Role of Women in Medieval EnglandMost of us have seen the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood. Olivia de Havilland was mild, sweet, and innocent. In these types of movies the medieval lady usually rode side-saddle, was meek, and the men handled everything.
In medieval times, this just wasn't the case. The way medieval people viewed their world was often quite different than how we, in modern times, view our world.
Note: this essay discusses in part how medieval men and women considered sexual intimacy as a critical component of health, along with eating, drinking, breathing, and sleeping, and how this impacted their relationships. If this topic is uncomfortable to you, you may want to skip to my other content.
Women were Respected
In medieval times the church was struggling to gain a foothold in a land ruled by pagan influence - a land where the power of the mother goddess was worshipped. Women were treasured as the bringers of life. Queen Boudicca, born around the time of Christ, led her troops against the invading Romans and commanded the respect and admiration of her troops.
This sense of strength was amplified by the Crusades. Vast numbers of men left to join the Holy cause, and just as in World War II, this meant the women took over many roles in society. Women ran the inns. Women ran the government. Ninety percent of brewers were female. Women handled legal paperwork and withstood rebellions. Queen Blanche of Castile (1187-1251) ran France while her son was off fighting, and she received great acclaim. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (1137-1204) was a powerful force in both England and France. She held her own against invaders and rode in the Crusades.
There often simply weren't men around. In the second and third crusades alone over a half million men perished. That was a massive loss of men on that population. The women had to - and did - rise to the challenge.
Women being respected and in power wasn't thought of as unusual. Again, the pagan roots of England gave matriarchs great power. The heavy thumb of the church, with its male-centric teachings, had not yet lowered.
It wasn't just the elite noblewomen who thrived and had strength. Even the most common of women couldn't be meek or mild in medieval times - there were wolves, bandits, and disease at every corner. The meek were the ones who died. Men craved strong, able wives who could help them plow the fields and protect the livestock. Never mind to create a bevy of robust, healthy children.
One of my pet peeves in movies is that medieval women wouldn't have ridden sidesaddle! It wasn't until the 1500s that a sidesaddle was developed for women who wanted to control her own horse from a sideways position. And this was only for a slow gait of a leisure noblewoman. Medieval women rode astride - it was the only way to competently control a horse in that time period.
Women of this time were strong, fierce, smart, and wise.
Women and Relationships
But what about courtship, you might ask? Weren't all women meekly told by their father who to date, instructed stayed chaste until their arrival at the altar, and then submitted to their husband in all things?
First, let's reiterate that the church didn't yet have full control in these early medieval days. During the Middle Ages, the number of non-church marriages outnumbered the church weddings. In the town of Ely, for one period, there were 89 non-church couplings compared with 32 church weddings. The couples simply decided they wanted to be together, had sex, and that was that.
Yes, for the upper-class nobles, marriage was often about tying land together. It could be biased toward political contracts. Still, the parents would take their child's desires into account, because there were always enough scheming nobles around who could take advantage of a schism to rally troops and overthrow any legal claim. The parents would strive to find a match that their child agreed with and that also best suited the family's quest for land, power, or money.
So, that being said, for the rest of non-noble society, marriage was about the health of two adult humans - which, at the time, was intimately tied to sex. Each half of a couple would consider it of utmost importance that they were drawn to the person they were going to marry. It wasn't just a "nice to have" - it was an innate part of being an adult.
In this time period, to "stop up" sexuality was to seriously damage the body. It would cause a blockage as deadly as putting a cork into one's rear end would. A marriage wasn't "complete" until the couple proved they had had sex. Men and women felt they had to have regular sex in order to stay healthy. Both men and women could divorce if a relationship dried up sexually. It would be considered tantamount to starving one's partner of food.
Prostitutes were common in medieval times not just for a "fun" reason but because this activity was considered a necessary part of being a healthy adult. Men would be considered sickly if they could not regularly have sex, and, until they were married and had access to their "own woman", towns wanted to ensure they did not take non-consensual advantage of other random women. It was considered important for men to have an outlet for their natural, healthy need in life. At the same time, it provided an income for women who were currently unattached and who would also benefit from the activity.
Keep in mind that these people lived in villages with farmland all around them. They routinely saw cows having sex. They saw horses having sex. An animal not having sex was a sickly animal that had to be cured. If the animals did not have sex, the village would fail. In the same way, if the people did not have sex - and create ample more children - the village would fail. These situations were not seen as private, hidden-away issues. Sex was not anything to be ashamed of. It was a normal action like eating or drinking. Medieval people were not shy about sex. They often lived in one-room cottages where everyone slept in the same place. Sex was considered normal, natural, and critically important to health - both for the individual and the community.
It was considered healthy that lusty teens would chase each other. The church didn't penalize these pairings. As long as the couple pledged to each other before the child was born, the family was considered whole and the child legitimate. Many villagers preferred to "prove fertility" before marrying - otherwise they had to go through the rough process of divorce one the couple discovered they were barren after a year or two. Not producing children was a standard reason for divorce, since creating a work-force of children was so important to many couples.
It was especially considered right that a man in power (a King or a Lord) would have relations with women around him. Not only was this good for his health, and a sign of his strength, but it was even seen as good for the women who were "servicing" him. They were helping him preserve his health and also bringing more of his line into the world. Yes, the children were bastards, but they often got their own coats of arms as well as a variety of holdings. Even if the woman was married, her husband would often have to hold his tongue. The Lord had the rights.
In general, men were thought to have stronger drives then woman, and more health issues if that drive was stymied. A married man who cheated was considered simply being a man. And, as we discussed earlier, a married woman who gave into a man "above her" in social class was equally given a pass. She was doing her duty to the man in charge. So it ends up that it's only when a married woman gave in to her lust and let a lower class man have access to her that the moral furies descended. And, really, the issue here was about the sanctity of the children she then bore. Her husband wouldn't want her to produce children who were not legitimately his but who he would have to provide money and lands to.
The way we view our world in modern times can be vastly different than how people in other eras viewed their society. Medieval people were at a crossroads where the old traditions of pagan equality were mingling with the women-centric world of the Crusades home-front. The church did not yet have the power to counteract these pairs of forces. Fertility and sexual health were both important health concerns to the people of this era, as they could make-or-break a village. Everyone had to pull together and do their part to keep the village strong. Women of this era were treasured, strong, respected, intelligent, and unabashedly sexual. They had to be. It was a key part of their role in society.
It may have taken our culture a full thousand years to come back around to this same level of respect for women. Many would say we are not quite there yet. Certainly we have made many improvements over medieval times, but in some ways their view on the world and relationships can give us thoughts to consider.
The illustration is a public domain image of the Boadicea Haranguing the Britons - a painting by John Opie from 1793
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