The Middle Ages was a period in European history between the 5th to 15th centuries. It was heavily characterized by the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Renaissance, large-scale migration, popular revolutions and movements in the Church, the rise of Islam, the Black Death and many other significant events. It is popularly regarded as the Dark Ages due to themes of despair and death. However, what’s often not talked about, like always, is the life of women in this period. Let us take a peek into how it was being a woman through these ages.
Women during these centuries were in the positions of either a baker, brewer, weaver, peasant, artisan or a nun. Some women earned the position of being an abbess or a queen regnant as well. Most of these women’s lives were dictated by the Church’s ideas that women are subordinate to men and can never be their equals. It was held by Christian beliefs that Eve was the first sinner because apparently, she caused humanity to fall. Then came the savior Virgin Mary whose son, Jesus Christ redeemed that fall. As a result, all women were held to be able to reach the perfectionist standards of the Virgin Mary. Because most women were individuals living a normal life and not of some holy saint, they were deemed unworthy of having equal status to men, something which a lot of them fought for constantly.
The Middle Ages were divided into 3 sub-ages: Early, High and Late. Each sub-age saw the collective women’s lives taking a different turn, with each witnessing an increase in the intensity with which women used their voice to fight for themselves. Apart from the Church, the aristocracy was the other factor that influenced the way women lead their lives. It divided the society into various classes- clergy, nobility, and serfs. The clergy restricted women’s position to a nunnery; the nobility was based upon the power and money each woman brought with her marriage and lastly the serfs consisted of women working in the fields with the men. It was mostly these women who were the most fearless to speak up owing to the fact that they had much less to lose than others.
The Early Middle ages saw women being viewed as evil and manipulative temptresses, whose only aim in life was to lure others in her evil schemes. The High Middle Ages, however, was an eye-witness to a different scenario wherein the perception of women improved, owing to the Cult of Mary, which was nothing but a popular belief that Mary was everyone’s savior, so it meant that all women were not as bad and evil as everyone held them to be. This backfired when women couldn’t achieve the high standards of Mary, falling once again to be demonized by society. One important development that the High Middle Ages saw was the middle classes rising in the status quo through better job opportunities available to them. This was a victory for women as now they could be equal partners in trade with their fathers and husbands and could no longer be questioned for their power and authority. Higher-class women still faced the brunt of misogynistic ideas about womanhood and had to restrict themselves to fulfill the homely duties imposed upon them.
If we talk about education, women who didn’t want their lives to revolve around a husband, entered nunnery with hopes of becoming learned and educated, not realizing they were setting themselves up to be disappointed. Many women thus took to expressing through art and literature. The most notable women in the Middle Ages were Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie de Champagne. Along with indulging in arts and literature, Eleanor participated in the Second Crusade, managed her finances and estates and ended up becoming one of the most important political figures in the Middle Ages. Her daughter Marie is said to have helped her mother on the Courts of Love, a set-up developed to discuss romantic love and marriage. These romantic poems challenged the Church’s ideas regarding the purity of a woman and to this day are discussed among modern-day scholars.
Women’s lives in the Late Middle Ages continued on the same themes of increased stature and responsibility, independence and revolutions. Women in the bourgeoisie brought changes of paramount importance with both high and lower-class women being persistent throughout, with one monumental change of women being allowed to take care of her husband’s finances after his death. Women’s fight for independence gained quite a momentum towards the end of the Middle Ages, with the French-Italian author Christine de Pizan defying her family’s ideas of womanhood restricted to sewing and knitting and becoming the first-ever female writer in European history!
Thus, the Middle Ages were a crucial period for the women’s movement in a society riddled with patriarchy and misogyny. What is commendable is to see that women refused to be the mere victims of such a system and found ways to combat it and make a space for themselves. They didn’t back down, ever. A truly great achievement of theirs would be the Church finally allowing access to education and making crimes against women punishable. Women saw themselves being recognized as individuals and rising above their relationships with men. These medieval women must be deemed as an inspiration for all of us in the modern-day society which still holds women lower than men.
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Currently pursuing B.Com Honours from SRCC, she’s always on the lookout for interesting and eccentric shows, books, music and movies to quench her curiosity. A deeply intuitive and whimsical individual, she strives to find freedom in everything, the most important being- in her thoughts.