Women in the Middle Ages


The position of the women during historic times has not been all that positive. Aristotle was very clear about this, women were weak and in the possession of men and they had no other place than to stay at home and look after the family. This was not much different during Roman times and Saint Paul made sure that this tradition was carried over into Christianity.

The Church went one step further and also declared sexuality evil and blamed the women for any ‘sins’ surrounding this. The shift to Protestantism did not change any of this.

An interesting observation is that in times where there was less structured sociaty women in general did much better than in time when governments and churches were able to establish more rigid structures.

So after the Roman era especially during the Merovingian and Carolingian periods we see leading women both in secular and eclassiastic instututions. Queen Brunhilde, Clotilde, the wife of Clovis, Itta of Metz (wife of Pippin I), her daughter Abbess Gertrude of Nivelles, Bertrada de Laon  (wife of Pippin III), Emma the wife of Einhard advisor to Charlemagne, Judith (wife of Louise the Pious) just to name a few.

Later on we see in the Ottonian period: Emperess Adelheid, Abdess Mathilda, Countess Mathilda of Canossa, Emperess Theaphanu, Beatrice the Regent Dowager Duchess of Upper Lotharingia, Adelheid the wife of Hugh Carpet,  Emma of West Francia, daughter of king Robert I of France. Other women are described in more detail below.

While all of this might have been the official line, in all reality at the farm level and later on in the emerging cities, men and women lived together on a far more equal level and now, as in those days, there were stronger men and stronger women and weaker men and weaker women.

The double-descent kin groups amongst the Germanic tribes provided equal inheriting rights and traditions.  This paramount structure of tribal life also allowed for a much broader relationship between men and women within and across the various kin groups and included  institutionalised relationships as well as,  separately, sexual relationships and again separately, emotionally especially in relation to maintaining the often complex kinship relations. There was also  political power linked to this dual descent system  and while, as a rule women were not admitted to the royal office,  it gave women a powerful position within these kin groups. These tribal and kinship relationships were carried over  on into the Middle Ages. After a process that took centuries the Church was finally able the break these relationships and replaced them with ‘Christian’ rules and regulations.

As is now the case also in those days it was far more difficult for women to break through the glass ceiling and we know of a several individual women (be it far and far less than men) who played key roles in politics, religious life, cultural affairs; who were advisers to kings and popes and we also know of several queens and empresses who were strong and successful leaders.

With more institutionalised secular and ecclesiastic structures being developed in the high Middle Ages, very explicit misogynistic rhetoric entered the rules and regulations, with clear indications of systematic discrimination against women and a demonstrable suppression of women and their rights. Without their traditional roles within the kinship relations the women lost whatever influence they had and from this time onwards also significant less women were elevated to sainthood.


In the early Middle Ages there is no evidence of a specifically less equal treatment of women.  Marriage among ordinary people was based on a rather casual arrangements between a man and a woman, celebrated with a party. That started to change in the 11th century once the Church started to take greater control over social life , which basically led to social regulations from birth (baptism) to death (last sacraments and burial) and everything in between, including marriage.

In general terms the fundamental platform upon women were judged and treated in the Middle Ages are founded in the Bible, through Eve – being so weak that she couldn’t resist Satan –  she were to blame for the original sin and therefore the ruin of mankind. They were not much helped either by the ‘intellectual’ works of Plato and Aristotle, also in their writings women are always coming off 2nd best, they are the property of their men, have to stay in house and are in general seen as being incapable of any intellectual activity. They were portrayed as being a feeble person, not very trustworthy, envious and more malicious then men.

Another incredible misconception that lasted for nearly 1500 years was based on the third century ‘medical’ writer Galen. He stated that women’s wombs are ‘cold’ and need constant warming by ‘hot’ male sperm. In addition if women don’t regularly copulate their seed (as Galen calls it) might coagulate and suffocate their wombs, thereby damaging their health. Therefore it was widely believed that women had a physical need to have sex regularly.

