Quick Question: What were women’s lives like in Medieval Europe?

Social and religious attitudes held a woman as entirely subordinate to a man, be it her father, husband, son, or other relative. Women were rarely educated at any level of society.

However, ordinary women did often have a good deal of freedom, especially widows. Peasant women could extend their domestic worlds into gardening and animal husbandry near the house as well as spinning or brewing for the purpose of making money. Urban women often engaged in trade but were still responsible for all domestic work, unless able to afford servants.

However, aristocratic women’s lives were particularly controlled, although some did rise to positions of power. Medieval women, especially well-born women, often wore face veils and almost no woman would have revealed her hair in public.

Often the primary cause of death for younger women was childbirth or the period after birth. Perhaps one in twenty births resulted in the death of the mother. Any woman who – without contraception – might have four or five, or indeed ten or twelve, births during her lifetime (with likely half her children, or more, dying young) had a real risk of dying in childbirth.

Witchcraft prosecutions increased during the period and were often used to dispossess single women (such as widows) of their property or to express social anxieties about women unconnected to a man.

Women were excluded from religious life except as nuns, who were the lowest level of order in medieval Christianity. Nonetheless, women did become significant religious figures in their own right, as religious mystics, and this was one of the few creative avenues open to them.

The English mystics Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe were respectively the first woman to publish a book in English and the first writer of either gender of an autobiography in English.

Read A Quick History of the Medieval World

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2 Comments

  1. If we believe Chaucer, women had a lot of freedom: see the Wife of Bath, who ran a business, had five husbands and went on pilgrimage unescorted. Even the Prioress had her little pets, jewellery etc. As for the young lady having sex up a tree!!! Nuff said!!!

  2. Rita Lamb

    Quick histories have obvious limitations. Take for example the bald statement, “Women were excluded from religious life except as nuns..”. It’s true that the official church hierarchy was closed to women. That doesn’t mean you can blank the activities of influential figures like Hilda of Whitby, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena etc., or ignore the obligation of women at every social level to participate in religion.

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