Pauline Ross's Reviews > Women in the Middle Ages

Women in the Middle Ages by Frances Gies
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Dec 29, 2011

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bookshelves: genre-non-fiction, price-full, 3-star
Read in December, 2011

I read a lot of fantasy novels, many of which are set in a gloomy created world not unlike the European middle ages. This book was my attempt to see whether the truly dismal picture painted therein has any truth in it.

The book discusses the life of women in the thousand years or so from around 600AD to 1600AD, illustrated by a detailed look at the lives of a few specific women of whom accurate records exist. It's fairly dry, academic stuff, but there is a great deal of information in there.

How accurate are the fantasies? It's true that women's lives were very hard, and few below the level of royalty were able to sit around waited on by servants while they embroidered. Childbirth was risky, children routinely died before maturity, and adults, too, were often carried off prematurely by illness or accident. Medical knowledge was rudimentary, at best. Wealthier families had to fight to maintain and improve their position in society (sometimes literally) while peasants struggled to find enough to eat and pay their rents.

It's true, too, that women were regarded as subservient to men - their fathers, brothers, husbands and local lords (but men were also subservient to their masters and lords). Nevertheless, they could and did work and run businesses on their own account, they could inherit property and land, they could resort to law to defend their rights. Widows in particular could take over the rights of their dead husband, carrying on his business or craft, training apprentices and so on. And although marriage was an economic, not romantic, proposition for all ranks, wives were an essential adjunct to the partnership and (royalty apart) not just there to produce children. So although inequality was enshrined in law, the practical application was very different.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat You do come across references to working women in the middle ages, like the one to a woman blacksmith in Juliet Barker's book on Agincourt, but a lot have probably been ignored because no one has been looking for them. I don't think that a powerful Abbess like St Hilda would have been amused at the idea of being regarded as being subservient to any mere earthy power.

Pauline Ross An Abbess was very powerful in her own way, but she still needed a male priest to hear her confession and give her communion :-) But it's true that the church was a good career move for women as well as men (although it was only for the wealthy - you had to buy your place, apparently).

message 3: by [Name Redacted] (last edited Sep 03, 2012 01:17AM) (new) - added it

[Name Redacted] Rodney Stark & other scholars of early Christianity have argued that the relative freedom given to women IN Christianity (and Judaism for that matter) was major contributing factor towards the fact that the majority of early converts were women. Roman law forced widows to remarry, allowed and ENCOURAGED husbands to abort pregnancies and commit infanticide (especially of little girls), and advocated the use of abortifacients and contraceptives which typically left women sterile when they did not kill them outright. Christianity (and Judaism) preserved more female lives and improved the profile of women in the Empire, whatever else it may have done to their detriment.

Pauline Ross Ian wrote: "Rodney Stark & other scholars of early Christianity have argued that the relative freedom given to women IN Christianity (and Judaism for that matter) was major contributing factor towards the fact..."

That's interesting, thank you. Although I'm not sure that the common practice of encouraging women to have as many babies as their bodies are capable of producing was a better option than contraceptives.

message 5: by [Name Redacted] (last edited Sep 03, 2012 01:57AM) (new) - added it

[Name Redacted] For individual women? Possibly not. Though that came later; it wasn't an original part of either religion's approach.

But for womankind? It really was a better option. The pagan population of the Roman Empire was already rapidly shrinking because the majority of them were men, and the few females that remained were frequently left sterile or killed in infancy. Christians & Jews encouraged reproduction, forbade contraception & abortion, and forbade infanticide -- especially of baby girls -- and viewed women and motherhood with a sort of reverence. So more women survived, and those women produced more women in turn, and women became a sort of protected class. It wasn't Third Wave Feminism, certainly, but it was pretty meaningful for the time and place.

EDIT: Oh, and one of the places where these statistics are discussed is in Stark's The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, which focuses just as much on ancient pagan Roman/Hellenistic and Second Temple Jewish views of women as on Christianity. Stark's aim is to explain the rise of Christianity without resorting to religious explanations or saying it was a crazy fluke. And sorry, this is part of my PhD focus so I tend to rant about it...

Pauline Ross Ian wrote: "It wasn't Third Wave Feminism, certainly, but it was pretty meaningful for the time and place."

Yes, point taken. Memo to self: I really shouldn't make glib off-the-cuff remarks to people who clearly know way, way more than me on a subject. :-)

The Stark book looks interesting, although probably a bit technical for me.

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