Women in the Middle Ages

Women in the Middle Ages

What was the place and the life women in the Middle Agesin medieval society? This was declined according to the diversity of ages and social positions, according to the place occupied in the family, within the couple in relation to sexuality, and to the primordial role of motherhood. From the granddaughter to the grandmother, from the peasant woman to the nun, including the good lady, it is a whole little-known universe that we have recently rediscovered.

The girl in the middle ages

In the Middle Ages, the life of a young woman is divided into three periods: childhood which lasts until the age of seven, youth up to fourteen years, and the life of woman from fourteen to twenty-eight years, beyond which the woman enters old age, when a man is not considered old until fifty years old. The majority is fixed by canon law at twelve years for girls, fourteen for boys. After the peril of infancy, the girl is in any case considered by the clerics as an imperfect being, a small animal deprived of reason. However, little girls are granted that part of purity and innocence that must be preserved at the cost of severe training.

To his birth, the well-born child is entrusted to a nurse while the poor raise their newborn themselves. This one is bathed then wrapped in a linen cloth for the rich, of hemp for the others. On this piece is a crossed swaddle on the front. Bands of linen or hemp swaddle the child to keep him upright, a small cap covers him in winter: the beguinet. When the little one walks, she will wear a shirt like the boys, a long slit dress in red, green or striped. The poor will cut it out of old clothes. Around two or three years old the child is weaned. This is a crucial step because one in three children dies before reaching the age of five. Often driven by poverty, the child is abandoned, especially if it is a girl.

At the age of seven, girls and boys follow different ways. In wealthy families, girls learn to spin the distaff, embroider or weave ribbons. This is the age when it can be offered to a monastery or bride. In the countryside, the girl stays with her mother to take care of the household and the work in the fields, weaving, and looking after animals. They grow up in siblings where the elders play an important role. In the 12th century, the Dominican Vincent de Beauvais recommended educating girls in the love of chastity and humility. That is why mothers ensure that daughters are modest, hardworking and submissive.

As for noble girls, they have often been entrusted since the early Middle Ages to nuns who teach them reading, writing and needlework. The lawyer Pierre Dubois goes so far as to suggest that they learn Latin, science and a little medicine in the Middle Ages. They are in fact more educated than the boys we occupy training for war. The vocation of the medieval woman is oriented towards a single goal: marriage and motherhood.

The professions of women in the Middle Ages

Even married, women exercised many trades in the middle ages: in town, they can work in commerce, the textile and food sector (bakery, beer making and dairy industry) or as linen, hosier, seamstress, laundress, maid. Salaries for women are much lower than for men. In the countryside, they take part in the work in the fields, caring for and keeping animals, keeping the house, weaving and spinning flax, baking bread, preparing meals and maintaining the fire. And of course, they take care of the children. If the peasant woman must know how to keep her house; the bourgeoisie and the aristocrat must learn to lead the servants, acquire notions of song and dance, behave well in society but also sew, spin, weave, embroider, as well as manage their estates especially in the absence of the husband.

The church looks down on educated women; it insists above all on religious education for all. The young girl who has become puberty is frightening: she is closely watched by her parents. The feminine beauty, sometimes feared and sometimes desired, is an object of fantasy for men. For the clerics, it is associated with the devil, with temptation, with sin, but it is celebrated by the cantors of thecourtly love, it inspires knights and troubadours.

The woman in the middle ages: the canons of beauty

In the 12th century the ideal woman of the Middle Ages should be slender, have a slim build, wavy blond hair, a lily and pink complexion, a small and ruddy mouth, white and regular teeth, long black eyes, a high and open forehead, a straight and slender nose. Feet and hands are fine and sleek, the hips narrow, the legs slender but shapely, the breasts small, firm and high, the skin very white. These criteria of beauty will not change for authors from the 12th to the 15th century. The taste for a broad forehead will be accentuated at the end of the Middle Ages, so much so that the woman will pull her hair excessively at the back and will resort to epilation. She will use artifices to subscribe to the masculine ideal.

The witches

For centuries, women embodied the curse. The witch trial, a real cry of hatred against women, are the culmination of long centuries of clerical misogyny. Daughter of Eve, the woman is responsible for the expulsion from the Garden of Eden in collusion with the serpent, and she cannot help but cast spells. Castrating, she can make believe that the virile member was removed from the body of the man by the knotting of the aiguillette! Accused of black magic, witchcraft and bewitchments, the "heretical" women burned by the thousands on the pyres of the Inquisition. In 1275, the first witch condemned by an ecclesiastical tribunal was burned.

