The Woman's Role

The law, set by men, also greatly limited the freedom of women. Women were:

  • Not allowed to marry without their parents' consent
  • Could own no business with special permission
  • Not allowed to divorce their husbands
  • Could not own property of any kind unless they were widows
  • Could not inherit land from their parents' if they had any surviving brothers

The Roles of Women in the Middle Ages are indissolubly connected with the Church. The Catholic Church was not only a system which contended with secular potentates for governing power, it also maintained an ideal of morality.

From the earliest times there appears to have existed among the Teutonic and Celtic peoples so much respect for women as to form a foundation on which the Christian doctrine of marriage, virginity and equality of sexes could be built. Monogamy was the common practice, but polygamy was not unknown, especially among the Danes and Northmen. As soon as those nations were converted to Christianity, the Church assumed the regulation of morals. Monogamy was insisted upon, divorce and re-marriage became more difficult. Concubinage, though it could not be abolished, ceased to be lawful.

A general rule is that respect for women is only found in a society in which monogamy is the rule. We must distinguish between the affected idolatry which was enjoyed by the customs of chivalry and the equality which was upheld by the Church. The doctrine of the spiritual equality of women, the sanctity of the marriage, and the rules of consanguinity, divorce and remarriage, though sometimes perverted to ambitious purposes, nevertheless were powerful engines influencing the Roles of Women in the Middle Ages, and raising their condition in the society.

The clergy accorded protection to the women, and the more barbarous were the manners of men, the stronger grew the bond of sympathy between women and the clergy, who found in them more piety, more reflection, and more capability of culture, then in the unlettered soldiers whose business was war. The patronage of literature and music passed into the hands of women. There is no better example of this communion between women and the Church then Hildegard von Bingen.

The intellectual superiority of clergy to the laity is shown by the fact that the chancellors, justiciars, and treasurers of the Middle Ages are for the most part not soldier nobles, but clerks or lawyers, drawn from the middle classes or the lower gentry, and educated in monasteries or universities, not at the court of princes. The work of civilization was left to priests and scholars. And the priests were the friends of women. This friendship had determined the Roles of Women in the Middle Ages, and asserted itself much advantage to Christendom, in the regulation of marriage and the defense of women’s rights.

The influence of Church raised the standard of feeling in regard to women. Women found in the cloister a refuge from the violence and a sphere of influence. The nuns in England for example, were often high-born women, skilled in the needlework, and trained in book-learning. Their nunneries were homes of refinement and learning, as we may see from the letters of St. Boniface to Eadburge, and other holy women, which resembles those of St. Jerome to Paulla and Eustochium.

In Germany, the spark of Carolingian renaissance was kept burning by nuns and other educated ladies, among whom the dramatic poetess Hrotswitha is remarkable. Among the Normans, a nation with a high contribution in shaping the medieval world, the women were held in honor, though they might sometimes be insulted and outraged.

The Roles of Women in the Middle Ages were not limited to spirituality. They could inherit land and hold fiefs. They were entrusted with the charge of castles when their lords went on crusade. Such a chatelaine in later days was Jeanne de Montfort, who held the castle of Hennebon in Brittany. Often they were heavily involved in politics, like Emma, wife of Edward the Confessor, who did more then anyone else to make the Norman Conquest to last.

There never was a time when women were more frequently made the subject of verse, nor worshipped with greater devotion, then the age of chivalry. It was a time when the duty and pleasure of every gentleman was to be the slave of same lady, and when passion of love was studied more ardently, and expressed in more delicate and sincere language then at any other time.

The introduction among the rules of chivalry of the so called "Science of Love" brought into the customs and ideas of medieval society a new element which became almost immediately dominant, side by side with the purely warlike element and the religious element.

The new doctrine, when brought in from Provence, France and spread by means of crusaders returning from the Holy Land, found a congenial atmosphere in the North of France and among the Normans, where women already occupied a dignified and independent position.

The effects of the troubadour poetry originating from Provence, the new relation of men to women, or knights to ladies, cannot be over-estimated. Fully developed by the Provençal poets, and received by the chivalry of Southern France as a rule of life, it was accepted by the northern French and the Normans as a new gospel.

The brotherhood of the chivalry looked upon a new definition of love, and found it in the poetry of troubadours, the modish literature of the time. Life was glorified by the discovery that it could be built upon love, and that the highest glory of a man was to own the domination of a lady. Gallantry became a rule of knightly conduct, and took its place by the side of honor and religion as one of the chief motives of action, the standards to which all conduct must be referred. The rule of gallantry regulated the sentiment of soldiers separated for long periods from their wives, gave the fair to the brave, gave a new position to women, and was justified by authority.

The Roles of Women in the Middle Ages were fundamentally changed between the middle of the 11th Century and the middle of the 12th Century, when women were elevated, literally, to the condition of goddesses. In earlier times, women had reigned, been honored, but there had been no gallantry in a world where relation of the sexes had been natural and simple, the outgrowth of material and social conditions. From this period onwards, a new sentiment takes its place as a leading motive of life, connected with rank, wealth, and pride of place, and which found its natural development in a society governed by a warlike nobility, for whose convenience the trading and laboring classes existed.
Such was the force of this change in the Roles of Medieval Women, that even the three motives of chivalry changed priorities, so now honor, gallantry, and after them religion were the motivating factors of the medieval knightly life.

Modern courtesy is descended from the medieval gallantry, and owes to it the touch of romance which is absent from the love literature of the antiquity.