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Women in the Middle Ages

Women in the Middle Ages


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The lives of women in the Middle Ages were determined by the Church and the aristocracy. The medieval Church provided people with the 'big picture' of the meaning of life and one's place in it; the aristocracy ensured that everyone stayed in their respective places through the feudal system of government which divided society into three classes: clergy, nobility, and serfs.

Women's place in the clergy was restricted to the nunnery. Noble women's positions were dictated by how much land they brought to marriage because land equaled power; therefore the quality of life and opportunities for autonomy could vary significantly among the upper class. Women of the lowest class actually had more freedom of expression than the other two because life was uniformly difficult for the serfs – male or female – and women worked alongside men in the fields and in the medieval guilds as equals or near-equals.

Women's rights and opportunities in the Middle Ages were not uniform, however, even though those of the lower class had the least amount of variation. Scholars divide the Middle Ages into three periods:

  • Early Middle Ages – 476-1000 CE
  • High Middle Ages – 1000-1300 CE
  • Late Middle Ages – 1300-1500 CE

The rights of women from the earliest era through the last grew significantly owing largely to two distinct factors: the increasing popularity of the Cult of the Virgin Mary and the development of the concepts of courtly love and chivalry. Women's status and opportunities would also expand after the outbreak of the Black Death pandemic of 1347-1352 CE which killed so many that women were allowed to assume ownership an operation of their late husband's businesses. Women's rights would reach their apex in the Late Middle Ages at which time more restrictions were implemented by the patriarchal system primarily because women's social positions threatened the status quo.

Changing Attitudes Toward Women

The Cult of the Virgin Mary was not new to the Middle Ages. Mary had been declared the Mother of God by the Church in 431 CE at the Third Ecumenical Council. Mary's high standing, however, did little to elevate women's status in society. The Church both demonized and elevated women through the dichotomy of the biblical tale of Eve – who caused humanity's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden – and that of the Virgin Mary whose son was believed to have redeemed that fall. Women were simultaneously considered the source of all the ills of the world and the means of that world's redemption through the birth of Jesus Christ.

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The view of women as either evil temptresses or virginal goddesses left no middle ground for a reasoned perception.

Accordingly, women were at once denied the same social status as men while legally being recognized as a man's partner, helpmate and, under certain conditions, even his equal. The view of women as either evil temptresses or virginal goddesses left no middle ground for a reasoned perception of woman-as-individual. In the Early Middle Ages, the woman-as-temptress model prevailed as clergy emphasized Eve's role in the fall of man. From the 12th century CE during the High Middle Ages onwards to the end, the Cult of Mary was more popular and so the perception of women improved.

Even so, women were still collectively demonized even at the height of the cult's popularity for failing to mirror the Virgin Mary's perfection. Women were certainly seen in a better light than they had been previously but this did not mean the clergy, aristocracy, or males in general were interested in seeing them elevated above their supposed God-given place as made clear in the Bible in such passages as I Corinthians 11:3 where it states that man is the head of the woman or I Timothy 2:11-15 which makes clear that women are subordinate to men and Eve was the first sinner. Women were therefore always linked to Eve while, at the same time, they were elevated by association with Mary. Scholar Eileen Power comments:

In considering the characteristic medieval ideas about woman, it is important to know not only what the ideas themselves were but also what were the sources from which they spring. The expressed opinion of any age depends on the persons and the classes who happen to articulate it; and for this reason alone it often represents the views of a small but vocal minority. In the early Middle Ages, what passed for contemporary opinion came from two sources – the Church and the aristocracy. (9)

Power goes on to point out that these two sources – the one celibate and the other regarding women as an 'ornamental asset' – were the least qualified to write on women. In spite of the 'official' view of women as second-class citizens found in these sources – especially sermons and other ecclesiastical works – household records, legal documents, guild records, and other documents show that women throughout most of the Middle Ages made a living in the same trades as men, frequently took over a business following their husband's death, and were valued merchants, artists, and artisans.

Women's Rights

Throughout the Middle Ages, lower-class women were bakers, brewers, milkmaids, barmaids, artisans, weavers and, primarily, tenant farmers who worked alongside their husbands and children in the fields. The feudal system dictated that the land belonged to the lord, who rented it to his tenants – the serfs – who were bound to that land. The lord controlled every aspect of the serf's life and this extended to a man's wife and daughters.