Until the 15th century, many nervous diseases were assimilated to possessions which aroused terror and aversions. We thought it was demon creatures. In 1330, Pope John XXII will give new impetus to the witchcraft trials. Two German Dominicans Heinrich Institutori and Jacob Sprenger wrote in 1487 a treatise which was to remain for two centuries the basis of the procedure against witchcraft: "the witch's hammer", as a result of which the witch-hunt took on a considerable scale in the 16th century. and in the 17th century. It was not until the 18th century that these monstrous trials ceased, under the influence of rationalist thought and the intellectuals of the Enlightenment.

Marriage in the Middle Ages

Marriage is arranged by parents in all social classes. Among the nobles, it is a way to strengthen or create alliances between countries, to expand land and wealth. Women are the subject of negotiations which sometimes take place very early on without the knowledge of those concerned. When the woman cannot give male heirs to her husband, she is exposed to repudiation not condemned by the church In Flanders in the fifteenth century, the age of marriage is between thirteen and sixteen for women and twenty and thirty years for man. This difference between the two sexes has two consequences: an often short duration of the union, and frequent remarriages. In other social circles, it is the father who imposes a party, again the object of negotiations between the respective families.

The bride brings a dowry which comes from his parents (according to Roman tradition) and which comes in various forms: goods, land, animals… The husband constitutes a dowry for his wife. In the Merovingian period, the morning gift was added, the day after the wedding. The husband's dowry and the morning gift constitute the dotalicium, the dower which will be a gain in survival for the widow. In the countryside, families have to save or go into debt to pay for the wedding feast, the making of the trousseau and the dowry. Marriage is as much a social act as a private one, which is why relatives, friends, neighbors accompany the young bride in the preparation of the wedding night and give her a lesson in sex education. Here she is, ready to fulfill her duty as wife and mother!

Charter for married women and domestic violence

The author of "Ménagier de Paris" indicates how a good wife : after her morning prayers, dressed appropriately taking into account her social position, she will go out accompanied by honest women and will walk with downcast eyes without looking to the left or to the right (many representations of this period show her in fact with her eyes down modestly ).

She will place her husband above all men, with the duty to love him, to serve him, to obey him, being careful not to contradict him in all things. She will be gentle, amiable, easygoing and in front of his anger will remain calm and moderate. If she notices an infidelity, she will confide her misfortune to god only. She will make sure there is nothing missing, showing an even temper.

Beat his wife was common in the Middle Ages and sometimes advised. In the 13th century, the customs of Beauvesis allowed the husband to correct his wife, especially in cases of disobedience. Brutality and depravity were given as an example by most of the Merovingian kings. It was easy to accuse his wife of adultery and lock her up, even kill her in order to remarry, because legislative sources confirmed the man's supremacy in the home, which he abused with impunity. This brutality was found in all social circles. There were, however, cases of happy marriages but it was improper to mention them, we should not talk about them. In the aristocracy, courtly love with its rules and customs allowed young people to open up to the emotions of the amorous world without exceeding its limits.

The Church and Sexuality

In the Middle Ages, the church did not admit sexuality only if its goal is procreation. Already the Stoics in antiquity opposed the pleasures of the flesh. During her period, the wife is declared unclean and must avoid all intercourse, likewise during pregnancy. The church also takes the opportunity to prohibit any sexual relationship between the spouses during the feasts of the liturgical calendar: Lent, Christmas, Easter, days of the saints, before communion, Sunday, Lord's day, Wednesdays and Fridays days of mourning. It was to contain excessive love that the clerics limited its expression! In the event of non-compliance with these rules, the term adultery could apply between spouses!

Pregnancy, childbirth, contraception, personal hygiene in the middle ages

If the vocation of the married woman is togive birth, the sterile woman being frowned upon, pregnancy and childbirth represented a great danger for the young mother who risked her life, as well as that of her child. For lack of means, medical knowledge and especially for lack of feminine hygiene in the middle ages, many women died in childbirth or its consequences (puerperal fever).

