Over the next weeks, I will examine the status and opportunities for women in medieval society in more detail. I
open this series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle
Ages with a look at the notion that women, particularly wives, were mere
"chattels" in the Middle Ages. It is a topic I have taken on before
and revisit here.
Let me start by reminding you what the word chattel means. Webster’s Dictionary, Second College Edition, states that a chattel is: “a movable item of personal property, as a piece of furniture, an automobile, a head of livestock.” In short, a chattel is by definition property, an object without rights. It is something that can be disposed of, sold, or destroyed by the owner. Humans who are property are called slaves. Women in Medieval Europe were not slaves—of their husbands or anyone else. Period.
|These women -- sold at auction by ISIS -- are "chattels." This was unimaginable in the Christian Middle Ages!|
I could end this essay here, but the persistence of the misconception induces me to go a little farther.
Thus 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 object to life-time partner.
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.
|Christ holds his arm around his mother's shoulders in this lovely mosaic from Santa Maria de Trastevere, Rome|
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.