The lord decided who a girl would marry, not the girl's father, because the daughter of a serf was essentially property of the lord just as her father and mother were. Once the girl was married, her husband controlled her interests and was responsible for her behavior and, for this reason, women are not mentioned as often as men in legal matters in the Early Middle Ages. The woman's husband would be sued if a woman transgressed, not the woman herself. The woman's job was to take care of the home, help her husband at his work, and produce children. Power writes, “the great majority of women lived and died wholly unrecorded as they labored in the field, the farm, and the home” (Loyn, 346).

The hierarchy of medieval society was rigidly maintained, and one very rarely rose above the station one was born into. There was no middle class and the only hope for a woman to better her situation, without marrying, was to enter a nunnery. It is possible, as some scholars have suggested, that there were women who chose this route in hopes of education, but if so they were largely disappointed.

Priests, for the most part, saw no benefit in literate nuns. Even Ende (10th century CE), the famous female manuscript illuminator from Spain, was most likely illiterate. Nuns learned their prayers and devotions by memory, not from books, although it is thought that many young women of means learned to read from the popular devotional work known as the Book of Hours.

Legal & Economic Status

An emphasis on trade during the High Middle Ages provided greater opportunity for women. During this period, in Spain and France initially, the middle class began to emerge as merchants amassed enough wealth to be able to influence political matters. The medieval guild had a great deal to do with the emergence of the middle class and also was responsible for increased rights and responsibilities for women.

Higher-class women had more mobility but were still expected to remain in their socially accepted niche.

Women of the new bourgeoisie could work with their husbands and fathers in a given trade and frequently succeeded the male as head of the business upon his death. Woman-as-cheap-labor was a concept already well-established through the feudal system and was perpetuated by the guild system because women were legal non-entities and so could be paid less than a man. At the same time, many women during this period appear in legal documents as having been fined for various trespasses instead of their husbands, a significant departure from the precedent of the Early Middle Ages.

The lowest class of the serfs and the upper-class noble women continued to live more or less as women had before them and both were tied to the land in one way or another. Power writes:

Among the nobility, marriage was a critical factor in the transmission of land and fiefs and was arranged by families with great care, often with little consideration for the preferences of the parties involved, one or both of whom might be children. Only in periods and places where women had personal rights over land did they exercise much independence. (Loyn, 346)

Higher-class women had more mobility but were still expected to remain in their socially accepted niche and perform the duties associated with that position. Exceptions to this rule in the Early Middle Ages are notable because they were so rare: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians (r. 911-918 CE) who led Mercia's resistance against Viking raids and ruled her kingdom after her husband's death or the theologian St. Hilda of Whitby (c. 614-680 CE) who founded the famous monastery of Whitby in Northumbria. Other famous women of this time were Clotilde (475-545 CE), wife of Clovis, king of the Franks who converted her husband to Christianity; Theodora (497-548 CE), wife of the emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire who was equal to her husband in influence, and Brunhilda of Austrasia (r. 567-613 CE) who ruled her country as sole monarch.

Depiction & Involvement in Art

Scholars continue to debate Eleanor's role in the development of the concept of courtly love and the chivalric code, but there is no doubt that many of the major French authors of the best-known works on this subject (such a Wace, Andreas Cappelanus, Bernart de Ventadorn) enjoyed her patronage. Her daughter Marie is said to have either helped her mother develop these concepts at Poitiers or was inspired by her mother's earlier efforts to establish the so-called 'courts of love' at her estate in southern France.

The courts of love were allegedly convened to discuss matters relating to romantic love and relationships between men and women. Among the topics discussed and debated was whether romantic love could exist in marriage (it was decided it could not) and which was worse: to lose a lover to death or infidelity (infidelity was considered worse because the lover took not only the future but also the memories of the past). Marie was the patroness of one of the greatest writers of the Middle Ages, Chretien de Troyes, whose Arthurian Romances popularized the concept of courtly love and chivalry.

Previously, a woman was the possession of a man and his inferior; the romantic poetry of the 12th century reversed this paradigm by encouraging the elevation of women who were to be protected and served by a refined and sophisticated gentleman – the chivalric knight. These works had a dramatic effect upon the aristocracy of medieval Europe as scholar Norman Cantor observes:

Eleanor and Marie were both associated with the medieval religious heresy of Catharism which revered a goddess of wisdom (Sophia) and departed from orthodox Catholicism on a number of significant points. It has therefore been suggested that the romantic poetry of courtly love was actually created as a kind of “scripture” for adherents of the sect who would otherwise have been persecuted by the Church. The great lady who appears in the poems under various names is Sophia and the devoted knight who serves her is the Cathar. This claim, while supported by considerable evidence, is still challenged by many modern-day scholars and far from universally accepted.