The slightest complication, the child who presented in breech, the presence of twins, a long and difficult childbirth could be fatal for the mother, so the joy of fulfilling their role was doubled.anguish for women. This mortality reached a peak between the ages of twenty and thirty. When a woman died in childbirth, the matron had to hasten to perform a Caesarean section to extract the newborn and give it the ripple authorized by the church, because this baptism kept her soul from wandering in limbo. Childbirth was the monopoly of midwives whose empirical knowledge was passed on from generation to generation. After childbirth, the mother declared unclean cannot enter church for forty days at the end of which the priest will perform the relevailles ceremony. Maternal love guides the young mother advised by the women of her family. Having a boy was more rewarding than having a girl. In the event that his parents fail him, the child is placed under the protection of sometimes numerous godparents to ensure his survival.

To avoid repeat pregnancies, women used abortion methods with plants, decoctions, amulets and potions, caused shocks all this banned by the church! In desperation they had the solution of abandonment or worse of infanticide. In order to fight against these abandonments the church accepts, in the year 600, that the most deprived mothers deposit their children on the courts so that the priest can propose them for adoption by some faithful.

Rape in the Middle Ages and Prostitution

A permanent threat to young girls and married women, rape in the Middle Ages was practiced in times of peace as in times of war. This rarely punished crime made women feel ashamed of dishonor and dreaded pregnancy. The lords gave each other the right of cuissage on their land which consisted of spending the wedding night with the young bride without her consent, much less that of the groom! Only the rape committed against a woman of high society was punishable by death. The unfortunate woman who became pregnant as a result of a rape was very frowned upon, she was considered responsible. Rape in wartime was unfortunately common and common, no female being was spared. Looting, arson, rape, murder, brutality, destruction, everything was allowed to the conquerors. There was constant insecurity in these dark times of history, and women paid a heavy price.

In the Middle Ages, the Church and the secular authorities had an ambiguous position on the problem of prostitution. They condemned her, and at the same time regarded her as a necessary evil. The women who prostituted themselves were for the most part women dishonored by rape, maids made pregnant by their masters, or workers reduced to poverty. The rise of cities from the 12th century will cause the appearance of brothels, so that grouped together they no longer hang out in the streets displaying a deplorable example to passers-by.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, epidemics and wars plunge women into poverty, inciting them to prostitute to survive. Alas, in the context of the Middle Ages, a girl could only be pure or public so that the girl raped despite her innocence and her ignorance of things in life was relegated among the common girls, it was impossible for her to reintegrate in the society. Women entered the steam rooms as chambermaids and ended up in the brothel. The richest tried to dress like the bourgeois despite the legislation requiring them to wear special clothes. The writer Christine de Pisan, who took up the cause of the condition of women, protested against an attitude that demeaned women. The church ends up setting up foundations for repentant sinners, giving them a chance to break the vicious circle, take the veil or get married.

Whether they are lost girls, recluses locked up for life or noble ladies, peasant women workers, nuns or witches, themedieval women's life has multiple facets which should be investigated further. Let us not forget of course, the very important role played by all educated and literate women who, thanks to their numerous writings, poems, psalters and various treatises, left a mark in history. These manuscripts, supplemented by the registers of the inquisition trials, allow us to approach the daily life of women during this long period of the Middle Ages.

Women in the Middle Ages: religious life

The first monastery was born in 513 in Gaul. In the sixth century in the Merovingian kingdom, the number ofcommunities often founded by women: Queen Radegonde founded Ste Croix, Queen Bathilde created an abbey in 656, others were born in Normandy. The Carolingian period is marked by many creations thanks to donations from the royal families. After the violent episode of the Viking raids, new abbeys appeared around the year one thousand, then Benedictine communities affiliated with the order of Cluny. The female monasteries recruit girls of high lineage because it takes a dowry to enter the convent.

In this time marked by faith, some had areal vocation others saw it as an opportunity to escape marriage, to ensure a safe and comfortable life, to gain access to culture. The abbeys could receive widows and noble ladies with their families in the absence of their husbands. Candidates for the veil had to strip off everything and follow the strict rules of St Benoit. After the midday mass, a hundred blows are struck on the cymbal so that the sisters prepare for the meal, hence the expression "to be at the hundred blows".

