Friday, 8 March 2013

A woman's lot

I've been thinking about women. Not today's women, but women in history. So many modern stories portray women as feisty, up and at 'em indviduals that it is easy to believe they were like that. But the reality is that they were ruled by a man. Women were divided into rough categories - maiden, wife, widow or nun - and treated accordingly. The maiden is dependent on her father (or other father-figure) , the wife on her husband, nuns, as brides of Christ, depend on the nunnery and only the widow or a rare, aged spinster, had any sort of freedom.

This is true of high-status women as well as those of low-status; it's just that the men who "ruled" them are of even higher status. The Bible, and therefore the Church, taught that women were "the ruin of mankind" because Eve ate the apple of good and evil, and from that, all sorts of negatives were heaped up women. Smaller, meeker, slower in working and moving, more feeble than a man. (Well, they would be, wouldn't they - draped in floor length gowns with sleeves that trailed the ground and steeple hats that must have been hell to get through doorways).

Strange beliefs abounded in the fourteenth century. Men believed that women needed regular sex (thanks mostly to the writings of a third century medic called Galen) and neither party in a marriage should deny the other this pleasure. There was also a belief that a woman must have an orgasm in order to conceive a child. This might be good in one way, but in another it was diabolical. If a woman conceived a child, she had obviously had an orgasm; therefore, a rapist could argue that he had not raped the woman if she took pleasure in the act.

A woman could inherit her husband's land but was not required to provide military service, which was often what had killed him. They could carry on their husband's business after his death, and some who came into business in this way were extremely successful. It is also worth remembering that the second richest person in  fourteenth century England was a woman - Queen Isabella. She was subordinate to her husband, naturally - but she was socially superior to everyone else.

I shall be reading more of Ian Mortimer's Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England and adding the bits that interest me here.

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