This essay examines the economic activities and "work" of aristocratic women, c.1000–c.1400. Despite the limitations posed by law, custom, and social expectation, women played a central role in preserving and transferring family wealth through marriage, gifts, and inheritance. They were equally crucial in matters of household and estate management. Both older and recent scholarship explores the complexity of the woman's experience within the European family. Her role was neither rigidly static nor in perpetual flux. The diversity of a woman's economic responsibilities and her influence in the family reveal the inherent flexibility of the medieval family, once considered staunchly patriarchal. While some have argued that the patrilineal descent group was narrowing in this period, medieval families devised strategies to preserve the integrity of their holdings and to provide for a range of kin, regardless of gender.
Christian literature in late antiquity offered contrasting models of female sanctity, emphasizing alternately the gender ambiguity of the young woman dressed as a man, and the nuptial imagery of the bride of Christ. Three texts, the second-century Acts of Paul and Thecla, the fourth-century Letter 22 to Eustochium by Saint Jerome, and the fifth- or sixth-century Passion of Eugenia, illustrate contrasting ways of thinking about how Christian literature could allow a young woman to reinvent herself.
Susan Mosher Stuard
Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, morgengabe, a husband's gift to his wife marking the formal consummation of marriage, was replaced in Italian, southern French, and Spanish towns with Roman dos or dowry, a gift from a bride's family that was her inheritance (legitim). In time, this momentous change spread north beyond the Alps. The resulting dotal regime abetted the monetization of the economy and placed increased authority in the hands of husbands, who managed dowry although they did not own it. A family's honor and prestige rode on grants of dowry. Disputes, lawsuits, and consilia (legal opinions) highlight the consequences of investing sums that were granted for daughters' dowries. In 1425 Florence created the Monte delle Doti to invest family funds for future dowries. Thereafter government finances were entwined with families' finances. To justify separating women's ownership of dowry from men's management, Aristotelian principles of women's incapacity were invoked.
The Byzantines perceived the body as malleable, able to be changed to suit the needs of society. They also believed that the appearance of the outer body reflected the quality of the inner person's soul. As a result, bodily appearance became an important marker for gender, class, and moral worth. Within the religious community, sexuality represented the ungoverned worldliness of the body and abstention the purity of the soul. The Byzantines bridged the gap between the worldly and the ascetic by creating a new kind of man, the eunuch. The eunuch lived and worked outside the realities of family and clan and was believed to have special connections to the spiritual world. Because the Byzantines were so conscious of outward appearances, they regularly commented on the appearance and actions of eunuchs, ascribing to them the best and worst kinds of natures and, in turn, reflecting attitudes about their own bodies.
Given the comparatively slow pace of human evolution, the body, as a biological entity, may be taken more or less as a historical constant during the past 1500 years. But every interaction with that body was mediated by culture, and thus gender analysis is a driving force in the expanding field of the history of health. This essay looks at how changing expectations of gender and knowledge shaped medical and surgical interventions in three circumstances: pregnancy; childbirth emergencies; and the care of intersexed persons. The field of the history of health is still rapidly expanding, and the perspectives of gender analysis are a major part of what is driving that expansion forward.
Carolingian ideas of "home" and "family" encompassed a wide range of meanings from physical buildings to kin and free and unfree dependents. Kinship ties played a vital role, both socially and politically, and marriage practices reflected that; Carolingian reforms respected parents' strategies concerning their children's marriages. The Frankish economy was structured around nuclear households, from peasant tenancies to the huge estates presided over by noble men and women. Male and female activities in both production and consumption were partially, but not completely gender-specific. Dowries provided some economic independence for women, but female wealth often depended on contingent factors such as family size and the attitudes of male relatives. The ordered conjugal household was an important image in Carolingian moral thought, with married women holding a subordinate, but honored position. Frankish ideology focused more on elite women's role in the management of dependents and social networks than on purely "housewifely" activities.
