Angela Lin 487200489
Daphne Su 487200154
Maggie Chen 487200178
Prof. Cecilia Liu
Medieval British Literature and Culture
Apr. 29, 2002
Generally speaking, medieval women are oppressed and exploited in 13th century. In status, they are inferior to men; that is they have to follow men’s order. When they are unmarried, they have to obey their fathers. Once they get married, they turn to fulfill husbands’ command. Meanwhile, women are regarded as the subjections to men. If women didn’t listen to husbands’ order, husbands have the right to beat their wives. Besides, women are voiceless in politics, so at the time, some people criticize that the law was only man’s law.
The proportion in Middle Ages represents that women are more than men because of the war and the black death that take a great many men’s lives. Also, there are large number of monks and clergies which result in the lack of men in Middle Ages. Originally, women are supposed to marry the men who have the similar status with them, but because of the lower proportion of men, some of the upper-class women are forced to marry lower-class men. Even though to marry a man whose status is lower than the woman is very disgraceful, they are compelled to do so.
Medieval women have no choices to decide their own marriage. Since they are inferior and subject to men, father owns the right to decide whom his daughter will marry to. Then, from the age of seven, women can start to search for the targets and usually get married at around thirteen to fourteen years old. Furthermore, dowry which father gives daughters when they are married is required. If women didn’t have any dowry when they got married, it would be very dishonorable and looked down upon by others.
Although women are subject to men, they are not completely powerless in the Middle Ages. Unmarried are powerful because of possessing lands. On the contrary, once they are married, they become powerless because they have no rights to possess their own properties. In other words, married women no longer possess the rights to own their properties that would automatically belong to men. Granted that so much inequalities principles on women, we can prove that women are really oppressed and exploited in Middle Ages.
The upper class women: the ladies
In the medieval time, upper class women also had the rights to receive education, but women’s education was considered as the preparation for marriage. Mostly, the trainings of women’s education were designed for being a good wife. Usually, upper class girl were brought up away from home, and they were sent to either the household of great ladies or the nunneries for their education. The great ladies probably represented the models for those unmarried girls to follow their virtues of being a good wife. Besides, it was noted that only upper class women were eligible to stay in the nunneries. For those working class women or peasant women, they were not allowed to go to the nunneries.
In women’s education, the basic trainings included the courtly manners, such as playing chess, telling stories, singing and playing a musical instrument. These trainings enabled the upper class women to entertain guests when the visitors came to the castles or manors. Besides, the upper class women were taught to read and write. However, even though women learned to write and read, men still intended to restrain women’s minds, and some men also denied women’s education because they feared that women would read filthy romances, and would write love letters which might degenerate women’s minds. The medieval women were required to learn family medicine and healing, but they were not supposed to learn too much or they would be regarded as witches.
The women’s education was regarded as a preparation. After getting married, upper class women undertook more burdens on their shoulder as the role of wives in the family. In the medieval times, it was a common condition for men to go to the battles or leave home for adventure. Hence, as the wives of the kings, knights, and landowners, they had to be the representatives of their absent husbands. During the period, wives were in charge of managing the household, running the estate, defending their castles when they were under attack. Besides, sometimes upper class women were supposed to go to the court in order to deal with the legal disputes for the sake of protecting their husbands’ right from being invaded. In addition to be the representative of the absent husbands, the medieval wives from upper class also were the supervisor of the household staff. As the hostess of the castle or manor, they should supervise everything that within the household from the bread to the materials made for clothing. Moreover, they were in charge of supervising the women’s laborers in the care of livestock, kitchen, gardens, food preparation and preservation, spinning, weaving, and sewing. Furthermore, they were supposed to supervise the marketing of everything produced in the castles or manors.
In the Middle Ages, the main intention of a medieval woman’s life was to get married. The condition of a woman was different from unmarried to married. Before getting married, the medieval women had the same rights with men. Women had the rights to own land, or property through selling the lands or working. They also had the rights to make a contract and a will, or to sue others on the courts. But after becoming a wife, the woman no longer has the rights to execute the aforementioned actions. However, as long as she became a widow, she could recover those rights again. Beside of reclaiming those basic rights, the widow also has right to get back the lands sold by the husband in the duration of the marriage.
Regarding the marriage in medieval times, dowry was a very essential item. For the bride, the dowry was the land or property that bride’s parent gave her. Based upon the medieval customary, the dowry was concerned in the marriage. Not only the brides could obtain the dowry, but also the widows could receive the dowry after the husbands’ death. Accordingly, the widows could gain one third of the land the husbands owned in the duration of marriage. Even though the widows got married again, they also could keep the dowry as a protection for life.
