Think women have never had it so good? You should take a look at medieval days
What was life like for women in medieval times? “Awful” is the vague if definite answer that tends to spring to mind – but this is an assumption, and authors have been tackling it with new vigour.
The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega, and The Wife of Bath: A Biography by Marion Turner both contend that women were not only bawdier but busier than we thought: they were brewers, blacksmiths, court poets, teachers, merchants, and master craftsmen, and they owned land too. A woman’s dowry, Janega writes, was often accompanied with firm instructions that property stay with her, regardless of what her husband wanted.
This feels like a new discovery. It isn’t, of course. Chaucer depicted many such cheerfully domineering women. The vellum letter-books of the City of London, in which the doings of the capital from 1275 to 1509 were scribbled, detail female barbers, apothecaries, armourers, shipwrights and tailors as a matter of course. While it is true that aristocratic women were considered drastically inferior to their male equivalents – traded as property and kept as ornaments – women of the lower orders lived, relatively, in a sort of rough and ready empowerment.
It was the Renaissance that vastly rolled back the rights of women. As economic power shifted, the emerging middle classes began aping their betters. They confined their women to the home, putting them at the financial mercy of men. Female religious power also dwindled. In the 13th century seeing visions and hearing voices might get a woman sainted; a hundred years later she’d more likely 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 medieval times was invented by the Victorians, who had an artistic obsession with the period, and through poetry and endless retellings of the myth of King Arthur managed somehow to permanently infuse their own sexual politics into it. (Victorian women were in many respects more socially repressed than their 12th-century forebears.)
But modern storytellers are also guilty of sexist revisionism. We endlessly retread the lives of oppressed noblewomen, and ignore their secretly empowered lower-order sisters. Where poorer women are mentioned, glancingly, they are pitied as prostitutes or rape victims. Even writers who seem desperate for a “feminist take” on the period tend to ignore the angle staring them right in the face. In her 2022 cinematic romp, Catherine called Birdy, for example, Lena Dunham puts Sylvia Pankhurst-esque speeches into the mouth of her 13th-century protagonist, while portraying her impending marriage – at 14 – as normal for the period. (In fact the average 13th-century woman got married somewhere between the ages of 22 and 25.)
But we cling tight to these ideas. It is often those who push back against them who get accused of “historical revisionism”. This applies particularly to the fantasy genre, which aside from the odd preternaturally “feisty” female character, tends to portray the period as, well, a misogynistic fantasy. The Game of Thrones author George RR Martin once defended the TV series’ burlesque maltreatment of women on the grounds of realism. “I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like.” Oddly enough, this didn’t apply to female body hair (or the dragons).
This is interesting. Most of our historical biases tend to run in the other direction: we assume 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 might be more accurately painted as a tug of war between the sexes
The casual reader of history is left with the dim impression that between the Palaeolithic era and the 19th century women suffered a sort of dark age of oppression. This is assumed to have ended some time around the invention of the lightbulb, when the idea of “gender equality” sprang into our heads and right-thinking societies set about “discovering” female competencies: women – astonishingly – could do things men could do!
In fact the history of gender relations might be more accurately painted as a tug of war between the sexes, with women sometimes gaining and sometimes losing power – and the stronger sex opportunistically seizing control whenever it had the means.
In Minoan Crete, for example, women had similar rights and freedoms to men, taking equal part in hunting, competitions, and celebrations.
But that era ushered in one of the most patriarchal societies the planet has ever known – classical Greece, where women had no political rights and were considered “minors”.
Or take hunter-gatherer societies, the source of endless cod-evolutionary theories about female inferiority. The discovery of female skeletons with hunting paraphernalia has disproved the idea that men only hunted and women only gathered – and more recently anthropologists have challenged the idea that men had higher status too: women, studies contend, had equal sway over group decisions.
This general bias has had two unfortunate consequences. One is to impress upon us the idea that inequality is “natural”. The other is to give us a certain complacency about our own age: 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.
Two years ago, remember, sprang up one of the most vicious patriarchies in history – women were removed from their schools and places of work and battoned into homes and hijabs. And last year in the US many women lost one of their fundamental rights: abortion. (Turns out it was pro-lifers, not feminists, who were ahead of their time there.)
Both these events were greeted with shock from liberal quarters: how could women’s rights be going backwards? But that only shows we should brush up on our history. 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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