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“What is better than wisdom? Woman. And what is better than a good woman? Nothing.”
Life changed a great deal for women during the Middle Ages. Prior to the Norman invasion of England in 1066, many women were landowners, something which, as we’ll see, becomes very rare.[i] But another more significant occurrence took place during the Middle Ages, one which fundamentally altered the lives of women forever: the rise of the Church.
The Christian faith during medieval times had a very warped perception of women, and that’s putting it mildly. For example, Canon (church) law defined a woman as ‘a sort of infant’.[ii] It was also legal for a man to beat his wife if he considered her lazy or disobedient.[iii] These were genuine laws made by the Church. Love thy neighbour my arse.
You may be wondering what the fuck the Christian Church was playing at. A lot of people believed in the words of the Bible. It was like people today reading the Daily Mail and accepting it as gospel. So when you have stories such as Adam and Eve in which Eve is blamed for the origin of human sin, fanatics begin to get ideas. And the Church was dominated by males who chose a life of celibacy. Bitter bastards.
But women believed in the Bible too and that led to them thinking, tragically, that this was how God intended their lives to be, as a sort of punishment.[iv]
The rise of the Church reduced the majority of women to three societal statuses: Maiden, Wife, and Widow.[v] A woman’s life during each phase was very different, both in the rights they enjoyed and those they did not. Let’s delve deeper.
The term ‘maiden’ essentially means a young or unmarried woman. It also refers to virginity, which for medieval Church writers was highly prized.[vi]
From birth, most women found themselves under the control of a man. For a girl, it was her father.[vii] A poem called Piers Plowman by William Langland, written sometime between 1370 and 1390 gives us an indication of the relationship between father and daughter:
“And he bade Mr Bett cut himself some birch-rods, and beat his daughter Betty till she was willing to work.”[viii]
The Church taught girls to be meek and obedient to their fathers, and later in life, their husbands.[ix] This was how the Virgin Mary was perceived in the Bible.
Children, girls and boys, grew up fast in the Middle Ages. French historian Philippe Aries argued that children were considered ‘little adults’.[x] The Church regarded a seven-year-old was an adult. This, they said, was the age of reason, when a child could commit sin.[xi] When they were big enough, most children were apprenticed in the trade of the family or if a peasant, worked in the fields. One common job for unmarried women was spinning—using hand-held spindles to make clothes. This is where the term ‘spinster’ originates. School wasn’t an option for many.
Canon law dictated the minimum age for marriage for a girl was twelve, and for boys, fourteen.[xii] This was different for nobles who made up their own rules. Most women living in rural areas married in their early twenties with age differences between husband and wife quite significant (men being older). For those women living in towns and cities, the average age of marriage was closer to the mid-twenty mark and the age gap narrower. These were considered the prime years for child-bearing, another thing encouraged by the Church.[xiii]
Women didn’t have to get married, though. There was another choice: join the Church as a nun. A thrilling option. But at nunneries, a woman could receive the best education available. This was not a route commonly taken and most women ended up getting married.
Many factors pressurised women to marry, but two stand out. The first is the Church, for obvious reasons. The second boils down to extremely poor medical knowledge passed down by the third-century Greek surgeon, physician, and writer, Galen of Pergamon.
Galen said—and people believed this for well over a thousand years—that women’s wombs are cold and need constant warming by hot male sperm.[xiv] It was therefore believed that women had a physical need to have sex and marriage was an essential part of achieving that. Men thought women were gagging for it, and women thought their wombs would stop working. Fucked up or what?
When a woman married she gave up all of her property to her husband.[xv] How the marriage panned out was a matter of luck. What the very harsh-sounding laws tell us may not reflect the reality. Many husbands were devoted and loving, and in many surviving wills, husbands name their wives as executors.[xvi]
But as we mentioned before, a man could legally beat his wife. She did have legal recourse if he beat her too much, with a court forcing him to mend his ways.[xvii] Violent beatings were all too common, unfortunately. It became such a problem that in the fourteenth century, a saint named Wilgefortis emerged who was said to watch out for wives of abusive husbands.[xviii]
Depending on the job of their husband, most women worked and got paid, though less than men. Centuries on and we still can’t fix this. If living rurally they could find work planting, winnowing, weeding, and tending to animals like chickens and cows, as well as raising their children. If living in towns they often supported their husbands in their trades or worked in textiles. Women running alehouses was quite common too.