Whether the poems were religious allegories or simple entertainment, they combined with the economic and social climate of the High Middle Ages to endow upper-class and middle-class women with greater respect and more equality. Women had always had the responsibility of taking over their husband's financial affairs after his death or when he was called away to transact some business or go to war but this practice becomes more prevalent during the High Middle Ages.

Women's lives in the Late Middle Ages continued along the lines of this same paradigm with, once again, the upper and lower classes remaining fairly steady and the middle class experiencing the most dramatic changes. Even so, the new model of women as individuals of value gained increasing momentum, which resulted in more upper-class women expressing themselves in literary and religious works.

The most dramatic departure from the old paradigm is exemplified in the great French-Italian author Christine de Pizan (also known as Christine de Pisan, l. 1364-1430 CE). Born in Venice, Pizan moved to Paris when her scholarly father was appointed astrologer at the court of Charles V (1364-1380 CE). According to Pizan's own works, her father encouraged her literary interests while her mother felt she should restrict herself to 'women's work' such as learning to spin and weave cloth. Left with no means of supporting her family after both her father and husband died, Pizan turned to writing, becoming the first female professional writer in European history.

This paradigm extended to the church, which had denied women access to education, through the lives and works of such notable authors as Julian of Norwich (l. 1342-1416 CE), Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380 CE), and St. Therese d'Avila (l.1515-1582 CE), among others.

Role in Society

While women in abbeys, nunneries, and at court in the Late Middle Ages were finding new freedom in expression and greater acceptance among men, women of the bourgeoisie were facing renewed restrictions. Women in guilds in the Late Middle Ages found less and less work as guilds began to deny them membership and male co-workers made their lives more difficult. Women were still paid less than men and so it was more profitable overall for a shop to hire a female rather than a male. As this practice became more common, men were threatened by loss of work and retaliated; guilds increasingly were restricted to men.

It is unclear whether more women entered nunneries during this period but it is known that nuns were illuminating manuscripts as early as the 10th century CE, there were female scribes by at least 1274 CE, and more women seem to have been involved in book production in the 14th century CE than before. Female religious orders seem to have remained stable, but a new order, the Beguines, started in the 13th century CE in France, quickly gained a significant number of adherents.

The Beguines were all devoted women who lived lives of poverty, good works, and charity but were not nuns and could leave the group whenever they chose to. These women took care of each other and the surrounding community through the manufacture of goods and by providing services and so were able to get around the new strictures of the guilds and live life according to their own values without having to marry or join a religious order.

Married women of the middle-class in the High Middle Ages routinely took care of their husband's business accounts and took over after his death. This practice became more widespread following the Black Death pandemic of 1347-1352 CE when women regularly operated their late husband's or son's business, gained title to their lands, and had greater autonomy than before. Noble women, who had been expected to manage their husband's estate and vassals when he was called away on business or to war, now became solely responsible for operations and transactions following the death of their husband and sons.

Conclusion

Women in medieval times were not the passive victims of the religious and political patriarchy, no matter how often that claim is repeated. Women frequently found ways around the obstacles placed in their path or forged new paths when a challenge proved too great. They took over their husband's businesses and ran them successfully, continued to work in guilds, or even formed their own guilds as the textile guilds of Italy attest.

The Church, while upholding and encouraging the understanding that women were of less value than men, made some important concessions in recognizing the value of women like the authors mentioned above and, equally important, ruling that women were individuals of value and not just a man's possession. In Denmark, in the 12th century CE, the church ruled that rape was a crime against a woman and not – as had previously been held – a crime only against her father or husband. Even so, women's success and advances in the Late Middle Ages could not overturn the status quo supported by the patriarchy of the Church and aristocracy. Further restrictions were placed on women even as society entered the more enlightened era of the Renaissance.


Medieval Women

Medieval England was not a comfortable place for most women. Medieval women invariably had a hard time in an era when many men lived harsh lives. A few women lived comfortable lives but Medieval society was completely dominated by men and women had to know ‘their place’ in such a society.


A woman milking a cow

Medieval society would have been very traditional. Women had little or no role to play within the country at large. Within towns, society would have effectively dictated what jobs a woman could do and her role in a medieval village would have been to support her husband. As well as doing her daily work, whether in a town or village, a woman would have had many responsibilities with regards to her family.