Theabbess who runs the monastery is often imposed by princely families and be over thirty years old. She reigns over a staff of auxiliaries called officers, prioresses, porters, cellars and nuns. The professed dominate the novices, the lay sisters, the Oblates and the servants. This hierarchy ensures the smooth running of the community. A few men are admitted, the servants in charge of agricultural work; the priest officiating at mass. It is also in the monasteries that the instruction of girls and boys from the age of seven takes place. These monastic schools teach reading, writing, and sometimes the Psalter, painting.

The abbeys live inautarky. In the eleventh century, double monasteries developed: on one side the monks on the other, the nuns separated by fences and gates but the church viewed this mix with a negative eye and they would be the object of conciliar and civil prohibitions (in this regard the story of many walled-up babies from this cohabitation is told). Some women, in order to expiate their faults and devote themselves to God, practiced seclusion which consisted in living in a narrow stone cell "the recluse" whose door was sealed leaving only a small opening to receive their food. This choice was preceded by a ceremony of final renunciation of public life.

These cells were built near a church or a cemetery (cemetery of the innocents), or near a bridge where passers-by came to consult them who asked them to pray for them. Thegolden age of recluse extends from the 11th to the 14th century. In the 12th century, the nuns belonged to the Benedictine or Cîteaux order, then the Dominicans and the Poor Clares appeared. All monasteries are required to welcome travelers and pilgrims. Religion permeates cultural life and plays a fundamental role in the lives of medieval women, whether nuns or secularists.

Life in the middle ages: distractions

Very busy with their work, the women of the countryside nevertheless find opportunities to converse at the fountain or the mill. At the evenings they are found in the `` scraignes '', small rounded room with their qnoodles to chat together. Others watch with their families by the fireside. The "cattail gospels" feature old women who tackle all subjects during the evenings between Christmas and Candlemas, reporting on many popular beliefs widespread in Flanders and Picardy at the end of the 15th century.

Theholidays have a religious and secular character and are the object of distractions. In May, the guys from the village have the right to “try out” the young girls. They gather in their company and, with their consent, on the first Sunday in May at dawn, lay tree branches in front of the door of their chosen one. This charming custom is mentioned in literary and artistic documents. Family celebrations bring together people of both sexes, aristocrats or peasants where women hold a prominent place.

Duringagrarian festivals queens are sometimes elected. Country dances called caroles bring together men and women in circles and processions around trees and fountains to the rhythm of love songs. Other dances, such as the tresque or farandole, the trippe which looks like a jig, the vireli or rotating dance, the coursault sort of gallop, the heel baler were practiced. These dances aroused the wrath of moralists: the contact of the hands and feet and the closings during the dance incited to sin! Fortunately, these sentences had no effect!

Lords and sovereigns organizesumptuous banquets followed by highly prized elaborate dances where the ladies are dressed in their finery. The highlight of the medieval feast is at the time of the desserts, during the entertainment where singers, jugglers, storytellers and minstrels can show their talents. In 1454 ladies and lords flocked to the pheasant festival. Board games are up to date: chess, spurts (a sort of mikado), card games from the 15th century. The tennis court, ancestor of tennis, will long remain highly prized by the lords. Some ladies are engaged in falcon or hawk hunting.

The trip is intended to settle affairs but can be a way of having fun. The jousts and tournaments are an opportunity for the lords to measure themselves and constitute a spectacle for the good ladies. They are governed by the strict rules of chivalry and ladies are honored there.

In the streets animal showers, acrobats, jugglers, jugglers, musicians and storytellers attract onlookers. The processions, the princely entrances, dazzle the people in the streets cleaned for the occasion and decorated with flowers and sheets stretched on the facades. Small shows called stories or mysteries take place near churches or crossroads. The theater is one of the attractions of the city, the women go there accompanied by a noisy kids. Music of the Middle Ages, songs, reading aloud are appreciated by the nobles, young girls receive amusical instruction.

Widowhood and old age

Consequences ofepidemics and wars, many very young married women found themselves widowed with small children in difficult financial conditions which pushed them to remarry. The aristocrats had little choice, for they needed support to defend their domains, and on the other hand they were under pressure from their families who wanted to use them to forge other alliances. When the children were adults their mother could stay with them, her property remaining incorporated into the family patrimony. In the event that she wished to remarry or enter the convent, she could take back their dowry or their dower, but her heirs preferred to pay her an annuity.

