Medieval Women

The women of 1,000 years ago are largely absent from the surviving records. Even at the top rank of Wolverton society there are no women of record until the end of the 12th century when Agatha Trusbut makes an appearance as the wife of Hamon, Baron of Wolverton. The same is true of men who don’t inherit. The first baron of Wolverton, Mainou, probably had more than one child, but the only one we know of is his heir, Meinfelin, and this continues for a few generations until Hamon (just mentioned) dies without issue and the barony is inherited by his next surviving brother, William. He in turn dies without issue and the estate passes down to a third brother, Alan. If Hamon and his wife Agatha had surviving children I expect we would not have known about William and Alan.

The records that exist concern property, taxes and crime and thus the rules of primogeniture, practised zealously by the Normans, would mean that there was little point in recording the names of younger sons and daughters unless property was in some way involved.  Women, children, younger sons who did not inherit, the mass of tradesmen and the peasantry had unrecorded lives – a very distant remove from today when even our grocery shopping is tabulated.

Chance records survive. This one for example from the Wolverton Manorial documents in the Bodleian Library. It is dated between 1248 and 1250.

Sarra widow of Stephen Blundus of Wlverton in her pure widowhood grants and confirms to Amicia daughter of Richard son of Rand of Bradewell 1 acre in field del Est of Wlverton: 1/2 acre above Rowpittfurlong between her land and that of Amice daughter of Robert son of Rand and 1/2 acre above Depedenehole next land of Rad Mangkorn and abutting above the dole of Robert son of Stephen called Wytherstuuengale and above the land of Hamo Hasteng at Smalewill furlong.

It is probably impossible to make much sense of this. The field names have long since disappeared together with the one-time owners, but it does illustrate that widows did have the right to dispose of property and they could, as in this case, grant the land to another woman. It is my guess (and only a guess) that Amicia is her granddaughter and possibly her only heir.

here is another from the same period:

Basilia, daughter of William son of Basilia of Wluerthon grants and confirms to Robert Clerk of Stonistratford 1/2 acre in field del West of Wluerthon beyond Lebrodewey between land of Hamo Hasteng and land held by Hugh Mayheu.

Service, and 7s gersum. 1d per annum rent.

This deed confirms that land could be owned and disposed of by women and also, after almost two hundred years after the Conquest, little parcels of land had been granted, divided and subdivided amongst many different people. The “gersum” was a premium paid by the tenant on taking up the holding. The rent for this half acre was a mere 1d a year.

Women had a full part in medieval society but not one that we would now recognize. They were either maidens, wives, nuns or widows, so your status in society depended on your father, your husband or your former husband. If you were a nun you were a “bride of Christ”. It was an alternative to marriage but in a subservient role. Some contemporary views of women were not a great deal different from those found in Victorian England:

women are smaller, meeker, more demure, more gentle, more supple, more delicate, more envious and more laughing and loving, and the malice in the soul is more in a woman than in a man. . . . .Woman is of a more feeble nature, tells more lies, and is slower in working and moving that a man. (From a 13th century account quoted in G C Coulton: Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation. p.433) 

 Women did play a role in the economic life of the community. A few became independent tradespeople, many helped their husbands in their business or work and often ran things when their men were off fighting. There is a report of one woman who worked as a blacksmith – one of the most physically demanding of trades. There is Chaucer’s characterization of the Wife of Bath in his Canterbury Tales:

Housbondes atte chirche dore hadde sche fyfe

Clearly a woman who made the most of life and was, by the time she comes to Chaucer’s notice, a woman of some wealth.

But women were constrained. They were not judges or surgeons and their lives were largely defined in the context of men. Widows were often pressured into re-marrying and single women had very little status. Women of a certain class could elect to go into a nunnery, often to avoid re-marriage or marriage altogether. Women from the lower orders could be accepted into nunneries but only to do the hard menial work.
Marriage, the option for most women, could work, and no doubt there were many successful marriages, but the husband always held (literally) the upper hand. If a woman unluckily married a bad, abusive and feckless husband there was little that could be done. Even in a happy marriage, each pregnancy brought with it a 10% risk of death, according to the calculations of some historians. Not even the upper reaches of society, with their better diet and living conditions, were immune to the danger of complications during birth. In the words of that 17th century pessimist Thomas Hobbes, “Life could be nasty, brutush and short.”