An exploration of the social history of Britain….

What did it mean to be a women in the Middle Ages?

The historian Catherine Macaulay stated in her History of England,

‘the invidious censures which may ensue from striking into a path of literature rarely trodden by my sex……will not keep me mute in the cause of liberty.’

This statement reflected the resentment well-educated, independent thinking women of Europe felt toward the perceived inferiority of the female sex on matters of political and intellectual importance, even at the end of the 18th century. This subordination stemmed from Christian doctrine- namely the Genesis creation story, where Eve was the cause of all sin. Influences of traditional medical and Greek philosophical ideas around woman as a ‘deformity’ or an imperfect man were also passed down from the ‘Era of the Fathers’, 300 to 430 C.E. to early modern times by the Roman Catholic church, contributing to construct feminine ideals. This religious discourse oppressed, subordinated and justified women as inferior, weaker and more unruly of the sexes, from medieval to early modern times.

Women’s experiences in Europe at this time were directly linked to this continuing ideology which influenced every aspect of their lives, including how men and women thought about and related to each other. Whilst changing landscapes of religious reform, (Protestant/Catholic), economic shifts and the widespread use of print all influenced their ability to access education and exercise some power, the continuity of this oppression ensured it was all within a model of patriarchy and under the guise of silent, chaste and obedient.


A women’s place was in the home in the European middle ages

Following on from medieval religious ideas, women in the middle ages were considered to be under equipped to learn and incapable of fully comprehending important matters outside the home. They were linked to the earthly world and the earthly body, whilst men were linked with the soul and the intellect. Certain roles and traits were assigned to each sex based on perceived differences – rather than biology, so gender at this time was fluid and changeable. What it meant to be male or female was ‘socially organised’ as gender.

In medieval Catholic Europe in the 12th Century, women could exercise some power by transcending the supposed frailties of their bodies, through a state of virginity and devotion to God. Through the supreme spiritual relationship to God which endorsed equality of the sexes, they could escape their purportedly inherited ‘sin’.

As St Jerome in the 4th Century asserted, through choosing Christ and renouncing the world and the body, ‘she ceases to be a women, and will be called man’.

In light of this, devout women could experience access to education in abbey’s and monasteries, prior to their replacement by cathedral schools where women were not permitted. Through divinely ordained authority, women could exercise power, as illustrated by Hildegard of Bingen who wrote influential treatises, letters and plays.

Continuing religious discourse of Eve’s original sin propagated the idea women needed to be governed and this guided medieval political and religious ideas toward the family as a ‘Little Commonwealth’. The man was the head and the women the subservient, obedient wife.

Whilst the ‘Defence of Woman,’ tradition originated in the 12th Century, it was continued by exemplary and well educated women writers such as Christine de Pizan in the beginning of the 15th. Women were considered to be of childish intellect, and reading and writing were male privileges. Christine de Pizan’s humility and focus on ‘honor, chastity and virtue’ and the importance of marriage in The Book of the City of Ladies, (she says ‘…and you married ladies, do not resent being subject to your husbands’), suggests that although questions were being asked as to women’s relative degree of sinfulness to man, the predominant manner in which to gain authority for themselves was still seen through prayer and obedience to the patriarchal model (their husbands!).

A carefully struck gender balance was crucial for achievements and it


Christine de Pizan and her ‘Book of the City of Ladies’

was exactly Christine de Pizan’s candid use of ‘professional amateurism’, defeminisation and humility that authorised her foreray into writing and the public realm of discussion on intellectual matters.


The changing scenery of the 16th Century and the Protestant Reformation turned the focus to marriage and family as the normative social state. Lutheran ideals of Eve being presented to Adam as the first marriage, and the concession sexual desire was part of God’s plan toward bearing children and marital appreciation, fashioned marriage as a union of faith. This was reinforced by widespread use of print, with Puritan ministers educating the laity through conduct books and manuals. Ideas of Mary as the virgin mother who brought salvation into this world reinforced a women’s role in the home and as a mother. Marriage and raising Christian children was seen as the most pious of duties upon which was the pinnacle of status and the gender hierarchy.

