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Stephen Conway

1991

Silent Voices: Women in the Middle Ages

 

The history of the Middle Ages is generally known through the recorded accomplishments of wealthy aristocratic men. The rigidly stratified social structure allowed little or no chance for advancement, especially for the very poor. Therefore, the voice of the poverty stricken masses goes unheard or is simply drowned out by the ruling class. However, beyond even the discontented whisper of the poor, another voice without even a breath to push it yearns to be heard. This is a voice that would ultimately help to integrate medieval society and help to establish a more civilized culture in Britain. No louder than a whisper, this is the voice of women. It is a silent cry whose importance was underestimated and undervalued both economically and socially.

     Women were valued in the Middle Ages, but only as an economic commodity (Mundy 212). They served two main functions within medieval society: child bearer and manual laborer. Because women represented a large source of cheap labor, they quickly became the mainstay of the medieval economy. In many cases they would work along side men in the fields. However, women were paid less than children's wages for their work (Cipolla 234). The Church would not allow women to hold jobs that required literacy (Mundy 209). In fact, aside from hard labor the only occupation open to women was midwifery. "In hospital work women were almost as important as men" (Mundy 210). The textile industry was dominated by women, especially the woolen and silk industries (Cipolla 200). Though women enjoyed virtual domination in these crafts, they were still paid next to nothing. In addition to the intense labor, women had household duties to fulfill, especially if a woman was married (Cipolla 266). The invention of the flour mill brought women a time and labor saving device. With the flour mills, however, came taxes. Therefore, a woman gained time but lost 6.67% of the grain with which to feed her family in taxes (Cipolla 234). This trend of exploiting women economically continued to push women into the depths of the "culture of hopelessness" (Cipolla 266).

As the guilds began to assert their control over the bulk of skilled labor, wealthy aristocrats started hiring individual women and paying them in advance. The textile industry provided the largest amount of individual patronage. High skill was thus rewarded with economic improvement (Cipolla 266). Therefore it is conceivable that by Chaucer's time women were managing to irk out a meager existence for themselves and possibly even for a family. The undaunted marital entrepreneur in “The Canterbury Tales”, The Wife of Bath, may have been based on a such a hard working semi-independent woman. "In the words pf the Wife of Bath, God has given women three talents- deceit, weeping, and spinning" (Power 118). The slight rise in economic power of women affected the structure of the guilds as well. In Cologne, women and men shared the same rights and privileges in the turners guild. More importantly, women in general gained a limited political voice through their representation in guilds.

  "Women can be found in many other trades working on

  their own. That they played an important rule in the

          ethic of hopeful thrift in many religious

          fraternities that doubled as benefit societies is a

          certainty" (Cipolla 266).

 

An accurate measure of the female population is difficult if not impossible to attain. Population records did not, for the most part, include women, which says something about their status in medieval society. Some general conclusions, however, can be drawn (Cipolla 44). Aside from laboring, a women's main responsibility was to bear children. This was of extreme importance in rural communities. Children meant more workers for the farm. Women were simply baby machines. Trial marriages were set up in most rural communities to pair up the most fertile couples (Mundy 212). Both mother and child were in serious jeopardy during the birth and the following crucial years. Infant mortality rate is know to be appallingly high throughout the Middle Ages. The physical strain of childbearing, coupled with the intense labor and poor sanitary conditions made life harsh, cruel, and short for mast women. Where most men during this time died between the ages of forty and sixty, most women died between the ages of twenty and forty (Cipolla 45).

Among the gentry women were not necessarily chosen for their child bearing abilities. Rather, women were valued for their dowries which usually consisted of land or monetary wealth. These women tended to live slightly longer because they were not constantly subjected to the rigors of childbearing or hard labor (Mundy 208). These women were faced with the distinct possibility of widowhood, because most noblemen waited until their mid-forties to marry. Widowhood would provide women with a tool to help re-evaluate and change their role in society (Mundy 218).

