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Women in Medieval Age
Women in the Middle Age and the Dawn of Feminism
by Bonnie Moss (c) 2011 -04

Lessons from the Past- Women of the Medieval Age

Europe in the high middle ages was a seedbed of socio-political and spiritual turmoil from which sprouted the institutions of modern civilization: the breakup of feudalism, the rise of capitalism, the breakup of Catholicism, the rise of the Reformed churches, and the separation of church and state. In every century from the tenth through the fifteenth, events occurred that could be cited to indicate the pending dawn of the modern age...by Abraham Van Luik, abevanluik@thoughtsandplaces.org

In the medieval/ middle age era, woman was a man's deepest and worst enemy. Woman was dangerous to man because of their sexuality. A woman's beauty is dangerous and powerful that even angels fall from heaven as they lust after them especially a virgin. It is said that Tertullian had such a neurosis about women that sex and sin were fused on his mind. He was not alone. There was a pervasive sexual disgust – all the fault of a woman who incited lust in man.

At this period, theologians and church leaders defined the status of women based on their understanding of the Bible- the Old and New Testament, Greco-Roman culture and respected religious thinkers of the period such as Jerome, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther. On their authority, women were considered as highly sexual beings, therefore inferior to men in everyway. Thomas Aquinas reinforced this negative attitude towards women. He considered the female sex as inferior, guilty of seducing men to carnal desires and sin. He based his theory on Aristotle and Augustine's view of women. Augustine and Luther looked down on women-they considered marriage as a poor remedy for the evils of sex.

To be or not to be : A Witch, A Mystic or A Virgin
Apostolic Vita

This rage for “ apostolic poverty “ was a characteristic of the High Middle Ages, especially in the thirteenth century. These movements of this century deserve special study not only because of their “rage for apostolic poverty” but becuase this rage was accompanied by a genuine “women's movement” that produced a significant and unique feminist spirituality at that time.

In Herbert Roggen's biography of St. Clare of Assisi, he describes this woman as a follower of St. Francis and as the founder of an order for women dedicated to living contemplative and active lives in holy poverty. Roggen notes that she lived in a peculiar age.

This is the age wherein women's movements sprung into fashion! Suddenly women are seen to be important, and this is because of their followers, their taking part in the revolt against authority, or because they left their traditional responsibilities.

The women's liberation movement was starting at this time- it was a revolt against traditional expectations of women and many women chose to enter the monastery. It is believed that at this time, there were many women who had active roles in the church. This was an era of religious devotions-people turned to God to seek solace or to appease his anger in times of disease, famine or war.

Women realized the importance of being literate, that knowledge was power. This gave rise to women who joined the monastery, eventually, some founded their own abbeys. There was no printing press at that time, many nuns undertook the laborious writing or copying of the hand-written material that covered history or literature- a broad subject at that time.

The monastery offered an alternative to women. It was considered a better life than living in the shadows of their husbands and endure a life of insecurity, child-bearing and degradation. They had some degree of freedom behind the convent walls. Before the 12th century, religious houses were independent of one another.

Standards were developed for the behaviour and life behind these walls. It was believed that in denying marriage and entering an abbey, women are able to preserve mind and body. This was a time when women realized education will make them equal to men and not inferior to them. Literacy was a privilege many women opted for.

Feudal relationships and circumstances can be difficult- knights, vassals and sovereigns were indeed all male. There were women in the medieval society who exercised key roles in preserving the structure of society in that era. They belonged to the privileged class who had access to new ideas and they embraced this chance to advance themselves intellectually. The renunciation of wealth, ideals of charity and mendicant poverty was pervasive.

The aristocratic women of the Medieval age were legally and socially autonomous as medieval documents show. Women received what was due from fiefdoms, inheritance, or bequeathed properties. They took the responsibility of taking care of these matters personally.

Intelligence and knowledge were powerful tools. Entering a monastery was not free--high-born women were able to give a dowry. Women who did not have the financial means joined together and opened their own house. There was also a time where double houses were common, one wing for men and another for women. There was a definite class distinction which gave rise to women's movement among the less privileged.

These places opened up hospitals, a library, gardens and other amenities that were beneficial to the group. An abbess was elected as a leader with certain limitations as imposed by the prelate of the area. An abbess had considerable power especially if she came from nobility or the royalty. However, they cannot hear confessions nor give communion- this was the sole privilege of a priest- a male.

There were eligibility requirements to be elected as an abbess. This included age limits which varied was from age thirty to sixty. A virtuous record as a nun for a minimum of five to eight years was required. Widows and non-virgins and those with illegitimate birth were excluded. However, exceptions were given to those who come from powerful families.

In medieval times, an Abbess could exercise considerable power, especially if she was of noble or royal birth. Few women could rise to such power in any other way by their own achievements. Queens and empresses gained their power as a daughter, wife, mother, sister, or other relative of a powerful man. However, there were limits because of their sex. She can not exercise spiritual authority over the nuns considered to be under her authority. Only a male priest had this authority.

Some recognizable names today are Queen Elizabeth I of England, responsible for Columbus' exploration , Queen Isabella of Spain ruled alongside the King and Eleanor of Aquitane. There were saints and mystics among these women as well. Some famous abbesses include St. Scholastica, Hildegard of Bingen, Heloise (of the Peter Abelard story), Teresa of Avila and more.

With the advent of technology, there are reliable sources on the internet, as well as books that make this subject a very interesting read. It is not the intention of this article to cover such a vast and broad topic- an endeavour that could fill many pages of a book and not cover it all. A separate article will deal with the subject of Witches in the Middle Ages.

References:
Karen King- Women in Ancient Christianity
The Gospel According to Woman- Karen Armstrong
Pope Joan - Peter Stanford
Warrior Queens
Notable Women of Medieval Europe - John Johnson Lewis
On-line resources: worldwide guide to WomenLeadership.com
ancient history.com
pbs.org
about.com

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