This was seized upon by  the Church especially during the Late Middle Ages when its power was at it zenith as a consequence the role of the women even worsened further. Women were feared by the Church for their sexuality and the lust they created in men. The  Church –  dominated by  single unmarried men – was obsessed with anything that had to do with sex and lust. They took control over the sex life of their subjects by indicating when, where, with whom and how often people could have sex. Of course it could only be used for procreation.  How destructive sexual sins could be became clear when God caused the Black Death that killed a quarter of the European population, all because of the terrible lustful sins of mankind.

Marriage is seen as an essential means of satiating both female and male lust through making each partner indebted to the other. By this reckoning, neither partner might deny the other repayment of the martial debt. You therefore have a society in which men are led to believe that their wives are continuously aching to have sex as often as they can. At the same time women are led to believe that they are physical manifestation of lust, and that their wombs will suffocate with excess ‘seed’ unless they have sex regularly. [x The Time Travellers Guide To Medieval England, Ian Mortimer, 2009]

Menstruation blood was another feared phenomenon, it was seen as the female seed and if it would touch food, plants or animals terrible things would happen. Also menstrual blood would go to the woman’s eye and looking at that would also lead to disastrous results.

In order to take even further control over the social – and in particular the sexual life – of the flock, the sacrament of confession was invented, this made it compulsory for people to individually make their confessions to the priest.  The largest parts of the handbooks that priest received – following the 4th  Council of Lateran in 1215 – dealt with questions and interrogations that priests should follow in relation to sexual affairs and behaviour. These ‘sins’ also drew some of the harshest penitence, based on fear and shame. Separately Church Courts were established to cover those people that were suspected of sinning and again the largest part of issues dealt with were sexual in nature. The most serious sins had to do with homosexuality (sodomy) and was not only punished by death in the most horrendous ways, but  also  followed  by  torture  in hell. All of this was all very real in the eyes of Middle Age people.

The dual role of aristocratic women

The position of aristocratic women in the early Middle Ages was often not much more than a trading object.  They were used to organise family ties, mainly for political or financial reasons,  or to arrange property transfers. They were also exchanged as a ‘gift’ in order to secure peace or they were ‘acquired’ and became ‘security’ to keep conquered rivals in check. They were also used to expand territories by giving them into marriage to neighbouring rulers. The Burgundian Dukes and Habsburg Emperors became absolute masters in such deals.

Double marriages

A good example of the value of noble women (girls) can be seen in three double marriages which became key to the development of Europe as we now it today. Bavaria and Burgundy were united through the double marriage of 1385, this also led of the inclusion of Hainault, Holland and Zeeland into the Burgundian empire. In 1495 a double marriage between Burgundy and Castille/Aragon brought Spain and Habsburg together, laying the foundation of the European Empire under Charles V. Perhaps of a lesser importance was the double marriage between Louis and Anna, children of Ladislaus V Jagiellon King of Hungary between Maria and Ferdinand, children of Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy. The effects of these double marriages are still felt in the local politics and management of Belgium and the Netherlands. See also: Brabant under Burgundian rule.

Despite their subservient treatment, aristocratic women often themselves played an active and leading role in peace negotiations, heritage issues, etc. They were often referred to as ‘Peace-Spinsters’.

The legal position of women was based on the status of her father, rarely of that of the mother. When she married she took the status of her husband. However, in case of a marriage between a noble lady and a lesser nobleman his status was not upgraded, he only slightly rose in his status. The order of nobility is clear in the signing of the various protocols; it preciously lists the signatories in the order of their ranking importance. After the death of her husband the widow received the status of her husband. We therefore do see some very powerful widowed queens and princess in particular in the Low Countries: Duchess Margret of York, saved Burgundy after the death of Charles the Fearless in 1477. Margareta Archduchess of Austria, Maria Queen of Hungary and Margareta Duchess of Parma (all related to Charles V – aunt, sister and illegitimate daughter) were all powerful Regents of the Netherlands between 1507  and 1567 (see: Dukes of Burgundy).

However, the majority of widowed queens and princess ended up in convents after they had fulfilled their task and for whatever reason had lost their ‘value’. Interestingly the term widower only started to be used in more recent times, again showing the subservient position of women in the Middle Ages. Men simply went on with life.

