land contracts and often took place when she was at a very young age, arranged either by her father or another lord who had similar control over her future. When she was unmarried or widowed she could have full legal control of her land, but when she married the land passed into the hands of her husband for the duration of the marriage, and then afterwards to any children born to them. As a widowed woman she was considered a femme sole, and had more rights legally and privately than a married woman.
High class ladies had a great deal of control over the home - not just the house itself, but the entire estate which in times of her husband's absence was her responsibility to run and protect if needs be. She had to be able to step in and take control of her husband's responsibilities: controlling the money, workers, tenants, legal matters, and all else. At all times her tasks included supervising the many enterprises taking place that helped the estate remain self-sufficient, including the farm and the dairy. A very similar life was led by bourgeois women who, despite their non-noble status, also had households to supervise and similar responsibilities.
The working woman had perhaps a larger role in society than the women of the bourgeois and the aristocracy, in that she directly contributed to the economic life of the medieval world, and unlike her higher-class counterparts her main occupation could not be as a housewife, however extensive that role was during this time. In order to support herself and her family, she had to be involved in a trade. Many worked in domestic service. Others worked in the trade of their husbands, assisting him in his workshop and sometimes carrying on with the business after his death - a circumstance which was allowed for in guild regulations at that time. Sometimes women were able to act as a femme sole, usually as a widow, and were legally responsible for themselves. This is also the case for some married women who chose to conduct a trade separate from her husband's. Laws and regulations in this case stated that the woman was legally a femme sole and that she alone was responsible for her business and her debt - a clause intended to protect her husband from having to pay for her mistakes, but which still gave her some autonomy.
Girls were allowed to apprentice to trades, and there are references in regulations and guild rules pertaining to "sons and daughters" and both boys and girls. In this case a girl could be dowered to be married or to be apprenticed. There were some regulations against women working in certain trades, designed to protect the jobs of the male workers whose jobs could be undercut by women taking lesser wages. It was also rare that women would be officially inducted as members of guilds, although they did the work and their husbands may have been members. There is also little evidence that there were guilds in existence for solely women-oriented crafts.
Another way that women were able to make a living were through bye industries. While men usually worked just one craft and stayed with it forever (as commanded by the guilds who ruled you could only belong to one trade), women were engaged in a variety of activities either as their main source of income or as a supplement to it. They could do spinning, brewing, baking, candlemaking, innkeeping, and working retail. These numerous occupations could be an explanation for why they were not often members of a single guild.
The lowest and largest class women belonged to was the peasant class. In addition to the responsibilities of the home also shared by women of the other classes, peasant women were also expected to share in nearly all of her husband's labor, doing everything from weeding, planting, and sowing to sheep shearing alongside her husband (except, apparently, ploughing). These occupations were the most physically strenuous of all those that women worked in medieval times. Here, too, an unmarried or widowed woman could have holdings of land in her own name, and be responsible for it in the same way that men with holdings were expected to pay for theirs. Because all of this labor was shared equally with her husband, it could be said that there was more equality between men and women in this class than in any other.
The final occupation that a women in medieval times could be involved in, other than marriage or a trade, was to be found in nunneries. Women in nunneries as a rule came from the upper classes, and were expected to bring a dowry with them to give to the nunnery. Nunneries served as an outlet where women who could not or would not find husbands could turn for an occupation, and for opportunities in education, spiritual fulfillment, and renown. They were also available as boarding houses for the wealthy (who paid fees for this) and as boarding schools for children of the upper classes. They also gave alms to the lower classes, and controlled land that employed tenants and workers that were lay people.
In their daily lives nuns were expected to attend the daily devotional services of the Hours, along with doing constructive work and "somber relaxation." Most of these activities were conducted in silence. The nunnery, much like any other land-owning medieval household, had much work that needed to be done and supervised, as well as the running of the nunnery itself. Originally it was the nuns themselves who did a large part of the domestic work, eventually convents that could afford to do so would hire workers to do these things. Nearly all nunneries went through periods of poverty, and some never managed to get out of it, especially as time went on. While the education nuns received was better than what could be found elsewhere, it too began to decline. They still, however, offered opportunities to women to use their skills in an "honorable profession" that was an alternative to a potentially less fulfilling life of marriage.