Role Of Women In The Middle Ages

3083 words - 12 pages

      The history of the Middle Ages is generally known through the recorded accomplishments of wealthy aristocratic men. The rigidly stratified social structure allowed little or no chance for advancement, especially for the very poor. Therefore, the voice of the poverty stricken masses goes unheard or is simply drowned out by the ruling class. However, beyond even the discontented whisper of the poor, another voice without even a breath to push it yearns to be heard. This is a voice that would ultimately help to integrate medieval society and help to establish a more civilized culture in Britain. No louder than a whisper, this is the voice of women. It is a silent cry whose importance was underestimated and undervalued both economically and socially.

            Women were valued in the Middle Ages, but only as an economic commodity (Mundy 212). They served two main functions within medieval society: child bearer and manual laborer. Because women represented a large source of cheap labor, they quickly became the mainstay of the medieval economy. In many cases they would work along side men in the fields. However, women were paid less than children's wages for their work (Cipolla 234). The Church would not allow women to hold jobs that required literacy (Mundy 209). In fact, aside from hard labor the only occupation open to women was midwifery. "In hospital work women were almost as important as men" (Mundy 210). The textile industry was dominated by women, especially the woolen and silk industries (Cipolla 200). Though women enjoyed virtual domination in these crafts, they were still paid next to nothing. In addition to the intense labor, women had household duties to fulfill, especially if a woman was married (Cipolla 266). The invention of the flour mill brought women a time and labor saving device. With the flour mills, however, came taxes. Therefore, a woman gained time but lost 6.67% of the grain with which to feed her family in taxes (Cipolla 234). This trend of exploiting women economically continued to push women into the depths of the "culture of hopelessness" (Cipolla 266).

As the guilds began to assert their control over the bulk of skilled labor, wealthy aristocrats started hiring individual women and paying them in advance. The textile industry provided the largest amount of individual patronage. High skill was thus rewarded with economic improvement (Cipolla 266). Therefore it is conceivable that by Chaucer's time women were managing to irk out a meager existence for themselves and possibly even for a family. The undaunted marital entrepreneur in "The Canterbury Tales", The Wife of Bath, may have been based on a such a hard working semi-independent woman. "In the words pf the Wife of Bath, God has given women three talents- deceit, weeping, and spinning" (Power 118). The slight rise in economic power of women affected the structure of the guilds as well. In Cologne, women and men shared the same rights and privileges in...

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