Friday, 26 October 2018

Advantages for Women in the Middle Ages

As a rule, life in the Middle Ages was rubbish. It was especially rubbish if you were poor, and even more rubbish if you were a poor woman. Often there was overt sexism (you were expected to obey your father, then your husband) and sometimes it was a bit more subtle (sometimes a guild would allow a woman to own a business but not be self-employed).

However, there were some upsides for women.

Petty treason had a few definitions, one of which was a woman refusing to obey her husband. That’s bad. But there’s a flip side. If a man and wife are found guilty of committing crime, the wife can say she was ordered by her husband to do bad things. What’s she expected to do? Disobedience would be treason. The man will hang, the wife will not.

Sticking with crime, there were a couple of special pleas available. One was to plead clergy, meaning one had to demonstrate the ability to read, and get shunted to a softer clerical court. The other was to plead pregnancy. A woman would be examined and, if considered to be pregnant, any sentence of death would be delayed until after the birth. There was always a chance that the sentence might just be dropped entirely.

There was quite a lot of war in the Middle Ages, including the Hundred Years’ War. Edward III (and others) called up huge armies to cross the Channel and introduce the French to the excitement of English archery. But those armies, risking death and injury in war, and pestilence in camp, were almost entirely men. Woman weren’t dragged on pain of hanging across the sea to wage war.

Domestic violence is not a good thing, yet it was broadly accepted in the Middle Ages. A man beating his wife was not unusual. But if he went too far neighbours and family might put a stop to it. A woman kicking the crap out of her husband, however, would lead not to sympathy and sorrow for him, but mockery and contempt.

Despite the low life expectancy, many kings lived long lives (Henry III, Edward I, and Edward III collectively reigned for 141 years). But there was a problem for them in particular, and men in general. Men were meant to be strong and vigorous, able to defend their home and kingdom (the king, of course, leading this). An old man was worn out and feeble, weak and decrepit, lingering with the mantle of power but lacking the frame to fill it. Old age was not good for men. It was good for women. Longevity gave them the reputation of wisdom, (hence ‘wise women’) as women did most of the healing and nursing, and older women had a great store of knowledge.

I certainly wouldn’t claim life was better for women than for men in the Middle Ages. Property law, inheritance, petty treason, risk of death in childbirth, all made things rather horrid, even without delving into general problems men faced too (high mortality, risk of famine every bad harvest etc). But, as with almost everything, it’s not entirely black and white, and it’s interesting to consider the nuances.


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