Women have often occupied a difficult position in Western culture, and the Middle Ages were no exception. Though considered subordinate to men, medieval women made important contributions that could not be overlooked. They ran manors, managed businesses, and worked in the fields alongside men. But no matter a woman's place in society, she was also expected to look after the household and bear children. One alternative was to join a convent, though not every woman donned the habit voluntarily. But for the most part, women's economic importance earned them widespread legal recognition, even if they were considered the lesser sex. Yet by the late Middle Ages, much of their independence had vanished.
Women in the Castle
A noblewoman's household duties often entailed great responsibility. While daily chores could be left to servants, certain other roles had to be filled by the lady of the manor herself. Oftentimes, she oversaw the entire estate, especially when her husband was away at court or fighting the crusades. She sometimes managed land use and crop production, resolved legal issues and even defended the castle against armed invaders. These women were usually privately educated, in a manner befitting their positions. They also enjoyed the same pastimes as their husbands -- riding and hunting, board games, falconry, music and poetry.
Women in the Towns
Women were vital to the medieval urban economy. Alongside the housekeeping, they also helped with their husband's business or trade. Depending upon circumstances, a townswoman might find herself working in an alehouse, weaving textiles, or tanning leather. In many cases, women ran businesses independently. They worked in scores of other professions, perhaps most significantly as midwives, a trade that was generally off limits to men. They were also able to participate in guilds and earn wages, though women almost always earned less than men.
Women on the Manor
For a peasant woman, life was often difficult. Besides rearing children and preparing meals, she also worked the fields during harvest. Additional duties commonly included tending animals and spinning wool. There were other challenges, too. Childbirth was dangerous, living quarters unsanitary, and nutrition often poor. Indeed, conditions were such that the average life expectancy for Europe's peasantry was roughly only 45 years. But there was at least some time off. It came in the form of more than 50 holidays and feast days the Catholic Church sponsored throughout the year.
Women in the Convent
One alternative open to Medieval women was joining a religious order. However, many women entered the convent against their will. Even so, nuns were often able to continue their education or express themselves creatively, such as by illustrating manuscripts or sewing decorative altar cloths. Some worked as midwives and other kinds of caregivers. An exceptionally gifted nun could become an abbess, the overseer of a convent who had considerable authority. More importantly, nuns could avoid the dangers that came with medieval childbirth.
Women in Transition
By the 1300s, women had earned for themselves a great deal of social and economic independence. Townswomen could enter almost any trade they wanted. Noblewomen had the right to own land and collect rents. The Black Death created a labor shortage that gave peasant women greater bargaining power. But gradually, western patriarchy began to reassert itself. The Church slowly stripped abbesses of their authority. New national governments took away noblewomen's economic freedoms. The medical establishment pushed out midwives, and the guilds began excluding women from various professions. Taken together, these factors led to a loss of status that women would not regain for centuries to come.
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