Women in Medieval England

Women in Medieval England

Women in medieval England generally had a tough lifestyle - though some were more comfortable than others. Overall, men were the rulers of medieval society and they felt women should 'know their place' in the world.

Society in medieval England was traditional in the sense that women did not really have an important role to perform aside from supporting their husbands, performing daily chores and shouldering family responsibilities. 

Women would carry out many of same tasks as men within the village but would not be paid as much simply because of their sex.

In towns, society would dictate what jobs women were able to perform, though the range of possible occupations was limited. 

Medieval women hunting
Medieval women hunting

Some old documents still exist that record exactly what was entailed in typical village work in medieval England and how much this work was worth in terms of wages. For example, a man may have received eight pence per day for reaping and women would be given five pence for carrying out exactly the same task. Men earned sixpence a day for haymaking whilst women would get four pence. Women could not even complain about the unfair treatment in this heavily male-dominated society.

Most English women were living in rural areas and therefore were involved in variations of farm work. In towns, women had difficulty progressing into a trade since medieval guilds usually prohibited women from joining. Thus women were not able to do the majority of skilled jobs. One of the few exceptions was making clothes. 

“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)

The majority of women could only work towards being a servant to the wealthy, which was tough and not well rewarded.

Men determined the law and this also limited women’s freedom in a significant way.

Women had to obey specific rules in medieval society.

Women

  • had to have their parents permission to marry
  • needed special permission to own a business
  • were not able to leave their husbands through divorce
  • were unable to become property owners except if they were widowed
  • were unable to inherit their parents’ land if they had any living brothers

A lot of women from wealthy backgrounds would marry as teenagers. Medieval children were treated very differently from today - those who had poor families worked as early as possible and treated like adults from age 10 or 11. Unlike girls from rich families, young women from poor backgrounds would not marry until they reached their twenties as they were needed to work for as long as possible. Girls from well-off families did not have any say in who they would marry and it was often arranged as a political gesture or simply a family advantage, as opposed to what she wanted. After marrying, young women would be under the submission of their husbands.

It was seen as essential to produce a male heir into a wealthy family, and a lot of women were pregnant for most of the time they were married. Childbirth back then was much more dangerous due to poor medical care. At least 20 per cent of women are believed to have died during childbirth and this was the most common cause of female death in Medieval England.

Rich wives did not normally see to their children; instead a wet nurse was responsible for them. However women within poor families had to care for the children in addition to performing the daily household tasks in the house and on the land. Most medieval women did not survive past the age of 40.

See also: The Lives of Medieval Peasants

A Day in the Life of a Nun in Medieval England

MLA Citation/Reference

"Women in Medieval England". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.