Medieval Women

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Medieval Women: Slaves to Convention or Independent Thinkers (Part one of three)

Medieval women were fascinating creatures. The stereotypes that leap to mind include the Great Lady (queens and noblewomen), the yeoman wife, the nun and the downtrodden peasant. Regardless of status, the idea is strange to many fiction readers that any of these women could act independently of the men in their lives. For many readers, the king or noble councilmen would overrule the actions of any queen. The abbess existed at the pleasure of the local archbishop and having a priest with easy access to the abby guaranteed that she made no decisions the men of the church did not approve. Yeoman wives lived to serve their spouses and male relatives and had no say in running their own lives. Peasant women were downtrodden, i.e. used and abused by any man noble or not.

By now you’ve figured out that I intend to show you these preconceptions of Medieval women are not valid. While some women in the period did fit those descriptions an equal number, perhaps more, did not. Medieval women were as individual as you and me. Like you and me, these women can be classified by economic status, education, social and political position, degree of authority and autonomy, beauty, reputation, and myriad other qualities. I cannot deal with all of those sub-groups in this one article (which is supposed to be short). I can, however, discuss in some detail women in the three societal categories used in the Middle Ages. Those categories are the religious class, the noble class, and the yeoman/peasant class, i.e. everyone not in the first two categories. Today’s discussion will be limited to religious women.

Joining a religious community or becoming a ‘recognized’ religious individual was one way in which Medieval woman gained authority and autonomy. The abbess is a great example. Numerous historical documents relate the power and authority wielded by these women. (Eileen Edna Power has written an excellent and authoritative work on Medieval English Nunneries. The book can be found for free at Project Gutenberg.) Some abbies of the female religious orders were as rich and economically powerful as their priestly counterparts. This was not accomplished by waiting or asking for the permission of religious men. Rather, these women acquired wealth and power by taking initiative on their own. An example of this authority can be found in the Old English poem Caedmon’s Hymn. The focus of that story is a poor man, Caedmon, who worked for an abby of nuns. A dream conferred upon this man the ability to sing beautiful songs. However, it was the Abbess who was asked to decide the truth or falseness of his claim about his dream. It was the Abbess who gave the orders for him to sing as proof. And it was the Abbess who declared that Caedmon’s story was true, forcing all who heard of Caedmon’s miracle to believe him on the basis of her word alone.

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Abbesses and Saints, 13th Century illuminated manuscript

Other religious women existed independent of any abby. Julian of Norwich and Margery Kemp are two very famous examples. Julian was an anchoress. tells us “An anchoress is (was) a woman who withdraws from secular life for religious purposes, a female religious hermit or recluse.” Many anchoresses would go to the extreme of having themselves physically walled away from the world, receiving sustenance, confession and other life necessities through a small window cut in one wall of their doorless chambers. Julian did not go to that extreme. Her confessor, who recorded her visions, was able to enter and leave her ‘cell’ through a door as were other people. Julian gained reknown for her visions, which for the time were radical in the extreme because they include the concept of God as Mother as well as Father.

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Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral, Photo by rocketjohn [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

Margery Kemp on the other hand was a gentle woman whose faith inspired her to many different kinds of acts. One of those acts was to persuade her husband to forego his sexual rights in favor of a more pure faith. She was also inspired to make pilgrimage and even on occasion preach to others about faith. Later in her life, she dictated to a pair of clerks a book containing the details of her travels and her many visionary experiences. You can find out more about Margery here. For Information about Julian of Norwich follow this link.

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Fragment from the Book of Margery Kemp

As regards the writing of historical romance, I maintain that heroines modeled on the lives of actual medieval women, are perhaps more interesting than the currently popular stereotypical heroines like the escaping bride, abused wife, or warrior woman. My heroine, Lady Larkin, from The Herald’s Heart is an example of one such female. She deals with a real life medieval problem, proving that she is who she claims to be.

About the Book: The Herald’s Heart

Her identity was stolen. He thinks she’s a murderer. Will love help them discover the truth?

When he ceased serving as one of King Edward I’s heralds, Sir Talon Du Quereste imagined he would settle on a quiet little estate, marry a gently bred damsel, and raise a flock of children. The wife of his daydreams was a woman who could enhance his standing with his peers, and certainly not an overly adventurous, impulsive, argumentative woman of dubious background.

When her family is murdered, Lady Larkin Rosham lost more than everyone she loved—she lost her name, her identity and her voice. She’s finally recovered her ability to speak, but no one believes her claim to be Lady Larkin. She is determined to regain her name and her heritage, but Sir Talon Du Quereste guards the way to the proof she needs. She must discover how to get past him without risking her heart.

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About the Author 

I’m Rue Allyn, and mostly I’m about writing stories, books about heart melting romance. Books about characters and adventures in which love triumphs at the darkest moment. The kind of suspenseful, hopeful, cathartic romance that melts a reader’s heart. Subscribe to Rue’s News to get all the latest about me and my books, and you can join my crew for fun and games.

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Review Quotes:

“A gem for lovers of the medieval – 4 stars. In The Herald’s Heart, Rue Allen has given us a medieval novel that is out of the ordinary, with an unusual plot, strongly drawn characters, and gothic overtones, including a mad anchoress and a haunting.” Author Jude Knight

“Atmospheric and Fast Paced.  . . . a strong, plucky heroine and a hero who has it all. He is loyal, responsible, honorable, strong, handsome—and just enough of a clueless male to frustrate the heroine. The secondary characters are well drawn as well. . . .” Author Caroline Warfield

“Great storytelling on Ms. Allyn’s part makes the centuries fall away . . . as each page comes to life. . . . A suspenseful mystery or two to solve!…and did I mention very passionate romance?” Reviewer Dianne, Goodreads

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2 thoughts on “Medieval Women

  1. An interesting point of law which changed with the reformation was the protection of women from rape – including those ladies of negotiable affection. Women owned property, Emme Pownder if Ipswich inherited her husband’s fleet of merchant ships and ‘ventured in her own right’.

  2. Caroline, thank you very much for the opportunity to share my knowledge of medieval women and a bit of The Herald’s Heart with you and your followers.

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Caroline Warfield, Author

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