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Home, Religion, Education - Research on Women's Roles in the Medieval Era


Essayeditor    8 | -   Freelance Writer
Dec 13, 2016 | #1
Conventional wisdom may have it that women in the medieval era lived sheltered and simple lives of childbearing and traditionally female tasks. Many women did, in fact, live up-or down-to this stereotype. However, the roles of women of all classes were much more varied, as a general rule, than many have thought. The phrase "a woman's work is never done" may well have held true, but the work in question was of all sorts, from maintaining the religious life of her family or household to keeping accounts and sewing clothes. This was true to some extent for women of all different classes, from the lowest serf to a fine lady who was wife or daughter of a landowner. That being said, while many comparisons can be drawn to find similarities of women's roles across class stratification, one can also see lots of contrasts. Clearly, women's roles have some things in common regardless of class in the medieval era, but they are certainly very different in some ways as well.

Women in the Medieval Home



Medieval WomanWomen in the Middle Ages might have had very different home arrangements, depending on the class into which they were born. A serf, who was a worker all but owned by her feudal lord, might be born and die in the same tiny house and never leave her village. A wealthier lady, such as the wife of that lord, had a very different home set up: often, she might have a big house with many servants. She was responsible for running a whole household, supervising a huge kitchen as well as many of the day to day workings of the estate, from the dairy to the laundry to the still room, where ale would be brewed. The mistress of an estate in the Middle Ages acted as chatelaine, or caretaker. She would likely be seen carrying a huge ring of keys.

Both women would be responsible for the care and feeding of their households, but these households would vary in size. A peasant woman would be expected to feed and clothe her children and husband and whatever assorted family members (who might be too old or infirm to work), who would live with her. However, since villages were strong communities, she might have help watching children from a neighbor or trade some of her freshly woven cloth for something else.

Women in a higher class would certainly have the help of servants. However, she would be expected to care in a supervisory sense not only for her own family, but in some ways for all the families in her village. She would be expected to bring charity to the sick and to care for the emotional, physical, and even religious well-being of those in her household and all those on her estate, rather directly or indirectly. Since the feudal system persisted in much of Europe during the Middle Ages, these roles of women at various class and income levels would have hold true in many locations.

Religion and Women's Roles



Women in the Middle Ages could take on one of a number of religious roles. However, one point of comparison is that almost all women in England and the rest of Europe would have been Catholic. However, there are also many points of contrast.

A serf woman would more than likely be unable to read the prayerbook, and the village church would probably not bother to provide one for her. She would mouth the Latin in the prayers without understanding anything about what the words meant.

A lack of understanding of Latin would also be something both women would have in common, but the lady of the house was more likely to have some religious education. If she were lucky enough to have an enlightened father, she might be able to read a little, but regardless she would have been educated as to the general precepts of her religion. This was in great part because, as the head of her household and the lady of the manor, she would have been considered to have responsibility for the religious well being (and thus, the afterlives) of those who were a part of her estate. Her attempts to discourage pagan rituals like May dancing would have had less to do with her own views, perhaps, and more to do with the responsibility she-and society-would have felt was hers.

Another path open to women of the time in terms of religion was that of a nun. Women who opted not to marry or who were widowed would often seclude themselves in convents, and these women had much more religious knowledge than others. They were usually of upper-class extraction, but their knowledge would many times far outstrip that of their more secular sisters.

Women's Education



Education is one field in which women of different classes would have had almost nothing in common. While both would be considered woefully uneducated by the standards of later days, the peasant woman would be very unlikely to have any education at all. She would have been illiterate completely. While she might have a lot of practical knowledge, such as that of herbs, cooking, spinning, or weaving, she would likely never even have considered learning to read and write as an option or as something desirable.

In contrast, the history of the Middle Ages has several good examples of women of a higher social class who were quite well-educated. Christine de Pisan, for example, became an author who is still read today, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the English queen who was well-known for advising the men in her family in complex affairs of state and became a powerful single ruler in her own right after the death of her husband-the proverbial power behind the throne.

A more typical upper-class woman would possibly be able to read the Bible, write her name, and do some simple figuring. While many nuns became quite learned, this was not considered appropriate or desirable in a woman who would be being educated with an eye toward her being able to run a household someday: practical accomplishments and traditional women's handcrafts, like embroidery, would take precedence.

Conclusion

All in all, the roles of women in the Middle Ages had some things in common no matter what the classes of the women in question were. However, most of the roles these women were expected to fill, whether with regard to their households, their religion, or their education, were different depending on their class, and can be contrasted effectively. By dint of comparing and contrasting in this fashion, one is able to learn more about the society of the Middle Ages and women's roles in it.



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