Within a village, women would have done many of the tasks men did on the land. However, they were paid less for doing the same job. Documents from Medieval England relating to what the common person did are rare, but some do exist which examine what villages did. For reaping, a man could get 8 pence a day. For the same task, women would get 5 pence. For hay making, men would earn 6 pence a day while women got 4 pence. In a male dominated society, no woman would openly complain about this disparity.

About 90% of all women lived in rural areas and were therefore involved in some form of farm work.

In medieval towns, women would have found it difficult to advance into a trade as medieval guilds frequently barred women from joining them. Therefore, a skilled job as recognised by a guild was usually out of reach for any woman living in a town. Within towns, women were usually allowed to do work that involved some form of clothes making but little else.

“Various people of the weavers’ craft in Bristol employ their wives, daughters and maids either to weave at their looms, or to work for someone else at the same craft.”From records of 1461.

For many women, a life as a servant for the rich was all they could hope for. Such work was demanding and poorly rewarded.

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

Many women from rich backgrounds would have married when they were teenagers. Medieval society had a different outlook to children when compared to today. Children from poor families would have worked from the earliest age possible and they were treated as adults from the age of ten or eleven. Many girls from poor families did not get married until they were in their twenties.

Girls from richer families tended to marry earlier than girls from poor families. The poorer families needed as many working for them as was possible, so a daughter getting married at an early age would have deprived them of a worker. This was not true for a rich family. Girls had no choice over who they married and many girls from rich families were usually married to someone as a political gesture or because it was an advantage to the girl’s family itself – as opposed to what the girl herself wanted. Once married, the young lady came under the control of her husband.

Producing a male heir within a rich family was considered vital. So many women spent a great deal of their married life pregnant. However, childbirth was dangerous as medical care was so poor. It is thought that as many as 20% of all women died in childbirth and it was the most common cause of death among young women.

Wives from a rich family usually did not look after their children. This was done by a wet nurse. Women from a poor family not only had to look after the children but had to continue doing her day-to-day work both in the home and on the land. Many women from poor families did not live past the age of forty.


Rape in the Middle Ages

Woodcut illustration of the rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius (artist Zainer Johannes, XVI century) Source: Flickr, Provenance Online Project (POP)

Rape is a crime of violence that modern, enlightened society has chosen to punish strenuously. Rape is also a sexual crime resulting in the victimization of women and children. During the Middle Ages, however, neither intent nor a sense of personal responsibility was attached to rape: women had few if any advocates, living in a society that marginalized them and preferring to see rape as the product of carnal intentions or “diabolical desire.” Historians researching available records and literature demonstrate that punishments were comparatively mild and in many instances women, unable to press their accusations, were arrested on charges of false appeal.

Women in the Early Middle Ages

Among the Germanic cultures encountered first by Romans and beyond the fourth century by Christian missionaries, rape was treated as theft within the parameters of the wergild system. Christianity did little to improve the status of women, often reinforcing notions that males were intrinsically superior to females.

Women were viewed as weaker creatures, the progeny of Eve, and therefore more prone to sin than the male. Sexuality was equated with procreation. Even among the Medieval nobility, rape – as defined under modern law, was punished mildly and seen as a “prelude” to marriage, impacting a woman’s honor more than her rights as a person, especially if forced sex was not accompanied by violence.

Reporting and Punishing Rape

Research demonstrates rape was not always reported and perpetrators represented all social classes. Historian John M. Carter, in his study of rape in Medieval England, writes that, “Clerics, or those claiming to be clerics, formed the largest percentage of rapists.” Carter’s study is confined to the 13 th and 14 th Century at a time English Common Law was still competing with separate Church courts. Ecclesiastical courts tended to treat an allegation of rape with less severity than evolving secular courts.

Punishment of rape, however, may have been impacted by social class as well as who comprised the legal authority. Carter, for example, concludes that, “…when a community was willing to kill or mutilate a man for rape, the crime was considered a felony when the community was not willing to kill or mutilate a man for rape, the crime was considered less than a felony (possibly a trespass).” Additionally, poor women without means to appeal could be charged with a false accusation and further victimized through prison sentences.

Punishments in Renaissance Venice

The suicide of Lucretia, by artist Jörg Breu the Elder (16 century).

