Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Women

One of most common statement about women in the Middle Ages is that they were “just property” and “lowly servants.” This statement ignores the accomplishments, achievements, and duties of the medieval woman. It encourages the idea that before the 1960s, women had unfulfilling, meaningless lives. This is problematic.

Legal Property

Short version: Many records exist of women who owned property, inherited property, administered their property with the same authority that a man would have, owned businesses, offered economic advice, took control in legal disputes, held secular and religious authority over men, and gave advice in military affairs.

Long version: Régine Pernoud stresses that in the 13th C, a woman’s reign was a natural occurrence: “It would not be possible to list the total number of women who, in feudal and medieval times, administered what were sometimes very large domains.” [1] Concerning royal authority, Pernoud mentions that in the Middle Ages, both queens and kings were crowned individually by an archbishop, which placed equal emphasis on both of their roles. [2] Not until after the Middle Ages did this change. Dhuoda, a French queen who lived in the mid-800s, shows in her writings that she is familiar with the political circumstances of her realm and with craftsmen’s work. [3]

In the middle of the 6th century, laws of inheritance said that only men could inherit, but this law was limited to hereditary family property—the main landholding, the family manor. Daughters could inherit this piece of property only if the family had no sons. Apart from the main landholding, all other property could be distributed equally between sons and daughters. [4] Likewise, a woman’s dowry was her own property which her husband could use, but could not dispose of. Women could use their husbands’ property, replace them in judicial matters if they were absent (permission wasn’t needed), and retain parts of their property upon their deaths (rules varied by circumstances). Women administered their own lands during their lives and after their husbands’ deaths. [5]

Authority does not apply only to royal women. Notary records show that women of lower classes owned shops or engaged in trade without requiring any influence or permission from their husbands. [6] Even female serfs, women of the lowest class, owned property in their own right. [7] In the religious realm, in the monastery at Fontrevrault, the founder Robert d’Arbrissel ordered that nuns and monks in the order should be separated at all times, save when they met in the church that joined their cloisters for Mass. He also ordered that the whole abbey, men and women alike, should be run by an abbess. He declared that the monks should serve their abbess in the spirit of St. John, who cared for the Virgin Mary after Jesus’s death. [8]

Women had a huge amount of influence on the social aspect of medieval life. Manners and refinement were primarily learned from women, but were also necessary if a man was to please a woman. In Traité d’Amour, by André le Chapelain says that “women being the origin and the cause of every good, and God having given them such a great prerogative, they must show themselves to be such that the virtue of those who do what is good incites others to do the same.” [9] This is exemplified in Arthurian literature where a knight must show not only military skill, but also refinement to win the woman he loves. If it were true that women’s desires and opinions did not matter, then why would medieval men have written so many poems and books about men striving to please the women they love?


Short version: Women had the right to choose whom they would marry.

Long version: The most important aspect of medieval marriage is that, as a permanent sacrament of unity between two people, the Church required the consent of both parties “in a total and reciprocal equality.” [10] Women could, and did, refuse marriage. Parental consent did not become a requirement until the Council of Trent, which occurred after the Middle Ages. [11] Women were not required to take their husbands names—sometimes they chose to, but more often they kept their maiden names or received new names unrelated to their husbands’. Not until the 17th century in France were women required to take their husbands’ names. [12]

Arranged marriages constitute a major problem for modern people. We have an idea of girls being married as infants to husbands in their 40s. While many aristocratic girls were promised in marriage as infants, the same is true of equal numbers of boys. [13] This does not mean the marriage was performed as infants—remember the stress on equal consent. Sometimes, children who were promised to each other would grow up in the same household (either one of their households or sometimes both would be removed to a third party’s household), then would marry at the age of consent. [14] The lowest numbers available establish the age of consent at 12 for girls and 14 for boys, which recognizes that girls mature faster. [15] Other records establish 18 as the age of consent for women and 20 for men. [16] Local custom dictated legal age for consent, but from surveying various sources, I am inclined to believe that 16-18 tends to be the most common age of consent.


