FC71A: The Changing Status of Women in the Late Middle Ages


"Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands as unto the Lord"--St. Paul

"…every reasonable man must prize, cherish, love woman...She is his mother, his sister, his friend; he must not treat her as an enemy."-- Christine de Pisan


One of the major trends in Western societies over the last 150 years has been women’s progress towards equal status with men. The roots of this lie in medieval Europe, although it is best to look separately at the three main social classes of middle class, peasants, and nobles, since they each told a different story.

Middle class women

Middle class women saw little or no gain, and maybe even a decline, in their status as town revived during the high and late Middle Ages. This was typical of pre-industrial towns, since most townspeople originally came from peasant backgrounds where the labor was more equitably shared, since every person’s labor was critical for bringing in and processing the crops. When families moved to towns, the men typically became craftsmen who ran their own shops with little or no help from the women. This loss of economic status led to a corresponding loss of social status, and can be seen in practices across a number of pre-industrial urban cultures such as the wearing of veils, not just in Muslim, but also the ancient Greek society and foot binding in China. Women in urban societies were also married off at earlier ages and as pawns in family alliances, although this could happen among peasants as well. That being said, practices could vary a bit from country to country. For example, a woman in England could take over her husband’s business after he died if he hand no adult sons to succeed him. In general, however, urban living was no bargain as far as women’s status was concerned.

Peasant women

Peasant women actually laid the firmest foundations for later gains in status. Part of this comes from the fact that they shared in the farm work and thus had status closer to that of their husbands than did their counterparts in town. This is typically overlooked because we have few written sources by or about women overall, and even fewer for peasant women who were almost always illiterate (as were their husbands). However, in the 1300s, a colder climate and bubonic plague would improve their status in an unforeseen way.

People realized that overpopulation had made the disasters of the fourteenth century especially bad. Therefore, they made efforts to limit population growth so they didn’t have to keep splitting up family lands until the plots were too small to support anyone. The primary method for this was to delay the age of marriage for both men and women. Men would typically wait until they could independently support themselves, which usually meant when their parents died or were too old to manage the family lands. Thus the multi-generational extended family of several generations living together under one roof gave way to the nuclear family of just parents and children in the household. However, most relatives still stayed in the same village or close by, thus providing the same basic safety net of support that extended families had provided for centuries. The real fragmentation into isolated nuclear families would not take place until the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century and the invention of the suburbs a century later.

Women also married later, which was especially critical to population control by restricting the number of active childbearing years. Thus women who previously might have married in their teens, now married in their twenties. However, women in their twenties were a bit harder to force into an arranged marriage than girls in their teens (despite what the behavior of the fourteen year old Juliet in Shakespeare’s play might suggest).

Two bits of peasant culture support this. One is a common betrothal ceremony. When a couple had mutually agreed to get married, the man would approach the woman in the presence of neighbors and ask her if she were married, which everyone of course knew was not the case. He would then say he thought they should get married, and the crowd would agree. But then someone would say the prospective bride should have a say, to which everyone agreed. She would then assent to the marriage and they were betrothed.

Another bit of evidence comes from children’s games, which typically mimic adult behavior. In one game, a circle of girls protects one girl from the boys who are trying to break in and “marry” her. After the boys have tried to win the girl over with all sorts of promises, she chooses whom she will marry. The point in each of these examples is that peasant women in Western Europe had a say in whom they would marry, giving them more say in their lives than found in other cultures. Women would build on this status during the suffrage movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Noble women, the courts of love, and the birth of “romance”

. Women of the noble class underwent a very different sort of change in status. Their position in the warrior class gave them status over men for lower classes, but they were still subordinate to their husbands who almost exclusively did the fighting. However, the need for and value of warriors gradually started to drop as more settled conditions took over in the high Middle Ages. Meanwhile, there was a rising tide of piety, especially toward the Virgin Mary who symbolized a more gentle and merciful side of Christianity, and this was reflected on the esteem given to women overall.