     Medieval society, however, was hardly unified in its treatment of women. Ironically, the ideology accepted at the time stressed the equality of men and women (Mundy 207).  This is apparent in the love literature of the period. Even the Church, with  its reverence of the

Virgin, held to an idyllic vision of equality if not female

superiority in some ways (Mundy 211). Unfortunately, as is often the case, there was a large discrepancy between these theories and ideals and the harsh realities of medieval society.

     Marriages, though not particularly popular in general, were seen simply as economic ventures. Women were valued for their dowries, which sent many aristocrats scrambling to strike a deal with wealthy men with daughters. Among the peasants, women had to have their feudal lord's permission in order to marry (Mundy 212). A woman, once her dowry was gained, became an almost useless commodity for most men.

Wives often toiled in the fields and the kitchen simply to earn their keep. Wife beating was common and even socially accepted. The Church supported this barbaric practice. In a theological dictionary of the time Nicholas Byard states,

"A man may chastise his wife and beat her for her own correction; for she is of his household, and therefore the

lord may chastise his own” (Coulton 615). Often times livestock received better treatment than a man's wife because a man could lose profit from his livestock. The safety of a wife, therefore, often depended upon her ability to please her husband (St. Bernardino 224).

     Indeed, a wife's two main goals were the salvation of her soul and the comfort of her husband (Power 99). Though many conflicts arose from the vast age difference between husband and wife, the chief duty of a wife was to make the last years of her husband's life good ones (Power 97).Men often wrote treatises or manuals describing the duties of a wife in detail (Mundy 213). The Menagier de Paris wrote such a book for his young bride in the fourteenth century (1392-94). It has been an invaluable source of insight into the daily lives of women as well as men's attitudes toward women(Power 119). When describing the ideal qualities of a wife the Menagier states,

 

"She is to be loving, humble, obedient, careful, thoughtful for his person, silent regarding his secrets, and patient if he be foolish and allow his heart to stray to other women” (Power 99).

 

Total submission was expected and given (Mundy 213). Above all others, patience was the virtue women struggled to practice every day (Power 103).

     Marital fidelity highlights one of the many hypocrisies of medieval society. Infidelity among men was tolerated and wives were told to look the other way, while female infidelity was grounds for divorce (though technically it did no exist yet) or even worse punishments (Coulton 636). Men of higher social status could even use their wives as sexual bribes to further their political careers (Mundy 217). No attempt was made to conceal this blatant double standard.

          "Everywhere bastards were common, and rape hardly

          less so; in England, harsh penalties confronted the

          noble 'who covers a maid without her thanks', but

          legal severity did nothing to end the practice”

          (Wood 121).

 

     Widowhood was the saving grace of most unhappy marriages in the Middle Ages. Widowhood gave women their husband's lands and authority. Even though women were the childbearers and rearers, only when widowed did women have a role in the inheritance of land.(Mundy 211).Women could then inherit and bequeath land but could not sit in Parliament (Coulton 617). The rights of widows are even discussed in the Magna Carta. It declares that widows did not need to marry again if they did not want to (Cipolla 59). It is fair to say that women gained not only wealth but freedom as a result of their husbands' deaths.

     Where the husband's and employer's power over women was practical, the clergy's was spiritual. These two worlds were in constant conflict (Mundy 223). Women flocked to the Church. They turned to religion for consolation and solace (Wood 56). More women attended mass, more confessed, they were the true keepers of the faith (Mundy 223). Women provided the Church with a source of cohesion (Mundy 209). Their fierce and desperate faith would lay the groundwork for the growing dominance of the Church in medieval

Society (Wood 56).

     The Church, however, was two-faced when dealing with women. Women were the mainstay of each parish, yet the clergy constantly reinforced the concept of women as inferior creatures. Because women were weaker in the Church's eyes, it was easier for them to succumb to their

sinful desires (Mundy 222). Women were "natural traitors", deceitful and treacherous gossip mongers (Mundy 214). The Church portrayed women as slaves to vanity.