Guido Ruggiero, studying late 14 th Century society in Venice, notes disparities in punishments relative to social class: “When rape struck down the social hierarchy, it could virtually disappear as a crime.” Ruggiero notes that the victimization of women was “merely an extension” of a society used to sexual exploitation, especially among women without social status. The absence of moralistic language and records of slight punishments for rape suggest that Renaissance society, at least as depicted in Venice, was not concerned with sexual violence against women and may have viewed the modern conclusions governing power and control in rape situations as a normal part of the male-female relationship.

The listing of punishments also suggests that rape was not treated seriously. According to Ruggiero’s study, the rape of a seven-year old child resulted, in one instance, in one year of jail. In another case, three men broke into a house, raped the owner’s wife, and took property. Despite premeditation (and, in modern terms conspiracy) and theft, each man received a year in jail.

Distinctions existed between married women, unmarried virgins, and children. In several documented cases, rape perpetrators judged guilty of violating an unmarried woman were obliged to pay a fine which would be used as a dowry once the girl married. Such examples, however, may not have applied to rural peasant women or the urban poor. Researchers note that few documents – if any, recount the plight of the poor, especially in the early Middle Ages.

Possible Impacts of a Patriarchal Society

The Middle Ages was a male-dominated society guided morally by a patriarchal hierarchy. This may help account for the marginalization of women, leading to sexual violence and rape. Historian Albrecht Classen argues that, “Understanding how this form of violence was viewed and dealt with…” enables contemporary society to better cope with the realities of rape and devise attitudes that afford protection in the future.

Although he does not conclude that male-dominated societies will produce more instances of sexual violence, Classen does note that patriarchal societies tend to “sweep…under the carpet” instances of rape and sexual violence. This view corroborates other studies of rape in the Middle Ages that link notions of gender to the non-equality of sexes.

Danielle Regnier-Bohler, “Literary and Mystical Voices,” A History of Women: Silences of the Middle Ages, Christine Klapisch-Zuber, editor (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992)

John Marshall Carter, Rape in Medieval England: An Historical and Sociological Study (University Press of America, 1989)

Albrecht Classen, Sexual Violence and Rape in the Middle Ages: A Critical Discourse in Premodern Germany and European Literature (De Gruyter, 2011)

Frances and Joseph Gies, Women in the Middle Ages (Harper & Row, 1978)

Guido Ruggiero, The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice (Oxford University Press, 1985)


Women in the Medieval Church: Did You Know?

The first autobiography in the English language was written by a Christian woman, Margery Kempe, who lived in the early 1400s.

In the early Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for an abbess (the female head of a religious community) to rule “double” communities of both men and women. One who did so was Hilda of Whitby (614–680), whose abbey became famous for its learning and libraries. Five future bishops were trained in her community, and kings and rulers sought her advice.

Many women joined the Crusades. They began to be required to gain their husbands’ consent before leaving.

Christian women often corresponded with—and gave advice to—the most prominent leaders of their day. Heloise (better known for her relationship with famous philosopher Peter Abelard) maintained a significant exchange with Peter the Venerable, the influential abbot of Cluny. The two discussed theology and spirituality at length. Anselm, later Archbishop of Canterbury (1093–1109), corresponded with Queen Matilda on matters of religion.

Of all the recognized saints between 500 and 1200, about 15 percent were women.

Some Anglo-Saxon queens appointed bishops. Queen Emma of Normandy, one of the most powerful people in England in the early eleventh century, clearly did so. So did Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor, the English king who built Westminster Abbey.

Brigid of Ireland was said to have been consecrated a bishop. Brigid, who was born in the late 400s, founded the first nunnery in Ireland and served as an abbess. According to one account, Bishop Mel conferred the episcopal order upon the abbess, even though she had requested only the order of repentance “and hence Brigid’s successor is always entitled to have episcopal orders and the honour due a bishop.” .

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What Life Was Like For Women In The Middle Ages

Chivalry, romance, and those weird pointy hats. What's not to love about life during the Middle Ages? Except, you know, everything. Hollywood may have painted a lovely picture of lords and ladies, gorgeous dresses, feasting and dancing and living in castles, but that's not what it was like for the majority of people. And for women, well, even if you did live in a castle and wear gorgeous dresses, life was really not that great.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, there were pretty much two occupations open to noblewomen during that period in time: You could get married, or you could be a nun. For the lower classes, women actually had more freedom, because no one in the peasantry could afford to sit around and do needlepoint all day. So women worked in the fields and in other occupations, too, because it was necessary for everyone to equally share the workload. The difference between modern ideas about women in the workplace and the medieval ones, though, is that women rarely received any recognition for what they did — they were considered subordinate and inferior to their husbands, so most of their accomplishments went totally unrecorded.

