Attitudes toward sex and gender in western Europe during the Middle Ages (between approximately 500 and 1400) were diverse and often contradictory. Men and women were regarded as essentially different, with different roles and rights, although why this was and what it meant in practice varied widely. Behavioral codes and ideals differed with religion, culture, and geography. All of these values evolved over the Middle Ages, as societies developed and came into contact with one another. Despite these differences, Europe was increasingly united by a common religion—Roman Christianity—and by the common legal system and institutional infrastructure of that religion. While regional and status-based differences remained, western Europe developed a common culture and ideology, which strongly shaped ideas about sex and gender.
Western Europe in the Middle Ages was heavily Roman Christian; even the small number of non-Roman Christians, such as Jews, heretics, and the Greek Christian and Muslim peoples who dwelled along the eastern and Mediterranean edges of western Europe, lived in a culture dominated by Roman Christianity. Christianity therefore played a significant role in influencing western European attitudes toward sex and gender throughout the Middle Ages.
Medieval theologians provided two dichotomous examples of women's behavior from the Christian Bible: Eve and Mary. Eve, they said, caused the exile from the Garden of Eden through her foolishness and disobedience. Mary, by contrast, had helped to offer mankind salvation by obeying God and mothering the Christ child while preserving her chastity. Both men and women had to be wary of falling into Eve's evilness, while Mary's goodness was a model but not actually achievable. All people, however, had souls that were equal in the eyes of the Lord and in the church and could achieve sanctity, although medieval theologians believed that each gender faced different challenges.
Important early church fathers, highly influential throughout the Middle Ages, tended to see women as a direct challenge to a life of chastity and hence to the most pious existence. St. Augustine (354–430) wrestled with his own desire—at one point famously asking God to give him chastity but not yet—before finally giving up sex entirely to devote himself to religion. Nonetheless, the early church fathers believed that marriage itself was not evil. Numerous theologians recognized that marriage provided an appropriate Christian lifestyle for those not capable of sexual abstinence.
The church required both partners, once married, to "pay the marriage debt," or to willingly engage in sexual activity with their spouse in order to meet the spouse's sexual needs and prevent adultery. Even within marriage, however, sex acts that could not lead to children were viewed as suspect. The church therefore prohibited anything that interfered with conception, including both non-procreative sex acts and contraceptive measures, either in or outside of marriage.
Even for those who did marry, chastity was still desirable. From Radegunda, a queen in sixth-century Gaul (modern France), to Margery Kempe, a fifteenth-century townswoman in England, devout individuals occasionally persuaded their spouses to let them live chastely and to pursue religious lives. Widows were encouraged to take vows of chastity, and although many did remarry, second marriages were held by some to be lustful. This is certainly implied in Geoffrey Chaucer's description of the five marriages of his fictional character, the Wife of Bath, in his Canterbury Tales (written in the late fourteenth century). On the Day of Judgment, the benefits of being a faithful wife were thirtyfold; of being a chaste widow, sixtyfold; and of being a lifelong virgin, one hundred-fold. Especially for women, the church clearly favored total chastity.
But while chastity was always mandatory for nuns and other female religious, churchmen were legally allowed to marry until the fourth century and the practice was generally condoned for several centuries more. By approximately 1180, however, the church had gained a secure enough religious and political position to enforce its regulations regarding sexuality fairly consistently. Individuals and communities became increasingly willing to bring sexual indiscretions to light. This included homosexual male activity, which the church prosecuted much more heavily after around 1200. Female homosexuality, however, rarely appears in court records. The heterosexual indiscretions of male clerics were always more likely to be tolerated by the community than those of the nuns or male homosexuality, although all were technically forbidden. Through the Middle Ages, chastity was, however, both the ideal and, for the clergy, the law.
Scholars blended medical theory derived from ancient classical authors with the medieval Christian culture of their time. Most scholars were Christian men, and many of them were clerics, chaste in theory if not in practice. There are exceptions to this; Hildegard von Bingen was a twelfth-century German nun and scholar whose works often minimized the misogyny inherent in many of the male-authored works. In the later Middle Ages, Christian scholars also drew increasingly on the works of Jewish and Muslim physicians, which introduced a new frame of reference to the Christian scholarship.
In explaining sex differences, medieval scholars generally followed the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle, who explained that women's genitalia were an inversion of men's, with an internal uterus instead of an external penis. People disagreed, however, on whether women were imperfect men or simply the opposite of men. Further, most medieval people believed that health and temperament were dictated by the balance of four different substances (humors): cholera (hot), phlegm (cold), blood (moist), and bile (dry). These humors occurred naturally in people, who might healthfully tend more toward one humor than another.
Hildegard von Bingen argued that differences in humors created women with different temperaments corresponding to different male types, but most scholars held that male characteristics were superior to female. Male warmth and dryness, according to both Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) and Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280), made men more active and sharp-witted. Cool, moist women were inclined to be melancholy and more physically and intellectually childlike, as demonstrated by the lack of facial hair, physical softness, high voices, and inability to produce semen that defined women, children, and eunuchs.
