Women in the Middle Ages: The Hidden Half of History
Medieval women faced societal norms and childbirth risks, yet their enduring strength and resilience shone through in daily life.
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Being a woman in the Middle Ages was not easy. The social norms dictated that she stayed inside her household most of the time. Legal criteria varied across Europe, but most of them stated that a woman is not sui juris – she needed a legal custodian in all transactions. The Church considered women weak and sinful; men wrote the philosophy of the time. The Middle Ages were rough, criminality was high, and those who wanted to stay safe had to rely on brute force, which is lacking in most women.
To make things even worse, medieval medicine knew nothing about the importance of hygiene, was impotent in healing diseases, and could not deal with complications during childbirth. The result was a high mortality rate of women concerning birth, miscarriages, and the postpartum period. And the high mortality among children did not help either.
In most periods throughout history, being a woman was tough. Social norms usually preferred men; non-existent contraception meant women had to stay home with multiple pregnancies. The fact that women bore children indicated that they had to be protected, and their honor had to be protected at all costs. While men’s infidelity was usually tolerated, even implied infidelity on a woman’s part endangered the continuity of other family pedigrees in pre-industrial society. Before the invention of firearms, there was no means to equal men’s physical strength; no weapon or skill could do that. The criminality rate was usually higher than today, and foreign attacks constantly threatened settlements outside city walls.
That means that women had to remain at home or go out in society of the stronger men. This was the reality that women lived in, and various civilizations invented their ideology to support the narrative of a subordinate position of women. In the Middle Ages, the Church dictated the terms, but the medieval cleric’s view on femininity evolved through time and stood on firm foundations laid down in antiquity.
While in antiquity, the women’s position was fixed chiefly by law and morals, religion was the primary determinant in the Middle Ages. However, Christianity’s view on women varied throughout history. In the 1st century, women enjoyed specific stations, following the biblical examples in which many women followed Jesus and were part of many stories and miracles. Christianity in antiquity also portrayed a more liberal view of women’s role in society.
Yet, antique philosophers like Plato or Aristotle gained influence in the classical Church, and thus, their critical view on women’s morals and abilities entered Christian philosophy.
When Christianity spread outside Rome in Europe, monasteries carried the classical education, cherished it, and spread it. Monks within these monasteries studied and admired Platon and Aristotle and accepted the view on women. Later on, the church fathers incorporated sinful and lustful women into the official Christian ideology. The Germanic and Slavic tribes that took Christianity in the early Middle Ages would not argue. Because of the militant culture based on brute force and the power of arms, women enjoyed even lower positions than in classical Roman cities.
Germanic tribes resented Christianity’s position on polygamy and beating disobedient wives, and the Church had to work hard to replace these brutal practices with something else. The new ideology was this: A woman is a child of God, as is man, so man is not allowed to kill her (and can have only one woman as wife). However, a woman is a lesser human being and needs a man’s guidance and protection.
That view spread in the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution disturbed the waters.
The Bible begins the story of humankind with two persons, Adam and Eve. Both are God’s creation, yet one had to be first. And Eve was the first to succumb to the seduction of the Serpent. She was the first sinner, introduced sin into the world and to Adam. Eve’s deed could be redeemed and was in Christian eyes by the one without sin, the holy Mary, who brought the Saviour into the world. So, for women to be seen as worthy, they had to be like Mary: calm, humble, accepting the will of others, and, first of all, chaste. The clerics liked to write about the nature of women, about their emotionality and sensibility. That made women weak in their eyes, and as Eve could not resist Satan, all women were supposed to be unable to resist temptation.
Furthermore, Eve tasted the apple out of curiosity, and women asked too many questions; they were supposed to be curious like Eve, like children, and had to be protected from their whims. But as medieval morality connected sin with sexuality, Eve’s original sin was presented in sexual terms, as well. This view on women as susceptible to sexual temptation agreed with the description of Greek philosophers like Plato, who believed that women were obsessed with making children.
