What did it mean to be a women in Europe from Medieval to Early Modern times?

When the historian Catherine Macaulay stated in her History of England,

‘the invidious censures which may ensue from striking into a path of literature rarely trodden by my sex……will not keep me mute in the cause of liberty.’

she was expressing her resentment well-educated, independent thinking women of Europe felt toward the perceived inferiority of their sex.

Matters of political and intellectual importance were considered a man’s domain from medieval to the 18th century. Women were considered subordinate due to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church,  where Eve was the cause of all sin!

Influences of traditional medical and Greek philosophy also depicted woman as a ‘deformity’ or an imperfect man and these were also passed down from as early as an era known as the ‘Era of the Fathers’, 300 to 430 C.E. (before Christ).

Women’s experiences in Europe at this time were directly linked to these continuing ideas which influenced every aspect of their lives, including how men and women thought about and related to each other. Even when religion underwent reform- the Protestant Reformation, and the printing press became mainstream, allowing women  to access more education and exercise some power, this oppression continued and ensured them to be silent, chaste and obedient!!catholic women

Women in the middle ages were considered to be under equipped to learn and incapable of fully comprehending important matters outside the home. They were linked to the earthly world and the earthly body, whilst men were linked with the soul and the intellect. Certain roles and traits were assigned to each sex based on perceived differences – rather than biology, so gender at this time was fluid and changeable! What it meant to be male or female was ‘socially organised’ as gender.

In medieval Catholic Europe in the 12th Century, women could supposedly transcend the frailties of their bodies through a state of virginity and devotion to God. Through the supreme spiritual relationship to God which endorsed equality of the sexes, they could escape their purportedly inherited ‘sin’.

As St Jerome in the 4th Century asserted, through choosing Christ and renouncing the world and the body, ‘she ceases to be a women, and will be called man’.

In light of this, devout women could experience access to education in abbey’s and monasteries, prior to their replacement by cathedral schools where women were not permitted. Through divinely ordained authority, women could exercise power, as illustrated by Hildegard of Bingen who wrote influential treatises, letters and plays.

Continuing religious discourse of Eve’s original sin also informed the idea women needed to be governed and this guided medieval political and religious ideas toward the family as a ‘Little Commonwealth’. The man was the head and the women the subservient, obedient wife.

The 16th Century Protestant Reformation turned the focus to marriage and family as the building blocks of their society. Luther (the Protestant break away guy) proposed ideas of Eve being presented to Adam as the first marriage, and the concession sexual desire was part of God’s plan toward bearing children and marital appreciation made marriage an attractive option at this time. This was reinforced by widespread use of print, with religious ministers educating the laity through conduct books and manuals. Mary as the virgin mother who brought salvation into this world reinforced a women’s role in the home and as a mother. Marriage and raising Christian children was seen as the most pious of duties upon which was the pinnacle of status and the gender hierarchy.

A women’s place was in the home in the European early modern period

It was this ‘institutional and political ’ change brought about by the Protestant Reformation in England that had the most impact on women’s experiences. Women in Protestant countries could decide who they wanted to marry, especially if they were poor as there was no vested interest in their lives. However countries such as Italy, that remained predominantly Catholic, especially if noble or wealthy, ‘involved the transfer of property and the realignment of social rank’ , and as such fathers would ‘confer with several relatives’ on the offer of marriage.

Whilst historians have examined women’s considerable influence within the household and an increase in social status, (‘wives letters to their absent husbands usually reported what they had done; they did not solicit advice about what they might do’, ) harsher social experiences were felt by widows, single women and the poor. Women once in a stable marriage exercising effective control over her household could experience poverty upon death of a husband. Katherine Venables in 1633 attests to the anxieties of her inheritance when another patriarchal figure claimed entitlement when she requested the help of the law to reign in her out of control son.  He instilled ‘such great fear and peril of their lives they were enforced to cry for help of their neighbour’.

Women’s experiences of authority and power were directly linked to the gender order and social expectations of women’s roles from medieval to early modern times. The debate stirred by John Knox and his ‘subversion of good order’ in 1558 ensured it was important to strike a careful balance between flouting the gender norms and being shrewd in the accommodation of them. As gender could be fluid, it was important to take on just enough male qualities to gain power and respect, whilst maintaining social expectations of what it was to be a women and be liked in order to maintain that power.

Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa surrounded herself with her children in her portraits to claim deference to her piety and as a good mother, whilst King Christina of Sweden took the masculine qualities too far wearing men’s clothes and subsequently abdicated amidst growing resentment.

In the supreme order of God’s plan, divine authority prevailed over male patriarchy and Queen Elizabeth 1 was careful to portrait herself as angelic and pious, elizabethmaking reference to her Godly ordinance. Surrounding herself with Tudor roses and accomplishments in battle, she ensured her authority through patronage and strong leadership whilst displaying humility and deference in her speeches required by her sex. By acknowledging their exceptionality and pronouncing themselves with names such as ‘manly women,’ or Catherine the ‘Great,’ successful women in our time period were careful to craft their images to bolster their credibility.

Whilst the Enlightenment of the 18th century brought questions of reason and intellect to the forefront of thinking for both men and women, from medieval to early modern times these were traits women were perceived to ill-comprehend. It was through scholarship, education and independence of mind that authorised historian Catherine Macaulay’s qualification to speak at the end of the 18th century.

From medieval to early modern times, women’s perceived weakness from doctrines of early Christian discourse permeated every facet of life. The extent of women’s successful exertion of power and agency was through striking a careful balance of gender norms and their ability to influence the patriarchal model to their own ends. We can be safe in the knowledge many held just those qualities.

Some references for you!

Barstow. A.L., ‘On Studying Witchcraft as Women’s History: A Historiography of the European Witch Persecutions’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1998, pp. 7 – 19.

Brucker. G., (ed.), The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study, New York, Harper Torchbooks.

Crawford. P., and Gowing. L., Women’s Worlds in Seventeenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, Hoboken, Taylor and Francis, 2005.



Leave a Reply