Did Women in the Late Middle Ages Experience a ‘Golden Age’?

During the late Middle Ages, women had usually been viewed as the weaker sex, and the ‘disadvantaged segment of society’. However this was an opinion which changed throughout the thirteenth to fourteenth century, following legislations which were published allowing women more power and control. In this blog post I will attempt to assess how much power women gained throughout this period, and in which areas did they gain this power in. It will discuss how the environment which young girls grew up, and the prospects which they gained from their circumstances, as well as their influences over marriage negotiations, working and landholding.

Women and girls have always been seen as the weaker sex, due to Genesis in the Bible. The people in the early middle ages, to whom religion was everything, the scripture had informed them that women and inferior to men. Eve was a biblical figure who was made from the rib of Adam, suggesting that woman survived purely due to the superiority of man. It was also Eve who was weak, and so was easily tempted by the serpent. This was a message which they could not ignore, and a view which women would have always struggled to overcome. This therefore meant that when girls were born, they were not always necessarily wanted by their parents. The late medieval period was a harsh and difficult time, with diseases such as the Black Death (1348) prominent, the death rate was high; especially with young children and babies. This meant that children (both boys and girls) were usually born into families with unloving parents, and it was not until after the age of around five that parents began to take an emotional interest in their children. Girls from peasant families were typically sent into service from the age of seven onwards, meaning that they could only enjoy a couple of years with their parents love and attention. The prospect of service however, could be worse for young girls than the idea of living with unloving parents. It was whilst in service that girls could be badly treated, or sexually abused by males in the household, or their masters. Rape, or just the fear of rape was used almost as a piece of propaganda to keep young women within the house and under the control of their masters. Men used fear as a tool to hold a substantial amount of control over young women and girls. However, girls who had grown up in the late medieval ages grew up with prospects. This was a period where they were able to gain work, power and influence. The Black Death meant that the population was low, and that labourers were high in demand. The possibility of marriage also meant that young girls and women would not necessarily be trapped in an abusive work place all their lives.

Evidence suggests that marriage during the later middle ages gave women much more freedom than is usually assumed. Consent was vital in marriage, from both participants. This meant that women were not always forced into marriage, they had a choice. Women could also refuse marriage proposals from potential suitors, as well as refusing the plans of their ambitious parents. This is the case with two of the Paston sisters. Margery was married in 1469 to an employee of the family in secret. Despite her parents protesting, the bishop had to declare the marriage as binding, as both parties had given their consent willingly. This would suggest to modern historians that women could marry for love and attraction, as well as the obvious reason to marry for increased wealth and social status. Before this event, in the 1450s, Elizabeth Paston had been told by her parents to marry a wealthy widower, who was several years her senior. Elizabeth refused to marry him, despite constant abuse from her mother; it was because of her refusal that the marriage never materialised. The Paston family suggest that women had a very large part to play in marriage, and it was not a thing that could be arranged and unwilling. There was also a rise of annulments during the late medieval ages. This ensured that if a woman had been forced to marry a man, she was within her rights to reverse the process. An example of this is the case of Agnes Grantham of York, who was abducted in 1410 by John Dale and was forced into marriage. Agnes claimed that she feared being raped, and within a matter of days her marriage had been annulled. Women had the power to control their futures to a certain extent. They were not forced into marriages, and could annul any which were made under duress. Nevertheless, some historians, such as J. C. Ward, believed that women did not have a prominent role to play in marriage negotiations, especially women who belonged to noble families. Marriages were generally seen as a way of forging alliances with other powerful and influential families. This could suggest that women of the nobility did not have the same amount of freedom as has previously been displayed in the essay. Young women were still under control of the patriarchs of her family; firstly her father, and then her husband and father-in-law. There was also the issue of violence from a husband. The household had always been a very hierarchical place, and without a doubt, it was dominated by men, who sat at the very top of the hierarchy. It was still within the law that a man could strike his wife if she was behaving disobediently, or disrespectfully; thus demonstrating that woman would most probably still be living with the fear which was installed into them as children. Overall, women did have an impressive amount of power for the time period. Although it was not always the case, they had the ability to choose their husbands, whether that be for love or wealthy.

Another way in which women had much more power during the later middle ages was in their ability to work. This was both in the upper classes and nobility, as well as women from the peasantry classes. This was especially the case after the Black Death in the fourteenth century, when a large percentage of the population had diminished, and so labourers were in demand. Historians, such as Judith E. Bennett believed that the demographic crisis of the Black Death resulted in women’s positions remained consistent throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The lifestyles of women were fairly similar to men’s, thus improving their qualities of life, as well as their power and influence within their communities. Noble women were not prevented from enjoying the same luxuries as her husband, suggesting that women in the late medieval age were not always treated as the inferior sex. On the other hand, there are many example of historians, such as Caroline M. Barron and P. J. P Goldberg who believed that the rise in the status of women was merely a temporary change, rather than an alteration which would become permanent. Even though this was an excellent opportunity for women, it was not an opportunity which paid particularly highly. Bardsley’s research concludes that women were not paid nearly as much as men. The highest paid women were almost paid an equal amount to the lowest paid men. The rates of pay suggest that despite the ability to work, women were still not anywhere near equal to me. However, to contemporary audiences this would have still been an improvement for women. Women then possessed a similar amount of power to the men, even if they did not possess the same amount of money.

Women did rely a lot on the wealth and status of their husbands. The exception to this was most likely heiresses, who did possess a great deal of power. The majority of women did however, depend on their husbands for power. This meant that if their husbands were to die before them, they were likely to lose a great deal of their own power and status. However, during the late middle ages, women still had the right and the ability to maintain their high quality of life. The law even stated that after the death of a husband, his wife was to act as head of the households and estates. The Magna Carta also stated that widows had to receive their inheritance within forty days of their husband’s death, and were allowed to remain in his house for forty days. The legislation meant that women did not lose their wealth, and thus had similar power even after the death of her husband. Women of the late medieval ages were therefore living during a ‘golden age’. They were no longer entirely reliant on the life of their superior. In their inheritance, women could be granted the land, which again increases opportunities for the widow. She was then in charge of her estate, without the control and supervision of her husband; demonstrating her power. Archer has suggested that women as landholders were viewed as equally important as males, which again validates the power which women possessed. Widows were also allowed to remarry at least once, and their second marriage usually allowed the women to decide their husband for themselves. The freedom of choice which women were granted signifies the independence and control that women possessed.

To finalise, women certainly did exercise much more power than is usually assumed by modern historians. Looking back into the late medieval period, it is easy to believe that women did not experience a ‘golden age’ at all, merely a slight improvement in their living conditions. However, contemporary civilians would have most likely believed that women were living throughout a ‘golden age’. Women possessed a lot more power and influence, they gained the ability to work, as well as owning lands and households. Albeit slight changes from a modern perspective, contemporary women would have been able to notice this immense growth in their freedom and power. It can therefore be argued that the late medieval period was definitely a golden age for women.




One thought on “Did Women in the Late Middle Ages Experience a ‘Golden Age’?

  1. Interesting post. It has been argued by a few historians (quite convincingly, I might add), that although we idealize Classical civilization, Medieval women had more rights and freedom then they did in Ancient Rome.

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