Historians believe that the times when some norms are most written about are the times when they are most endangered. In the high Middle Ages, much ink was used to describe the negative qualities of women. It makes sense. The 13th and 14th centuries (before the crisis and plague struck) were times of relative prosperity. Commerce flourished in the cities, the birth rate in Europe grew, the population was healthier and stronger, and people were interested in education. This improved the position of all social spheres, including women. Knights fought in the names of splendidly dressed noble ladies, women in cities often worked in the family shops, noble ladies and abysses even ruled, and their rule was accepted. More women than ever before since old Rome had fallen could read. The social order saying that women need to stay put down felt threatened. Thus the emergence of misogynist writing in the high Middle-Ages.
Did the theological theories about the nature of femininity influence real-life mothers, daughters, and wives? It did, but only to a certain extent. We must remember that most people in the Middle Ages could not read them and had to deal with the reality of their lives. And in their lives, women played important roles. They took care of the whole household, prepared food for the family, and, in wealthier families, kept accounts. But most of all, women raised children. So, the position of women varied through social classes.
The noble women represented the family and the house. Their sole purpose was to ascertain the continuity of the noble house. They were treated as such. Their subjugation to their fathers and brothers and later husbands was complete. The town women’s position depended on their family income. Still, wives and daughters of businessmen and craftsmen usually helped with the family business, kept accounts, stepped in the transactions, and dealt with men from outside the family daily. Village women could have a decisive role in their families. It was no exception that when a violent husband beat a wife, the rest of the village community backed her up, something the noble women could only dream of. But women of all social classes suffered in one aspect the same.
Why did women die in childbirth so often? What changed? Medicine changed. Today, women no longer die in childbirth because doctors can solve and foresee complications. We might not realize that, but complications like the wrong position of a fetus, too long labor, bleeding after birth, or children suffocating with a naval cord are common today. But they rarely end in a disaster because, for obstetricians today, they have become routine acts. And there is always a cesarean when things go wrong. And antibiotics for mother and child. And operation on the child when needed. And an incubator for children born too soon. So much can, and often does, go wrong when children come into this world.
Without modern medicine, all that happens today and ends up in smiles and tears of joy resulted in death and suffering in the Middle Ages. No matter what social class women were in. Then there was the hygiene. Many women died a few weeks after birth due to infections that we know today to help avoid in the postpartum period. Babies are considered frail today, but we have vaccination, hygiene, and medicine when they get sick. The probability that a mother sees all her children into adulthood is very low, and we can only imagine the constant fear and torment mothers felt all the time.
There was no contraception. Thus, women were pregnant all the time. Frequent childbirths exhausted their bodies and resulted in shorter lives. The Church tried to help women in this respect because, on certain days of celebrations (including Sunday), sex was forbidden. Also, during the postpartum period, all those six weeks, sex was unclean and thus banned. As in this period, intercourse is very risky due to the high risk of infection; this prescription might have saved many lives. Yet, these norms were rarely kept.
Did social class matter when it came to the pains of a mother? It did, but the noble women’s case was worse than that of the lower classes. First of all, the poorer the girl was, the later she entered marriage because it was harder for her to get a dowry. Thus, she could become pregnant as an adult woman, which heightened her survival chances. On the contrary, the noblewomen married very young and could become pregnant as soon as at the age of twelve. Those radical examples were rare, but even fifteen is a young age for a mother. Village women enjoyed better nutrition because meat was scarce, but fruits and vegetables were always available. They worked outside and were in better physical condition. Noble women lived inside, spent their days weaving and waiting, and ate more meat and less vegetables.
On the other hand, when famine struck, the noble women survived. When food was scarce, the nutrition of the lower classes suffered, while the aristocracy had plenty of food. But the combination of a young mother, unused to physical activity with inadequate nutrition, was a recipe for a disaster. And finally, village women had to work. Men often avoided intercourse or used natural contraception because they realized the family could not afford another child or pregnancy. The noblewoman’s only purpose was to bear children. Thus, the sooner she got pregnant after childbirth, the better. And when she died, another woman took her place. While in the village, when a mother and a housekeeper died, the man had to find a means to take care of the family, and getting another wife was not such an easy task.
Being a woman in the Middle Ages was tough. But on the other hand, being a human of any gender was challenging in the pre-industrial society. Let us be grateful for the luxuries we enjoy as we read and remember.