I've been eyeing the extremely short Medieval Women by Eileen Power for a few years, and lo, it is finally finished. Eileen Power has her own Wikipedia page and was a general badass who went to Cambridge AND the Sorbonne (in like the 1910s, so, damn), then became Professor of Economic History at the London School of Economics and THEN took that same job at Cambridge. Wikipedia has even MORE awesome information about her, but let's talk about Medieval Women, which is a collection of her lectures published after her death (and aw, was edited by her husband).
Medieval Women clocks in at a scant 99 pages, and has a plethora of medieval ladypics, so you can easily read it in an afternoon. It's split into five chapters, which are:
1. Medieval ideas about women
2. The lady
3. The working woman in town and country
4. The education of women
WHY should you care about this? Because first, "the position of women is often considered as a test by which the civilisation of a country or age may be judged," and SECOND:
The medieval theory about women, bequeathed as a legacy to future generations and enshrined alike in law and in literature, was destined to have profound social effects for centuries to follow, long after the forces behind it had ceased to be important and when the conditions which had accounted for it no longer existed.
|indeed! excellent point, excellent.|
What I've decided upon reading this is that if I could be ANYONE in medieval society, I'd either want to be a merchant's wife, or a nun. Everything else sucked. Although apparently nunneries were not that great, and not that plentiful throughout England. I sort of assumed there were a ton, but between 1250 and 1540, there were only between 126 to 136 nunneries in England, and during those years, only four had over 30 nuns.
During this period (c. 1350) there cannot have been more than 3500 nuns altogether in England, and these numbers were steadily decreasing to 1900 in 1534.Crazy, right? But you still got to live with other ladies, have a regimented life (which totally appeals to me), get an education probably, although standards declined in that respect over the centuries, and you got to make fun hand gestures at each other during dinner because no one was allowed to talk but you still had to ask people to pass the fish.
If you married a merchant though, you maybe got educated, because reading would be a plus since you were almost definitely going to be helping him in his trade, you had a more equal lifestyle than fancy ladies did with their husbands, if your husband died you could take over his business, and things just seemed pretty swell compared to the other options. I mean, you'd still probably die by 30, but it was the medieval ages, so I don't know what you were expecting.
I will end on a fun anecdote! Which is that in the early 14th c, there was a lady physician practicing in Paris named Jacqueline Felicie de Almania, who was prosecuted by the medical faculty for practicing without a license. For her defense, she brought in patients who had been given up for lost by other doctors, but whom she cured, AND she said that the law existed to stop "ignorant and foolish persons who know not the art of medicine," whereas she clearly did know it. She said they needed women doctors, because some women were ashamed to "show their infirmities" to a man and some died rather than doing so. She was prohibited from practicing and fined, but "as she had already disregarded a previous prohibition and fine, she probably went on as before."
Hurray Jacqueline Felicie de Almania!