In this second blog post sharing a little of my research into mediaeval women, I am looking at the rather negative view of women that can be found in some mediaeval literature.
An interesting aspect of the view of women we find in some of the contemporary literature is the contrast between the chivalric idealisation of the noble ‘lady’, based on the cult of the Virgin Mary, and a misogynistic contempt for women as the inheritors of Eve.
In her excellent history of mediaeval women, Henrietta Leyser quotes a clerical polemic Holy Maidenhood, which, in advocating the ideal of virginity, depicts the wretchedness of the overworked peasant wife (p.146). It sounds grim: her baby is screaming, the cat is gnawing at the bacon, the baking bread is burning and the contents of the pot hanging over the fire are boiling over. And her husband is having a go at her, perhaps for all her failings! Why on earth, the poem asks, would a woman want to be a wife?
Shulasmith Shahar shows how contemporary treatises advocated keeping women out of public office, saying they had to “devote themselves to their domestic functions” (p.3). The restriction of women’s rights was justified on the basis of their limited intelligence and “wiliness and avarice” (p.12). Indeed all sorts of weaknesses were often ascribed to women as a class, including vanity and greed, wantonness and volatility.
Women were also largely denied any education (Shahar, p.4), which further limited any possibility of them rising out of their lowly status. Women were apparently ‘second-class citizens’ in the fourteenth century, but nonetheless there is considerable evidence that many women were not down-trodden chattels. Many, like competent manor chatelaines, wealthy peasant housewives and business women, were strong and capable and very far from either the feeble-minded or the saintly creatures portrayed in much of the contemporary literature.
Interestingly, Rigby (p.16) says that “the century after the Black Death [was] one when women enjoyed a growing economic independence…” The social and economic changes brought about by the huge loss of life must have had an impact on everyone, but my research has led me to understand that many women both benefited from the changes, and could to some extent throw off their shackles.
And it is these benefits that I have reflected in my portrayal of at least some of the women in Fortune’s Wheel, and which I will reflect on further in a future Meonbridge Chronicle.
Leyser, H. (1996). Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500. London: Phoenix Press (Orion books Ltd.).
Rigby, S.H. (2006). Introduction: Social structure and economic change in late mediaeval England. In R. Horrox, W.M. Ormrod, (Eds.) A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 (pp.1-30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shahar, S. (1983). The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.