What was life like for women in the Middle Ages? “Terrible” is the vague, albeit definitive answer that often comes to mind – but this is an assumption, and authors have tackled it with new vigor.
The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on the Role of Women in Society by Eleanor Janega, and The Wife of Bath: A Biography by Marion Turner, both claim that women were not only bawdier but busier than we thought: they were brewers, blacksmiths, court poets, teachers, merchants and craftsmen, and they also owned land. A woman’s dowry, Janega writes, was often accompanied by clear instructions that property remain with her regardless of what her husband wanted.
This feels like a new discovery. Of course it isn’t. Chaucer depicted many such gleefully dominant women. In the parchment letter books of the City of London, in which the goings-on of the capital from 1275 to 1509 was scrawled, female barbers, apothecaries, armourers, shipwrights and tailors are, of course, described. While it is true that aristocratic women were viewed as drastically inferior to their male equivalents – traded as property and kept as ornaments – relatively speaking women of the lower classes lived in a kind of rough and easy empowerment.
It was the Renaissance that greatly reversed women’s rights. As economic power shifted, the emerging middle classes began to emulate their superiors. They locked their wives at home, leaving them at the financial mercy of men. Female religious power also declined. In the 13th century, seeing visions and hearing voices can sanctify a woman; a hundred years later she would probably be burned at the stake.
Why does this feel like new information? Much of what we think we know about the Middle Ages was invented by the Victorians, who had an artistic obsession with the period, and through poetry and endless retellings of the Arthurian myth, they somehow managed to permanently molding their own sexual politics into it. (Victorian women were in many ways more socially downtrodden than their 12th-century ancestors.)
But modern storytellers are also guilty of sexist revisionism. We endlessly renew the lives of downtrodden noblewomen and ignore their secretly empowered sisters of lesser order. Where poorer women are mentioned, they are at a glance bemoaned as prostitutes or rape victims. Even writers desperate for a “feminist take” on the period ignore the angle staring them right in the face. In her 2022 cinematic romp, Catherine called BirdyLena Dunham, for example, puts Sylvia Pankhurst-esque speeches into the mouth of her 13th-century protagonist, while depicting her impending marriage – at the age of 14 – as normal for the period. (In fact, the average 13th-century woman has been married somewhere between 22 and 25 years.)
But we cling to these ideas. It is often those who oppose them who are accused of “historical revisionism”. This is especially true of the fantasy genre, which aside from the odd supernatural “feisty” female character, tends to portray the period as, well, a misogynistic fantasy. The Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin once defended the TV series’ burlesque assault on women on grounds of realism. “I wanted my books to have a strong history and show what medieval society was like.” Oddly, this didn’t apply to female body hair (or the dragons).
This is interesting. Most of our historical biases tend to go the other way: we assume that the past was just like the present. But when it comes to the history of gender relations, the opposite is true: storytellers insist on portraying women as more downtrodden than they actually were.
The casual reader of history gets the vague impression that women went through a kind of dark period of oppression between the Paleolithic and the 19th century. This is believed to have ended sometime around the invention of the light bulb, when the idea of ”gender equality” came into our minds and right-thinking societies started to “discover” female competence: Women could – amazingly – do things that men could do!
In fact, the history of gender relations could more accurately be portrayed as a tug-of-war between the sexes, with women sometimes gaining power and sometimes losing—and the stronger sex opportunistically taking control when it has the means.
For example, in Minoan Crete, women had rights and freedoms similar to men, participating equally in hunting, competitions, and celebrations.
But that era ushered in one of the most patriarchal societies the planet has ever known: Classical Greece, where women had no political rights and were considered “minors”.
Or take hunter-gatherer societies, the source of endless cod evolutionary theories of female inferiority. The discovery of female skeletons carrying hunting paraphernalia has disproved the idea that men hunted alone and women gathered alone—and more recently, anthropologists have challenged the idea that men also had higher status: Women, studies claim, had an equal say in group decisions.
This common bias has had two unfortunate consequences. One is to instill in us the idea that inequality is “natural.” The other is to give us a certain complacency about our own times: that feminist progress is an inevitable consequence of the passage of time. “She was ahead of her time,” we say, when a woman seems unusually powerful. Not necessary.
Remember, two years ago one of the most brutal patriarchies in history was born – women were taken from their schools and workplaces and confined in homes and hijabs. And last year, many women in the US lost one of their fundamental rights: abortion. (Apparently it was pro-lifers, not feminists, who were ahead of their time there.)
Both events were met with shock from liberal quarters: How can women’s rights deteriorate? But that just goes to show that we need to brush up on our history. Another take on medieval women is a good place to start.
Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent
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