Divorce was not an option for women unless they could show they ought not to have married in the first place, which wasn’t straightforward.[xix] Another ground for separation was impotence, though it had to be proven. Reports exist of authorities testing the husband’s ability to get an erection by exposing him to other women.[xx]
It wasn’t uncommon for two married couples to live under the same roof. These married ‘units’ were often organised around brothers. Evidence of this comes from the court rolls dating back to the 1350s.[xxi]
For aristocratic women and those belonging to powerful and influential families, marriage served more as a business deal, creating alliances or increasing wealth.[xxii]
For many women, the chances of a marriage lasting a long time were not very high.
With men having to go off to fight in wars, women were left to run the household in their stead. Many died on the battlefield, so a lot of women found themselves as widows, even at young ages.
Higher-status women could inherit land off their deceased husbands and there’s evidence of those in towns inheriting their husbands’ businesses and trades after they died. Margaret Russell of Coventry, England, is a good example of a widow who became a very wealthy international trader.[xxiii]
Widows were particularly prominent in town trade, mostly selling food, drink, and clothing. In some towns in the latter end of the Middle Ages, widows accounted for twenty percent of heads of households.[xxiv]
But it was not all good news for widowed women. Many fell into dire poverty and struggled to make ends meet for themselves and family. And being a widow meant that you were back on the market, so to speak. If a woman had inherited wealth from her deceased husband, it made her a target for seduction. To escape this, some women entered nunneries.[xxv]
How can you apply this to fantasy?
The medieval setting is a popular one for fantasy stories so having an idea of what things were really like is always helpful.
It’s also an illuminating example of how Canon law, or any religious law, can shape attitudes and suppress people in society.
Vin from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books
If your story has a female protagonist, these kinds of suppressive laws are a good source of conflict. In including them in your stories it’s a great way to explore and reflect upon our history. Hopefully shedding light on such gross inequalities and injustices can open people’s eyes to the problems which, five hundred years on, women continue to face today.
[i] Pg.126, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[ii] Pg.127, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[iii] Pg.127, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[iv] Pg. 54, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, I. Mortimer, 2008.
[v] Pg. 53, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, I. Mortimer, 2008.
[vi] Pg.135, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[vii] Pg. 53, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, I. Mortimer, 2008.
[viii] P.62, Piers the Ploughman, translated by J.F. Goodridge, 1966.
[ix] Pg. 22, Medieval Life, A. Langley, 1996.
[x] P.33, Centuries of Childhood: a Social History of Family Life, P. Aries, 1962.
[xi] [xi] Pg.139, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[xii] Pg.130, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[xiii] Pg.137, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[xiv] Pg. 54, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, I. Mortimer, 2008.
[xv] Pg.134, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[xvi] Pg.136, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[xvii] P. 114, Medieval Women, H. Leyser, 1995.
[xviii] Pg. 58, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, I. Mortimer, 2008.
[xix] Pg.131, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[xx] Pg.132, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[xxi] Pp. 3-44 ‘The Myth of the Immutable English Family’, Past and Present, Z. Razi, 1993.
[xxii] Pg.133, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[xxiii] Pg. 56, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, I. Mortimer, 2008.
[xxiv] Pg.136, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
[xxv] Pg.137, Life in the Middle Ages, M. Whittock, 2009.
If you enjoyed this article, why not stay in touch by signing up to my mailing list? Subscribers receive a list of 50 fantasy book reviewers, as well as a copy of This Craft We Call Writing: Volume One, a collection of writing techniques, advice, and guides looking at, amongst others, world-building, writing fight scenes, characterisation, plotting, editing and prose.