Civic court records are a rare source for medieval social experience and attitudes, including low-status people who do not appear in most records. Because the requirements for proof in Roman law included fama, reputation, and status, witnesses in court discussed and at times differed over which aspects of a person’s behavior determined their honesty and respectability. This could become an implicit debate over gender expectations. Can a concubine be considered an honest woman? The article explores a 1295 case in which a wealthy politician was charged with the rape of a woman who lived as a concubine. The case hinged on the complex medieval legal understandings of rape. It is also a vivid example of a power struggle waged in and out of the court, involving both bribery and judicial torture. Ultimately, it reveals how class and gender expectations for men and women influenced the court process.
The cult of saints in the Middle Ages is considered here through the operation of gender. Gender is shown to be have determined who was considered a saint, how holiness was pursued by individuals, described in hagiography, remembered, and approached. Early Christian communities admired heroic martyrdom in men and women, but medieval religious institutions offered men many more opportunities to develop saintly reputations: as bishops, hermits, and missionaries. With the growth of towns after the year 1100, niches developed for collective as well as individual holy lives for men and women, in households and neighborhoods; friars often appreciated and encouraged such lives, sometimes committing them to hagiography. Such writing about saints was a prolific genre, alongside the pilgrimage travelogue and miracles worked by saints at shrines. Gender, wealth and status determined the chances to encounter saints through pilgrimage, to possess hagiography, and to use material objects in devotion.
Cultures of devotion in multiple forms were central to medieval lives, and because of their significance they became sites for defining and negotiating gender identities and issues. The essay first examines whether participation in communal rituals and popular devotion was open to women as well as to men. A second issue was the availability of membership for women in the religious orders, and a third was the relationship between male religious authorities and the women who sought a life of holiness, whether in or out of traditional communities. Other topics involve the gendered role of visual images and material objects in stimulating mystical experiences, and the role of devotional texts explicitly addressed to women. Finally, the essay takes up the destabilizing of gender identities in the language of medieval spirituality. In all cases, new paradigms and scholarship of the last forty years have challenged previous assertions about religious culture.
The growing cities of late medieval northern Europe offered religiously gifted laypeople contexts in which to devote themselves fully to religion without having to leave the world or to take vows. Countless women, and a few men, lived as lay recluses and anchorites, secluded in the midst of cities; others pursued holiness in the private households of beguines, adherents of the Modern Devotion, or ascetic widows. These holy women and men were the innovative pioneers of a new lay spirituality. By studying about twenty spiritual biographies written by or about holy laywomen, this essay seeks to determine their involvement in religious culture and in the shared spirituality of the holy women (mulieres religiosae) and the faithful at large. It focuses on ascetic, devotional households; personal networks and confraternities; women's intellectual work; and the claiming, by some women, of religious authority.
Jews living in northern Europe during the High Middle Ages inhabited large urban centers and lived in close proximity to their Christian neighbors. This led to daily contact between Jews and Christians and shared realms of experience and practice. This article examines the lives of Jewish women during the High Middle Ages. Using a poem written after the death of Dulcia of Worms in the 1196, it outlines the characteristics of women's religious and social lives during the period, and it also explores the gender understandings and conventions of Jews in medieval Europe. Comparing Jewish and Christian society, the article sets out distinctive and shared practices related to gender and religion.
Classical and medieval thinkers had much to say about gendered topics, including proper social roles and relationships for men and women, differing physical and psychological make-ups, and behaviors that might cause blurring between characteristics understood to belong to each sex. The theological arguments and pastoral direction of the Middle Ages relied heavily on precedents drawn from early Christianity, making an understanding of the apostolic and patristic periods essential when examining gender issues. This essay, therefore, addresses debates from both early Christianity and the central Middle Ages, concentrating primarily on discussions about the merits of virginity versus celibacy, but also treating discourse on "virile" women and the effects of the rediscovery of Aristotelian thought on ideas about procreation and the female body. Since these discussions often took place as their authors addressed contemporary crises, they offer an opportunity to examine Christian society's shifting, and often competing, values, especially those pertaining women.
