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How women have been marginalized between 1400-1600

The essay will examine the topic of marginalization and inequity between genders. The historical time used for the study is the Middle Ages, started from 1400 and finished in 1600. The archeological, cultural and historical evidences of gender inequity and marginalization of women can be seen in medieval literature, art, historical documents and archeological finds.

The marginalization of women and the discrimination of their rights are proven by the following facts: the religious belief that a woman was sinful and had a body of an animal; women lived shorter than men; daughters were regarded as an economic burden of the family; the principle of gender distribution between household duties; women’s professions were subject to jokes. The current paper suggests four explanations of marginalization of medieval women.

These explanations are: mythological justification, which comprises stories, beliefs, myths, folktales, in other words the cultural heritage that aimed at justifying the social arrangement; social conditioning, which means societal norms imposed on a child since birth and learnt by the child as normal behavior; current propaganda, it refers to the social stereotypes and beliefs reflected in writing and common discourse; and legal justification laws passed to control and support the restrictive arrangement of society.

At the end of the paper the key points are summarized and on this basis general conclusions are driven. Mythological justification According to Verdier P. , medieval women were not seen as subjects of sexual attraction. The study of Verdier Woman in the Marginalia of Gothic Manuscripts and Related Works (1975) examines the representation of women in medieval literature: Flemish, French English manuscripts, Psalters and Hours devotional books, canonical and theological texts, historic works, legal, scientific and didactic tracts, songs, romances, and poems.

The researcher notes that in spite of the fact that medieval literature included sexual scenes, they all had a comic character: “Semi-abstract and semi-monstrous patterns, they anticipate the creations of Hieronymus Bosch and like them they teem with outcrops of the unconscious. They offer a considerable variety of tests of medieval sexual behavior, but their eroticism is couched in a light or redeemingly comic vein and they certainly do not play the wanton with women as sex objects. ” (Verdier P. , p. 123) So, the oppression of women can be seen in the negation of their physical attractiveness.

It becomes evident that the physical body of a woman was perceived as something devious, and sinful. The association of a woman with a sin came from the early Christianity, where Eve was blamed for seducing Adam. The medieval literature continued regarding women as sinful and added another meaning to this context: a woman was sinful because she had a body of an animal or in some sources a body of a beast. It explains why in medieval bibles animals were present in the illustration. Verdier P, notes that in the bible painted by William of Devon, the Book of Genesis was decorated with the zoo of real and grotesque animals.

The medieval illustrations of holy women were necessarily accompanied with animals: either monkey, or a dog, or a unicorn. (Verdier P) The Bestiaire d’Amour authored by Richard de Fournival compared the threefold nature of woman with the threefold nature of wolf. (Verdier P) The female sexuality was denied and the symbol of this denial – was in a belt worm across the waist of a woman. For example, the fourteen-century statues of the Virgin holding the Child wore belts as an important feature of their attire.

Verdier P expresses an opinion that the symbol of belt was dictated by the prophecy of God in Ezechiel, saying: “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut” (44:2). Social conditioning Some researchers have found out that medieval women lived mush shorter than men. Herlinhy in the book The role of woman in the Middle Ages reports that “Adult women are conspicuously fewer than men in all our Carolingian surveys, in spite of the value they possessed for their lords and in spite of the care with which they were reported.

If the survey of the peasants of St. Victor is typical, the sex ratio tended to swing against women as the population aged. ” (p. 9) The justification of women mortality was borrowed from Aristotle who in his biological tractate On Length and Shortness of Life offered the theory that males lived longer because they were warmer and had more moisture than females: “By nature and as a general rule, … the male lives longer than the female, the reason being that the male is a warmer creature than the female.

” (Aristotle) In his writing the scholar of antiquity describes the process of aging of animals and how they die and sets relationship between senescence and gender. According to the theory of Aristotle, life was divided into several stages, where death and old age were “cold and dry. ” The scholar concluded that at all stages of life females were dryer and colder than males and consequently they always were closer to senescence and death.

