What was the way of life for most ordinary women during the early Middle Ages in England? The answer is surprising. In Anglo-Saxon England – before the Norman Conquest in 1066 – men and women enjoyed relatively equal rights and social, cultural and religious conditions. They held their money and properties equally, both had rights in law, and abuse of women was not tolerated. If a marriage proved to be unhappy, the woman was free to leave it, yet still retained her Dower Rights. Any children belonged to the parents equally, and there was no automatic right for the man to take control of them if the couple separated. Nor would the family of the father automatically take them if the father died. The Anglo-Saxon woman was considered perfectly capable of bringing up her children herself, and if she wished to remarry she was free to do so, but there was no compulsion for her to give up her widowhood.
Compare that situation with the changes brought by the Norman Conquest – a woman became a possession. She was described in law as an “infant” and was considered to be of value only as a mother, even though in the case of marital dispute all children were the property of the father. Likewise, any property she held when she married became the property of her husband, and she had no say in what happened to it or how it was used.
Apart from those women who went into convents, she would be expected to marry, particularly if she was an heiress to any property. If she was widowed, her Overlord could force her to remarry a man of his choice. This was his right to ensure his land was not wasted, as if she had no adult sons to work the land for her she would become a liability. A woman would have to pay a fine to the lord in order to have a little time to try and find a suitable husband of her own choice, and even then he would need to be approved by the Overlord.
Divorce was not possible, except in very rare circumstances. The “Marriage Debt” meant each partner was entitled to expect a sex life (as a way of limiting fornication) and to be able to have children. Only if the husband proved incapable of providing the essentials of the “Marriage Debt” – a sex life and children – could a woman hope to be free of the marriage. However, their impotence would have to be proved in a public court of law, which required a substantial down payment. Here the husband submitted to the humiliating procedure of being “tested” by a panel of respectable women, with one woman assigned to try to arouse him. These were often local prostitutes, such as CherryLips of York. If the man showed no response to the woman’s caresses he was declared to be legally “useless” as a husband and the marriage would be annulled.
If a woman left her husband of her own volition, she could be pursued and brought back, and would be guilty of stealing her husband’s property – that is, herself and the clothes she was wearing, which technically belonged to him!
Violence against women was accepted, with the law condoning a stick no thicker than a man’s thumb. But in the heat of an argument there were no witnesses. One husband was found guilty only because he had caused his wife to lose an eye. On the other hand, if a woman killed her husband, even in self-defense, she would be guilty of Petty Treason – killing the person God had put in authority over you – and would be burned alive.
Marriage, sex and childbirth were a dangerous occupation for women, with low life expectancy, regular death in childbirth and high infant mortality rates. There was also no reliable contraception, which would in any case be considered a sin, as marriage was primarily for the procreation of children, not personal pleasure.
Oddly enough, the Church unwittingly provided the only real contraception! This was through the prohibition of sex during Lent or on major Church feasts, as well as during the Churching period to cleanse a woman a few weeks after having a child. If a wife became devout and observed even the Minor Saints’ days, she could very likely avoid her husband’s demands indefinitely, gaining a reputation for Holiness without incurring any penalty from the Church.
Education was of course meagre, and even if a woman was fortunate enough to be able to read, she was unlikely to write. Often a last will would be dictated to a local priest, who was of course more likely to remember what was said if a good donation to the local church was included.
A married woman could not make a will without her husband’s permission, and she would have little to leave anyway as officially all her property belonged to him. In some cases the husband actually made a will bequeathing his wife’s personal things back to her … literally “To my wife, her own clothes.” She was normally allowed the widow’s portion of one third by law, but husbands often prevented them from remarrying to prevent another man claiming family property.
For women without a supportive family, there were very few choices, except for the dirtiest and lowest paid work, or of course the “Oldest Profession.” The Church naturally morally disapproved of prostitution, yet it often made a good profit out of it. The Bishop of Winchester owned land at Southwark with several brothels providing him with rent. The women who worked them were known as Winchester Geese and this is also where the term “Goose Bumps” comes from – the lumps or sores from catching a disease from the “geese.”
The court in York recorded one interesting case concerning a young male transvestite prostitute, named John Rykenor. He had been caught with another man in the hayloft of an inn dressed as a woman, and claimed that he was a seamstress named Eleanor. He was promptly arrested, facing the extreme charge of sodomy which was punishable by being burned alive.
John Rykenor was hauled into court, still wearing the dress, and smiling innocently at everyone. He must have had a deal of charm, as the judge decided not to charge him with sodomy, but fine him for “Defrauding his clients of their expectations” due to him being dressed as a woman. It was quite obvious that his clients knew perfectly well that he wasn’t a woman, but it was a ploy that saved his life!
At the other end of the scale, it was common for unwanted women to be put into convents by their families through a small dowry payment, retaining the remainder of their inheritance.
Of course, for most ordinary women without a dowry, the reality of life was sheer hard work, alongside the bearing and rearing of children. They could expect to work in the fields thatching, ploughing or stone-breaking or road mending, as well as performing expected “women’s work” such as laundry, cooking, nursing and child minding. She would always be expected to take less pay than a man, and a woman was not considered sufficiently intelligent or emotionally stable to hold any position of civic responsibility.
Some women extended their nurturing role to become Herb Women or Wise Women. Although looked down upon by so-called educated doctors, wise women’s failure rate was no worse than male doctors, who were far too fond of bleeding everyone no matter how weak they already were. As ordinary people could likely not afford a doctor and women would not want to be examined by a man, Herb Women were actually reasonably popular. However, if women were forced by necessity of circumstance to become beggars their lives were brutal and often short, living in poverty and often dying of starvation in the winter.
The oppression of women, in law and in practice, has fluctuated over time. More changes were seen by the early 16th century, when even women’s clothing became more restrictive, voluminous and nun-like, moving away from the more feminine fashions of the 14th and 15th centuries. This coincided with periodic attempts to restrict the types of work a woman could do outside of the home, preventing them from having too much time out of the house, or too much social contact outside of the family.
It is astonishing to realize that it took 814 years – between the Norman Conquest and the Married Woman’s Property Acts of the late 19th century – before any woman could retain the possessions she had inherited. Even when women won the vote, a woman had to be “a mature age” before she could exercise that right. Again the law was openly treating women as an inferior species, less able to use their judgement or have any basic common sense. It is only relatively recently that any woman, whatever class she is born into, can be educated, make her own living, or remain unmarried if she chooses.
Over eight hundred years of hard struggle for women’s basic rights – and to get back the legal safeguards that Anglo-Saxon women took for granted!