Widows were particularly well protected. Beyond what they personally inherited they had a right to a share of their deceased husband’s property. For noblewomen that could be vast estates, for poor women maybe little more than some furnishings and bedclothes, but the point is that their situation reflected their husband’s estate not their sex.
The second most powerful means of empowerment is education. Medieval women had access to education (for the poor) in the nunneries and (for the rich) from private tutors. Many medieval women of the upper and middle-classes were literate and numerate. In fact, women wrote books (and music) and were respected scholars. To name just a few examples, a certain Dhuoda wrote a manual for her son in the 9th century that has survived to this day. (How many mothers wrote similar texts that have been lost?) Mathilda of Anjou was another highly learned and respected woman, who headed the double (male and female) Monastery at Fontevrault in the 12th century; she was consulted by kings and popes because of her recognized learning and wisdom. Finally, there was Hildegard of Bingen who wrote poetry and music, but also on the natural sciences and medicine as well as theology. She too was consulted by kings, emperors and popes.
Another factor in the increased status of women in the Middle Ages was the spread of Christianity. In fact it can be argued that Christianity itself was the single most important factor in increasing the status of women in Europe.
I'm not talking here about “equal rights,” ordaining women, or any other issue that agitates modern women, but about the fundamental fact that nothing degrades or devalues women more than polygamy. Fatima Mernisse (a Muslim Professor of Sociology) notes: “Polygamy…enhances men’s perception of themselves as primarily sexual beings and emphasizes the sexual nature of the conjugal unit. Moreover, polygamy is a way for the man to humiliate the woman…. ‘Debase a woman by bringing in another one in [to the house].’” (Mernissi, p. 48) The Christian Church diligently opposed polygamy and succeeded in eliminating it from Christian society before the start of the Middle Ages.
The Christian Church’s insistence on marriage as a life bond was a truly revolutionary innovation that dramatically increased the status and financial security of women. If a man could not simply toss a woman out and get a new wife, he had no choice but to try to come to terms with the wife he had. His wife was elevated from interchangeable sexual partner to life-time partner.
Yes, I know a bad marriage can be hell, but a woman in the 6th, 7th or 8th century couldn’t just move to a new city, get a new job and start a new life. Her only option was going back to her own family (if they’d have her) and generally becoming the resented and humiliated “reject,” kicked around and abused by her sisters, sisters-in-law etc.
And, yes, men, particularly wealthy and powerful men, in Christian kingdoms in the Middle Ages still found ways to set aside their wives, but the Church’s stance made it more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was a whole lot better than what had gone before—and still prevails in many parts of the non-Christian world.
Most important, the mother of Christ was venerated above all other saints in the Middle Ages. The rosary evolved, and Mary’s status as an intermediary between man and God was propagated. Medieval Catholicism thus gave to a women a status unknown in any other religion: Mary was revered not for her fertility or her ability to satisfy man’s lust, but for her virtues: love, generosity, kindness, forgiveness etc. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary inspired imitation, and soon there were a host of other female saints revered for their piety and devotion to God even onto martyrdom.
Last but not least, the 12th century was the century in which the cult of "love" was invented. A treatise on love from this period summarized the ideology as follows:
...each man must try to serve ladies so that he may be illuminated by their grace. And they must do their best to keep the hearts of good men intent on their good works and to honor them for their merit. For all good done by living beings is done through the love of women... (Quoted in Pernoud, Regine, p. 97.)
Pernoud points out that more than mere equality, courtly love raised up the woman over the man. The lady was the lord, to whom a man vowed homage and service. "He vows his fidelity to her. All his life, his actions, his poems are offered in homage to her....The lady therefore is the suzerain. He abandons himself to her will and find joy in doing it, even if he should suffer thereby." (Pernoud, p. 106)
So, in conclusion, were medieval women equal to men? No. Did they have the same rights and privileges? No. Could they do everything that men did? No. Were they often victims of violence and injustice? Certainly. But the world is not made up of black and white, pure good and pure evil, perfect equality or pure oppression. European women in the Middle Ages enjoyed far more status, freedom and economic empowerment than hundreds of millions of women living in the world today. Please don’t refer to them as “chattels.”
In all my novels I attempt to portray women in roles reflective of their historical place in the society of the age described. The Balian trilogy contains a number of strong female characters, both good and bad.
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