However, there were some exceptions in this rule offered by Aristotle. Those males who had excessive labor and frequent sexual intercourse would age sooner, because they would loose much moisture and dry up quicker. (Aristotle) Notwithstanding the fact that the biological tractate of Aristotle was dedicated only to animals, medieval scientists applied it to human beings. In 1250, the scientist Vincent of Beauvais wrote about the relative longevity of women and men in his encyclopedia, the Speculum Naturale.

His opinion had much similarity with that of Aristotle; Beauvais proposed the idea that “among men … males live longer than females, because the male is warmer than the female. ” (In Herlinhy) However, there were scientists who had the opposite point of view. Averroes, the Muslim philosopher of Spain, worked on a synopsis of Aristotle’s Parva Naturalia, which in the middle thirteenth century had been translated into Latin by Michael Scot. Averroes came to a different conclusion at the end of the synopsis: women lived longer than men because they had sexual intercourse less frequently.

(In Herlinhy) Another scientist, Albertus Magnus, who was a prominent biologist of the thirteenth century, accepted the idea of Aristotle that men outlived women because by nature they were wormer. But further Albertus Magnus advanced his own hypothesis: sometimes women lived longer than men and it was caused by menstruation that was able to purify women’s organism and sexual intercourse harmed women less. Additionally, Magnus paid attention to the distribution of work between genders and stressed that “[women] work less, and are not so much consumed. ” (Magnus in Herlinhy)

During the late Middle Ages women’s contribution in physical labor became less required than in the previous centuries. It was more felt in cities than in rural areas. However, the functions of women as childbearer and manager of household was still respected and valued by the society. But not all the girls managed to attain and fulfill their natural roles. (Herlinhy, p. 16) That is why the medieval society started considering women as economic burden to the family. (Herlinhy, p. 16) As a result, girls grew alienated from their families and from the institutions of society.

According to Herlinhy, women’s moral compensation for the discrimination in society was found in some newly created religious movements: “This surely is why irregular religious movements, such as the Beguines, and full-blown heresies too, had a powerful appeal for women. ” (Herlinhy, p. 16) Another disadvantage of women as it regarded by the medieval society, was the chance that the daughter would leave the family after her marriage. This women’s ‘weakness’ caused an appearance of a new custom in villages. Herlinhy reports that on the lands of St.

Victor parents tried to not to let their married daughters leave the parental household. It occurred because before sixty female inhabitants of that village had married into other households. (Herlinhy, p. 8) At Fartha, another village observed by the study of Herlinhy, “daughters or younger sisters of the household heads occasionally though not commonly remained in their father’s or brother’s house after marriage. ” (p. 8) Herlinhy notes that the practice of retaining daughters after marriage in the parental household was further inherited by the later Middle Ages.

In particular, the biographer of Charlemagne described how he did not permit the departure of his daughter from his household: “Strange to say, although they were very handsome women, and he loved them very dearly, he was never willing to marry any of them to a man of their own nation or to a foreigner, but kept them all at home until his death, saying that he could not dispense with their society. ” (The Life of Charlemagne, chap. 19, p. 44). As to the professions in the Middle Age, Verdier P maintains, that certain women’s professions were always open to joke and libel.

Verdier P argues: “foremost are those of bath attendant (estuveresse) and midwife (this one was more influential in society when she was a prostitute), or the combination of midwife and doctoress (miresse) in one person. ” (p. 133) The frivolous understanding of women’s duties was shown in multiple illustrations to medieval books. Flemish Psalter and Book of Hours (the late 14th century) displayed pictures of a woman, “closing the door of an “etuve” (bathing hut) on a nude man. Another naked man is lurking behind a tree and a female attendant stoops under the weight of two pails of hot water.

” (Verdier P, p. 133) There were similar illustrations where naked women invited disrobed men to enter the bathing hut, and at the background the picture showed another couple embracing in the tub partially hidden by the curtains. Consequently, bath establishments got ill reputation and further in the sixteenth century they were envisioned by artists as subjects for voyeurism. (Verdier P, p. 133). Current propaganda However, marginalization of women did not always imply negative motivation. During the period of the Middle Ages the first attempts of effective governing took place.

The new governments implemented the politics of greater personal securing that comprised also the protection of women against abduction, rape and enslavement. The philosophy of Christianity and Christian ethos, which spread during the same period of time, moderated violence and taught the protection of the weak and vulnerable. Christian religion helped the governments to build an orderly society and cultivated new attitudes toward warfare. Medieval authors pointed out that barbarian women had to share all the dangers with their husbands, both in peace and in war.

