Medieval Women, by Chris Trueman BA
Medieval England was not a comfortable place for most women. Medieval women invariably had a hard time in an era when many men lived harsh lives. A few women lived comfortable lives but Medieval society was completely dominated by men and women had to know ‘their place’ in such a society
Medieval society would have been very traditional. Women had little or no role to play within the country at large. Within towns, society would have effectively dictated what jobs a woman could do and her role in a medieval village would have been to support her husband. As well as doing her daily work, whether in a town or village, a woman would have had many responsibilities with regards to her family.
Within a village, women would have done many of the tasks men did on the land. However, they were paid less for doing the same job. Documents from Medieval England relating to what the common person did are rare, but some do exist which examine what villages did. For reaping, a man could get 8 pence a day. For the same task, women would get 5 pence. For hay making, men would earn 6 pence a day while women got 4 pence. In a male dominated society, no woman would openly complain about this disparity.
About 90% of all women lived in rural areas and were therefore involved in some form of farm work.
In medieval towns, women would have found it difficult to advance into a trade as medieval guilds frequently barred women from joining them. Therefore, a skilled job as recognized by a guild was usually out of reach for any woman living in a town. Within towns, women were usually allowed to do work that involved some form of clothes making but little else.
For many women, a life as a servant for the rich was all they could hope for. Such work was demanding and poorly rewarded.
The law, set by men, also greatly limited the freedom of women. Women were
not allowed to marry without their parents’ consent
could own no business with special permission
not allowed to divorce their husbands
could not own property of any kind unless they were widows
could not inherit land from their parents’ if they had any surviving brothers
Many women from rich backgrounds would have married when they were teenagers. Medieval society had a different outlook to children when compared to today. Children from poor families would have worked from the earliest age possible and they were treated as adults from the age of ten or eleven. Many girls from poor families did not get married until they were in their twenties.
Girls from richer families tended to marry earlier than girls from poor families. The poorer families needed as many working for them as was possible, so a daughter getting married at an early age would have deprived them of a worker. This was not true for a rich family. Girls had no choice over who they married and many girls from rich families were usually married to someone as a political gesture or because it was an advantage to the girl’s family itself – as opposed to what the girl herself wanted. Once married, the young lady came under the control of her husband.
Producing a male heir within a rich family was considered vital. So many women spent a great deal of their married life pregnant. However, childbirth was dangerous as medical care was so poor. It is thought that as many as 20% of all women died in childbirth and it was the most common cause of death among young women.
Wives from a rich family usually did not look after their children. This was done by a wet nurse. Women from a poor family not only had to look after the children but had to continue doing her day-to-day work both in the home and on the land. Many women from poor families did not live past the age of forty.
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