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27 Jul

Women in the Middle Ages

The position of a woman in the medieval household is very difficult to determine although there is no doubt that women were inferior members of the society throughout the Medieval Times. Medieval world was dominated by men, constant warfare and struggles for the existence, while fertility was more often considered a curse than a blessing. Thus women were not exactly respected members of the medieval society.

Christian institutions which were led by men did not put a lot of effort to improve women’s moral and material position in the medieval society. Even more, the Christian doctrine considered women responsible for the original sin and the Fall of Man, while women were often also considered as the personification of the devil which appears in the form of temptation. The cults of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of Mary Magdalene in the 12th and 13th century improved the position of women in a certain way. However, this rehabilitation did not result in the beginning but in the end of improvement of women’s role and position in the medieval society.

Isabella I of Castile by Pedro Marcuello, 1482

Isabella I,
Queen of Castile

Unlike in the medieval society, women were not inferior in medieval economy. Women were practically equal to men in the class of peasantry and agricultural economy, while noblewomen were very important economic subjects. Besides raising children, taking care of household, and providing supply and guidance to the knights and maids, noblewomen were often leading the workshops with luxurious products like weaving of exquisite fabrics and textiles, embroidering and production of tapestries. Women from the medieval elites, daughters and wives (princesses and queens) of medieval kings were shown great respect, while some of them gained great influence, especially the queens who usually acted as regents during the minority of their children in case of their husband’s death. Medieval queens sometimes ruled a kingdom jointly with their husbands and sometimes even as sole rulers.

The rise of medieval cities and towns resulted in a line of positive changes of women’s role in the society, especially of the women of lower classes who could actively contribute to their family incomes working predominantly as wageworkers and saleswomen. However, when and where the labour supply was greater than the demand women were often employed in physically demanding jobs such as construction works and smithery, while the most helpless ones fall into prostitution. The women of wealthier classes also greatly contributed to the stability and wealth of their families. They often took over the family business on death of their husbands and in other critical situations such as demographic crises and inner conflicts. However, female members of the family could not equally participate in the family business with the male members nor receive education of the same quality. Their role in society and family remained primally limited on raising children and taking care of household.

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