 

          "Ye, women, ye have bowels of compassion, and ye go

       to church more readily than men, and ye pray more

          readily than men. ..and many of you would be saved

          but for his [Satan's) one snare which is called vain

          glory and empty honour"(von Regensburg 64).

 

The Church's view of marriage reflected a belief in female

inferiority. According to a priest of the time, Mahieu, marriage was to be avoided at all costs.

          “Mahieu asked the Lord: your daughter Eve betrayed

          you; can you imagine what your wife would have done?

       In short the law is unfair: the Lord ordained what

       he dare not try himself" (Mundy 214).

 

Jovinian, another priest, warns men not to be swayed by a woman's beauty (or lack thereof) when choosing a wife.

"A fair woman is easily loved, a foul woman easily falls into concupiscence. It is hard to keep a thing that men covet; it is burdensome to possess that which no man deigneth to love” (Jovinian 24). Yet because of all their supposed faults, a woman's resistance to sinful desires became all the more virtuous. Thus the high praise and worship of virginity developed out of the Church's dual but divided treatment of women (Mundy 222).

     The relationship between love, sex, women, and the Church was a source of great controversy throughout the Middle Ages. Sexual and spiritual love were linked to the clergy. Once again, however, theory and common practice contradicted each other. This contradiction was the main source of the conflict. As stated earlier adultery was commonplace. Men and women did have sex and/or fall in love with people other than their spouses.

          “Lovers -though perfect in their moral and physical

          beauty- are obliged by their adulterous love to

          violate all canons of society: marriage, friendship,

          family, and loyalty to the Church and state"

          (Mundy 221).

 

Women could often gain power by exploiting this conflict between the practices of the laboring society and the policies of the clergy (Mundy 223).

     The Church did provide women with a viable alternative to the life of a common laboring peasant: the convent (Mundy 209). The nunnery was often the choice of a father with several daughters. Rather than waste time and money searching for a suitable husband, many lazy fathers simply placed their girls in a nunnery and married them to the Church.

          "Because girls counted as grown up when they were

          fifteen in the Middle Ages, they could be married

          out of hand at twelve and they could be come nuns

          for life at fourteen” (Power 78).

 

Upon entering a nunnery, a girl was considered dead to the world; she lost all rights of inheritance; she became the property of the Church. This inability to collect inheritance was another ulterior motive for stingy fathers (Power 79).

     Convents did, however, enjoy a relative amount of self

government. This was one of the few places where women held positions of authority (Power 77). The clergy's preoccupation with virginity made nuns bastions of virginity. Nuns saw themselves as protectors of something cherished and sacred (St. Jerome 15). They were taught to

fear men. "Flee from men also.. .the subtle foe hath many stratagems of war" (St. Jerome 16-17). Nuns were completely isolated. Their spiritual duties became their entire existence. Thus the doctrine of simplicity was instituted: the less the nuns knew the better. Though nunneries provided the only source of education for women, the knowledge the nuns were provided with was carefully screened by the Church hierarchy. The Church saw simplicity as a metaphoric extension of virginity, a sort of mental innocence (Caesarius 52-53). Rules of strict discipline (written by men of course) were also in effect. These rules covered the etiquette of a devout nun including topics such as laughing, standing, sitting, speaking, and looking at men (Aungier 320).

     By Chaucer's time monastic houses were used more as an economic escape than a spiritual office. In fact, many nuns may not have been able to understand the sermons which were in Latin (Powers 8l).The heavy economic responsibility of the medieval marital system was a major factor in the decline of monastic houses. Nunneries were slowly introduced to worldiness.

          "It was the view of Authority that the Devil

          dispatched 3 lesser D's to be the damnation of nuns,

          those were Dances, Dresses, and Dogs”(Powers 86).

