Women in the Middle Ages
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The Middle Ages was a period in European history that occurred around the 5th century to the 15th century. During the medieval period, women were socially and economically unappreciated, misjudged and misused. The purpose of this paper is to explore the ideals and beliefs of women in the Middle Ages and analyze how it affects today’s world. Were women satisfied with their lives in the Middle Ages? What were their expectations? Why did the church favor men? How does it affect women’s behavior nowadays? What has changed? I intend to use primary and secondary data to analyze these questions and have a better understanding of the key psychological factors that have changed within time.
The value of women in the Middle Ages was acknowledged as an economical purpose due to the inequality of genders at the time. Women were viewed and perceived as child carriers and laborers. As their daily duty, women were expected to obey and abide by their father, brothers or any other male members of the family. Their views and perspectives were heard and interpreted neither by society nor by their husbands. Therefore, decisions were mainly made by the male in the household, in which women had to comply or they would be penalized. Marriages were arranged, education was rarely offered and accessible, and wages were underpaid for women. The church favored men and widowhood was their only escape to freedom.
The history narrated about the achievements of the Middle Ages people features wealthy men. There was a rigid social stratification that did not allow inclusion of women and the poor in history. The worth of women to the society was undervalued and underestimated socially and economically (Lucas, 2007). Only the role of women as manual laborers and child bearers was acknowledged. Sometimes they worked together with men but would be paid lower wages than children (Fields, 2002). The church was a great oppressor to women since it restricted them to work in literate jobs. Professionally, women could only work as midwifes or as low paid laborers. Women also dominated the silk and textile industries. Though they virtually controlled the crafts, they were paid very insufficient amounts. Married women were expected to perform hard labor and still fulfill hose hold chores and duties (Lucas, 2007). The development of flour mills saved women’s time but led to an increase in the taxes that women were charged. Women therefore lost a substantial amount of the family food to taxes. The continuous exploitation of women pushed them into oblivion and hopelessness.
Evolution of guilds led to improvement of the labor conditions for women. Individual women began being hired by aristocrats and being paid in advance for their work. Highly skilled women in the textile industry enjoyed considerable high pay and patronage (LaBarge, 2010). It is probable that at some point in time, women were able to earn a living to sustain themselves and their families as depicted in the literature from that period. In The Canterbury Tales, the lead female character is portrayed as a semi-independent and hardworking woman. Still women were degraded; in the book the author described women as having three talents of spinning, weeping and deceit. The status of women in guilds improved remarkably. In places like Cologne, women shared similar privileges and rights with men (Fields, 2002).
It is impossible to come up with an accurate estimate about the population of women in the Middle Ages. Women were not included in population records due to their low status in society. The most important duty was bearing children. Children were seen as an increased source of cheap laborer for wealthy aristocratic men. Women were viewed as baby-making machines and marriages were arranged to pair them together with fertile men. The birth process was dangerous for both women and children due to poor conditions (Gies & Gies, 2009). Infant mortality was very high during the period. The extreme pain and strain of child bearing, poor sanitary conditions, and hard labor made life short, cruel, and harsh for most child bearing women. The life expectancy of men was very high and they were likely to die at sixty while the life expectancy of women was very low since most of them die at twenty, while those who lived long enough died at forty.
In the aristocratic classes, women were valued for the mount of dowry they could fetch in terms of monetary gains or land rather than their child bearing capabilities. Such women lived longer because they were not exposed to hard labor or the strenuous child bearing exercise. Aristocratic women were more likely to become widows since most aristocratic men married when they were very old. Widowhood empowered them nod gave them an opportunity to re-evaluate their roles and to help ther women in the society,
There were a lot of discrepancies in ideologies and theories in treatment of women during medieval times. While aristocratic women were only valued for dowry purposes, women from the lower classes could not marry without the permission of the feudal lord (Lucas, 2007). Once the family received the dowry for the aristocratic woman, she became useless to both her husband and her male relatives. Women worked in the kitchen and the fields just for the mere sake of getting by. Domestic violence against women was common and it was widely accepted. The church endorsed wife beating and doctrines from the period, state that wives should be beaten and chastised by the men to correct their mistakes because they were his property. God chastised sinners and men had a similar right with God to chastise sinners over whom they had control (Erler & Kowaleski, 2008).
Most men treated livestock in a better way than they treated women. This was due to the fact that they could obtain benefits and profits from livestock but could never benefit from a wife. The security of a wife depended on how well she could please her husband. The main objectives of a wife were to ensure that the husband enjoyed the maximum degree of comfort and to save her soul by refraining from sinning (Fields, 2002). Most men actually wrote down books which contained the instructions that they expected their wives to follow. For instance, in the fourteenth century, Le Menagier de Paris (The Goodman of Paris) wrote down instructions on what he expected from his young wife. According to the book, wives were expected to be patient, silent, thoughtful, obedient, humble and loving.
If the wife failed to fulfill her duties and obligations, the man would usually stray and start having affairs with other women (LaBarge, 2010). Wives were expected to be totally submissive to their husbands. The people of the Middle Ages exercised a double standard for infidelity. Infidelity among women led to cruel punishment and expulsion from the society while infidelity among men was hailed and tolerated. Aristocratic men could offer their wives to other men as bribes in order to further their political ambitions. Rape was common and socially acceptable but children from illicit unions were labeled as bastards and were highly stigmatized.
