Wives and Wenches, Sinners and Saints: Women in Medieval Europe

An illustration of Christine de Pizan writing in her study, from The Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431, f. 4r) / British Library, Public Domain

What did medieval Christians believe about women’s nature and social roles? How did they express these beliefs in illustrations, poetry, and religious writings?

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 12.06.2011, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.


The medieval period can seem very distant from our own time, and the study of medieval women may appear particularly elusive. But feminist historians have found medieval Europe a rich subject for both its differences from and its legacy for subsequent eras. Medieval means “middle age” in Latin and refers to the division of history into three, broad periods: classical, middle, and modern. The Middle Ages span approximately 400–1500 AD, beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and concluding with the start of the Renaissance. As in other periods, women of the Middle Ages were not a uniform or homogenous group. Historians such as Judith M. Bennett have demonstrated that women’s experiences and opportunities varied widely depending on such factors as marital and sexual status (single-woman, wife, widow, prostitute); religious status (Christian, Muslim, Jew, but also laywoman, nun, mystic); legal status (serf, slave, free); class status (noblewoman, townswoman, peasant); ethnicity; and region.

However, there were some experiences that most, or all, women shared despite these differences. Women, on the whole, were excluded from political structures. Under the legal system known as coverture, married women were “covered” by their husbands’ legal identities; they could not own property or engage in contracts and the husband’s decisions stood for both spouses. (Widows and single-women received somewhat greater legal recognition and, hence, property rights.) Wives of all classes were expected to be “helpmeets” of their husbands and to assist their husbands in whatever they required, whether it be plowing a field or entertaining members of the king’s court. Finally, women of all classes learned domestic skills, such as spinning thread, sewing, cooking, and caring for children.

The documents included in this collection do not attempt to represent the full range of medieval women’s experiences. Instead, they focus more narrowly on representations of women within the Christian tradition in manuscripts and books produced in Flanders (now a province of Belgium), France, and England. Two of the works excerpted here are devotional texts, which offered prayers and stories from the Bible for contemplation. The two other texts include exchanges about love and marriage, the nature of women, and their roles in medieval society.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

“Eve Formed from Adam’s Rib”: Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author). From Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), Circa 1455
“Satan Deceives Eve by Means of the Serpent”: Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author). From Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), Circa 1455. This illuminated manuscript shows Satan, disguised as a serpent with the head and torso of a woman, in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.

Le Miroir de Humaine Saluation, or “The Mirror of Human Salvation,” is an illuminated manuscript from Flanders that dates to approximately 1455. Illuminated manuscripts are richly decorated texts with illustrations and borders, often in gold, that were written by hand on vellum (thin, durable sheets made from animal skin). Le Miroir is a French translation of Speculum Humanae Salvationis, a religious manuscript written in Latin during the early 1300s, probably by Ludolphus de Saxonia, a German Roman Catholic theologian. The original manuscript was copied many times and translated into vernacular, or spoken, languages. The text exemplifies the medieval theory of typology, according to which the events portrayed in the Old Testament prefigure, or foretell, the events of the New Testament. Le Miroir begins with an account of Lucifer’s fall and God’s creation of Adam and Eve. Forty, two-page chapters follow this introduction, each one comparing a New Testament event to three Old Testament events. Four illustrations accompany each chapter. The pages reproduced here portray the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib and Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Women from the Bible

“Mary and Judith”: The Virgin Mary with the implements used in Christ’s torture and crucifixion (left). Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes, the leader of an army threatening to destroy her home city of Bethulia (right). / Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author). From Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), Circa 1455
Queen Thamyris cutting off the head of King Cyrus and placing it in a barrel filled with the blood of his own soldiers. / Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author). From Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), Circa 1455
“Mary Is Our Protector and Defender”: The Virgin Mary, surrounded by worshipers / Ludolphus de Saxonia (supposed author). From Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), Circa 1455

The Virgin Mary became an important object of veneration during the Middle Ages: she was fervently worshiped by ordinary people as well as by theologians and mystics, who had dedicated themselves to union with God. Mary figures prominently in Le Miroir de Humaine Salvation as the mother of Christ, the intercessor who pleads with Christ to have mercy on sinners, and the protector and defender of human beings. But Mary provided a complicated model to ordinary medieval women. On the one hand, as an example of female virtue, she offered a significant counterweight to Eve and pointed to a larger pattern of female heroism within the Christian tradition. On the other hand, her spiritual purity was inseparable from her virginity and established a model of strict chastity and, more broadly, self-denial that ordinary women were expected to follow. In addition, Mary did not possess her own power. Instead, her power derived from her close relationship to Christ and her ability to appeal to him on behalf of others. The images that follow portray Mary alongside women from the Old Testament who serve as types, foretelling Mary’s role in the New Testament.

