The Status of Women in Medieval Europe

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

The High Medieval era was a time of tremendous gender discrimination. During this period, women in Europe were treated as an entirely separate group, regardless of their social status. They had numerous legal, religious, and economic challenges, as well as some unique opportunities.

An image of Castle Eltz in Germany.
Castle Eltz, one of the most famous and beautiful medieval castles in Germany.
(Image: Julia700702/Shutterstock)

Civil Law and Marriage in Medieval Europe

Women in Medieval Europe were legally dependent on their husbands. In the scope of civil law, women were restricted from signing contracts, being witnesses in court, or borrowing money in their names. All of these had to be carried out under the legal authority of their husbands. In short, married women were considerably dependent on their spouses. Interestingly, these restrictions existed in many European countries until very recently.

Perhaps, you’ll be surprised to know that these laws did not apply to unmarried adult females, who were allowed to sign contracts, borrow money, and do the things that one would expect of a legally responsible adult. This was quite a significant advantage compared to the Roman Empire. In that era, all women, regardless of their marital status and age, needed a male guardian.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Businesswomen in medieval Europe were able to protect their assets if they were in a trade that was different from that of their husbands. As an example, if a woman was working as a tailor and her husband was a brewer, their assets were completely separate from each other. Therefore, if the husband faced bankruptcy, his wife had no legal responsibility to pay his creditors. The term femme sole (literally “woman alone”) was coined to describe these women.

Learn more about the Middle Ages and its origins.

Criminal Law and the Capital Punishment

As opposed to civil law, a woman’s marital status never mattered to criminal law. In other words, when a married woman committed a crime, she was subject to the same penalties as an unmarried one. The only exception was in the case of pregnancy: pregnant women were exempt from execution or any kind of torture. In addition, regardless of their marital status, all women were exempted from certain forms of torture by medieval courts. For example, women could not be broken on the wheel.

A chopping block and gallows in medieval Europe for executions.
Place of execution of criminals in medieval Europe—chopping block and gallows on a wooden platform. (Image: Zhuravlev Andrey/Shutterstock)

In some cases, the judicial system in the High Medieval Ages treated female offenders more leniently. For example, same-sex relationships, which carried the death penalty for men, were no crime at all for women because such a relationship did not affect human reproduction.

Women who were found guilty of a capital offense were not so lucky though. In fact, they had to suffer the most brutal and painful type of executions in that era: burning at the stake. Unlike men who were sentenced to different kinds of execution depending on the severity of their crimes, female execution took only one form.

Contemporaries claimed this was necessary for the preservation of female modesty, because other forms of execution were deemed unbecoming of women. Although there may be some truth to this justification, modern historians have identified misogyny, as well as a deep-rooted suspicion and dislike of women on the part of males, as the root cause of this practice.

Learn more about the Empire vs. the Papacy.

Politics and Women in Medieval Europe

Politically, women were able to rise to the highest levels of sovereignty. They could become queens and rule over kingdoms, or become regents and rule in the name of a minor child. Whether a woman was a queen or a regent, ruling either temporarily or permanently, her powers were not different from those of a male ruler.

This equality of powers was only because medieval politics were dynastic. In other words, offices passed down from fathers to sons. Therefore, in the absence of a legitimate male heir, an office could fall into the hands of a woman. This applied to both kingdoms and smaller political units. Counties passed among family members, duchies, and even castellanies – areas controlled by a single castellan, 15 or 20 miles in radius. In rare cases, these areas were ruled by women.

However, women in Medieval Europe were completely absent in public political roles. This was mainly because medieval towns followed a more republican form of government in which officials were elected and served for a set term. Therefore, a woman could not inherit a political office. The situation only changed in recent times. Ironically, democracy has been very unfriendly to female participation throughout history.

Economics and (Almost) Equal Opportunities

In Medieval Europe, women were relatively active in the marketplace. A survey of 100 guilds in Paris in 1300 showed that 86 percent were willing to admit female workers. Although some companies required permission from the woman’s husband, getting a job was not impossible.

There was also some sense of equality in terms of training. Female professionals were able to train apprentices regardless of their gender. No one seemed to think that a woman training a man was odd.

Learn more about the Demography and the Commercial Revolution of the High Middle Ages.

Statue of a medieval nun on the facade of a cathedral.
Sculpture of a nun on the facade of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain. (Image: Roman Belogorodov/Shutterstock)

Religion and Nunneries in Medieval Europe

It is reasonable to expect similar trends in religious settings, where women were absent in some areas and yet actively involved in others. For example, monasticism was prevalent among women. Woman could easily choose to become nuns and live in a nunnery. They could even rise through the ranks and one day command a nunnery. Back in the Middle Ages, convents were large organizations with various affairs and housed dozens of people. So, being the head of a nunnery allowed women to exert power over others. This power was especially appealing to high-born women who could not reach a status of authority in any other way.

However, women could never enter the realms of the priesthood. In other words, they were not allowed to take the position of a ‘secular clergy’ as they were non-ordained members of a church who did not live in a religious institute and did not follow specific religious rules.

Common Questions About the Status of Women in Medieval Europe

Q: What were women’s rights in medieval times?

There was a large extent of inequality between men and women in Medieval Europe. Women did not have the right to vote or to choose whether they wanted to marry, have children, or even work in some instances.

Q: What was the role of women in the Middle Ages?

Women in the Middle Ages were able to work as a craftswoman, own a guild, and earn money in their own ways. They could also divorce their husbands under certain conditions. Many outstanding female authors, scientists, and business owners lived during that age.

Q: What was the main job of medieval women?

Women in medieval Europe were able to work in the majority of guilds. Other than being wives or mothers, they often chose to become artisans or nuns.

Q: What did medieval women wear?

Most women in the Middle Ages wore kirtles, ankle-to-floor length dresses that were made of dyed linen. Among the peasant women, wool was a more favorable and affordable option. Women’s clothing also consisted of an undertunic called smock or chemise.

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