Women in the Middle Ages

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In the medieval, purely patriarchal society, the man was the head of the family, with the roles of women determined by their relationship to him – daughter, sister, wife, mother or widow. Girls had a short childhood, according to municipal documents reaching the age of majority between 12 and 15 years of age. Boys, in terms of territorial law, became grown-ups at 15. Men spent most of their time at their craft, trading or swordsmanship, depending on their station in life, while women attended to housework and family. Only a widow could obtain permission to conduct trade or a craft activity, with the help of journeymen, of course.

Village women did not leave their homes very much or wander the vicinity needlessly. Some rules about venturing out were dictated by social class. While townswomen and noblewomen could venture beyond the home only when accompanied by their spouse or servants, the wives of artisans, merchants and peasants could walk about unaccompanied.

The domestic activities of well-to-do women included embroidery, cleaning, childcare, shopping and playing musical instruments. Village women spent their time working in the fields or pastures, bee-keeping, weaving, spinning, preparing food, knitting and sewing.

During the high Middle Ages the ideal of beauty was a thin, pale woman with long blonde hair, small rounded breasts, relatively narrow hips and a narrow waist. The most important thing was, of course, health and fertility. A woman in the Middle Ages would from the beginning of sexual maturity be pregnant virtually every year – it was not unusual for one to be a mother three or four times over by the age of twenty. Births were complicated and after-care inadequate, so the risk of death in childbirth was great.

Girls were afforded less attention than boys, but when it came to honour, the contrary applied. Old maids, seduced daughters and unmarried mothers brought the family shame. While boys inherited the livelihood, the parents of girls had to accumulate a dowry with which to 'compensate' the bridegroom.