A time characterized by the domination of both the Catholic church and a feudal governmental system, the medieval period lasted about a thousand years. Life in the middle ages revolved around both these institutions, and was profoundly influenced by the social hierarchies of each. For both women and men, an individual's role in society was determined by social status, family ties, bloodline, marital status and education, although gender also played a defining factor at every level as well.
Marriage and Family Roles
Within the households of the medieval period, especially among the lower classes, there were usually strict gender roles for both woman and men. Women were expected to be submissive to men, a view that was based on the Bible (1 Timothy 2:11-12) and actively taught by leading scholars of the era such as St Augustine, who said: "The woman is subject to man on account of the weakness of her nature." Men were seen as the heads of household, the authorities and the decision-makers, and this was upheld as the natural order. Women were expected to bear and raise children and take care of the domestic affairs of the house, but in general this role of mother was considered subordinate to the father's role.
Gender Roles in Politics
In medieval times, royal and aristocratic women did own land and rise to powerful political positions, but this was usually accomplished through marriage among the noble classes. Often marriages were arranged by powerful families to form alliances, and women were treated as property that was traded. Queens and other female royalty often held leadership positions, but few women held sovereign power until the late Middle Ages, when powerful leaders including England's Elizabeth I and Spain's Queen Isabella came into power. Men were the kings and lords in the middle ages, and although highborn women had status and power, their value was assessed according to their ability to carry on the bloodline of the men.
Religious Life and Gender
Even though much of the basis for medieval society's gender inequality was based on religious beliefs, the church also provided most of the opportunities for mobility at the time. Catholic monasteries and convents offered an alternative to family life and in many instances terms of almost complete equality between men and women. Some of the most influential women of the medieval period used the cloistered life to gain an education and wield influence in society -- such as Hildegard of Bingen, who composed music and plays and developed an intricate system of natural healing. Women rarely were allowed to occupy high positions in the official church hierarchy, however, which was outside of the monastic system.
Gender and Urbanization
In the early medieval period, women's occupational roles were primarily domestic and agricultural, but as Europe urbanized towards the end of 13th century, this changed somewhat. In powerful city-states like Florence, both men and women were admitted to universities and women began to gain the skills to hold professional positions, including as professors and writers. In these urban areas, a tradition of "courtly love" developed, in which men began courting women with romantic poetry and music, and women's role changed from an object of material possession to the subject of passionate desire.
- The Newberry Library: Wives and Wenches, Sinners and Saints: Women in Medieval Europe
- CSU Pomona. The Education of Medieval Women
- Illinois Wesleyan University: The Contradiction of Masculinity in the Middle Ages
- Clark College: Royal and Aristocratic Women of the Middle Ages
- Fordham University: The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen
- Oli Scarff/Getty Images News/Getty Images