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Friday, May 19, 2017

Wives, Mothers, and Nuns

This is the fourthof a six-part series about the Middle Ages with the goal of giving casual readers of medieval romances a better understanding of the time period and why there were no damsels in distress. (My apologies for not posting it on the right date) This brief blog doesn’t even begin to cover it the complexity of women’s lives in the Middle Ages, which varied greatly depending upon class, location, and all the other variables that are lumped into “socio-economic status.”

In First the Fall, Then the Babarians, we discussed the macro trends of the early medieval period and how they set the foundation for the Early Middle Ages. We painted kings and knights with a broad brush and learned the benefits of political stability in Huzzah! Knights, Kings and Living the High Life and looked at war in Ideals of Chivalry and Realities of War. Today, we’re focusing on women in the Middle Ages.


Love and Marriage
So would you want to be a woman in the middle ages? Probably not. Besides the very real lack of aspirin, tampons and coffee, the lack of choices would be unbearable to a modern woman.

The key to understanding the medieval women is to understand the role of the individual and land in determining status, wealth and survival.

First of all, the idea of an “individual” didn’t exist. That’s not to say that people didn't think of themselves, and sometimes put their own wants and needs above that the whole, but the people who had the means to do that were very rare. Even Eleanor of Aquitaine was married off the first time. An individual's desires didn't equal or supersede society’s needs.

Secondly, the more land you controlled, the less likely you were to go hungry or fall to a neighbor. Land equaled security, and those with land (whether it was a hundred hundreds scattered throughout England or a dozen strips in a field) used marriage to determine whom of the next generation got the land and all that came with it.

Love wasn’t the goal. Neither were happiness, contentment or emotional and sexual satisfaction. The goal was a stable society where wealth, titles and land passed without chaos from one generation to the next.

Younger sons and bastards were left to secure their own future if they wanted land and a wife. Daughters inherited only if there were no sons. As you can imagine, heiresses were prized as a quick route to wealth and power. Kings often used heiresses as “rewards” for services rendered and to tightened the binds with vassals.

For good or ill, these same scenes played out on smaller scales as you move down the social ladder. The merchant wanted to align with other merchants to found dynasties and make sure his grandchildren are heirs to a dynasty. The master craftsman could train all his sons, but his eldest would be the one to take over the family business.

Among peasants, childless couples would adopt two or three of the younger children of a large, neighboring family, and those children would inherit after taking care of the couple in their old age. These arrangements are spelled out in contracts that stipulate what the elderly woman would eat, including how often and in what amounts, clothing she would receive in a year, where she would sit in the house in relation to the hearth, where she would sleep, and healthcare in old age. We know about these because of the number of suits brought by one party against the other for not meetings the terms of the contract, and the great majority of these suits involve impoverished women.

Marriage as a political and financial arrangement changed little throughout the Middle Ages. What changed was the Church’s growing influence over marriage. Initially, the Church was tangential to the ceremony. By the 12th century, a priest was part of the wedding ceremony, but it would be another century before he was required for the proceedings.

The Church also decreed that marriages required the free consent of both partners. And thought this idea became doctrine, it doesn’t mean the participants had a say in the matter. Consent could be “coaxed.”

Wife and Mothers

The roles for medieval women codified by the Church and society weren’t negotiable. There were strict expectations defining a woman’s duty both inside the home and within a marriage. Straying from these expectations brought harsh social and perhaps legal or religious reprisals. Women were expected to bear children and nurture them, be obedient to their husband and take care of domestic matters.

The importance—and narrowness of this role—is reflected in how young girls were educated. Education focused on the practical, not the academic.

Among the nobility, girls as young as seven were sent from their home to live with another noble family, often because they were betrothed to a son of the family. She learned how to run a household, manners, etiquette, and leisure pursuits important to the nobility, such as hawking, dancing, riding and embroidery or needlework.

They would act as a servant in these households, waiting upon older women in the family. Unfortunately, because marriages weren’t legal until after consummation. Many of these young women were neither daughter nor servant. Worse, if their betrothed died before the marriage, they were either wanted by neither family—or in a tug-of-war between their father-in-law who wanted to keep their dowry and their father who wanted it back. Several historians, including Georges Duby, have written about the physical and sexual abuse that grew out of this situation.

Theoretically, the young lady had the right to say no when it came time for the actual marriage. The question of whether both parties are entering into the marriage of their own free will was real and important. Even with this, few young women said no. The “Nos” that we know about are typically part of a saint’s hagiography designed to show the woman’s piousness or commitment to a life of chastity. For most women, saying no would often bring on worse consequences than being married, i.e. the physical and sexual abuse mentioned above or a life in a convent.

If she didn’t say no, a noblewoman’s marriage would be consummated around age 14, but many times it happened even younger. We look at this as abusive today, but then it gave the girl legal protection if her husband died that her betrothed status did not.

Girls on a lower social rung learned how to run a household, perhaps how to run a business, as well, and to treat minor illnesses. There was less emphasis on leisure pursuits, and more on practical matters. For instance, while many noble women learned to read, only some women of the merchant class learned. Freewomen and serfs almost never did.

Independent women
There is some debate as to whether becoming a nun was actually better than life as a married woman. It wasn’t necessarily a life of quiet contemplation. These were self-supporting communities, and young noblewomen could be expected to work. However, nuns were educated (although much less so than their male counterparts) and were responsible for the administration of their convents.

Outside of the cloister, widowhood was often the first time that most women were able to make their own decisions and chart their own course. Women who enjoyed widowhood most were those who were financially secure but not too rich.

