Nun, Widow, Wife, and More!: Career Options for Medieval Women
By Rachel Hartman
28 May 2001
The lives of most medieval women have been consigned to the realm of obscurity. There are a few whose names are still remembered, extraordinary women who left their mark on history and memory. We remember Joan of Arc, whose visions prompted her to dress as a man and lead the French against the English; Hildegarde of Bingen, who took full advantage of her monastic existence and produced music and mystical writings; Christine de Pisan, a young widow who was able to support herself with her writing, and whose The Treasure of the City of Ladies defends her sex against its detractors; Isabella of Castile, who helped unite Spain and gave Christopher Columbus his big break. But what about the rest of them, the women who weren't ruling nations or leading armies? We only get a distorted glimpse of them in literature, exempla stories, misogynistic treatises, and the cultural stereotypes of early marriage, illiteracy, and constant breeding.
Part of the problem is the lack of good documentation about the lives of ordinary women. Most medieval texts were written by men who, while they certainly didn't shy away from writing about women, did not provide the most unbiased testimony. Religious writings tended to focus on the inviolate, unattainable purity of Mary, and the sinful nature of the rest of womankind (women are, after all, descended from Eve, and therefore bear the stain of her sin). Secular literature places women upon the pedestal of chivalrous adoration, or depicts them as lustful, meddling, gossiping hags. Surely in real life there was some middle ground between saint and sinner.
In this article, I will explore the lives of ordinary medieval women. "Ordinary" is a broad and vague designation, but the lives of women had a lot in common across class lines. The wife of a nobleman had more in common with the wife of a peasant than the nobleman and the peasant would have had with each other. Both women would be expected to bear children, and would be valued in proportion to their fertility. Both would be expected to submit to their husbands' authority. Both would be told from a young age that they were sinful, weak, and vain by nature. Both would have only limited choices of what to do with their lives -- if they even got to choose!
Medieval speculative fiction abounds with princesses and women warriors. They appeal to our modern tastes, and certainly seem preferable to their downtrodden sisters, the hopeless and oppressed women whom our preconceptions say were the only alternative. I think a deeper understanding of the obstacles, realities, and opportunities that faced medieval women would expand the fantasy writer's characterization options. For example, when I was plotting the story "Belondweg Blossoming" for my comic Amy Unbounded, I happened to be reading Medieval Women in Towns and Cities by Erika Uitz. Uitz goes into great detail about inheritance laws, which determined how and whether a woman could run a business. This information enabled me to create a character I would not have thought of otherwise: a female merchant who would lose the business she'd inherited from her father unless she was married by a certain date. My Pearl-Agnes is an intelligent, hard-nosed businesswoman in a society that does not value these qualities in women. Surely there were plenty of intelligent women in the real Middle Ages as well -- how did they cope with the restrictions put on them by society? My guess is they found the few loopholes in the system and made good use of them. I hope to show that, while there were few options for medieval women, the outlook was not necessarily as bleak as one might imagine.
One option for women throughout the Middle Ages was to join a convent. The convent was, first and foremost, a place for the genuinely pious to devote their lives to god. However, monastic life had other, more worldly and practical attractions as well. Nuns often (though not universally) learned to read and write and had the opportunity to pursue a more scholarly existence than their secular counterparts; Hildegarde of Bingen exemplifies the scholarly nun. It seems reasonable to suppose that women of earlier eras were also attracted to the intellectual aspects of convent life.
Additionally, nuns didn't have to worry about dying in childbirth, a consideration that surely carried some weight in an era where the average life expectancy for women was about thirty years. If they could manage to keep their vows, especially chastity, they were assured of great rewards in heaven. St. Jerome, a fourth century theologian, claimed virgins would receive a hundred times their desserts in heaven, compared with sixty for chaste widows and a mere thirty for wives. Orders vigorously defended the purity of their women. According to Uitz, the order of St. Clare permitted its sisters to receive a visitor every two weeks, provided another sister was present and there was a grille between the nun and her visitor at all times. If that seemed like too much temptation, one could always become an anchoress, locked away in a windowless cell.
Nuns who broke their vows were doomed to a dreadful eternity, for it was far worse to break a promise to God than to merely sin. Numerous exempla stories illustrated the horrible fate disobedient nuns would suffer. Joan Young Gregg, in her book Devils, Women, and Jews, collects a number of these, in addition to stories about the evils of all womankind. The stories are particularly appalling to me because they were used as parts of actual sermons. How it must have felt to go to church week after week and hear your gender at large held up as an example of how not to make it to heaven? Gregg includes one story of a nun who was chaste in her body but not in her mind or speech. After she died, she was heard shrieking in her coffin. When her sisters opened her tomb, they saw that the upper portion of her body was all burnt and being tormented by devils, while the lower half remained beautiful and pure. Such stories served to remind those who thought of taking orders as an easy alternative that, in fact, the vows were difficult to keep and the stakes were very high.
