Women in medieval times were largely limited to household chores. Some women engaged in outdoor jobs such as hay making or reaping but compared to standard wages for men, they were paid far less.
Very few opportunities existed for women in urban centres where artisan guilds typically barred the entry of the women and limited their membership to men only. Rather, women in towns were frequently engaged in activities related to textile, such as weaving at the looms.
In High Middle Ages, many wealthy women from nobility successfully rose to social and political prominence. And in Late Middle Ages, many women played an instrumental role in leading theological discussions.
Education was common trait of the nobility in medieval times but this privilege was rarely extended to the noblewomen. In such cases where noblewomen were educated, they were typically taught at home. Exceptions existed, such as the city of Florence, where women were allowed to attain education alongside men. The influence of Church, however, discouraged any form of education for the women except the theological.
Women were largely regarded as inferior to men in the medieval society. This attitude had been influenced by Church and the Biblical story of Eve leading Adam to sin. Major theological figures of the Church in the medieval ages, such as Thomas Aquinas, clearly proclaimed that women should serve men.
Opportunities for women were quite limited and they usually had to look after households, and after marriage strive to furnish a male heir for their husbands. Even if they got an employment, such as a job at the loom, they were paid far less than the standard payment for male workers. Such discrimination against women was rife in most fields.
Women were barred from holding political offices in medieval society. They were also barred from being employed to most civic jobs. Rather, women had to find employment in hay making, reaping, weaving and other activities. Reaping, hay making and milking were often unpaid jobs, considered the duty of a women as they worked alongside their husbands.
Among other jobs that were open to medieval women were nursing and baking. When working on the jobs available to them, women were paid less than the male workers. Extant documents from medieval England for instance show that women were paid 5 pence for hay making while men were paid 8 pence. Similarly, hay making earned a daily wage of 4 pence for the women while the men were paid 6 pence for the same job.
Barred from most fields of life and confined to the duty of marriage of child-rearing, medieval women often found Church as a worthy escape. Monasticism and being associated with a convent helped women get literacy in various arts, become well-versed in theology, enjoy a certain amount of freedom and get rid of the obligation of getting married without their consent. At convents, women were able to play a fairly significant role and many an important theological treatise in the medieval ages has been penned down by a women.
Very few women rose to prominence in the medieval ages. One of the earliest of them was Hilda of Whitby who was a notable abbess in the 7th century. She achieved high learning in Celtic monasticism and later founded the Whitby Abbey. This abbey was for both men and women who worshipped together but lived separately. She attained sainthood and was immensely revered all over England.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was an unusual medieval figure who was able to attain immense influence and power in medieval ages during the 12th century. Eleanor was highly educated in subjects such as history, astronomy and arithmetic, trained in a wide variety of games, well-versed in a number of languages including Latin and had a talent for music and literature.
She first married King Louis VII of France but due to the lack of an heir, the marriage was annulled. She later married King Henry II of England. She became the patron of a number of literary figures and remained a very influential political, social and cultural figure throughout her life.
Saint Catherine was a notable Church figure in the 14th century who extensively wrote on theological matters and played a very active part in bridging the divide between Papal authority and political authority. During the 14th century, she was instrumental in mitigating the influence of the anti-Papal league.
She had correspondence with various religious and political figures of her times, acted as ambassador in many matters of critical political significant and remained a very active figure. She was closely associated with Papacy and her writings on mystical topics are considered among the most important in the whole of Christendom.
Julian of Norwich was another influential 14th century women in medieval times. She penned down a mystic book called “Revelations of Divine Love” which is considered the earliest surviving English book written by a women. She was a vocal proponent of the spiritual aspect of Christianity and gained immense prestige as a religious figure. Her teachings are remarkable for stressing on the maternal aspect of Christian theology.
Among female political figures of the medieval ages, Isabella I was perhaps the most influential. She became the Queen of Castile and married Ferdinand II, effectively unifying Spain with her marriage. Together with her husband, she undertook massive political and social reforms, improved the economy of Spain, commissioned Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World and remained an active and effective monarch all her life.
Women in medieval times enjoyed little social, political or domestic rights. They were mostly confined to household jobs and were expected to marry soon. After marriage, their primary duty was considered to serve the husband rear their children.
However, women had a way of escaping this fate by joining monasteries and convents where they could become literate, write on theology and rise to significant influence. Some women, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella I also rose to exceptional political influence in medieval times.