It was this ‘institutional and political ’ change brought about by the Protestant Reformation in England that had the most impact on women’s experiences. Women in Protestant countries could exercise considerable agency in choosing a marriage partner, especially if they were poor as there was no vested interest in their lives. However countries such as Italy, that remained predominantly Catholic, especially if noble or wealthy, ‘involved the transfer of property and the realignment of social rank’ , and as such fathers would ‘confer with several relatives’ on the offer of marriage.

Whilst historians have examined women’s considerable influence within the household and an increase in social status, (‘wives letters to their absent husbands usually reported what they had done; they did not solicit advice about what they might do’, ) harsher social experiences were felt by widows, single women and the poor. Women once in a stable marriage exercising effective control over her household could experience poverty upon death of a husband. Katherine Venables in 1633 attests to the anxieties of her inheritance when another patriarchal figure claimed entitlement when she requested the help of the law to reign in her out of control son.  He instilled ‘such great fear and peril of their lives they were enforced to cry for help of their neighbour’. Hence women’s experiences both expanded and contracted through the changes brought about by the Protestant Reformation, especially for those who sat outside the patriarchal social order.
With this in mind, witchcraft historians have place emphasis on the political agenda of state and suggest the social order felt threatened by nonconformist and independent minded (and mouthed) women. It was through the continuity of oppression and misogyny dating back to ancient Christian beliefs of women as defective and evil that the phenomenon of witchcraft sprang. Whilst the continual reproduction of Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum of 1486 malichad the effect of carrying mythology of ancient witch beliefs into all of Christendom through one solid handbook, clerical domination and religious ideological wars of the early modern period suggested a steady stream of fires would burn. Protestant or Catholic, both considered the other women worshipper a witch!

Witchcraft prosecutions were a tool of female sexual constraint founded around the inversion of the social order through changing roles of women at this time, especially around the ‘female space’ and women healers or midwives in the 17th century. Also the focus on witness’s depositions related to the honour of the accused, so depending on your status in the community, you could point the finger at someone and call them a witch, the penalty being death in some cases! So community conflict could be played out in court with the witness claiming considerable social power, thank goodness that doesn’t happen today!
Women’s experiences of authority and power were directly linked to the gender order and social expectations of women’s roles from medieval to early modern times. The debate stirred by John Knox and his ‘subversion of good order’ in 1558 ensured it was important to strike a careful balance between flouting the gender norms and being shrewd in the accommodation of them. As gender could be fluid, it was important to take on just enough male qualities to gain power and respect, whilst maintaining social expectations of what it was to be a women and be liked in order to maintain that power.

Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa surrounded herself with her children in her portraits to claim deference to her piety and as a good mother, whilst King Christina of Sweden took the masculine qualities too far wearing men’s clothes and subsequently abdicated amidst growing resentment.

In the supreme order of God’s plan, divine authority prevailed over male patriarchy and Queen Elizabeth 1 was careful to portrait herself as angelic and pious, elizabethmaking reference to her Godly ordinance. Surrounding herself with Tudor roses and accomplishments in battle, she ensured her authority through patronage and strong leadership whilst displaying humility and deference in her speeches required by her sex. By acknowledging their exceptionality and pronouncing themselves with names such as ‘manly women,’ or Catherine the ‘Great,’ successful women in our time period were careful to craft their images to bolster their credibility.

Whilst the Enlightenment of the 18th century brought questions of reason and intellect to the forefront of thinking for both men and women, from medieval to early modern times these were traits women were perceived to ill-comprehend. It was through scholarship, education and independence of mind that authorised historian Catherine Macaulay’s qualification to speak at the end of the 18th century.

From medieval to early modern times, women’s perceived weakness from doctrines of early Christian discourse permeated every facet of life. The extent of women’s successful exertion of power and agency was through striking a careful balance of gender norms and their ability to influence the patriarchal model to their own ends. We can be safe in the knowledge many held just those qualities.

Some references for you!

Barstow. A.L., ‘On Studying Witchcraft as Women’s History: A Historiography of the European Witch Persecutions’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1998, pp. 7 – 19.

Brucker. G., (ed.), The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study, New York, Harper Torchbooks.

Crawford. P., and Gowing. L., Women’s Worlds in Seventeenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, Hoboken, Taylor and Francis, 2005.


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