The other alternative for upper class women—the nunneries
In the Middle Ages, marriage was the aspiration of almost every woman but the upper class women seemed to have more luck that they were provided with one other choice in addition to marriage—being nuns in the nunneries. To be a nun actually was kind of like a privilege exclusively for the upper class women because they were the only women among all the social classes who could afford to be nuns. Therefore, the nunneries in the Middles Age could be seen as outlets for the upper class women. Beside, the nunneries were also places where many noble husbands sent their wives and daughters when they were away from home for business, war, Crusade, or some other missions. These wives and daughters were tended and secured in the nunneries and were able to keep their chastity. Also, sometime, the noble family would send their children here, especially daughters, for education. And this privilege also exclusively belonged to the upper class family. For the lower class people, the nunneries played the beneficial role as well in terms of charities. People of lower class from the neighborhood, mainly women, were provided job opportunities to work in the nunneries as laborers, servants, or craftsmen. As for the life in the nunneries, the nuns had to follow strict routine, and performed three duties daily, which were prayer, study, and labor. A certain number of monastic rituals and services were undertaken under many rules. Studying and laboring were equally significant for the nuns to enhance their knowledge and their physical condition as well.
In some way, the nunneries enables women in the Middle Ages to reach several personal achievements. In addition to fulfilling ones’ spiritual life of being nuns, the nunneries enabled many women from the upper class to receive good education, which was scarcely obtainable for lower class women. Meanwhile, women could be treated as individual persons with reputation and respect due to their devotion and achievement in the religious life. And the nunnery actually was a self-sufficient community where things were produced and utilized inside the nunnery. The nuns then took in charge of managing everything within this small community. Women here were granted responsibilities and power which out of the nunneries women could never get but men.
The middle class women—the working women
Women who worked to support themselves or assisted their husbands with crafts or trades were so-called the working women in the Middle Ages. And mostly, they carried on business in towns or countries. These women were in the middle class. Most of them were able to learn reading and writing though not in the nunneries. They got apprenticed to trades or crafts since being little; meanwhile, they received training in manners and morals in their masters’ houses. For every woman, her father would offer a certain amount of money as dowry for her getting married or having her own trade if she did not get married. Women in this class were wages earners or shopkeepers. So their responsibility definitely could not be considered without their occupations. The single women worked to earn a living whereas married women would have to assist their husbands’ business though there were still several exceptions that married women kept carrying on their own crafts and trades after marriage. However, most widows had to keep running the past husbands’ crafts or trades. It is said that people saw woman laborers in almost every profession in the Middle Ages. This fact then shows that the medieval women played a very important role in the medieval industry. The occupations of the Middle Ages women were diverse including butcher, chandelier, shoemaker, smith, bookbinder, embroider, and so forth. The other type of occupations for these women was carried on at home and was called “by industry.” For instance, textile and clothing making, and food and drink producing and selling were in this category. And sometimes, a woman ran more than one by industry at the same time. Although the working women worked under the same circumstance as men did, usually they were not treated in the same way. For instance, women usually got lower pay than men did even though they did the very same job. Another unfair working situation for the working women is that they were commonly unacknowledged by the gilds so their rights and welfare could not be guaranteed and protected.
The Lower Class Women: Peasant Women
For the proportion of the three classes, the lower class is the largest number in Medieval Times. And most of them live in the countryside. They are supposed to do the most laborious and menial work such as farming, building, and hard labor. Although they have the right to receive education, they have less education than other classes or no education. What they learn are only alphabet and religion. With the alphabet, at least they can read, and the purpose of learning religion is to control their thoughts. However, the reason why those women who have no education is that they cannot afford to go to nunneries for education or they live far away from the town.
Peasant women not only have to do the housework but also need to share their husbands’ labors. At home, they wash and wiring clothes, and so some extra housework. In the farm, they need to dig up beets, reap, thresh, and winnow. If the family had any sheep, peasant women also have the responsibility to shear sheep. In addition, once their husbands are away from home, they have to take the responsibility of taking good care of the farms. Since hard laboring is what peasant women have to do every day, it is easy to understand that their clothes are not as shine as upper-class women. In their points of view, they regard clothing as the luxury and mainly possessed by middle and upper classes. For peasant women, what they wear is the clothing that can be grabbed.
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