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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Medieval Women and the Church

Over the years, I’ve smiled at some of the misconceptions written about the women of important medieval families, the Church, as well as how life in a convent is portrayed.

At the time, most women of the early titled families were considered only good for two things. They could marry someone who would increase their father’s position, holdings (property), influence or – they could pray. That was it.

Some of the clergy at the time even insisted that St. Augustine in his correspondence to St. Jerome, wrote a boy received a soul at the moment of conception and a girl didn’t get one until six weeks after conception. Disrespect for women didn’t stop there. She couldn’t attend a religious service after the birth of a child until she’d been ‘churched’ and if she died in child birth, she couldn't be buried in concentrated ground. Many believed she also wasn't smart enough to learn too much. She was considered inferior by many clergy and just a step above animals.

If a woman didn’t want to marry, or was widowed and had no desire to remarry or couldn't for some reason, she got to pray. Of course, she couldn’t stay in her home; she was sent to a a special place. The houses for these women, ‘convents’ were separate from the monasteries, sometimes miles away, and in almost all cases they were governed by a man, usually a priest. It wasn’t until later that women governed themselves. Leaving the convent and caring for the sick, the poor, the infirm didn’t really begin until the late 1600's.

Now, when a ‘virgin’ went to the convent, she was encouraged to take solemn vows, “take the veil”. She was called a nun and she couldn’t leave the convent, couldn’t talk to anyone but the other nuns nor could she see any family or friends. Her life consisted of fasting and praying, although she might be required to help with some menial tasks needed for survival, like food preparation. When widows came, they also accepted that kind of life. Late in the 1200's, a woman(usually a widow, or a woman whose husband decided to go to a monastery) could take ‘simple vows’, hence ‘sisters’. Their vows weren’t as binding and allowed a woman to associate with young girls who came to the convent to be educated. The education was not much more than learning to read the bible and their prayer books and in some cases, simple arithmetic. Eventually they were allowed to leave to minister to people who lived around the convent.

The contribution of property or money to admit a woman to a convent and keep her there, didn’t come along until later.

Oh, it’s fun to stretch the truth in fiction, to glamorize the life of one of these women. However, medieval women in convents weren’t considered brilliant managers, many had only rudimentary skills in reading and writing, nor would they have been able to govern a large estate until much later in history, whether they had the skills or not. No, most of the women of the time didn’t have much of a life, whether they were sent to a convent or married. There are of course a very few exceptions, but they were few and far between.

I like to write about the women of that time period, and yes, I like to portray these women as much more than they were allowed to be, but I sure wouldn’t want to go back in time and live then.

Allison Knight


Angelica Hart and Zi said...

Allison, Your article clearly showed the plight of women long ago. Hopefully, some realized the truth of this quote by Charlotte Whitton, "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult." Obviously our comment was tongue-in-cheek and as the author has aptly pointed out that women have walked a difficult and oft times unprivileged path. We live in a time where gender equality holds profound importance. Everyday we become more and more proud of the growth of women and the growth of men.

Kimber Chin said...

Yep, most medieval romances contain more fiction than fact (LOVE them though! One of my fave genres).

For example, according to http://www.medieval-weddings.net/ 3/4's of medieval women were married before the age of 19. If medieval romances were written to be historically correct, that would put them all in the young adult section of the bookstore.

And we won't even delve into childbirth (shivers).

I agree with you, Allison. I certainly wouldn't want to live in Medieval times! Yikes.

Allison Knight said...

Thanks, Angelica, Zi and Kimber for your comments. I love to research those early years, but I repeat - no way would I want to live back then. Life for a woman, even a woman from a wealthy background, had to be miserable.


Candace Morehouse said...

Wow, what a dismal existence!
Great research there, Allison.
But yeah, I don't think any of us would consider a reality-based book on medieval women to be a romance. We much prefer a fantasy of what we want to believe it was like. Same holds true for nearly any time period in history. As romance authors, we gloss over the gross and menial stuff and make up a new, more romantic history.

Linda LaRoque said...

Interesting post, Allison. I certainly wouldn't want to have lived back then. Sounds like women had few chances for happiness. I guess many didn't expect to be happy, just a peaceful existance.

The Gentleman said...

Interesting point of view. Clearly you are a romance writer and not an historian.

Allison Knight said...

Thanks Candace and Linda.

And to the Gentleman, yep, I'm a romance writer and I do not claim to be a historian, however, I have spent a lot of time with nuns and sisters, talking about their foundings, their histories, what they were taught about their early way of life. I still find it hard to believe a woman gives up her ability to communicate with family and friends and devotes herself to a life of contemplation, yet the Carmelites still do that.


Patricia Barraclough said...

Very good article. I have to smile at some of the plots and personalities of women in books portraying early medieval times. These outspoken, independent women would not have survived. They probably would have been locked in convents or charged as witches. The church was politically very strong and for some reason was very anti-female. They must have been very insecure.

The Gentleman said...

I am not saying that the information you quoted is incorrect, I am saying it is incomplete. There were MANY convents throughout the Medieval times that allowed women regular contact with family etc. Some were in fact teaching convents. [the Carmelites are in fact the strictest order in the Church, their cloister is uncommonly sever].
Women also participated quite actively in Medieval life. If a lady's father or husband was a merchant, she would know the business and would help him out.
Now it is true that legally she had little or no footing, but society was set up to take care of women, so almost none became destitute.
Now if you are a feminist and look with horror upon a world where women cannot do anything they want, well, I cannot help you there.

Beth Trissel said...

This is very very interesting. Thanks!

Viagra Online said...

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Anonymous said...

Where's your source for all of this? I would have appreciated seeing this information cited.