Short version: Karl Bartsch has concluded that “In the Middle Ages women read more than men.” [17]

Long version: The stereotype is that education was only for men entering the clergy. However, cathedral schools were centers of education for children. In Florence in 1338, one of every two children, boys and girls alike, attended school. [18] At the end of the 13th century, Paris has records of 22 schoolmistresses—clearly women were educated enough to teach. [19] Pernoud stresses that those who could not attend school still achieved some education through sermons, vigil readings, and songs. [20]

Nuns were just as educated as their male counterparts. Colophons give records of dozens of nuns who copied manuscripts, and even some lay women. [21] Many surviving Psalters, gospels, and Books of Hours were copied for use by women. Since these are devotional objects, we can surmise that these were used personally, not just read aloud to illiterate listeners.

Female education was not just in the hands of nuns. Girls of lower classes attended schools, and girls of upper classes had hired teachers. [21] The oldest treatise on education, Manual for My Son, was written by Dhuoda, who was not a nun, but a wife and mother. [23] Dhuoda writes in Latin [24] and uses expressions in Greek and Hebrew. [25] Her references show that she is familiar with Prudentius, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, Donatus, Isadore of Seville, St. Benedict’s rule, “various compendia of maxims and proverbs, and very probably books of prayers,” Alcuin, Rabanus Maurus, Ambrosius Autpertus.” [26] Dhuoda is clearly a well-educated woman, and she is not alone. An early 12th century poem describes a woman reading as if it were an ordinary occupation, not a remarkable one. [27]

The Religious Realm

This post is already quite long and I’m afraid that most readers won’t make it all the way to the bottom. I’ve touched on some religious authority above, but I’ll save a fuller explanation of women and the Church for a later post on religion in the Middle Ages. If the stereotypes of women and Church authority bother you, then in the meantime, I suggest remembering the huge influence of Mary on medieval devotion.

The position of women in the Middle Ages was not the same as the position of men. This has angered many and, unfortunately, led to some inaccurate stereotypes. When studying medieval women, one should not ask how their positions differed from men’s, but how their positions fulfilled women’s needs, desires, and talents.

  1. Pernoud, Régine. Women in the Days of Cathedrals. Trans. Anne Côté-Harriss. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 185.
  2. Pernoud, Régine. Those Terrible Middle Ages. Trans. Anne Englund Nash. (San Francisco, Ignatius Press: 2000), 98.
  3. Pernoud, Régine. Women. 53.
  4. Ibid., 163.
  5. Ibid., 161, 163.
  6. Pernoud, Régine. Those Terrible., 111.
  7. Ibid., 90.
  8. Pernoud, Régine. Women., 114.
  9. Ibid., 97.
  10. Pernoud, Régine. Women., 146.
  11. Ibid., 157.
  12. Ibid., 159.
  13. Ibid., 159.
  14. Walker, Sue Sheridan, “Widow and Ward: The Feudal Law of Child Custody in Medieval England,” Feminist Studies 3.3/4 (1976): 106.
  15. Pernoud, Régine. Women., 158.
  16. Ibid., 158.
  17. Ibid., 55-56.
  18. Ibid., 63.
  19. Ibid., 62.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 57, 59.
  22. Ibid., 60.
  23. Ibid., 45.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 53.
  26. Ibid., 52.
  27. Ibid., 55.


Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Women — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: An oddball question - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  2. Thanks for a good jumping off point for further research, this is one of the topics I’m considering for my supervised research class in the Spring. I’ve narrowed it down to: Misconceptions of Female Roles in the Middle Ages or Alfred the Great and the Development of the Angelcynn Identity.

    • Both are great topics. The first will give you more primary texts to work with, which may make the whole project more manageable given your timeframe to complete it. It would also be linguistically easier since trying to translate enough OE for this project would be quite time-consuming and ME usually has a good gloss. You could also focus on individual misconceptions as you do your research and see what interests you the most.

  3. This is indeed very enlightening. Thank you for all your work in gathering this information. You should write a book!