Women in Medieval Society Term Paper

Pages: 6 (1963 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 17  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Sports - Women

Women in Medieval Society

During the early Medieval Period, women had few opportunities to advance in society due to the strict rules that governed them. The vast majority of women at this time whether they were upper class, merchant class or peasants were expected to perform domestic functions with their chief duty being reproduction and the care of children. The class that a woman came from would have some bearing on her ability to control her own destiny and environment. However, in general, few rights and privileges were available to women regardless of their status in the society. Of course, there were exceptions. The names of a few women who were writers, artists, religious leaders, even saints have come down to us through the few sources available from that time. However, they appear to be the exception and not the rule to what was happening in the early middle ages.

One of the key problems with evaluating women's position in Medieval society is simply a lack of available information. Very little has survived in written form from the period and what does exist does not mention women very frequently. The job of the scholar is to read what little material is available and read and study between the lines of written documents and artistic renderings of the period to determine exactly what role women were playing in the society.

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Women had no independence of thought or idea, but once married or connected to a religious order, they could hold quasi-positions of leadership. The problem was that these were dictated and restricted by society.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Women in Medieval Society During the Early Assignment

One of the key problems women faced in any situation was simply the belief of their inferiority. Due to a strict adherence to religion, women were overtly blamed for Eve's sin. By applying this type of guilt to women, men were able to exert a control mechanism to make women be obedient and subservient in an attempt to atone for Eve's sin. "Woman was made from one of Adam's ribs and was responsible for his fall, so she had to obey her husband, keep his house, bear his children, and see to their education." These ideas were pressed on girls very early as they were to conform to their parent's rules in preparation for taking a husband and being appropriately subservient.

Marriage, usually around the age of 14-16, was the sole function of a young lady's life. At the higher end of society, marriages were made to unite important families, exchange property, and create alliances. Despite the concept of knights and chivalry that would arise later in this period, marriage was about business, not love, for the wealthier young women, especially in the early Medieval Period. The parties involved would agree on the terms frequently when the future bride was a mere child. The future husband paid a deposit on his wife which would cost him greatly if he tried to get out of the relationship. Upon the actual wedding, the husband would settle one-half to one-third of his estate on his wife and usually pay a fee for her lost virginity. The document entitled "A Husband's Endowment Of His Future Wife On Their Betrothal - Southern Burgundy, 994" details not only the sanctity of marriage, but also the terms offered to his wife, Ermengarde, for her future.

Despite these seemingly good terms that women had at the beginning of a marriage in the upper classes at least, the reality was that their function was to have babies and raise them accordingly. The position of power that the marriage agreement would suggest quickly fades when one looks at the actual function of these women in the eyes of their husbands and their families. "Reproduction was the one goal of marriage on which clergy and laity could agree, and motherhood was the one role for women that most medieval people held as a norm." This was the primary expectation for upper class women and the women lose any power or control over the situation that they might have had by being viewed as "a conduit for the blood of two noble houses to mingle."

Despite this grim picture, there is significant evidence to suggest that women were sometimes more than vessels to produce babies. Upper class women were expected to be able to manage their households and estates in the absence of their husbands. In preparation for this, girls of the higher classes would be given an education in mathematics and reading. Under the feudal system, the estates would be highly organized which would help the women manage the day-to-day operation. However, the wives or widows that ran these estates had to have excellent management skills to deal with the complexity of the household and grounds. This ability was not considered extraordinary or unique; it was simply what was expected of a noble wife from the time. It was the role that she was permitted to perform by the limits of Medieval Society.

Merchant women were also expected to contribute to the business end of their lives.

They may have married under similar circumstances as the upper class girls in terms of arranged marriages and merchant women were expected to take an active role in their husband's business. Her function was to "encourage her husband and other workers to start early in the morning, and...learn all the shop details so that she can properly supervise the workers when her husband is away or not paying attention." She was also to properly raise and educate the children and make sure they were suitably disposed of in marriage or trade as they became adults themselves. Although this role is once again confining, the woman does serve an important function in the life of her husband's business.

The peasant woman's life, although more difficult in terms of day-to-day labor, was little different in terms of value as the more affluent classes. Peasant women had a great deal of responsibility for their household as they were entirely in charge of the "inside" tasks which were extensive. Although they worked hard, peasant women were believed to have more freedoms than the upper classes as they could hire themselves out for labor. The restrictions that kept aristocratic women on their estates and merchant women in their shops did not apply to peasant women; they enjoyed greater freedom of movement.

However, this does not mean that they had real rights or opportunity to improve their status in any way. They were limited by a lack of education which would have been deemed unnecessary and a lack of money. They could hire themselves out as agricultural labor or midwives, hence, making themselves a commodity. Unfortunately, the pay they could expect to receive would be minimal and the women would still have to manage their own homes and families as they had always done. If married, any money they earned would become the property of their husbands. The confines of society kept these women poor as well as tied to the land and their husbands.

Women who chose not to marry could become part of the massive infrastructure of the Roman Catholic Church. At the lowest level, women could become nuns.

Some chose this for themselves as a way to dedicate themselves to God. However, many nuns were forced there by their families as a way to dispose of an extra and/or unmarriable daughter, sister, or aunt. Once a girl was placed in a nunnery, she was considered "dead" to her family. Therefore, the family was under no obligation to support her or give her any dowry or inheritance.

These nuns, in many ways, simply did not exist independent of the convent.

Other forms of religious devotion such as the Hermitess gave women the opportunity to be more independent. Although the women would live in solitude and privation, they would have authority over their own actions as they were outside the norms of society. The more powerful position open to women in religious situations was the Abbess who was responsible for the management both religious and secular of her convent. Women in this position had power within the framework of the church. Religious women at any level did not have to deal with the expectations of society or husbands, however, they were limited by the rules of the church. Since women were unable to officiate over a mass, nuns were still dependent on men supplied by the church. The reality was that religious woman of higher status traded one kind of limitations for another. They could do different things than married women, yet, like their married counterparts, they did not have opportunities that were really going to improve the position of women in society.

Aside from societal and religious limitations on women, they were also victims of legal limitations. The legal rights of women varied greatly depending on the location, however, it is safe to say that women, especially married women, had very few legal rights. At the time of a woman's marriage, she relinquished all legal… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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