Traditional histories of Europe's initial Christianization have focused on clerical preaching and the establishment of church institutions. However, by looking through the lens of gender at Christianity as men and women alike came to live it on a daily basis, historians can gain a better idea of the extent of women's participation in historical religious changes. Men and women carried Christianity to Europe—in the form of beliefs, rituals, and doctrines, but also as objects, relationships, spaces, and daily routines—over many centuries.
Constance H. Berman
The turn of the first millennium was once seen by feminist historians like Jo Ann Kay McNamara as the beginning of an inexorable decline in the power and status of medieval women, particularly with the celibate clergy’s assertion of hegemony as a third gender, but new evidence shows that this was only a short-term setback. While new technologies, like water-powered mills, may initially have been resisted as a means of extracting new rent, they freed up peasant women for more productive activities, including textile production. As noblemen intent on asserting their masculinity joined the Crusades, women who ruled the estates in their absence found new power and authority. Women contributed to the consolidation of political power and economic growth by using clerics to keep written records, building religious establishments, and promoting commercial institutions like the Champagne fairs. Their contribution to the “takeoff” of western society, however, has rarely been noted.
This essay argues that the slow transition from the commercial economy of the later Middle Ages to early modern merchant capitalism produced significant changes in gender roles and gender meanings for women and men from the middle and upper ranks of cities where commerce had found its most secure home. The changes in gender were filtered, however, through a public/private divide that had taken shape in such cities during the centuries closing the Middle Ages, making this a story not just about economy and gender, but also about sociopolitical space. As prosperous men and women in commercial cities of the era came to be newly positioned along the axis dividing the public from the private, both acquired a new class identity presaging much that would characterize bourgeois Europe.
This article analyzes the different textual techniques that, by marginalizing female religious life, have created the common perception that female monasticism was a mere variant of a dominant male monastic model. As a counter to that common perception, I examine what female and male monasticism shared in the early middle ages, and I ask to what extent we can regard medieval monastic life as a sequence of unisex experiments, that is, experiments of communal religious life that were not predominantly determined by the gender of practitioners. I then show that many central aspects of medieval monasticism were more rooted in concepts derived from female religious life than from male traditions, especially male traditions derived from desert eremeticism. Figuratively spoken, the first “medieval monk” may have been a nun.
This essay explores the documentary and skeletal evidence for understanding the relationship between gender and population change in the Middle Ages by focusing on mortality, fertility, and migration. Although cemeteries and historical records both show high sex ratios that imply female supermortality, the explanations offered for this imbalance indicate little consensus, not least because of gender biases in the extant records and in the methods employed to exploit them. Studies of fertility throw a helpful light on gender and population change, even though lack of direct data has forced demographers to develop innovative, if often controversial, ways to understand how fertility worked, through such measures as female age at marriage, proportions of women married, and household size. New techniques such as mitochondrial DNA and isotope analysis show that women migrated over greater distances than did men, while documentary evidence for migration over short distances reveals that women did not always move for the same reasons as men.
Katherine L. French
The quickening economy of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries offered medieval people new goods, new markets, and new ways of expressing identity and respectability. The objects that men and women owned and used offer scholars an alternative view of their everyday life less encumbered by the rhetorical devices and clerical biases of so many literary works. However expanding material culture challenged existing values and changed behavior in ways we are only beginning to discern. These material possessions, whether they are clothing, cooking ware, or the rooms of a house, help us see women's agency, and the ways in which women and men negotiated space, personal interaction, and gender.
John H. Arnold
Earlier histories have linked women with heresy in a variety of ways. More recent work dispells the idea that women were particularly prominent or active in heresy. But heresy can be analyzed via gender: this article analyzes gendered orthodox representations of "heresy," discusses the particular roles available to women within different heretical sects, and argues that a key issue is the nature of our interest in female agency and dissent.
Medieval Jewish attitudes about women's capacities, appropriate activities, and legal relationships with men emerged from the androcentric literature of the rabbinic movement (first seven centuries