In general the position of the women remained largely the same throughout the classical, medieval and renaissance periods. Even during the Renaissance the role of the women was to serve and to know of God. Education was seen as important for men  for trade, a profession or to serve a city or a state, these were not seen as proper roles for women and therefore it was also not necessary to educate them. It was also thought that women did not have the intellectual capacity to take on education or more senior positions in society.

A third category of women were the nuns. As virginity was promoted as one of the most important virtues for women this led to other interpretation of of sexuality. They were the brides of Christ, of course without sex.  Driven by the new trend of mysticism, some of the writing of nuns talk about  their spiritual love for Christ, with very strong sexual and erotic undertones .

Influential women

There were some very notable exceptions. Very influential women of the Middle Ages  include:

  • ·Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (c.935 – c.1002)
  • ·Heloise (c.1095 – 1164)
  • ·Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179)
  • ·Marie de France 1160 – c.1215)
  • ·Christine de Pizan (c.1354 – c.1429)

These women were all prolific writers and were involved in a range of theological and rhetorical arts and other intellectual activities that were normally only conducted by men. Society and in particular the Church saw women of incapable and inferior. This makes them even more remarkable and their behaviour doesn’t fit the usual medieval stereotype. The Church was also dead against the romantic poetry and also opposed the troubadours who had became very popular at the courts throughout Europe.

There is very little information on these women, mainly based on information that can be gathered from their writings. They also were highly educated and it is puzzling were some of their knowledge came from Heloise for example already mastered at a young age apart from the vernacular languages of France and England, Latin, Hebrew and Greek.


Hrotsvitha was of noble birth and studied, at the monastery of Gandersheim, under Abbess Gerberga, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry I (the Fowler). Hrotsvitha became a secular canoness of the Benedict Order. Her name in Saxon means ‘strong voice’. She is seen as the first secular writer since antiquity to compose drama again. While this in itself attest for an independent thinking person, unlike some of the other women her writing is very much within the constraints of the medieval Christian mind, she is highly pious and doesn’t stray outside that pattern. Her writings above all triumphs the virtue of virginity, if a decision is needed than death is preferred over loosing that virginity.

There is strong evidence that her work was inspired by the Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer (Terence) (190-158BCE). Terence most probably started his life as a slave in North Africa (near Carthage) and was brought to Rome, he mainly translated Greek plays into Roman plays. Her six plays are all love stories, interestingly in one of her plays (Dulcitius) Hrotsvitha describes a (devil inspired) masturbation scene of one he male characters in a kitchen, while maidens where watching him (and rescued him). From a modern perspective her writing would have a significant amount of suppressed sexuality in it.

Being close to the imperial family Hrotsvitha also wrote poetry based on the history that Gerberga’s brother Otto (the next emperor) had written about his family (Carmen de Gestis Oddonis Imperatoris the Ottonian).


Heloise was raised at the monastery of Argenteuil, 20km north of Paris, close the St Denis. In her late teens she moved to her uncle Fulbert in Paris, a Canon at the Cathedral of Notre Dam. He arranged for her to have her tutored by Peter Abelard a radical and rather arrogant new thinker for his time. He challenged the traditional teachers of the day and was often thrown out of these institutions; he sharpened the way philosophy needed to be approached in a rational way, separate from the doctrine of the Church. He had a huge following and often attracted more pupils somewhere in a park or in front of his house than the established teachers of the day.

Teachers at Cathedral schools could not be married and when he met Heloise he was close to 40 years old. However, they fell in love and she became pregnant. He had her send to his home in Brittany but was forced by Fulbert to marry Heloise. However, she  didn’t want to marry she believed that real love had to be free. This was seen by Fulbert as Abelard coming back on his promise of marriage.  In order to protect his reputation (and probably also as a punishment) Fulbert had Abelard castrated. After this, he decided to become a monk in St Denis and  Heloise became a nun at Argenteuil. She was deeply saddened about the affair and remained totally in love with him.