Despite this assumption of female inferiority, most medieval scholars followed Galen, the ancient Greek physician, who argued that the woman contributed vitally to conception through the internal release of a female sperm. This contrasted with the Aristotelian view in circulation that the woman provided only food and a protective place for the growing male seed. In either case, medieval people certainly recognized that a child could resemble the mother or the father in temperament or appearance, but the blame for failure to conceive was laid on the woman unless it was proven that the father was unable to get or maintain an erection.
In addition to procreation, sexual activity balanced people's health and temperament and prevented them from engaging in sinful sexual behavior. Marital sex took care of this for most of the population, but not all people were married. For men, prostitutes were an option. The London city government, for example, legalized and regulated brothels in suburban Southwark, a move not unusual for major cities. These establishments met men's sexual needs and protected the city's women from rape or seduction, which would endanger their souls and compromise the social position of the women and their families. It should not be surprising that women did not have the same sexual options as men.
LAWS AND LEGAL CODES
A number of law codes were in practice in western Europe in the early Middle Ages (500–1100), addressing gendered rights, including inheritance, marriage, and divorce, differently. The Roman Empire dominated most of Europe until approximately 500 ce, and the empire's legal system remained influential long after because it served as the basis for church law. In addition to the laws of the Roman Empire, areas never fully dominated by Rome, such as Ireland, Scandinavia, and Germany, had their own legal traditions that offered women different legal rights before the church's legal system became dominant. For example, women in early Christian Ireland (400–700) could obtain divorces from their husbands, but men too were allowed to divorce their wives or even to practice polygyny.
These regional codes made legal distinctions between women of different statuses. Many non-Roman societies, including Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia, employed wergild, a system of fines for murder according to the victim's social position, gender, age, and marital status. Although men's wergilds were higher overall than women's, high-ranking women could be valued more highly than lower-ranking men, especially if the women were of childbearing age. Here, as in legal codes throughout medieval Europe, women were less valued than men, but they were valued.
The Roman church in this period had one of the strictest incest taboos of any known society, initially disallowing marriage within seven degrees of relation and, after 1215, disallowing those within four degrees. In reality, many marriages occurred within the prohibited degrees; King Louis VII of France, in 1152, requested that the pope annul his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine on these grounds, while numerous royals requested dispensations from the pope allowing them to make such marriages. Further, the church insisted that a valid marriage required consent from both partners after they had reached the legal age—twelve for girls and fourteen for boys. Marriages entered into before that age or without free consent could be annulled. In practice, choice could be very limited, particularly if noble parents refused to support children who married against their parents' wishes.
Beyond these constraints, there were few formalities in contracting a marriage. In church law, the exchange of vows in the present tense, followed by consummation, were all that was necessary to form a legal marriage. After 1215, the church worked to eliminate clandestine, or secret, marriages, but was still often forced to regard those as valid, especially if there were children. While marriages could be elaborate affairs, they did not require the blessing of the church until after the Middle Ages had ended.
A respectable marriage was usually accompanied by an exchange of goods: a dowry from the woman's family to the husband, a bride-gift from the husband to the wife, or a dower from the husband to the bride's family. Of these, the dowry was the most widespread. Depending on the social status of the couple, a dowry could be a few household items or include money or land. In some cases, a dowry was the only inheritance a woman received, but women were never prohibited from inheriting land. In many areas during the early Middle Ages, all children would inherit. Around the year 1000, land became tied to military service among the nobility. Women consequently inherited less frequently. Simultaneously, younger sons also inherited less frequently as families tried to avoid dividing their land. Women without brothers, however, could inherit land, although their husbands might control it during their lifetime.
The dowry belonged to the wife, but the husband usually controlled it during the marriage. He could not alienate it, however, without her permission. After his death, the widow would receive the dowry back to support herself or to bring into her next marriage, and, after her death, to split among her children. A woman could even write a will, with her husband's permission, specifying how she would like her possessions divided and leaving gifts to friends and servants. If the wife died first, her husband could claim her dowry for their children.
Once a woman had living children in a valid marriage, she was entitled to support from her husband and his family. The law generally required that a widow be provided with one-third of her husband's estate to support her during her lifetime. Husbands would sometimes stipulate in their wills, however, that their widows would forfeit this if they remarried. Children received another third, which might be controlled by their mother until they came of age. These rules were fairly constant across western Europe, especially toward the end of the Middle Ages.
Evidence for daily life in the early Middle Ages is relatively scarce compared to later periods, but existing sources make it clear that kinship was of overriding political and social importance. In many areas, the throne did not necessarily go to the eldest son of the late king, but rather to the most able man among the local nobility, usually close maternal or paternal relatives of the king. Men demonstrated their adult masculinity and suitability for rule through military leadership and victory.
Noblewomen in this period could play a prominent role in governing by connecting various lineages and also as powerful decision makers in their husbands' court. In particular, noblewomen often lent their support to Christian missionaries, as Bertha, the Christian wife of a local English ruler, did in 597 ce to the visiting St. Augustine the Lesser, the missionary sent by Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604). Widowed or unmarried religious women could also be powerful political actors as the heads of female or mixed-sex religious houses, because monasteries had a great deal of political as well as religious influence.
