Womens Roles in the Middle Ages (Womens Roles through History)

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Chapter 4, Women and the Law, focuses on the ways in which laws both restricted and protected women. It also considers the crimes with which women were most often charged and surveys laws regarding marriage and widowhood. Women's roles in creative arts form the basis of the fifth chapter, Women and Culture.


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This chapter examines women's roles as artists, authors, composers, and patrons, as well as investigating the ways in which women were represented in works produced by men. Finally, chapter 6 discusses women's experiences in politics and public life. While women as a group were typically banned from holding positions of public authority, some found ways to get around this stricture, while others were able to exercise power behind the scenes.

Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages

The final chapter thus encapsulates a major theme of this book: the interplay between broader patriarchal forces that limited women's status and autonomy and the role of individuals who were able to overcome or circumvent such forces. Life in the fields was very difficult for men and for women. Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the richest and most powerful women in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Eleonor succeeded her father at the age of 15, thus, becoming the most desirable bride of the entire European continent.

The mystical Flemish poetess Hadewijch also became popular during the 12th and 13th centuries. Both Ildegarda and Trotula de Ruggiero were writers and experts in medical arts during the 12th century. Constance of Altavilla , Urraca of Castile , Joanna I of Navarre and Melisenda of Jerusalem , among others, exerted political power.

Virdimura was a Catanese Jew and she is considered an important figure in historical medical literature.

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Thanks to the laws of Frederick II, she was able to study medicine in Catania after Viridimura became the first woman in history to obtain a degree in medicine on 7 November Her degree is kept in the State Archive of Palermo. Virdimura dedicated herself to taking care of the poor, women and the needy. Her medical licence allowed her to carry out these tasks only. Being Jewish, Viridimura was educated in food discipline and personal care, according to the ancient Jewish precepts.

In fact, medicine had a period of exceptional splendour in Sicily before French bourgeois women were also educated. In the Middle East, women like Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila played a significant role in the development of theology and discussions within the Church. They were later declared saints and doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. Even the mystic Juliana of Norwich assumed a prominent role in England. Christine de Pizan c. Her advice to the princesses also included the recommendation of using their diplomatic skills to prevent wars.

Women in the Middle Ages

To summerise, she stated that if a neighbour or a foreign prince wanted to make war against her husband for whatever reason, or if her husband wished to make war, a proper lady would consider this carefully. She would take into account the great evils and the endless cruelties, destruction, massacres, and the general damage of the war. Starting from the last century of the Middle Ages, various restrictions began to be put on employment and guilds, with the consequence that occupations became more and more exclusively male. Finally, even the rights of female private property began to be reduced.

According to the Catholic code of canon law, marriage was considered an exclusive concrete link between a husband and wife. However, it assigned to the husband all the power and control in the relationship: husband and wife were partners, and they were the reflection of Adam and Eve, however, wives had to submit to marital authority.

This armor of the glorious Blessed Virgin, is to be understood in the ingenuity of Judith and her poised and moderate demeanor. She armed herself so strongly against the enemies of the city where she made her home, called Bethulia, that she conquered them by killing and cutting off the head of Duke Holofernes, captain and chief of the army of King Nebuchadnezzar, with weapons both virtuous and memorable.

Holofernes was excessively cruel and brutal.

The Changing Experience of Women Through History

He desired to kill a very great people, and destroy and crush their city, just as Satan desired to do. And therefore, Judith had to arm herself with diverse powers of virtue, that is, with pleasing rhetoric and eloquence. Using these, she was able one night to cut off the head of the said Holofernes. And she returned to her city, where she was received with great rejoicing for her defeat of the enemy.

This womanly victory was long ago prefigured by Jael, the wife of Heber. When she perceived and saw the wrongs which Sisera, a prince of the army of King Jabin, visited day after day upon the people and lineage of Israel in his desire to destroy, exile and do away with them, Jael began to reflect. She decided to make him suffer and take the severest possible revenge on him. Finding him in bed, asleep, she took a great nail, and suddenly without more ado, put it into position and placed it against his temples, then raised a heavy hammer, and, without further delay, hammered the nail into the head of Sisera, whom she murdered and killed, just as Mary, the mother of our Redeemer did with the nails with which her Son had been attached and crucified on the tree of the Cross on the hill of Calvary.

