Feme Uncovered: The Experience of Medieval Women

Inspired by Women’s History Month, Stephanie Brown explores the range of experiences faced by medieval women…

Notions inherited from classical times put medieval women at a disadvantage. Aristotelian thought deemed men as superior to women because in nature the male dominates the female. Galen found a medical basis for this view stating that women have an abundance of cold and wet humours, Black Bile and Phlegm, meaning that they were weaker and had less capacity for reason. Lastly, Pandora, the woman who carried out the forbidden and unleashed suffering onto the world, survives in the Middle Ages as Eve. Despite the rise of the Cult of Mary in the 1400s, most women’s lives did not improve. Instead they were now compared to the seemingly impossible, a mother and a virgin. Men, on the other hand, had Jesus as a role model, a man who angrily turned over tables in a temple, was arrested and sentenced to death.

Given the above, it could be argued that it is sufficient to compare medieval men and women and to conclude that women encountered worse experiences. Yet the experiences of medieval women varied enormously by social ‘class’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, noblewomen frequently had the better experiences, with them regularly running estates in partnership with their husbands and having a higher standard of education.

The Cult of Mary did assist noblewomen by giving them a new role. Just as you would pray to Mary for God to help you, people would see the Queen or Lady of the Manor as a more sympathetic route to her husband. Noblewomen developed the formal function of hearing petitions, then approaching their husbands with the plea if they were convinced. Additionally, the court of Richard II was filled with women, as well as him being the first king to make a woman a duchess in her own right. Despite this, noblewomen were still limited by their gender. Coverture, from ‘feme covert’, literally meaning ‘covered woman’, stated that married women could not buy anything without their husband’s permission, own property or represent themselves in court.

Peasant and townswomen were less affected by coverture as it was impractical and more difficult to enforce. However, peasant women were the hardest working. This is evidenced by skeletons found at Wharram Percy, showing that the peasant women here were more muscular and bigger boned than the townswomen. Peasant women worked for half to two-thirds of the pay that men received. They also had the double burden of domestic duties and childcare, on top of their days work on the land. Furthermore, if peasant women could not afford a dowry they were often forced into towns to find work in order to save.

Although, towns could be a hostile environment for women, particularly for those migrating from the countryside with no education or money. Few guilds permitted female members therefore skilled work was usually not an option. Due to this, migrant townswomen were more likely to be drawn into criminal activity such as theft and prostitution. After the Black Death, when women were entering towns looking for opportunities, women were even beginning to be fined for being a ‘common scold’ or a ‘gossip’.

While exceptional individuals are known to us, the lives of most ordinary women were too insignificant to be recorded. With this in mind, it is important to remember that while medieval women were commonly worse off than their male counterparts, their experiences and issues varied drastically according to their social class and individual circumstances.

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