 

The Prioress in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a shining example of not only this decline in spirituality, but is also a rare glimpse of a woman with a position of authority in medieval society. The Prioress found delight in fancy clothing, jewelry, and little dogs. A worldly nun to be sure, but an interesting human character rather than a dull stultified figure meekly quoting scripture (Power 8l).The Prioress is Chaucer. testimony to both the strength of medieval women and the talent of Chaucer.

     Very few options were available to women in the Middle Ages.  While young, the allure and power of sex gave women some freedom, and widowhood could provide a young bride with power over her husband's estate (Mundy 2l6). A third, equally viable option was the convent, especially as it became less strict and more worldly.(Power 78).Only the advent of courtly love brought broad improvement for the

status of women (Wood l07). While the majority of men were fighting crusades in the Holy Land, women were making significant alterations in culture and society. A sense of cultural coherence was achieved by this feminine influence. Unbridled and sometimes violent passions were now controlled by chivalric codes which taught restraint. Women in the higher levels of society were now worshipped. This was an ironic and almost unbelievable difference from the backbreaking life of the common woman in medieval society. Courtly love did little, however, to improve the plight of poor women (Wood 107). These women were doomed

to live their lives trapped in castles or the surrounding villages.

 

"For better or worse, this was the woman's domain. Here she bore her children, not infrequently dying in the process. Here she awaited the return of husband and sons from battle, with what mixture of emotions is hard to say. Here, in short, she spent her days in an endless monotonous round of needlework, child rearing, and supervision of domestic labours from which only death -or in widowhood or the convent- could provide release"(Wood 56).

 

The contribution of women to medieval society, though underestimated and undervalued at the time and for years to come, has not and will not be forgotten. Their voices will be heard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Aungier, G.J. untitled. Rpt. in Life in the Middle Ages.

     Ed. Coulton, G.G. Cambridge: University Press, 1954,

     vol.4. p. 320.

 

Caesarius of Heisterbach. Dialogus Miraculorum. London:

     Routledge & Co., 1929. Rpt in Life in the Middle Ages.

     Ed. Coulton, G.G. Cambridge: University Press, 1954,

     vol. 1. p.52,53.

 

Cipolla, Carlo M. Ed. The Fontana__Economic History of

     Europe. Glasgow: William Collins Son & Co., 1981. p.

     44,45,59,200,234,250,266.

 

Coul ton, G. G. Medieval Panorama. Cambridge:University

     Press,1938.p.615,617,636.

 

Jovinian. Adv. Jovinianum. Ed. J. Martianay, 1706, vol. 4,

     col. 189. Rpt in Life in the Middle Ages. Ed. Coulton,

     G.G. Cambridge: University Press, 1954, vol. 4. p.24.

 

Mundy, John H. Europe in the High Middle Ages. London:

     Longman Group Ltd., 1980. p.207-223.

 

Power, Eileen. Medieval People. Suffolk: Methuen & Co.,

     1970. p. 77-79,81,86,91,96,97,99,100-103,117.

 

St. Bernardino. Extracts from Sermons 18-22, "Thou shalt

     love thy neighbor as thyself."(Luke X,27). Rpt in Life

     in the Middle Ages Ed. Coulton, G.G. Cambridge:

     University Press, 1954, vol. 3. p. 222,224.

 

St. Jerome. "Letter to Eustochium". Rpt in Life in the

     Middle Ages. Ed. Coulton, G.G. Cambridge: University

     Press, 1954, vol. 4. p.15-17.

 

von Regensburg, Berthold. Sermons 242,253,397,408. Vienna:

     Franz Pfriffa, 1862, vol. 1&2. Rpt in Life in the

     Middle Ages. Ed. Coulton, G.G. Cambridge: University

     Press, 1954, vol. 3. p. 64.

 

Wood, Charles T. The Age of Chivalry. London: Weidenfield

     and Nicholson, 1970. p.56,lO7,121.