Heritage > Medieval Life

Women in the Middle Ages

Medieval WomanWomen were seen by many to be inferior to men during the middle ages. The church taught them that they should be meek and obedient to their fathers and husbands. In reality however very few of the women could stay quietly at home because most had to work for a living in the fields beside their husbands and fathers whilst at the same time feeding and clothing their families. The wives and daughters of craftsmen were frequently employed and operated as tradeswomen in their own right. However very few women became powerful enough to have any bearing on national events.

In the towns, women worked in a variety of occupations. They might be shopkeepers, spinners, bakers or "alewives" who brewed ale. Both married and unmarried women were expected to work for a living, Often they would combine several jobs as they were paid less than men.

Young single women often wore their hair loose but married women were expected to keep their hair covered at all times in a linen "wimple" as a sign of modesty. Single women often earned a living from spinning cotton, using hand held spindles (the spinning wheel didn't arrive from India until the 13th Century). They subsequently became known as spinsters and this name has stuck over the years to mean unmarried woman.

Many unmarried women entered convents and nunneries where they lived their lives in a similar way to a monk. Nunneries offered women the opportunity to lead a devout life and also to obtain an education and take on responsibilities denied to them in the outside world. As local landowners and employers, many abbesses were important figures in the community.

In fact landowners be they male or female were powerful figures in medieval society, and an unmarried woman of property had an equal right to men. She could make a will and sign documents with her own seal. However when a woman married she forfeit all her land and rights to her husband. On his death she was entitled to one third of his land upon which to support herself.

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