Abelard was regularly accused of heresy, he regularly had to flee and hide from his persecutors.His main enemy here was Bernard of Clairvaux he saw Abelard’s rational approach as a sheer revolt against the unconditional Catholic faith. St Denis acquired Argenteuil and Heloise, who was a prioress at that time, and her nuns had to find another place. Abelard gave them the Paraclete (Comforter) property that he owned in Troyes and they established a very successful monastery and as the abbess, she was able to further found six daughter monasteries in France.

From here she had a very interesting and highly intellectual (and often passionate) exchange of letters and documents with Peter. First of all she reacted agitated on the way he had portrayed her in an open letter that he wrote in 1132 on his troubled life (Historia calamitatum mearum). In the exchange that followed Heloise wrote passionate about her own situation and also questioning some of the Christian values in relation to that and asked Peter to explain 42 questions regarding Bible texts and the way she experienced them in daily life (Problemata Heloissae). It is amazing to read her spirited letters and the often rather lame responses from Abelard. She dissected the Benedictine Rules and asked Peter to rewrite them, which he did, but she didn’t implement them instead using the ones she had written herself.

He wrote over 100 hymns for her as she disliked the traditional ones; he wrote the history of the nuns and the history of the six days of creation for her as well as numerous other documents. Bernard of Clairvaux however, with the support of the pope, condemned Abelard for heresy. Broken and disappointed he retired, in 1141, at the monastery of Cluny, where his friend and defender Peter the Venerable was the Abbott. He received his second condemnation (and that meant excommunication), the following year at the Council of Sens, where he failed to defend himself.

Shortly there after died at Cluny. However, Peter the Venerable was eventually able to reconcile Abelard with his principal condemner and after his death, Peter granted him absolution from his sins, at the personal request of Heloise. His body was buried in Paraclete. Heloise died in 1164. Their joint tomb is now in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Her legacy goes well beyond her life and she is still an inspirational woman and attracts ongoing interests both in her powerful writings as well as in her life with Peter Abelard. Bernard of Clairvaux was also not happy with the monastery of Cluny who he accused of being to wealthy.

Hildegard von Bingen

A similar influential woman andwriter was Hildegard von Bingen and like Heloise she also remains a person of great interest to modern people both scholars and ordinary people.She lived at the same time and while their paths may have crossed in one way or another there is no indication that they knew of each other. Hildegard’s life took mainly place in Rhineland.

As the 10th child in the family she was donated to the church (the tithes) and she went to the monastery of Disibodenberg between the age of 8 and 14 where she lived enclosed with her teacher the older nun Jutta, who was also a visionary. She died in 1137 and Hildegard was offered the position of magistra, she refused as she wanted to become the abbess of her own monastery. This eventually happened in 1150 when she moved with her nuns to Rupertsberg.

Hildegard was a mystic, she had visions. She had great troubles of justifying for herself that she should write them down. While Heloise husband Peter Abelard was condemned by the powerful Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard received his full support and he actually urged her to write down her visions. These were also accepted by Pope Eugenius III – who read them out in public – and this gave her legitimacy and as such she became a well known prophetess.

She had an amazing range of skills and knowledge, she was a theologian, composer, dramatist, visionary, maker of public speeches, herbalist, gardener, naturalist, healer and the writer of powerful letters. The Ordo Virtutum she composed is seen as the first opera.

Similar to Heloise she challenges Christian texts and practices she was in particular very vocal against the misbehaviour of the clergy, but she also strongly condemned the Cathars, which practices had also reach Rhineland.

Like Hrotsvitha also Hildegard maintain that virginity is the highest level of the spiritual life; however, she also wrote about secular life, including motherhood. In several of her texts, Hildegard describes the pleasure of the marital act.

The importance of her and her influence becomes clear in her correspondence with several Popes and Emperors as well as many other churchmen and statesmen, but equally she wrote caring letters to local nuns. She also corresponded with her friend who later became St Elisabeth of Schönau in Nassau. The Nassau link made Elisabeth a popular saint in the Low Countries and she is the patron saint of the church in Grave. Hildegard also undertook four preaching tours throughout the region.

