Do you think women have never had it so good? You should take a look at medieval days
How did women live in the Middle Ages? “Terrible” is the vague if unequivocal answer that springs to mind — but that’s an assumption, and the writers have approached it with renewed vigour.
Sex then and now: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega and The Woman of Bath: A Biography by Marion Turner both claim that women were not only rougher but also busier than we thought: they were brewers, blacksmiths, court poets, teachers, merchants and master craftsmen, and they also owned land. A woman’s dowry, writes Janega, was often accompanied by strict instructions that her property should remain with her regardless of what her husband wanted.
This feels like a new discovery. Of course it isn’t. Chaucer has portrayed many such cheerfully imperious women. The vellumed letter-books of the City of London, in which the capital’s affairs were scribbled from 1275 to 1509, include, of course, women barbers, apothecaries, armourers, shipwrights and tailors. While aristocratic women were considered drastically inferior to their male equivalents – they were traded as property and kept as jewelry – women of the lower classes lived relatively in a kind of gross and ready empowerment.
It was the Renaissance that severely restricted women’s rights. As economic power shifted, the burgeoning middle classes began to ape their superiors. They confined their wives to the home and left them at the financial mercy of their husbands. The religious power of women also dwindled. In the 13th century a woman could be sanctified by seeing visions and hearing voices; a hundred years later she would rather be burned at the stake.
When it comes to the history of gender relations, storytellers portray women as more oppressed than they actually were
Why does this feel like new information? Much of what we think we know about the Middle Ages was invented by the Victorians, who had an artistic obsession with the period and somehow managed, through poetry and endless retelling of the King Arthur myth, to permanently infuse their own sexual politics into it . (Victorian women were in many ways more socially oppressed than their 12th-century ancestors.)
But modern storytellers are also guilty of sexist revisionism. We endlessly repeat the lives of oppressed noblewomen, ignoring their secretly empowered lesser sisters. Where poorer women are mentioned, they are fleetingly pitied as prostitutes or victims of rape. Even writers who seem desperate for a “feminist take” on the period tend to ignore the angle that stares them straight in the face. In their cinematic romp in 2022 Catherine called Birdy, for example, Lena Dunham puts Sylvia Pankhurst-like speeches in the mouth of her 13th-century protagonist while portraying her imminent marriage—at 14—as normal for the time. (In fact, the average 13th-century woman married somewhere between 22 and 25.)
But we stick to these ideas. It is often those who fight back who are accused of “historical revisionism”. This is especially true of the fantasy genre, which apart from the odd, supernaturally “feisty” female character tends to portray the period as misogynist fantasy as well. The game of Thrones Author George RR Martin once defended the television series’ burlesque abuse of women on the grounds of realism. “I wanted my books to have a strong history and show what medieval society was like.” Oddly enough, this wasn’t true of female body hair (or dragons).
That is interesting. Most of our historical biases go the other way: we assume that the past was like the present. But when it comes to the history of gender relations, the opposite is true: storytellers insist on portraying women as more oppressed than they actually were.
The history of gender relations could be more accurately presented as a tug of war between the sexes
The casual reader of the story leaves the bleak impression that between the Paleolithic and the 19th century women experienced a kind of dark age of oppression. That is said to have ended some time around the invention of the lightbulb, when the idea of “gender equality” swept our minds and virtuous societies set out to “discover” female skills: women, amazingly, could do things that men could do !
Indeed, the history of gender relations could be more accurately portrayed as a tug-of-war between the sexes, in which women sometimes gain power and sometimes lose it—and the stronger sex opportunistically seize control whenever they have the means to do so.
In Minoan Crete, for example, women had similar rights and freedoms as men and participated in hunts, competitions, and celebrations on an equal footing.
But this era ushered in one of the most patriarchal societies the planet has ever seen—classic Greece, where women had no political rights and were considered “minors.”
Or take hunter-gatherer societies, the source of endless code-evolution theories of female inferiority. The discovery of female skeletons with hunting paraphernalia has disproved the notion that men only hunted and women only forage – and more recently, anthropologists have challenged the notion that men also held higher status: women, studies claim, had the same influence on group decisions.
This general bias had two unfortunate consequences. One is to instill in us the idea that inequality is “natural.” The other is to instill in us a certain complacency about our own time: that feminist progress is an inevitable consequence of passing time. “She was ahead of her time,” we say when a woman seems unusually empowered. Not necessarily.
Remember, two years ago one of the most vicious patriarchies in history emerged – women were removed from their schools and jobs and herded into homes and hijabs. And in the past year, many women in the US have lost one of their basic rights: abortion. (It turns out it was pro-lifers, not feminists, who were ahead of their time there.)
Both events were met with shock in liberal circles: how can women’s rights recede? But that just goes to show that we should brush up on our story. Another look at medieval women is as good a place to start as any.
• Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent
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