LIFE FOR WOMEN IN THE MIDDLE AGES

By Tim Lambert

Women’s jobs in the Middle Ages

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.

In upper-class families, young men and women did not normally choose their own marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriage 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.

Women’s clothes in the Middle Ages

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 from dressing ‘above themselves’. (Poor people could not afford to wear expensive cloth anyway!). However, most people ignored the law and wore what they wished.

Famous women in the Middle Ages

There were many great women in the Middle Ages. Hilda of Whitby was an influential woman in the Saxon church who founded Whitby Abbey. In 664 she hosted the Synod of Whitby, an important church meeting. Hildegard was a theologian and writer. She also wrote about medicine. And she 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). Rebecca Guarna c. 1200 was also a famous doctor.

Matilda 1102-1167 claimed to be the queen of England 1135-1154. (Although there was another claimant to the throne and they fought a long civil war). Marie de France (12th century) was a famous French poet. Unfortunately, nothing is known about her life although she was highly regarded. Julian of Norwich was a famous mystic and writer. Julian wrote about the ‘motherhood’ of God. Christine de Pisan was another famous woman writer of the Middle Ages.

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