Becoming a nun was not an option for everyone, in any case. Monasteries had to remain financially solvent, meaning that in many cases they preferred to take in women who could contribute funding to the order, either by being themselves wealthy widows or by having wealthy parents who were willing to pay an annuity. The exception were lay sisters, or Beguines, who came from varied social and financial backgrounds, created communities in towns, did not take such strict vows, and did textile work to finance their communities. They concerned themselves with caring for the poor, sick, and elderly, rather than cloistering themselves away from the world. They weren't officially sanctioned by the church, however, and in fact were frequently viewed with suspicion and considered heretical.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, convents became a dumping ground for the unmarried, unmarriagable, or simply unwanted daughters of aristocrats. Old maids of the lower classes, who couldn't afford to become nuns, would care for their aging parents, babysit their nieces and nephews, work as a servant in a wealthy household, or become prostitutes. Some unmarried women were able to start their own businesses, as I will discuss later on. In general, however, the convent was still the most socially acceptable option for women who didn't manage to marry.
The Wife at Home
Medieval society considered marriage the normal career for women. The nature of marriage changed over the course of the Middle Ages, from a secular arrangement to a sacrament of the church. Before the middle of the eighth century, marriage was more of a business arrangement between families, governed by Roman and Germanic law through most of Europe. There were three principal forms: marriage by purchase, marriage by capture, and marriage by mutual agreement. Marriage was a contractual obligation, and church involvement was strictly optional. When the church decided it should get in on the action, adding marriage as an official sacrament in 1215, it decided that the only legitimate marriage would be by mutual consent. Therefore, no person below the age of discretion -- that is, seven years old -- could legitimately get married. Additionally, "consent" didn't have to mean the girl herself. Her guardian's consent was usually considered just as good.
This is where one sees a large difference between serf households and those of the upper class. Serfs, prior to the church's mandatory involvement in marriage, did not get married. There was no point -- why make a marriage contract between people with little or no property, who couldn't read it anyway? Serfs simply cohabitated and were considered married under common law.
Many of the traditional duties of married women are familiar to us -- cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children. Women from wealthier households had maids and servants to help them with these chores, although one is given to understand that managing the servants was a chore in itself. In rural households, women would also have been in charge of the kitchen garden, gathering wood, dairy and textile production, and beer brewing. The idea was to give women the lighter chores, since more difficult tasks were thought to hurt their chances of bearing children.
Le Mesnagier de Paris is a late 14th century book, full of household hints, written by an elderly gentleman for his fifteen-year-old wife, and excerpted by Tania Bayard in her Medieval Home Companion. Bayard leaves out extended passages on religious duties, piety, and the seven deadly sins, considering them too boring for modern tastes, but it is nonetheless significant that the old Parisian included such instruction in the first place. Married women had to be just as concerned for their souls as nuns, and since they presumably weren't living a sexless existence, they had to work even harder than nuns to get to heaven.
The household hints from Le Mesnagier de Paris are varied and intriguing. The elderly husband gives his new wife advice on getting rid of fleas, planting the garden, dealing with dishonest servants, picking out the best kind of eel at the market, and how to avoid burning the soup. Even more interesting is his advice on how his wife should comport herself. He urges her to dress neatly, and make sure her petticoats aren't crooked and her hair isn't sneaking out the side of her wimple. He tells her to always go out in the company of other women who are known to be virtuous. She must avoid talking too much. Her virtue will be always under assault, so she must never read a letter from anyone but her husband in private -- all other letters should be read aloud to her by someone else. A wife's good reputation was extremely important.
Inevitably, some women outlived their husbands and became widows. The laws regarding inheritance varied from place to place, but the most general rule was that a widow was the guardian of her deceased husband's property until her children came of age. In some cases, the portion that was her dowry belonged to her and her daughters, and the rest went to her sons. In other cases, she could keep the entire property but forfeited it if she remarried. Widows, as mentioned earlier, were encouraged to remain single because of the rewards they would gain in heaven. They were considered to be in a better position, spiritually, than wives -- they had done their duty by marrying and having children, and were now voluntarily returning to a chaste condition. In addition, there was concern, based on John 4:18 (the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman who had married five times), that a second marriage didn't count in the eyes of heaven and would therefore be considered fornication. Many women (and men) remarried nonetheless.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages some social circumstances changed for both women and men. Towns increased in size and importance, and this resulted in a relaxation of certain feudal laws and customs. Previously, a serf belonged to his or her master, and only the master could change that. The burghers of towns, however, realizing the potential wealth to be gained with more industry, and realizing that more industry required more labor, began passing town laws that encouraged serfs to escape the countryside and live in town. If a serf could escape his feudal lord, flee to a town, and live there for a year and a day without being reclaimed, he was free. And not just him -- if she could do it, she was free as well.
Being free was no small matter. It meant one no longer carried the burden of owing everything to a feudal lord. A free person could own property, practice a trade or craft, and accumulate wealth. This was the beginning of a middle class, and of the first inklings of social mobility.