(Tacitus in Verdier P) ). But due to the ideals of medieval chivalry women were not directly involved in dangerous arts of fighting. Moreover, warriors were obliged to defend women. Thus, the new governments, religion and the ethics of chivalry refined manners, especially in cities and courts, and relieved late medieval women of some physical tasks. Legal justification As a rule, medieval families responded to a birth of a girl with fear and sorrow, while a birth of a boy caused joy and mirth among the household.

The famous Dante described the scene where the Florentine father felt terror when he got to know that the newborn baby was – a girl. Father’s mind was overwhelmed with thoughts about the high price and the difficulty of arranging for the future of the girl. These attitudes were dictated by the current laws that prescribed a twice higher fine for the loss of girl than for the death of a boy. (Herlinhy, p. 16) On the other hand, the customs of early medieval societies manifested respect and high appreciation of women. It can be seen in the marriage customs.

Titian described that German people had to carry out the following: “the dowry is brought by husband to wife, not by wife to husband. ” (Titian in Verdier P). This dowry was called the Morgengabe, that meant – the gift of the morning. Usually, this gift was given by groom to bride as a token of his appreciation of the consummation of their marriage. The Morgengabe was often mentioned in the laws and regulations of the Middle Age. For example, the laws of the Visigoths and the Alamanni established the limits on the value of the Morgengabe.

Herlinhy attributes it to the insufficient number of women, “which tended to drive up the costs of acquiring a wife. ” (Herlinhy, p. 9) Although slave trade still existed in the Middle Ages, the governments issued the laws that imposed the double fine for selling free women. For example, Laws of the Alamanni charged for an enslavement of a woman beyond the borders of the province. Herlinhy suggests that this law “seems a clear allusion to a continuing slave trade especially involving women. ” (Herlinhy, p. 9) The enslaved women at Farfa, Herlinhy reports, worked in the storehouse or cellarium and the workshop or genitium.

They worked mostly in the manor house. Unlike women-slaves, women-peasants were mainly responsible for the “inner economy” of the household. For instance, women baked, brewed, took care of the yard animals, cultivated lands near the house. While describing Germanic society, Titian mentioned the similar duties of women: “the care of house, hearth and fields is left to the women, old men and weaklings of the family. ” (Titian). Thus, in some communities the division of household duties between genders was in the favor of men; in other words, women had to do work harder.

For instance, while studying the Psalter and Hours of Joffroy d’Aspremont and Isabelle Kievraing Verdier P remarks: “Women also stir the churn, knead the dough, cook waffles with a waffle iron, beat the laundry, or pound the pestle in the mortar, while the husband roasts the meat on a spit. ” It was another reason why the average age of a medieval woman was shorter than the age of a medieval man: “Life was hard and short for women in these peasant communities, and the very scarcity of adult women made them valued. ” (Herlinhy, p.

10) So, it was found out that during the Middle Ages women were marginalized in the following areas religious, legislative, economic, and social. However, it was also found out that government and religious philosophy taught positive attitude to women as the weak and vulnerable. The laws observed mostly aimed at protecting women. On the other hand, religious beliefs, stereotypes, societal norms and perceived economic unprofitableness of the female part of the population caused numerous oppressions, and violation of rights.

In general, it seems that women were strongly discriminated de facto, notwithstanding new laws and philosophical teachings. Under such conditions, medieval women had very little chance for self-actualization. Although, according to some thinkers, this situation has little changed since the Middle ages: “.. never succeeded in developing for their increased numbers assured and open ways to personal and human fulfillment. That problem it passed on to subsequent generations and subsequent epochs; we face it still today.” (Herlinhy, p. 16)


Aristotle, On the Soul. Parva Naturalia. On Breath, ed. and trans. W. S. Hett, Loeb Classical Library. London: William Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957 Herlinhy, D. , The Role of Woman in the Middle Ages. State University of New York Press. : Albany, NY. 1975. The Life of Charlemagne by Einhard, trans. Samuel E. Turner, with a foreword by Sidney Painter ( Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960

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