Of course, we know so much about widows’ entitlements and lives because of lawsuits and court records. The fact is many women had to seek legal recourse against sons, stepsons, in-laws, and lords to receive their due inheritance. Like the young bride who had the right to say no, but who faced punishment worse than marriage if she did so, widows had the right to property and chattel, but often faced violence, inaction, and collusion to deprive them of their property when they exercised that right.

One interesting trend that defies all the restrictions placed on women is the pilgrimage. A large majority of pilgrims seems to have been women. We know this from burial goods, which include badges or other tokens that signify a pilgrimage, and wills that bequeath goods, lands or coins to pilgrimage sites or specified that someone be hired to make a pilgrimage on behalf of the deceased

One interesting exception to everything we know about woman in the late Middle Ages is Margery Kempe (d. 1438). Kempe wrote what is believed to be the first autobiography in the English language. The Book of Margery Kempe chronicles her extensive pilgrimages to various holy sites and her “conversations” with God.

What makes Margery so interesting to historians is she went against all social codes, systematically violating each one of them for religious purposes. She faced a great deal of criticism for her efforts from society and the Church. From her book, we can learn what happened to women who went against the expectations. She wore fine clothes in the latest fashions, started her own business as a brewer and was thought of as “proud” (pride is one of the seven deadly sins, btw).

She is “punished” for her sins. Her business fails, the Archbishop chastises her, and her husband more or less agrees to a separation. Remember there is no divorce.

Damsel in Distress
The fairytale view of the princess locked in the tower until rescued by the knight in shining armor is pure fiction. In the Middle Ages—frankly, until just last century—women were seen only as someone’s daughter, sister, wife or mother. In general, women could not inherit or hold property (it passed “through” them but not “to” them), did not retain custody of children if widowed or divorced, and rarely had a say in who or when they wed.

If she were brilliant and capable, the type of woman who could defend a castle (Margaret Paston), run a country (Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Castille, ) or out-argue Peter Abelard (Heloise) she was seen as the exception to what "everyone" knew about women.

If her father, her brother, or her in-law locked a woman in a tower no one would come to save her. They had every right to put her there and keep her there for as long as they wished.

Keena Kincaid writes historical romances in which passion, magic and treachery collide to create unforgettable stories. Her books are available from Prairie Rose Publications and Amazon. For more information on her stories, visit her Amazon page, her website, or Facebook.


  1. Keena,
    So interesting, as well as frightening. Thanks for sharing.

    1. The most frightening thing about studying women's history is to see how often we've lost what we consider basic rights, i.e. a voice in government, custody of our children, management of money, property, etc., the ability to say yay or nay to questions big and small.

  2. While my reading preferences run toward historical novels, I sure wouldn't want to live "back then" in any time period. Maybe it wouldn't be as bad as I imagine it being, because I wouldn't know what I was missing (that I have now). To become an independent woman took a lot of courage, and I admire the women who fought to achieve it.

    1. It took courage, hard work, intelligence and a bit of luck.

  3. A chillingly accurate picture. No wonder the "wife" of Bath was a widow! Thanks for sharing, Keena

    1. If you get a chance, read Margery Kempe's book. It's quite fascinating and inspired me to go on a pilgrimage.

  4. A chillingly accurate picture. No wonder the "wife" of Bath was a widow! Thanks for sharing, Keena

  5. Great post! You packed a lot of information in here. Sometimes hard to write "romance" about these times, isn't it?

    1. Thanks. It is SO long for a blog post and I still left out so much.

  6. Hi, Keena, interesting post! I'm currently reading a book about everyday life in Chaucer's England, and you really managed to cover so many points in this concise blog post. I've also been reading about medieval nuns and why some women chose life in a nunnery--or why their families put them there! Thanks again for doing this series!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Medieval nuns and convents are fascinating. Most were small, especially compared to monasteries, and the women in them seldom ventured outside of the cloister. But from what we glean from records, women were in charge even though each house was technically 'ruled' by male clergy, prior, or abbot.

  7. It's hard to put centuries of history into such concise terms, but you've done a great job. Fascinating post, and I would have been one of those who was always in trouble. To the tower with me they probably would have said. (Thank goodness I don't live in that time, but...when one becomes complacent you lose out on what you have come to expect.)

    Thanks for the great information. Doris

    1. Thanks. A lot of us would be in trouble, and a lot of medieval women did get into trouble. The day-to-day life was surely different from the "ideal" that we get, mostly from the clerical writings. But whenever I start to think, 'maybe it wasn't so bad,' I remember the witch trials.

  8. Thanks for this blog post, Keena. It solidified some of what I already knew about the plight of women in the middle ages...and even into the Regency and Victorian times. I think many of our American politicians and leaders still think the same way! It's sad we've had to fight for every single inch of freedom we've gained.

    1. Yes, there are many people who believe they succeed only if someone else doesn't, and I'm always surprised at how dismissive and outrageous these politicians are to women's concerns and how many women support that. Studying history can be depressing because it really does seem cyclical rather than linear.

  9. Your article was full of meaty tidbits, Keena. You obviously put a great deal of thought and work into it. I can't imagine a woman like Margaret Thatcher or Jane Goodall treated as these women were.
    I can thoroughly understand why women were willing to leave Europe and take the dangerous journey to America. I can also see the attraction for women to become western pioneers--FREEDOM!
    A very informative article, Keena.

    1. The transformative power of the American frontier can't be understated. I haven't studied it extensively but I've studied it enough that I think the next big leap forward in women's equality will come when we colonize Mars. Different world, different rules to survive.