She also played a role in the Investiture Controversy. In meetings with Emperor Frederick Barbarossa around 1150 she urged him to not challenge the Pope. While she initially was not successful, two anti-popes were appointed Paschall III (who canonised Charlemagne in 1165 – never recognised by the Church) and Callixtus III. However, the emperor later on (1177) accepted the earlier agreements whereby the pope had the power to appoint the bishops.

Hildegard’s writings concentrate on het mystic insights and analyses in relation to pastoral care, theological matters, the regulations of monks and nuns. She also provided personal spiritual advice and she was widely visited (religious tourism) which also resulted in many gifts to het monastery in Rupertsberg.

This strong headed lady also faced excommunication in 1177. This was in relation to a man buried in Rupertsburg who had died after excommunication from the Church. Therefore, the clergy wanted to remove his body from the sacred ground. Hildegard did not accept this idea, replying that it was a sin and that the man had been reconciled to the church at the time of his death. Eventually the situation was rectified and just before her death in 1179 the ban lifted.

Hildegard left behind over 100 letters, 72 songs, 70 poems, and 9 books.

Marie de France

Even less is known about the personal life of this poet. Most scholars accept that she most likely was born in Brittany and moved to England. She was fluent in Anglo-Norman(a sort of a pidgin Latin) as well as in Latin, French and English.

She lived and wrote at an unknown court, but was almost certainly at least known about at the royal court of King Henry II of England.

She contributed greatly to what became known as the heydays of French literature during the 12th century. Sheis the author of the Lais of Marie de France; translated Aesop’s Fables from Middle English into Anglo-Norman French and wrote Espurgatoire seint Partiz, Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick, based upon a Latin text. Her Lais in particular were and still are widely read, and influenced the subsequent development of the romance genre.

She is also seen as one of the first to write about ‘falling in love’ which had little to do with marriage.

Christine de Pizan

She is also known as Europe’s first professional female writer. She was born in Venice, the town of her mother – and would all her life mention het Italian roots. Her father Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano was a physician, court astrologer, and Councillor of the Republic of Venice. During the 14th century Italy was at the forefront of a new cultural revolution what would become known as the Renaissance a far more humanistic approach to life was certainly also part of her writing and what made her so successful.

The family moved to the French Royal Court of Charles V when Christine was 4 years old where he father became the court astrologer, alchemist, and physician. Christine married a French courtier at the age of 15 and at all accounts this was a very happy marriage. They had 3 children, but her husband died when she was 25. She had great problems securing her husband’s pension and was forced to look after her young family and this is when her writings start.

Scholars argue that she might have been taught by her father as her writing has – at times – a bureaucratic/notaries style. At the height of her career she had her own studio and employed her own staff. She had a large number of powerful patrons for which she wrote large bodies of writing from poetry to letters and political statements.

Her poetry has a strong autobiographic element in it and includes great details of courtly life with all of its intrigues and often focuses on gender inequality and the underlying misogyny apparent both at the courts and at the Church. Interestingly she also uses here a self-belittling approach in the way that Hildegard also used that tactic in the male dominated societies the both were part of.

While there are similarities here wit the writings of Hildegard and Heloise, Christine never had the political or social influence that the other two achieved; this also reflects the cultural and humanistic regression that had taken place since the 12th century. She clearly used her’ renaissance thinking’ to address these issues. Her influence in European poetry however, is very significant, and goes well beyond the 15th century. She surely was a proto-feminist.

Her patrons included nobility both in France and England who during that period were also engulfed in the 100 year war. She became a fierce supporter of the French cause and wrote about the dysfunctional French society at times at each others throat in civil war. She lamented this in a letter to Marie de Berry after the slaughtering of the French army at Agincourt.

In all of this turmoil she brought her son back from England, without securing him an immediate position in France, adding to her financial problems. Once she finally received her husband’s pension some unwise investments didn’t improve that situation.

She retired to a monastery of Poissy outside Paris in 1418 and didn’t write again until 1429 when she clearly was overjoyed by Jean’ d’Arc leadership resulting in a victory on the English. This was the last poem she wrote and the first literally account of Jean.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)