One can see this reflected in the account of an Arab observer in the 12th century: "The Franj (Franks, Western Europeans) have no
sense of honor. If one of them is walking in the street with his wife and encounters another man, that man will take his wife's hand & draw her aside and speak to her, while the husband stands waiting for them to finish their conversation. If it lasts too long, he will leave her with her interlocutor & go off.”

The scene shifts to Duke William IX of Aquitaine, father of one of the more assertive women of the age, Eleanor of Aquitaine. When Arab love poetry coming up from Spain was introduced to William’s court, it caught on, first with the duke and then with his subordinates. Following is a selection from one such poem:
“A gazelle's are her eyes, sun-like is her splendor,
Like a sandhill her hips, like a bough her stature:
With tears I told her plaintively of my love for her,
And told her how much my pain made me suffer.
My heart met hers, knowing that love is contagious,
And that one deeply in love can transmit his desire…”

Traveling troubadours, who depended on the generosity of their hosts to make a living and previously had subsisted on stirring tales of battle, added these poems to their repertoire with great success, especially with the ladies of the household. In Southern France, where they started, they had to be careful not to make the songs too explicitly romantic with the man of the house right there. Therefore, at first, this was all very idealistic and non-physical in nature, but that changed when it spread to northern France and generated a new movement: the courts of love.

The courts of love were set up as a mirror image of regular courts. Whereas, in the king and nobles’ courts, men ruled by right of strength and power, and prowess in battle or tournaments was celebrated, in the courts of love, women presided and romantic virtues, poetic ability and good manners determined one’s place.

According to Andreas Coppolamus, an early writer on courtly love: "Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of or excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other & by common desire to carry out all of love's precepts in the other's embraces.”

Supposedly, a true lover never slept soundly, but always tossed & turned in bed. True love improved a man in every way. Fools became wise; klutzes became graceful & polished; cowards became heroes. It was even doubted whether a man who didn't truly love a woman could be a true knight. In fact, it was ideas like that last point that probably worked the courtly love ideals into the mainstream of society ruled by men.

The courts of love established strict rules on what true love is.

It was always between people of nearly equal social standing. Ironically it was supposedly acceptable for a noble to rape a peasant without losing his lady’s favor since peasants were considered incapable of feeling love.

It was always adulterous. The Church idea that sex was only for reproduction led to the belief that people so bound to each other couldn't love each other. Therefore, courtly love must be outside marriage and one was not in fashion if one didn't have boyfriend or girlfriend outside of marriage.

It was always idealized & pure. This was a fairly new notion, considering love before was often spelled l-u-s-t (e.g., Ovid). With courtly love, the true test of love was for a couple to sleep together without doing anything but sleep.

It was religious in tone. This fit well with being idealized and pure, but hardly with the Church's stance on sex & love.

It was always secretive and expressed through sly glimpses, shadows of a smile and other signs of affection. Although it was best to keep one's extramarital affairs secret, women naturally wanted to advertise the attentions of other men to themselves. This led to a highly stylized ritual behavior where every word or action had significance.

It was always long lasting, faithful, & arduous, as seen in this story by Boccaccio:

"A knight who had offended his mistress was told, after two years of refusal, that if he would have one of his fingernails torn off & if 50 loving & faithful knights presented it to her, she might forgive him. He hastened to obey her. The nail was brought to her by 50 knights- all certified to be in the good grace of their ladies- resting on a velvet cushion. She was so touched by his obedience & commitment that she forgave him."

Of course this raises the question of how the ladies got the men to buy into this new code of behavior. For one thing, women did have higher status than before, and therefore more say in who received their favors.

One possible scenario may be that if one nobleman at court brushed his teeth and bathed regularly, talked about nice things rather than the latest foe he decapitated in battle, and used a handkerchief instead of his hand as the receptacle for blowing his nose, he must have gotten all the ladies’ attention. Therefore, other guys would have to do the same if they wanted a date for Saturday night.

Since nobles set the tone for the rest of society, these new ideas about romance, everlasting love, and chivalrous behavior toward women spread to the lower classes and became firmly embedded in our culture. Not until the later twentieth century would these values come under attack as being demeaning to women. However, if one considers the position women had been in before, this was a giant step forward.