So women weren't really thought of as actual people, but if you can put that aside for a moment, weren't there at least a few good things about living in the Middle Ages? Not really. If you weren't a nun, you were expected to have babies — lots of them — or die trying. Literally. According to the Raven Report, childbirth during that time was so dangerous that women were encouraged to write out their last will and testament before giving birth so they wouldn't have to bother with it as they were dying from a hemorrhage or an infection. And if you didn't die during childbirth, well, you could expect at least some of your children to die afterward, so there was that. Representing Childhood estimates that infant mortality was probably close to 25 percent. Kids past their first birthday and up to age four had better odds at about 12.5 percent, and the rate was roughly 6 percent for kids between five and nine. So if you didn't die yourself, you could expect a lifetime of heartache after one of your kids did. But, you know, pointy hats.


Marozia was the daughter of the powerful Theodora (above), as well as allegedly mistress of Pope Sergius III. She was the mother of Pope John XI (by her first husband Alberic or by Sergius) and of another son Alberic who stripped the papacy of much secular power and whose son became Pope John XII. See her mother’s listing for a quote about Marozia.

Matilda of Saxony was the Empress of Germany (the Holy Roman Empire), married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry I. She was the founder of monasteries and builder of churches. She was the mother of Emperor Otto I, Duke Henry of Bavaria, St. Bruno, Gerberga who married Louis IV of France and Hedwig, whose son Hugh Capet founded a French royal dynasty.

Raised by her grandmother, an abbess, Saint Matilda of Saxony was, as were so many royal women, married off for political purposes. In her case, it was to Henry the Fowler of Saxony, who became King of Germany. During her life in Germany Saint Matilda of Saxony founded several abbeys and was noted for her charity. Her feast day was March 14.


A Look At Menopause Through The Ages

Suffering from menopausal hot flashes? No problem! Just take some opium and call me in the morning. Or perhaps you'd prefer a little cannabis?

Sounds crazy, huh? But back in the 1800s, that's what doctors prescribed for their menopausal patients.

References to menopause can be traced far beyond the 1800s. In fact, Aristotle supposedly referred to menopause, saying it began at 40 years of age.

If you're wondering where the term "menopause" came from, it was coined in 1821 by French physician Charles Pierre Louis De Gardanne (la ménépausie). What I'm wondering is why a woman didn't name it. Then again, us women are known to call it MANY (unrepeatable) things, which is probably why it was left up to a man.

Societies have been dealing with menstruation and menopause since biblical times. Anita Diamant, author of the bestselling novel The Red Tent, said in an interview with Ms. Magazine that menstrual tents and huts were all over the world in various premodern societies. However, the "red tent" referred to in her book was a fictional one that she created.

She's not that far off, though. In some religious practices, women immerse themselves in a ritual bath following their menstrual periods or after childbirth in order to become pure and permitted to resume sexual activity.

Similar restrictions have been placed on menstruating women by other major religions of the world. They have addressed menstruation and its negative effect on women. This has led to prohibitions on physical intimacy, cooking (I can deal with that prohibition!), attending places of worship, even requiring women to live separately from men during their cycles. In some religions, menstruating women are considered "impure." In others, menstruating women are thought to lose qi or chi (life force).

Even the symptoms of menopause differ throughout the world. In the West, for example, menopause is often marked by hot flashes. In Japan, it's shoulder pain and in India it's low vision.

So how have women coped with menopausal symptoms in years past?

According to the American Cancer Society, "cohosh" is a Native American word that means "knobby rough roots," describing the appearance of the plant's roots. Native Americans used black cohosh to treat uterine disorders such as menstrual and menopausal symptoms.

Today, women still use black cohosh as a natural treatment for menopausal symptoms. Although, according to NAMS (North American Menopause Society), evidence about the effectiveness and safety of black cohosh for treatment of hot flashes is mixed: Some studies show improvement of menopause symptoms and some show no benefit. Other Native American herbal treatments for menopause-related symptoms included alfalfa, chasteberry, dong quia, maca, oak, sage, red clover, star anise and sweetgrass.