Regnia thamaire… Queen Thamyris cutting off the head of King Cyrus and placing it in a barrel filled with the blood of his own soldiers.

Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages on JSTOR

When she saw, and heard tales of, the cruelty and heartlessness of the wicked tyrant, King Cyrus, who was insatiably greedy for the sight of massive and horrible human blood letting, and forever making war on kings, dukes, princes, and counts in lands and regions where he felt and could show his vanity and cruelty in putting them all to the sword, sparing or releasing no one.

So Queen Thamyris kept a close watch over him and finally caught him at a time so clearly to her advantage that she cut off his head. However Mary, Queen of heaven, so subdued him that She plunged him into the damnation he had prepared for us…. Although here on earth the Glorious Virgin Mary had suffered such agonizing grief because of the tortures her dearly beloved Son suffered at the hands of our ancestors, nevertheless she continues to moderate and calm the wrath of God, our Creator, whenever He chooses to redress our sins and our crimes….

But our Defender and Mother, seated at the summit, throws the stone, that is, her virtue, among her sevants, so that the devil, all bewildered, often departs, as if in total despair. And it should not be forgotten that the Virgin not only defends us from the temptations of the devil, but also from worldly temptations. And this protection is great for the world is always tempting us. Books of Hours are medieval prayer books, made for wealthy lay people, which present prayers to be recited at specific times of day, or hours.

This one was created in Bruges a city now in Belgium around It belonged to two aristocratic English families who passed it down through generations and used the first pages to record births, deaths, and marriages. The prayers are written in Latin. The first image reproduced here portrays Margaret of Antioch, who was widely revered during the Middle Ages as a virgin and martyr. Legend holds that, around AD, a Roman governor demanded that Margaret renounce Christianity and marry him.

On her refusal, she was subjected to brutal tortures, including being swallowed by Satan in the form of a dragon. She emerged from the dragon alive and intact, though she was eventually executed. While some people, including a fifth-century pope, disputed her existence, others considered her a powerful saint, especially for pregnant women. The second image portrays Adam, Eve, and the serpent in Eden. Examine the lavish illuminations of these pages from the Book of Hours. How would the experience of reading the Book of Hours differ from your experience of reading books today?

Based on its appearance, what can you infer about the significance of this Book of Hours to early readers? What does it suggest about medieval Christian devotional practices?

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What appears to be taking place in the representation of Saint Margaret? Why do you think Margaret was thought to have a special relationship to pregnant women? Consider the representation of Adam and Eve in Eden. How does the Garden of Eden appear here? What do the postures of Adam and Eve suggest? How does the serpent appear? Why do you think the illustration includes Jesus Christ on the cross? Margaret of Antioch emerging from Satan, who has taken the form of a dragon and swallowed her.

From an illuminated medieval prayer book. A scene from the Garden of Eden with an illustration of Christ on the cross, suspended in the tree of knowledge. Le Champion des Dames is a long, allegorical poem that defends the honor and reputation of women. Martin le Franc wrote the poem in Middle French between and The text consists of a prose prologue followed by five books of verses grouped into eight-verse stanzas or octaves.

He personified this slander against women in the allegorical character of Badmouth Malebouche , whose representatives engage in a dialogue with the Champion, named Free Will Franc Vouloir. The Champion defends the female sex by referring to individual women from history, legend, and mythology who played important roles in the development of civilization, who were skilled in government and warfare, and who were exceptional scholars and artists. In the recent edition, Steven Millen Taylor translates the title as The Trial of Womankind to suggest how, in the text, women are placed on trial and are portrayed, alternately, as a trial which men must endure and as bearing trials which men impose on them.

This full-page illustration, which appears early in the book, shows women literally engaged in defense as they use weapons to protect a castle under siege. Smaller illustrations which appear throughout the book portray women as scholars, knights, queens, and goddesses. Examine closely these illustrations. On what grounds does he criticize them? Alternatively, on what grounds does the Champion defend women?