The Role of Women in Medieval Society


The rise of European Christianity during 500AD brought about a new age of women dedicated to the home, the family, and the church.  So, it is little wonder that the church often defined the roles of women in society by using God’s word to deliver the message. However, the roles varied based on their class of being a titled woman, a worker, or a nun.  Bolton (1976) writes, “…under the levelling of Christianity, the position of women throughout Europe was kept within certain limits” (p. 15).  These boundaries defined the role of a woman as a legal dependent of a father or husband, a role of wife and mother, and a nun.  Social classes further restricted the role of women by determining what activities they were expected to do.  The women who had no marriage prospects were expected to dedicate their lives to God even if they had no desire.  Little economic opportunities existed for women outside of these roles because of the male-dominated society to which they were born.  It is in these roles that many women found themselves in either overseeing a grand estate or working on one because of an established feudal system.  In either position, having the women to run those households were essential. Even the nuns had pivotal roles in the church, and they often had more liberties than women outside their walls.  By analyzing the role of women in Medieval Europe, it will show that a patriarchal society existed that defined them as the wives, the mothers, the caregivers, and the nuns. Even in these roles, class systems further defined their importance.

The Patriarchal Society of Marriage

Although the law of the land did not define that a woman could not exist without her father or husband’s consent, the influence of the church did.  With the help of the Bible, the church dictated that women served God first, their lords second, and their home third.  So, it was within these dictates that women found themselves in either the role of the dependent of fathers, the wives, or the servants of the church. The church often used the reference to Eve, who disobeyed God and banished from Eden, as their influence over them. To disobey the Heavenly Father, patriarchal father, or the church was a sin. Herlihy (1995) writes, “The legal traditions imposed on women numerous disabilities that made it difficult for them to act independently of male tutelage” (p. 15).  Women were not legally allowed to hold political offices or inherit titles.  Socially, men and the church dictated women could not retain land, be responsible for assets, or marry without a father’s approval.  Men often gave any assets as forms of dowries designed to enhance the daughters’ abilities to find husbands. Dowries ranged from money or land if titled, animals or any assets if workers, and women who had neither were given to God.

The Role of Women in the Home

The class system always determined a woman’s fate because it determined the future life a woman would lead. The role of titled women differed greatly from the wives of peasants or nuns. Women were only as lucky as the class systems they were born, and even then, ranks within those systems further defined how society valued them. Herlihy (1995) writes, “Men and women operated within widely separate social spheres.  Men held a monopoly over social affairs, and the formal acts of government. Women…presided over the activities that were carried on or were centered upon the household” (p. 16).  Titled women were born into lives of luxury. They dressed in the current mode of fashion, performed jobs like learning to play an instrument, dancing, and learning to become the wives of titled men. Upon marriage, a well-trained wife would know how to take over the duties of running large estates because they had been trained to do so. However, their duties were mainly limited to overseeing these household duties and not performing them. Titled women were expected to be hostesses and represent their husbands at all times. They were also expected to oversee the children, their educations, and their pastimes. Female children often stayed under the tutelage of their mothers for training, but male children were given to their fathers to begin learning how to inherit their titles.

The role of the poor women was much different in theory. These women awoke early to begin preparing for the day. Men would leave for work quite early and it was the wives responsibilities to make sure they were ready.  Preparing breakfast as early as four in the morning was essential for making sure the household was fed on time. Unlike modern times, women often had to gather wood for a cooking fire, gather eggs or milk for the day, and begin baking so that breakfast was on the table when expected. If it was not, some women received verbal or physical punishments, and they were considered normal both legally and morally. Other responsibilities than cooking included cleaning, caring for the children, tending to animals, and the children’s educations. Just as the titled parents did, these parents taught their daughter the same roles as their mothers as women did not marry outside of their classes.  Some wives also helped with harvesting because many hands were needed to get food in before it ruined in the fields. Gathering the food was vital resource for women to use for canning so that the family had enough to last through a long winter. Women who were married to tradesmen like printers, weavers, or fishermen often tended their shops or helped in duties like spinning or performing manual duties even though it was not permitted by the guilds.  Guilds were forms of skilled workers unions that were reserved for men only.  However, one would be remiss to think that women were not vital assets in these industries because they labored just as hard as their husbands and fathers.

The Role of Women and the Church

Women in the church often had much more freedoms than those who chose to marry.  The Catholic Church allowed women to reach levels of importance as that of the abbesses.  As writing literature was limited to religious material, women in the church were allowed to read and write.  Most women outside of the church could do neither.  Women in the church were responsible for daily prayers, caring for the parishioners, and tending the needs of the church.  They were important to the monastery because they often were the most sought after individuals for young women who needed help.  They also cared for the homeless children and the sick townspeople who had nowhere else to go.  Because the church retained the most powerful position in any city, women were given choices to rise to power even though they were denied the same level of power in society.

Women in medieval societies had few choices because their lives were dominated by a patriarchal society.  Whether it was laws created, church dictates, or society, women found they had few choices given to them.  Women also were groomed for these roles because they learned early on how to survive in the world they were born.  Early medieval women were strictly forbid any roles outside the home.  But, by the middle and high medieval periods, women were beginning to find their voices even though society still produced laws and church rules aimed at keeping them in the homes.  However, comparing their lives between these periods show remarkable changes in social dictates that help to explain why women are independent in the Western world today.  By comparing the medieval times to modern times, it shows many examples of progress made for and by women that allow society to understand their importance.





Works Cited

Bolton, B., & Stuard, S. M. (1976). Women in medieval society (Vol. 88). University of Pennsylvania Press.

Herlihy, D. (1995). Women, family and society in medieval Europe: historical essays, 1978-1991. Berghahn books.


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