These situations often gave rise toconflicts of interest and interminable family trials. A young unmarried widow was looked on with suspicion, suspicions of greed or lust weighed on her. In town, however, she could continue to run her workshop or her business, founding a small business. In her book “The three virtues” Christine de Pisan, herself a widow at a very young age, advises women to ignore backbiting, to be wise, to pray for the salvation of their late husband and encourages young widows to remarry in order to flee poverty and prostitution.

The women of the time know several marital lives and have children from different fathers. Wealthy widows attracted greed, they were often kidnapped and remarried against their will. At the end of the Middle Ages, the hold of the family was so strong that women had no choice; the parents were responsible for concluding their successive unions. How should a widow behave if she managed to stay that way? She was to wear black, simple clothes, conduct herself with dignity, and attend church frequently to attend services.

The elderly woman is rather denigrated, at sixty she symbolizes ugliness and is associated with the witch, religious art assigns her a malefic role. The age of mortality was between thirty and forty years for women, forty to fifty years for a man on average. Grégoire de Tours cites cases of women of advanced age for the time: Queen Ingegeberge wife of Caribert, the nun Ingitrude ... Some Abbesses reached seventy years of age, eighty in the countryside or in the aristocracy.

The noblewoman in the middle ages and the woman of letters

Two categories of women intervened in the cultural life of the Middle Ages: lay people of noble birth and nuns. Cultivated, they protect writers and artists, compose scholarly works, study languages ​​and poetry. At the court of King Clotaire, Radeguonde received a great literary culture, Fortunat speaks of his readings from Christian literature. According to Eginhard, Charlemagne wanted for his daughters the same education as his sons for the liberal arts. Dhuodat in 841 composed a book for his son Guillaume and appreciated poetry.

In the year 1000, the Ottonian court had a number ofcultivated women, Adelaide wife of Otto I, Gerberge niece of this emperor who speaks Greek and is initiated to classical authors. In the 12th century Heloise knows philosophical and sacred quotes, she speaks Latin and according to Abelard studied Greek and Hebrew. Adèle de Blois in 1109 is quoted in Hugues de Fleury's work “the universal history”. The love of letters and the arts is found among the ladies of the fourteenth and fifteenth century.

Eleanor of Aquitaine reigns over the troubadours around 1150. It protects courtly poetry, renders judgments in the treatise of “courtly love” by André le Chapelain. In his entourage gravitate the writers under the influence of the Latin poet Ovid. His daughter Marie de Champagne will write many works and will also protect letters. In the 12th and 13th centuries, women's literature was represented by numerous writers dealing with religious or secular themes.

Hildegard of Bingen called the prophetess of the Rhine born at the end of the 11th century into a noble family from the Rhine, was offered to the Lord at eight, made profession at fifteen then was elected Abbess at around forty. She is the author of three books "Know the Ways", "The Book of the Merits of Life" and the "Book of Divine Works", resulting from her visions. She will travel a lot, correspond with the great people of the earth, emperors, bishops, lords and noble ladies. She also composes the “book of simple medicine” illustrated with herbaria, a bestiary and a lapidary. His "Causae et curae" is a textbook of practical medicine and pharmacology.

At the end of the Middle Ages,Christine de Pizan will be the first woman to make a living from her pen. Herself the daughter of an astrologer and doctor, widowed at a very young age with a family charge, she creates works in verse and prose dealing with love and wisdom, with an emphasis on loyalty and fidelity. Ballads, rondeaux, virelais and other lyrical pieces allow him to exercise his rhetorical virtuosity. It will be protected by French princes: the brother of Charles V, Duke of Berry, Philippe le boldi, Duke of Burgundy, Charles VI, Louis d'Orléans, Louis de France .... Several of his works will give rise to translations . It is therefore not uncommon to meet women writers and cultivated in these periods of history.

The period of the Middle Ages spanning ten centuries, the role of women evolved, sometimes regressed according to laws and economic or demographic realities. In the long term, women will become the object of a passionate debate at the center of a Western Christian who doubts and questions ... Since the "quarrel" of women has never ceased to agitate society.

Source and illustrations

- The life of women in the Middle Ages, Sophie Cassagnes, Editions Ouest-France, 2009.

Non-exhaustive bibliography

  • Chevaleresses, by Sophie Cassagnes-Brouquet. Perrin
  • Woman in the Middle Ages, Jean Verdon, Editions Gisserot, 1999.

  • Women in the Age of Cathedrals, Régine Pernoud, Poche, 1982.


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