LIFE FOR WOMEN IN THE MIDDLE AGES
By Tim Lambert
Well off Saxon women (before the Norman Conquest of 1066) had considerable freedom (although both men and women could be slaves). Saxon women were allowed to own and inherit property and to make contracts. In Viking society too women had a good deal of freedom. However life was hard for everyone in Saxon Times and the Middle Ages and women as well as men had to work hard to survive.
In the Middle Ages women spun wool and they did cooking and cleaning. Women washed clothes, baked bread, milked cows, fed animals, brewed beer and collected firewood! In the Middle Ages some women were spinners, brewers, jewelers, parchment makers and glovers. In Medieval towns women often helped their husbands with their work. Sometimes if a man died his widow would carry on his trade.
In the Middle Ages it was not unusual for middle class women to run their own businesses. In England the mystic Margery Kempe 1373-1438 ran a brewery and later a horse mill, using horses to grind corn.Some women became nuns but they too had to work hard. At least they did if they were from poor families. Class distinctions still applied in nunneries. Nuns from rich families were given the easiest work such as spinning wool and embroidery.
Childhood ended early for Medieval children. In upper class families girls married as young as 12 and boys as young as 14. They did not normally choose their own marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriages for them. Children from poor families might have more choice about who they married but by the time they were about 7 or 8 they had to start helping their parents by doing simple jobs such as chasing away birds when crops had been sown or helping to weave wool.
Saxon women (before the Norman Conquest of 1066) wore a long linen garment with a long tunic over it. They also wore mantles. Both men and women used combs made of bone or antler.
In the 12th and 13th centuries clothes were still quite basic. Women wore a nightie-like linen garment. However they did not wear knickers. They wore a long tunic (to their ankles) and over it another garment, a gown. Women held their dresses with a belt tied around their waists.
In the Middle Ages both sexes wore clothes made of wool but it varied in quality. Wool could be fine and expensive or coarse and cheap. In the late 14th and 15th centuries clothes became much more elaborate. Fashion in the modern sense began. For the wealthy styles changed rapidly. Women wore elaborate hats. From the mid-14th century laws lay down which materials the different classes could wear, to stop the middle classes dressing 'above themselves'. (Poor people could not afford to wear expensive cloth anyway!). However most people ignored the law and wore what they wished.
There were many great women in the Middle Ages. Hilda of Whitby 614-680 was an influential woman in the Saxon church who founded several monasteries. In 664 she hosted the Synod of Whitby, an important church meeting. Hildegard 1088-1179 was a theologian and writer. She also wrote about natural history and the medicinal use of plants. She also wrote music and a play. Trota of Salerno c. 1100 was a famous doctor. (Salerno in Italy was famous for its medical school. Women were allowed to study there). Matilda 1102-1167 claimed to be queen of England 1135-1154. (Although there was another claimant to the throne and they fought a long civil war). Julian of Norwich 1342-1416 was a famous mystic and writer. Julian wrote about the 'motherhood' of God. Christine de Pisan 1364-1432 was another famous woman writer.
Life in The Middle Ages
Life for women in the 16th Century
Life for women in the 19th Century
A List of Famous women of the Middle Ages
Brief Biographies of Some Famous women of the Middle Ages