Beginning around the year 1000, kings depended less on their kinsmen and kinswomen for assistance and more on trained male bureaucrats. These bureaucrats attained their positions through education in the church. This is not to say that military prowess became unimportant; the ability to bear arms in combat, competitions, and hunting remained important for noble masculinity through the Middle Ages.
As male bureaucracy grew, the opportunities for noblewomen to govern declined. Noblewomen were increasingly simply consorts of men—producers of legitimate heirs. Their marriages still formed vital links between kingdoms, and they remained important religious and artistic patrons, but noblewomen's direct participation in affairs of the court waned. This was true also for nuns, as the church banned mixed houses and increasingly mandated that women be cloistered, limiting their ability to assert themselves politically. Nuns became dependent on charity and on men to administer their religious houses and provide the sacraments. Because of the dependence of women, male orders became reluctant to allow women to form religious houses under their protection, reducing the opportunity for women to participate in a religious lifestyle at all.
But opportunities did remain for noblewomen. Mediterranean cultures, in particular, allowed women to inherit kingdoms and administer them largely on their own. This region produced several female figures prominent in politics and art, including Ermengarde of Narbonne (c. 1129–c. 1196) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204). Further, the rise of mysticism, a form of spirituality promoting a direct, emotional tie between God and a holy individual, provided new avenues for religious women, such as the Englishwoman Julian of Norwich (1342–after 1416) and the Italian St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380). Although many mystics were from at least comfortable backgrounds, this form of spirituality did not require a large entrance fee to a nunnery, and therefore allowed for the participation of a broader social stratum.
Throughout the Middle Ages, most people were agricultural workers. Men tended to be responsible for most of the farming, while women would work the large kitchen garden, tend the animals, do the housework and care for the children, help in the fields during busy times, and also often engage in paid labor on the side, such as spinning, brewing, or sewing. Clearly, women of the lower classes could not be removed from the public eye and economic production in the way that noblewomen were later in the Middle Ages.
As cities grew rapidly after approximately 1100, more people made craft production their primary occupation rather than farming. Men became apprentices, and later journeymen and masters, within a guild. This guild gave them a social identity and, once they became masters, offered them a form of political participation and an adult masculine identity. There is evidence of female guild members, and the family members of skilled craftsmen often became highly skilled assistants, but guildswomen were most often wives or widows of guilds-men, maintaining the family's business and position until children became old enough to take over.
Women were, however, important players in the local economy. In addition to whatever household chores they might have had, women often made additional money for the household by engaging in piecework such as spinning or by working occasionally. Younger or single women could work as domestic servants or at a more skilled labor such as textile work. Even more elite women would oversee the household accounts and the labor of servants, which might involve piecework for a profit. Most women, therefore, were active participants in the broader economy.
While men and women were regarded as fundamentally different in medieval Europe, scholars and the population at large would generally agree that both were necessary in the society. Both genders had characteristic faults, some tied to other aspects of social status and others not, but both could live valuable and even holy lives that benefited the society.
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The term Middle Ages refers to the period between the decline of the Roman Empire, which began around 400 a.d., and the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy about 1400. Renaissance scholars, who sought to restore the glory of the ancient world, generally dismissed this period as insignificant. They developed the term "middle age" to reflect their view that true culture had disappeared with the fall of Rome and that the years between Roman civilization and their own was little more than a gap in the history of European culture. Yet though the scholars had little respect for the culture of the Middle Ages, it continued to have a great influence on their thinking.
The Italian writer Petrarch was one of the first authors to look back with longing toward the ancient world. He wrote of his desire to mix with the great men of antiquity* rather than the "thievish company" of his own day. Other humanist* writers echoed his call for a culture based on ancient literary and artistic models. The artist and writer Giorgio Vasari outlined three stages in the history of art: perfection in antiquity, decay after the 300s, and renewal in the late 1200s led by the Italian artist Giotto di Bondone.
Nonetheless, Renaissance thinkers drew much inspiration from the Middle Ages. Historians and legal scholars showed a keen interest in studying the medieval* period. Poets and writers also borrowed medieval tales and developed them into new stories. The epic* Orlando Furioso, by Italian author Ludovico Ariosto, was based on a medieval French poem called the Song of Roland. English playwright William Shakespeare based his famous tragedy Hamlet on a story from the 1100s. In the field of religious studies, Catholic scholars continued to follow the traditions of the Middle Ages, combining them with new critical techniques from the Renaissance. Most artists, by contrast, broke cleanly away from the methods of the Middle Ages. Negative views of medieval art persisted until the 1700s.
- * antiquity
era of the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, ending around a.d. 400
- * humanist
referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living
- * medieval
referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe
- * epic
long poem about the adventures of a hero
Mid·dle Ag·es • pl. n. the period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (5th century) to the fall of Constantinople (1453), or, more narrowly, from c.1100 to 1453.