A Medieval Prayer Book

“Saint Margaret and the Dragon”: Margaret of Antioch emerging from Satan, who has taken the form of a dragon and swallowed her. From an illuminated medieval prayer book. / From Book of Hours, Use of Salisbury, Circa 1455
“Adam, Eve, and the Serpent”: A scene from the Garden of Eden with an illustration of Christ on the cross, suspended in the tree of knowledge. From an illuminated medieval prayer book. / From Book of Hours, Use of Salisbury, Circa 1455

Books of Hours are medieval prayer books, made for wealthy lay people, which present prayers to be recited at specific times of day, or hours. This one was created in Bruges (a city now in Belgium) around 1455. It belonged to two aristocratic English families who passed it down through generations and used the first pages to record births, deaths, and marriages. This Book of Hours follows the “use of Salisbury,” that is, the modification of the Roman Catholic rite begun by the Bishop of Salisbury in England in the eleventh century. The prayers are written in Latin. The first image reproduced here portrays Margaret of Antioch, who was widely revered during the Middle Ages as a virgin and martyr. Legend holds that, around 300 AD, a Roman governor demanded that Margaret renounce Christianity and marry him. On her refusal, she was subjected to brutal tortures, including being swallowed by Satan in the form of a dragon. She emerged from the dragon alive and intact, though she was eventually executed. While some people, including a fifth-century pope, disputed her existence, others considered her a powerful saint, especially for pregnant women. The second image portrays Adam, Eve, and the serpent in Eden.

The Debate over Women

Le Champion des Dames: The Ladies’ Champion. Illustrations from a long, allegorical poem defending women’s honor. / Martin Le Franc. Circa 1488

Le Champion des Dames is a long, allegorical poem that defends the honor and reputation of women. Martin le Franc wrote the poem in Middle French between 1440 and 1442. The Newberry’s edition is an incunable, or early printed book, from Lyons, France, circa 1488, that includes hand-painted, woodcut illustrations. The text consists of a prose prologue followed by five books of verses grouped into eight-verse stanzas or octaves. Le Champion des Dames, literally “The Ladies’ Champion,” contributed to an ongoing debate during the Middle Ages known as the  querelle des femmes, or “debate over women.” Le Franc responded to earlier works which portrayed women as cunning, deceitful, and exploitive of men. He personified this slander against women in the allegorical character of Badmouth (Malebouche), whose representatives engage in a dialogue with the Champion, named Free Will (Franc Vouloir). The Champion defends the female sex by referring to individual women from history, legend, and mythology who played important roles in the development of civilization, who were skilled in government and warfare, and who were exceptional scholars and artists. Passages from a recent English edition of Book IV of Le Champion des Dames follow images from the original book below. In the recent edition, Steven Millen Taylor translates the title as The Trial of Womankind to suggest how, in the text, women are placed on trial and are portrayed, alternately, as a trial which men must endure and as bearing trials which men impose on them.

A Medieval Romance

Excerpts from a history of the romance of Abelard and Heloise. Heloise argues against marriage and presents her own ideals of love and virtue. / Peter Abelard. 1743

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise offer the most celebrated account of a medieval romance and include some of the richest passages of medieval women’s writing. Peter Abelard was an admired, if controversial, young philosopher in twelfth-century Paris when he met and fell in love with Heloise d’Argenteuil, herself a renowned scholar who was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Abelard moved into the house where Heloise lived with her uncle and guardian, Fulbert, and arranged for her to study with him, so they could spend time alone together. According to the letters they later exchanged, Abelard and Heloise fell passionately in love. She became pregnant and he sent her to live with his sister in Brittany. Heloise’s seclusion from the public as well as Abelard’s widely circulated love poems raised Fulbert’s suspicions. Fulbert demanded that Abelard marry Heloise, which the couple did in secret in order to avoid damaging Abelard’s reputation and career. Still, sometime later, Fulbert hired men to attack Abelard in his sleep and castrate him. Following this attack, Abelard retired to a monastery and persuaded Heloise to join a convent. He refused to communicate with her, a decision which he later attributed to his sense of shame and sorrow.

Some years later, Abelard wrote a lengthy, repentant account of their relationship and sufferings to a friend. The letter came into Heloise’s hands and she initiated a correspondence with him. The letters they then exchanged were initially published in Latin, after Heloise’s death, as part of a collection of Abelard’s works. No original editions survive—the earliest date to 1350—and, over the years, some scholars have questioned the letters’ authenticity, suggesting that perhaps Abelard wrote the entire correspondence himself or that all of the letters could be fictitious. However, most current scholars accept the letters as genuine. The Newberry’s edition was published in 1743 in London. It is an English translation of a 1693 French translation of the earlier Latin text. The following excerpts are taken from a history of the lovers, which appears at the beginning of this edition, and from Heloise’s letters to Abelard.

Selected Sources

  • Judith Bennett. “Medieval Women in Modern Perspective.” In B. Smith, ed., Women’s History in Global Perspective. 2005.
  • Margaret Wade Labarge. A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life. 1986.
  • “Mirror of Human Salvation.” Translated by David Wright with the assistance of John French, Jr. Typescript, 1965–1975.
  • Steven Millen Taylor. Introduction. In Martin Le Franc. The Trial of Womankind: A Rhyming Translation of Book IV of the Fifteenth-Century Le Champion Des Dames. 2005.

By Dr. Hana Layson
Manager of School and Educator Programs
Portland Art Museum

By Dr. Karen Christianson
Director of Public Engagement
The Newberry



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