Women rejoiced at widow hood and considered it the redeemer of their unhappy lives. Upon the death of the husband, the wife took over the land and property of the husband. Only widows could inherit hand. They could also bequeath the land to people of their choice. Women could not participate in politics and did not have rights to occupy a parliamentary seat (Erler & Kowaleski, 2008). The Magna Carta contained various rights for widows and it provided that they did not have to remarry if they were no longer interested in marriage. The death of the husbands gave women freedom and wealth.
The clergy had a spiritual domination over women. Women attended church in large numbers as they could only obtain solace and consolation from religion since they were prohibited from engaging in other social activities, The strong faith of women in religion played a major role in the growth of the influence and power of the church over the society in the Middle Ages. The church was however spiteful of women (Lucas, 2007). Women were the majority church members but the church continued to indoctrinate the women with the concept that they were inferior and filthy creatures that had led to the fall of man. The church constantly preached that women were more likely to sin because they were weak and could not control their desires. The church considered women to be slaves of vanity, deceit and gossip. The church’s philosophy of marriage portrayed a belief in the inferiority of women. Teachings from a priest of the period revealed that men were advised to avoid marriage to avoid being led onto the path of sin by the daughter of Eve (Lucas, 2007). The Lord Himself refrained from marrying a woman to avoid sin. Women who resisted sin were deemed to be virtuous hence the extreme praise placed on virginity by the church.
The relationship between women, sex, love and the Medieval Church sparked high levels of controversy. Women who managed to exploit the conflict between the church and the society often became powerful. The church gave women who were tired of cheap labor an alternative in the form of convents. The choice to place daughters in convents was made by lazy and bored fathers who felt they could not waste money and time searching for husbands for their daughters (Gies & Gies, 2009). The simple solution was to place the girls in the nunnery in the belief that they were marrying them off to the church. Girls were considered to be fully grown at the age of fifteen so they were marrieed at the age of twelve and could become full nuns at the age of fourteen.
Girls in nunneries were deemed dead by the rest of the medieval society. They became an asset of the church and lost all rights to inherit from their fathers. Fathers who did not want their daughters to inherit property often sent them off to convents. Women in convents enjoyed a relative amount of power and authority. They could hold leadership positions. They were subjected to eternal virginity and were indoctrinated to fear men. Their stay in the convents was characterized by extreme isolation from the rest of the society (LaBarge, 2010). In the Middle Ages, only women in convents could access education. However, the knowledge they received was heavily censored by the church to ensure that they remained mentally innocent so that they could not question the discriminative practices of the church. They were subjected to Draconian discipline and they had rules for looking at men, speaking, sitting, standing, and laughing (Fields, 2007).
The spirituality of nunneries began to decline in the Middle Ages since they were viewed as centers for escape from poverty and as a stable source of economic welfare. Most nuns could not understand the sermons being given in the church at the time because they did not know Latin, which was the official language of the church. The nunneries began to embrace secularism and it was written that dogs, dresses, and dances would bring damnation to the nuns (LaBarge, 2010). This is depicted in medieval literature. In the Canterbury Tales, the Prioress enjoyed the company of dogs, jewelry, and designer clothes. Medieval nuns became empowered and sophisticated and became a reflection of women in leadership. Class differences played a big role in medieval society. Poor women were doomed to poverty and cheap labor for the rest of their lives. Aristocratic women could ascend to positions of power when their husbands went to fight in the war crusades.
The roles of women changed over time during the Middle Ages. Women possessed considerable political and religious power in the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages. Some women went on to become powerful and successful. Joan of Arc is the most renowned woman of the Middle Ages. She successfully led France to victory in war (LaBarge, 2010). The war crusades of the holy land put some women in positions of political power. Eleanor of Aquitaine became a powerful Countess and Duchess at the tender age of fifteen. Isabella 1 ruled the Kingdom of Aragon in conjunction with her husband. Prominent female writers such as Christine de Pizan emerged and she vehemently attacked misogyny and the inhumane treatment of women in society (LaBarge, 2010). Hildegard of Bingen earned fame as a linguist, composer, scientist, writer and prophet. She constantly rebelled against the church and it punished her by refusing to canonize her. Her punishment was however light as compared to the extreme punishments other nuns who disobeyed the church were subjected to.
Women enjoyed freedom for only a short time as after the late stage of the Middle Ages; restrictions on female activities were imposed. Sex was considered necessary but immoral outside the context of marriage (Erler & Kowaleski, 2008). Women with medical knowledge could not practice as physicians. The male physicians considered the subject of women’s health to be mysterious. Husbands married virgins as that was the only assurance that the children borne were theirs since there were no paternity tests. The period was characterized by a lot of chivalry and romance in courtship. Prostitution was common in the Middle Ages and there were traditional brothels in major cities. Prostitutes had to dress differently so that they could be distinguished from virtuous women (Gies & Gies, 2009). Women did not get into prostitution out of choice; they did so to supplement the income that they earned from cheap labor (Lucas, 2007). The medieval society applied double standards when dealing with prostitution. It was considered an appropriate sexual relief for men but women who engaged in prostitution were regarded as vile and immoral creatures and were consistently degraded.
Currently, the treatment of women by men and the society has improved a lot from the way it was in the Middle Ages. The feminist movement has led to the liberation of women. Women can own property and have equal rights with men. They can access education and choose to work in the field of the choice. They also earn wages based on the quality of their work though women are yet to attain equal pay with men at the work place. Women can hold political offices and there are several female presidents and parliamentarians in the world. Women have achieved a lot of victories but a lot of measures need to be put in place to end double standards, sexism and misogyny.
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