What Was Life Like for Women in the Medieval World?
By Erin Migdol, Elizabeth Morrison, and Larisa Grollemond
While depictions of the Middle Ages often revolve around knights, dragons, and fairy tales, the stories of how real people lived during this tumultuous time are often even more fascinating—particularly the (often-untold) stories of women. A day in the life of a medieval woman could include working alongside men in the fields, teaching their children how to read, or even influencing politics at court, all while enduring fashion trends and health and hygiene practices that we might find questionable today.
The Middle Ages, or medieval period, lasted from the 5th century to the late 15th century, between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance. It was marked by momentous events including the building of the great cathedrals, the Crusades, the bubonic plague, the rise of cities and universities, the official break between the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches known as the Great Schism, and the flourishing of the arts, including manuscript illumination. Throughout the centuries, women persevered against strictures placed on them by virtue of their sex, making essential contributions in literature, politics, agriculture, and family life.
In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we invited our social media followers to ask us on Twitter and Instagram what they most wanted to know about women’s lives during the Middle Ages. Getty manuscript curators Elizabeth Morrison and Larisa Grollemond tackled these questions. Read their answers below for a glimpse of the everyday challenges and triumphs medieval women faced during the period.
Work and Education
What kinds of jobs could women have during the Middle Ages?
The vast majority of people in the Middle Ages worked the land, and women were just as active as men in agricultural activities. But we do know of women who were also writers, artists, and active as tradespeople in a family business.
How much schooling were women allowed to have, compared to men?
Women could be educated. Noblewomen and nuns, in particular, had access to books and were often literate. Women were also trained in domestic skills like sewing. However, education for both women and men tended to be limited to the upper classes and the clergy.
Are there any significant bits of writing from women?
One of the most famous authors of the Middle Ages was a woman named Christine de Pizan. De Pizan wrote numerous works and worked for many nobles at court. A brilliant intellect, she championed the role of women in society.
Any interesting works of art created by women during this time? Or music/literature?
Art workshops were often family affairs in the Middle Ages. In the case of this manuscript from our collection (above), illuminator Jeanne de Montbaston inherited a manuscript-making business when her husband died.
Fashion and Beauty
What beauty standards of the time would we find odd today? Which ones continue?
It was a popular fashion among high-ranking French and Flemish women in the 15th century to pluck hair from the forehead, giving the impression of a higher hairline—not something that’s considered desirable these days!
Was veiling a common practice for medieval women of the Latin west?
Christian women in the Middle Ages often wore a veil over their hair, or attached to their hats.
Did women carry purses or bags?
Medieval women often carried a purse attached by strings around the waist, since pockets did not exist in medieval clothing. This website gives some examples of medieval purses.
What kinds of trinkets or tokens did women keep that were special, besides jewelry?
In this manuscript, Jacques de Lalaing Arriving at a Joust with the Counts of Maine and Saint Pol, a woman at a tournament gave her favorite a gauzy veil embroidered with pearls as a favor, which he attached to his helmet.
Did they really wear cloaks all the time?
Yes, the most common kind of outerwear for women was a garment called a “mantle,” basically an unhooded cape that could be made out of a variety of materials, including felted wool and fur. They were popular especially in northern countries for travel and keeping warm.
How often did women shower or wash their hair?
There were no showers in the Middle Ages, but we know of bathtubs for wealthy households, and buckets and brushes for the poorer. Because the water would have to be cold, or heated separately, bathing was not as common in the Middle Ages as today. Bathing was often saved for special occasions.
Does art tell us anything about women’s health in the Middle Ages?
There were numerous manuals about health care, and childbirth produced in the Middle Ages, but not many were illustrated. This rare example of a medieval gynecology pamphlet from the British Library shows the positions that a fetus could take prior to birth. Childbirth was of the most dangerous aspects of a woman’s life during the Middle Ages, and the child mortality rate was also extremely high.
How did women in the middle ages deal with periods?
One day at a time, just like modern women. Women in the Middle Ages tended to have fewer periods due to the frequency of childbearing, but used scraps of fabric or even (as was recorded in medieval England) a certain kind of absorbent bog moss.
What were the diet trends for women?
Women and men strived for a diet that balanced the four bodily humors (black and yellow bile, blood, and phlegm) and avoided the sin of gluttony. Certain foods were also believed to affect fertility. Meats, for example, were thought to increase blood flow.
Society and Politics
What age did women marry?
Women could become officially engaged by proxy even as children. Among the nobility, where blood lines were so important, marriage could take place as early as 12. We think Denise Poncher (in the red dress, above) was married around that age when she was given the book that her image appears in as a wedding present.
Were there examples of women trying to go beyond what was generally allowed by society?
Joan of Arc, who lived in the 15th century, is often cited as a woman who broke the bounds of medieval society. She actively participated in a political cause, making Charles VII King of France. She led French armies and formed war strategy. Sadly, she was eventually accused of heresy through cross-dressing, and was burned at the stake.
How did women’s freedom and power compare to other periods in history (Victorian, etc.)?
It varied quite widely between countries and centuries in the Middle Ages. In Western Europe, gender roles prescribed by the Catholic church definitely limited the kinds of things that medieval women could do, but we also have examples of women who pushed those boundaries (as in many other periods!).
Are there any aspects of their lives that we might find progressive by today’s standards?
Women were responsible for teaching children how to read in the Middle Ages, and often ran the household while the men were off at war. At some points in the Middle Ages, it is thought that more women were literate than men.
We might also be surprised by the attitude toward infidelity in royal marriages—they were politically strategic and for the production of heirs, but kings frequently had mistresses that were publicly known as such, and could even have prominent positions at court.
Were women allowed to leave their homes without their husbands?
Women in the medieval West were free to leave their homes at will. Noblewomen were often escorted by a female servant to show her status and to help carry things, etc. It was more unusual for a woman to travel any distance without a male escort due to the dangers of the road, but it would not have had to be her husband.
What was it like for women in Asian countries during the Middle Ages?
As in Christian Europe, women in Asian countries were also subject to religious strictures regarding gender roles and acceptable activities. The expectation for women to marry and bear children was cross-cultural in the global Middle Ages.
Were there any secret clubs or groups for women back then?
If there were, they were too secret to have left any evidence!
Originally published by The Iris, 03.11.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.