In an excerpt from the book Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History Of The Modern Menopause, author Louise Foxcroft says the term "hysteria" was often used by doctors in describing their menopausal patients. (Gee, wonder where they got that idea??)

The book gives accounts from the mid-1800s in England of doctors prescribing a pre-meal mixture of carbonated soda. Other remedies included a large belladonna plaster placed at the pit of the stomach and vaginal injections with a solution of acetate of lead. No wonder women were reduced to hysteria! Prescriptions ranged from opium and hydochlorate of morphine to chloric ether and distilled water.

Before 1880, treatments for menopausal symptoms primarily consisted of herbals, along with a selection of belladonna, cannabis or opium. (Guess these women got more bong for their buck!) In the 1890s Merck offered these chemicals along with the flavored powder Ovariin for the treatment of menopausal symptoms and other ovarian ills. Ovariin was made by dessicating and pulverizing cow ovaries, and may have been the first substance commercially available for treatment of menopausal symptoms derived from animal sources. Testicular juice also was used as a treatment. (I'm not going there!)

In the 1930s, menopause was described as a deficiency disease. Emminen became commercially available in 1933. Diethylstilbestrol (DES) was first marketed in 1939 as a far more potent estrogen than Emminen. In 1942, Ayerst Laboratories began marketing Premarin, which would eventually become the most popular form of estrogen replacement therapy in the U.S., and Prempro, a combination of Premarin and Provera, which eventually became the most widely dispensed drug in the U.S.

Luckily, treatment of menopausal symptoms today is considerably more sophisticated than the remedies of yesteryear. Different forms of HRT and many non-hormonal options are available. The North American Menopause Society has published the first comprehensive set of guidelines that support clinicians involved in the care of women at midlife. The evidence-based recommendations have been published in the October 2014 issue of Menopause.

One thing that hasn't changed over the years is that women are still suffering from the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause. Today, at least we have many more treatment options to choose from.

Whether the treatment is a plaster of belladonna or getting plastered at the bar, I'd say we've come a long way! We've gone from the days of hysteria to the days of hysterical, with productions such as "Menopause the Musical." We may be able to laugh at our predicament, but it's one that we certainly take seriously.

Suffering in silence is OUT! Reaching out is IN!

For more by Ellen Dolgen, click here.

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Ellen Dolgen is an outspoken women's health and wellness advocate, menopause awareness expert, author, and speaker.

After struggling with her own severe menopause symptoms and doing years of research, Ellen resolved to share what she learned from experts and her own trial and error. Her goal was to replace the confusion, embarrassment, and symptoms millions of women go through-before, during, and after menopause-with the medically sound solutions she discovered. Her passion to become a "sister" and confidant to all women fueled Ellen's first book, Shmirshky: the pursuit of hormone happiness. As a result of the overwhelming response from her burgeoning audiences and followers' requests for empowering information they could trust, Ellen's weekly blog, Menopause MondaysTM, was born.

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Fashion and Dress in the Middle Ages

Sumptuary laws established in the middle ages restricted clothing expenditures to maintain class structure.

English laws governing fashion and dress were first recorded in the thirteenth century and regulated the apparel of workmen who were often supplied with clothes as part of their wages. In an attempt to preserve class distnction and especially the divide between the upper classes and the lower and middle classes, the laws were expanded to include all levels of society.

Sumptuary Laws in Medieval England

These laws distinguished social categories, enforcing visible differences in social stations. Strict penalties accompanied violation of sumptuary laws. Lawbreakers might be fined, have their property confiscated, suffer the loss of their title or in some cases face execution.

Knights objected hotly to inferiors mimicking their clothes. Women were expected to dress according to the social standing of fathers and husbands. Wives and daughters of servants were limited in what they could spend on veils. A fine was exacted from knights wearing shoes or boots with spikes or points longer than two inches. Silks in gold and purple were to be worn only by royals.

Those found guilty of manufacturing finery for unprivileged persons were subjected to the added penalty of a cursing by the clergy.

Clothing of Kings and Nobles in the Middle Ages

The most noted luxury among kings was found in the profusion of fur trimming mantles, surcoats and robes. By the eleventh century, velvet caps were reserved for persons of rank. Full length cloaks, closed shoes beginning to point and purses suspended from belts, were typical.

At the height of extravagance, clothes in the thirteenth century were lavished with gold, silver, pearls or precious stones. Massive gold belts, breeches and long stockings in matching colors and materials were the style and shoes were now fully pointed. The surcoat was made in cloth of mixed colors in scarlet, blue or reddish brown and embroidered with a noble’s coat of arms when engaged in combat.

