It’s a myth that women never had it so good – take a look at medieval times | Marthe Gill
How was the life of women in medieval times? “Awful” is the vague but definitive answer that tends to come to mind – but it’s a guess, and the authors have tackled it with new vigor.
Sex past and future: Going Medieval on the roles of women in society by Eleanor Janega, and The Woman of Bath: A Biography by Marion Turner both claim that women were not only lecherous but busier than we thought: they were brewers, blacksmiths, court poets, teachers, merchants and master craftsmen, and they also owned land. A wife’s dowry, Janega writes, was often accompanied by firm instructions that the property would remain with her, regardless of what her husband wanted.
It looks like a new discovery. This is not the case, of course. Chaucer portrayed many of these cheerfully dominating women. The City of London’s vellum notebooks of letters, in which the doings of the capital from 1275 to 1509 were scribbled, naturally detail barbers, apothecaries, gunsmiths, carpenters and tailors. While it is true that aristocratic women were seen as radically inferior to their male counterparts—exchanged as commodities and kept as adornments—lower-order women lived, relatively, in a kind of raw, ready empowerment.
It was the Renaissance that largely pushed back women’s rights. As economic power shifted, the emerging middle classes began to ape their superiors. They confined their wives to the house, putting them at the financial mercy of men. Female religious power has also diminished. In the 13th century, seeing visions and hearing voices could make a woman holy; a hundred years later, she would more likely be burned at the stake.
Why does this look like new information? Much of what we think we know about medieval times was invented by the Victorians, who had an artistic obsession with this period, and through the endless poetry and storytelling of the King Arthur mythos they managed to constantly infusing it with their own sexual politics. (Victorian women were in many ways more socially repressed than their twelfth-century ancestors.)
But modern storytellers are also guilty of sexist revisionism. We endlessly retread the lives of oppressed noble women and ignore their secretly empowered lower order sisters. Where poorer women are mentioned, at a glance they are pitied as prostitutes or victims of rape. Even writers who seem desperate for a “feminist take” on the period tend to ignore the angle that stares them in the eye. In his cinematic antics of 2022, Catherine called Birdy, for example, Lena Dunham puts Sylvia Pankhurst’s speeches in the mouth of her 13th-century protagonist, while describing her impending marriage – at 14 – as normal for the times. (In fact, the average 13th-century woman married between the ages of 22 and 25.)
But we cling to these ideas. It is often those who reject them who are accused of “historical revisionism”. This particularly applies to the fantasy genre, which aside from the odd supernatural “fiery” female character, tends to portray the period as, well, misogynistic fantasy. THE Game Of Thrones Author George RR Martin once defended the TV series’ slapstick mistreatment of women on the grounds of realism. “I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and show what medieval society was like.” Oddly, this didn’t apply to female hairs (or dragons).
It’s interesting. Most of our historical bias tends to go the other way: we assume that the past was like the present. But when it comes to the history of gender relations, the opposite is true: storytellers insist on portraying women as more oppressed than they actually were.
The casual reader of the story has the faint impression that between the Paleolithic era and the 19th century, women suffered a sort of dark age of oppression. It is assumed that it ended some time around the invention of the light bulb, when the idea of ”gender equality” sprung into our heads and right-thinking societies began to “discover “women’s skills: women – surprisingly – could do things that men could do. !
In fact, the history of gender relations could be more accurately described as a standoff between the sexes, with women gaining and sometimes losing power – and the stronger sex opportunistically taking control whenever it comes. had the means.
In Minoan Crete, for example, women had similar rights and freedoms to men, taking an equal part in hunting, competitions and celebrations.
But this era ushered in one of the most patriarchal societies the planet has ever known – classical Greece, where women had no political rights and were considered “minors”.
Or take hunter-gatherer societies, the source of countless cod-evolutionary theories of female inferiority. The discovery of female skeletons with hunting paraphernalia has refuted the idea that men hunted and women gathered – and more recently anthropologists have challenged the idea that men also had a higher status: women, according to studies, had an equal influence on group decisions.
This general bias had two unfortunate consequences. One is to get us to understand the idea that inequality is ‘natural’. The other is to give us a certain complacency vis-à-vis our own age: that feminist progress is an inevitable consequence of the passage of time. “She was ahead of her time,” we say, when a woman seems exceptionally self-sufficient. Not necessarily.
Two years ago, remember, one of the most vicious patriarchies in history arose – women were taken out of their schools and workplaces and locked into homes and hijabs. And last year in the United States, many women lost one of their fundamental rights: abortion. (Turns out they were pro-lifers, not feminists, who were ahead of their time there.)
These two events were greeted with shock by liberal circles: how could women’s rights be pushed back? But that only shows that we should refresh our history. Another look at medieval women is a good place to start.