In Medieval Women in Towns and Cities, Erika Uitz examines the lives of women throughout this period, asserting that it was a window of opportunity during which women worked in trades and were able to own businesses in unprecedented number. She examines court records, guild regulations, church records, business receipts, wills, house accounts -- in short, all manner of official paperwork from the period -- and shows both the loopholes, and the evidence that women of that era were taking advantage of them.
On the most basic level, the fact that men were engaging in trade meant that women were taking a more active role in economic activity at home. If her husband was away on business a lot, the wife would have to know how to manage the expenses of the household to prevent cash-flow problems, be able to pay bills from creditors in his absence, and perhaps even deal with correspondence for him. This would require, at minimum, an ability to do math, and Uitz suggests that, among the merchant class, at least, women's literacy was advantageous and therefore valued. According to ledger books of the time, women sometimes acted as witnesses for business transactions, were responsible for purchasing supplies, performed basic bookkeeping, and even oversaw currency exchange. Women could also take over the business when their husbands died, a fact that indicates that they must have been familiar with the day-to-day operations.
There are also records of women conducting business on their own. Merchants' wives would sometimes enter into trade independently, financing a ship or an expedition. This really only happened in major trading centers, such as Venice, and these women were generally from fairly wealthy households to begin with. One gets the impression they were being indulged in a way poorer women wouldn't have been. It was, however, within the means of many women, married and unmarried, to keep a small shop and run a small business, for example, a tavern, or a pawn shop (if they were Jewish), or a dry goods store.
The evidence is sketchier for women working in crafts. There are women, usually widows, on record as being members of certain guilds, which Uitz interprets as evidence that women helped their husbands and learned their trades that way. Women worked in textiles, especially silk, spinning, carding, and purse-making. Uitz lists a few guilds in Paris that would even accept widows as masters: "the butcher, pancake-maker, fishmonger, baker, rosarymaker, bagmaker, hatmaker, beltmaker, leather-crafter, cutler, glass-grinder, tailor and dyer trades." About a third of the Parisian guilds recorded women other than widows working for them in some capacity.
Women also worked as midwives, as domestic servants to wealthier families in towns, as artists and illuminators, and even occasionally as teachers. As urban centers, trade, and industry grew, reading and writing became necessary skills for both sexes. Primary education, from the church or the burghers, was available (for a fee) to both boys and girls in many places. The poorer townspeople could sometimes arrange a so-called "corner school" themselves -- that is, for a smaller fee they would get a neighborhood woman to tutor their children in reading, writing and arithmetic. For the wealthy, there were secondary schools, Latin Schools, and ultimately universities available to men. According to Uitz, and contrary to my expectations, women were not actually barred from attending up through the Latin School level, although very few of them did. In fact, most of the well-educated women of the era seem to have been privately tutored at home.
Now, I don't want to give the impression that the late Middle Ages were just rosy and delightful for all women. Towns did not make up as great a percentage of the population then as they do now, so there were still large numbers of women without these opportunities available to them. Uitz's study deals mainly with Germany, France, and Italy -- there is enough cultural variation across Europe that we can't assume the same was true for other countries. Town life was by no means an unmixed blessing, either. Disease, poverty, and crime were all too common. Prostitution was not the crime one would have expected in such a religious era -- indeed, some towns had "official" brothels, regulated by the town council, which would receive a portion of the profits. And as the Middle Ages waned, law and custom began closing in on women again, reversing the progress they had made in commerce and education.
Still, I am intrigued by this period of early urban development and the opportunity it offered to women. I think it provides an opportunity for speculative fiction writers as well. Medieval women's lives are so poorly documented on the whole that there are a lot of gaps just waiting to be filled, and a study like Uitz's provides a great framework upon which to weave a story. Just in the course of writing this article, I find myself creating characters compulsively in my head. I think it was the idea of a "pancake makers' guild" that set me off this time. I can see her now: the widow Syrrippa St. Blintz, Pancake Master. May the medieval muses smile on you as well.
Rachel Hartman gave up a million-dollar career in Comparative Literature to make comic books. Her work has appeared in the anthologies Rampage, Brainbomb, and SPX99, and her regular series, Amy Unbounded, has won two awards. When not obsessing over her storylines, she's reading about medieval economics or imagining she can dance. Rachel's previous appearance in Strange Horizons was "The Medieval Agricultural Year."
Basing, Patricia. Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts.
Bennett, Judith M., and Amy M. Froide, eds. Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales
de Pisan, Christine. The Treasure of the City of Ladies: Or the Book of Three Virtues.
Duby, Georges, Michelle Perrot, and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, eds. A History of Women in the West: Silences of the Middle Ages.
Gregg, Joan Young. Devils, Women, and Jews: Reflections of the Other in Medieval Sermon Stories.
Uitz, Erika. Legend of Good Women: Medieval Women in Towns and Cities.