The reason that I chose to create a web page on women in the Middle Ages was a result of my own frustration with the lack of information that existed on women at this period of time and a natural curiosity about what rights women posessed, the power they yielded and how they spent their days. I will include links to other web sites as well as enlighten you, the reader, with some interesting information.

Single Women Versus Married Women

What I found out about women in Europe between 500 and 1500 a.d. was that their power waxed and waned throughout their lifetime. Unmarried adolescent women and widows and in some cases women from the knight and noble classes had particular priveleges that only men had. The general structure of society prevented women from claiming ownership to public authority, but this is not to say that they did not demonstrate power in the private sphere. For instance in 14th century Brigstock, England, adolescent women and widows could accumalate property. Young women could save money through land sales and wages earned through work. Widows could trade, exchange and sell their property and were considered legally liable for their actions. In courts they could appear without a man to pursue litigation, and answer complaints.

In contrast to the freedoms that single women posessed, married women encountered a loss of power when they tied the knot. The wife gave her land to her husband, thus reducing her power and increasing his. A woman's dowry consisted of a land tract and her land was merged with her husbands. The woman lost legal competancy and was not held responsible for her own actions. Also married women sealed documents jointly with their husbands whereas unmarried women in France between 1150 and 1350 could seal acts in their own names. Seals were a representation of the right to own property and be legally capable. In the area north of the Loire Valley aristocratic women frequently used seals, but it was the women of lesser nobility who sealed more acts in their own names, thus they were more legally independent than the former. The proportion of female to male seals that existed during this time was more equal which is a reflection of women's secular power.

The Medieval Woman as Worker

In the interdependent peasant communities, medieval country women had a variety of duties and responsibilities. The nature of the community created an atmosphere where women were not isolated from the world but had daily contact with traders, laborors, officers and neighbors. They participated in the planting and harvesting which was considered part of the hard, heavy labor appointed to males. Women were dairymaids, gardeners, poulterers, bakers and brewers of beer. When there were excess quantities of food or drink, women could sell them within the community. Women also forged friendships within the communities and were an integral part of the village network.

Another interesting group of women in the Middle Ages were those that lived in Northern European countries in the late Medieval Period. Women made and sold textiles, clothing, beer, bread, and pottery and ran taverns and inns. They belonged to confraternities and guilds and borrowed/lent money, took oaths, joined political demonstrations, led religious movements, ran charities, sued and were sued, learned and taught reading, writing and artithmetic, delivered babies for money, and dispensed medicine and medicinal advice.

In the south of France during the 9th-11th centuries women were the heads of families and households. They also exercised their power in other areas as well because their were no effective barriers to hold them back. Women were judges, military leaders, castellans and controllers of property. Within the realm of the church, women in an advantageous family position influenced the affairs of the church and before men were sworn to an oath of celibacy their wives took ecclesiastical property into their own hands.

Women, Land and Ownership

Land ownership was a great source of power during the Middle Ages. According to the Salic Law of the late 6th and 7th centuries in France women could inherit land which did not come to their parents as part of the patrimony. King Chilperic (533-566) allowed women to inherit Salic land provided they had no brothers. In cases where land was aquired by means other than inheritance, both sons and daughters had equal claims to the land. Merovingian women took what land they could and held on to it as long as they were not forced to give it up. In Italy the Lombard Law stated that when a father had no sons he could leave 1/3 of his land to his daughter.

Moving on to the middle of the eighth century we see the decline of the Franks and with that the obliteration of restrictive inheritance rights. The Carolingians who succeded the Franks gave women the private right to control their property, thus giving mothers, daughters, sisters and wives clout within the family sphere. Women contributed tracts of land during a marriage and thus gained power within the household. It was customary during this time for families to will their fiefs to their daughters when there were no sons to inherit them, and under the Capitulary of Quierzy issued by Charles the Bald in 870, fiefs were divided among younger sons and daughters. Within the arena of the aristocracy during this time there was a fine line between public and private power and thus with this increase in private power women also had fewer restrictions on their ability to yield power in public activities. Within the aristocracy, the castle of kings and queens was considered the core of the imperial domain. The queen, as delegated housewife, became an organizer and administrator within this domain. King Charlemagne's wife regulated domestic concerns within the castle and was the director of the royal servants. As we will see in the succeeding generations this private power led to control over the royal treasury as well. Under Hincar of Rheims, two generations after Charlemagne's reign, the queen, with the assistance of a chamberlain, took charge of the royal loot. When kings and their knights were called to battle, the women took charge of the home and defended it under times of siege and even directed military operations when necessary.

Allodial lands, lands gained through purchase, force or land clearance were different from fiefs and during the 9th and 10th centuries in England these lands allowed the aristocracy to expand their territory. Families were unrestricted to do as they saw fit with the allodial land and daughters often inherited this land. Once she received the land, it remained her property and was not ceded over to her husband or his family unless she was willed to do so. In the 11th century, one woman, Matilda of Tuscany, was extremely forceful and refused to let her husband manage and take control of her allodial property.

As the shift moved from kings having absolute control over lands to lords exerting control formerly owned by kings, there was a change in women's political power. While the lords raised armies, made laws, coined money, and administered justice, their wives shared in these responsibilities and gained political power by inheriting her own estate. When and if her husband died the woman took over her husband's power and responsibilities.

Woman Revered

The Carolingians revered their queens and this was demonstrated by the act of having the queens annointed and crowned as was the typical procedure for kings. Queen Bertha, wife of King Pepin was crowned and after the death of her husband, she exercised a considerable amount of political power. Another indication of a queen's power at this time were the songs of praise that were written for them known as Laudes, which were a part of the royal liturgy. In England during the 10th century the importance of noble women was reflected by the titles they received "consors regis" (royal consort) and by the criticism they received from authors on their management of the court.

Important Medieval Women

One of the most shining figures throughout French history was Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she provides a dramatic example of women's inheritance rights. During the 12th century in France Eleanor married the King of France and with this union she doubled the extent of the french monarchy. What is so poignant about her case is that she eventually divorced her husband (extremely rare at this period in time and gained back her duchy! She then married the King of England and when she quarreled with him she moved back to Aquitaine where she became an independent ruler. When the time came to will her rule of England to her next of kin she chose her second and favorite son, as opposed to complying with the law of primogeniture, which states that the eldest son receives the inheritance and reign over the royal land.

Another powerful woman of the Middle Ages was a female aristocrat from England named Honor Lisle. She was married to a wealthy businessmen and had a large impact on who he chose for various religious and political appointments. With her connections she placed female relatives in advantageous situations and was generous in supplying others with household and personal items. She networked with other women to deal with domestic problems and used gifts, favors, hospitality, letters and patronage to advance her reputation and to forge a link of reciprocity with others.

Other notable women of this time were the authors, Hrotsuit, Hildegarde of Bingen, and Christine de Pisan. I have enclosed a link to view some of their work.

Links to Other Websites on Women in the Middle Ages

Book List of Medieval Women

Female Artists of Middle Ages

Interesting Paper on Cathar Feminism 1100-1300

The Beguines: 1st Women's Movement in Christian History

Info on Medieval Women Writers

Female Composers of Middle Ages

Changing Role of Women In Arthurian Legend

Interactive Exploration of Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Medieval and Renaissance Weddings