The status of women in the medieval period was mostly that of subjugation, very few options were open to women, and those that were are often resulted in a harsh treatment, of backbreaking labor. However even with such ill treatment, women were the integral part to societal growth and stability thus a women’s role was often narrowed and marginalized. To areas thought befitting woman, Such as child rearing, manual labor, the convent, or as a wife. This system of casting not only served to maintain the male status quo but also served to further the archetypal roles for women in medieval English society.
Women were valued in the middle Ages, but only as an economic commodity. They served two main functions within medieval society: child bearer and manual laborer. Because women represented a large source of cheap labor, they quickly became the mainstay of the medieval economy. In many cases they would work along side men in the fields.
However, women were paid less than children's wages for their work. The Church would not allow women to hold jobs that required literacy. In fact, aside from hard labor the only occupation open to women was midwifery. "In hospital work women were almost as important as men" .
The textile industry was dominated by women, especially the woolen and silk industries. Though women enjoyed virtual domination in these crafts, they were still paid next to nothing. In addition to the intense labor, women had household duties to fulfill, especially if a woman was married. The invention of the flour mill brought women a time and labor saving device.
With the flour mills, however, came taxes. As the guilds began to assert their control over the bulk of skilled labor, wealthy aristocrats started hiring individual women and paying them in advance.The textile industry provided the largest amount of individual patronage. High skill was thus rewarded with economic improvement. Aside from laboring, a women's main responsibility was to bear children. This was of extreme importance in rural communities.
Children meant more workers for the farm. Women were simply baby machines. Trial marriages were set up in most rural communities to pair up the most fertile couples. Both mother and child were in serious jeopardy during the birth and the following crucial years. Infant mortality rate is known to be appallingly high throughout the middle Ages.The physical strain of childbearing, coupled with the intense labor and poor sanitary conditions made life harsh, cruel, and short for most women.
Where most men during this time died between the ages of forty and sixty, most women died between the ages of twenty and forty. Among the gentry women were not necessarily chosen for their child bearing abilities. Rather, women were valued for their dowries which usually consisted of land or monetary wealth. These women tended to live slightly longer because they were not constantly subjected to the rigors of childbearing or hard labor.
These women were faced with the distinct possibility of widowhood, because most noblemen waited until their mid-forties to marry. Widowhood would provide women with a tool to help re-evaluate and change their role in society. Arranged marriages, though not particularly popular in general, were seen simply as economic ventures. Women were valued for their dowries, which sent many aristocrats scrambling to strike a deal with wealthy men with daughters. Among the peasants, women had to have their feudal lord's permission in order to marry. A woman, once her dowry was gained, became an almost useless commodity for most men.
Wives often toiled in the fields and the kitchen simply to earn their keep. Wife beating was common and even socially accepted. The Church supported this barbaric practice. In a theological dictionary of the time Nicholas Byard states, "A man may chastise his wife and beat her for her own correction; for she is of his household, and therefore the lord may chastise his own” . Often time’s livestock received better treatment than a man's wife because a man could lose profit from his livestock.
The safety of a wife, therefore, often depended upon her ability to please her husband.Widowhood was the saving grace of most unhappy marriages in the middle Ages. Widowhood gave women their husband's lands and authority. Even though women were the child bearers and primary care givers, only when widowed did women have a role in the inheritance. Women could then inherit and bequeath land but could not sit in Parliament. The rights of widows are even discussed in the Magna Carta.
It declares that widows did not need to marry again if they did not want to. It is fair to say that women gained not only wealth but freedom as a result of their husbands' deaths.Where the husband's and employer's power over women was practical, the clergy's was spiritual. These two worlds were in constant conflict. Women flocked to the Church. They turned to religion for consolation and solace.
More women attended mass, more confessed, they were the true keepers of the faith. Women provided the Church with a source of cohesion; their fierce and desperate faith would lay the groundwork for the growing dominance of the church in medieval society. The Church, however, was two-faced when dealing with women.Women were the mainstay of each parish, yet the clergy constantly reinforced the concept of women as inferior creatures. Because women were weaker in the Church's eyes, it was easier for them to succumb to their sinful desires. Women were "natural traitors", deceitful and treacherous gossip mongers.
The Church's view of marriage reflected a belief in female inferiority. Yet because of all their supposed faults, a woman's resistance to sinful desires became all the more virtuous. Thus the high praise and worship of virginity developed out of the Church's dual but divided treatment of women.The relationship between love, sex, women, and the Church was a source of great controversy throughout the middle Ages.
Sexual and spiritual loves were linked to the clergy. Women could often gain power by exploiting this conflict between the practices of the laboring society and the policies of the clergy. The Church did provide women with a viable alternative to the life of a common laboring peasant: the convent. The nunnery was often the choice of a father with several daughters.
Rather than waste time and money searching for a suitable husband, many lazy fathers simply placed their girls in a nunnery and married them to the Church.Upon entering a nunnery, a girl was considered dead to the world; she lost all rights of inheritance; she became the property of the Church. This inability to collect inheritance was another ulterior motive for stingy fathers. Convents did, however, enjoy a relative amount of self government. This was one of the few places where women held positions of authority.
The clergy's preoccupation with virginity made nuns bastions of virginity. Nuns saw themselves as protectors of something cherished and sacred. Nuns were completely isolated. Their spiritual duties became their entire existence.Thus the doctrine of simplicity was instituted: the less the nuns knew the better.
Though nunneries provided the only source of education for women, the knowledge the nuns were provided with was carefully screened by the Church hierarchy. The Church saw simplicity as a metaphoric extension of virginity, a sort of mental innocence. Rules of strict discipline were also in effect. These rules covered the etiquette of a devout nun including topics such as laughing, standing, sitting, speaking, and looking at men. Very few options were available to women in the middle Ages.
While young, the allure and power of sex gave women some freedom, and widowhood could provide a young bride with power over her husband's estate. A third, equally viable option was the convent, especially as it became less strict and worldlier. Only the advent of courtly love brought broad improvement for the status of women. While the majority of men were fighting crusades in the Holy Land, women were making significant alterations in culture and society. A sense of cultural coherence was achieved by this feminine influence.
Unbridled and sometimes violent passions were now controlled by chivalric codes which taught restraint.