Nobles sometimes wore clothing so short and tight that they needed help from two people to dress and undress.

Medieval Women’s Clothing

By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries women of station wore trailing opulently decorated and embroidered gowns with close-fitting bodices overlaid by tight jackets that fell just below the hips. Jackets were frequently trimmed with fur and rich ornamentation. Sleeves were long and tight and fastened by a row of buttons. Shoes were long and pointed.

In the late fourteenth century the external corset came into fashion. Although women’s gowns were fastened in front up to the throat in the early medieval period, by the latter end of the period necklaces encircled the now bared neckline. Dresses also became full around the hips using padded rolls.

The clothing of women in the lower ranks of society was simple and inexpensive. Made of wool and dyed in the cheaply produced colors of off-white, grey, brown or red, the dress was fastened by a belt either at the waist or hips. Thick woollen shawls extended from the shoulder to mid-calf and mittens were worn to keep warm.

Clothing of Medieval Knights

A knight’s clothing was meant to keep his armour from chafing his skin. The knight wore a linen under-shirt and under-pants. His legs were covered in woollen stockings. An additional quilted garment padded with linen was used as a cushion for the armour worn over top. A belted robe was worn over the body armour and emblazoned with the device of the knight to identify him in battle.

The idiom, ‘clothes make the man’ was never more true than in the middle ages when station was judged by apparel.


Sansa’s Plight, and Ours

So, in essence, rape was considered a prosecutable crime in the Middle Ages, but in a very limited fashion. Like with so many things, unless you had a powerful family and not yet married, the woman was either considered to have been partially (or wholly) responsible, it was not considered a serious crime or, if she were married, no crime at all.

So, where does that leave poor Sansa—and by extension all medieval women? Would all go to their wedding beds with the expectation of being raped—or that their consent was an optional accessory rather than required? Obviously, that depends. People in every age have conformed to or pushed against the norms of their day, and historical records (e.g. court records, etc.) privilege when things go wrong. But considering the prevailing winds at the time, for a woman to discover they were being married to a partner who treated them with respect and kindness might have been more of a pleasant surprise than an expected outcome.

I am reminded of the song “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof, where three young women express their hopes and fears about being married off by their father:

Chava, I found him.
Won’t you be a lucky bride!
He’s handsome, he’s tall,
That is from side to side.

But he’s a nice man, a good catch, right?
Right.

You heard he has a temper.
He’ll beat you every night,
But only when he’s sober,
So you’re alright.

Did you think you’d get a prince?
Well I do the best I can.
With no dowry, no money, no family background
Be glad you got a man!

But on the other hand, this raises a conundrum: to what degree does culture shape people, or do people shape culture? I find it difficult to accept that just because jurists or clerics said that marital rape was fine, (and aristocratic systems practically encouraged it) and that some poets encouraged the rape of peasants, that it means that all, or even most, men were rapists. It does mean those already inclined to be violent and sociopathic—like the Ramsays of the medieval world—would get away with it (and perhaps even be encouraged). Many might be persuadable, in the same way that warrior-groups (whether gangs or armies) often encouraged violent behavior among their members. But it does not mean that kindness and empathy ceased to exist, and that there were not people who did not “fit in” with the prevailing winds of their society.

Not all medieval men were Ramsay Bolton—though it seems as though their society encouraged them to behave more like Ramsay than like Tyrion. Many of the social norms described above are abhorrent. But it is important not to ignore medieval men’s basic humanity when trying to recuperate the basic humanity of medieval women.

And let’s not get too smug when reveling in the supposed barbarity of our medieval forebears. Marital rape was only criminalized in all 50 states in the USA in 1993—and only as a result of the concerted effort of feminists for nearly 150 years. Though figures vary, at a conservative estimate one in six women in the USA today have either been raped or are the victim of an attempted rape. And the rich and powerful still often get away with it. Women are still abducted and raped into marriage. Yes, rape culture in the medieval west was horrifying, but if the ideas explored above—that women are “asking for it,” or secretly “want it,” that women who are raped are considered “damaged goods,” or that husbands have “the right” to their wives’ bodies—if you’ve never heard those ideas, then you haven’t been paying enough attention. We still have a long way yet to go.

Click Here to donate to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US. They do good work.


Watch the video: 12 of The Coolest Medieval Women of All Time (December 2022).

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