The Changing Position of Women


What Evidence is there for a Change in Ideas about Women between the Late Medieval and Early Modern Periods?

            Ideas about women in the Medieval period were very different to ideas about women in the Early Modern period with this change largely being due to the religious upheavals that were taking place all over Europe, known as the Reformation. This essay will look at the era of 1100 – 1800 and how ideas about women changed and evolved in this period. The key themes that will be explored are women’s education and writing, looking at writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) and Christine de Pizan (1363 – 1430) to try and understand why ideas about them changed and how much. Other themes are marriage, looking at the influence of the Church in them, and an early developing form of feminism which many of these writers could be considered as being a part of. This essay will argue that ideas about women did change, but it can be debated as to whether or not things actually improved or declined, as marriage laws got harsher rather than better. There is one main problem with this broad debate – the changes definitely were not universal and affected different parts of Europe in different ways with a divide between north and south.

Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century Germany. Woodcut from Tengler's Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508.
Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century Germany. Woodcut from Tengler’s Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508.

The differences between Medieval and Early Modern marriage look to be minimal at first sight, but they are actually very different. It was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that the Church began to take responsibility for marriage which may have been because the Church was gaining more power and becoming more important in European affairs.[1] So, at least in the very early Medieval period, marriage was not sanctioned by the Church, but by the middle of the twelfth century, Church courts settled marriages, the consequences and the validity of such whereas in earlier centuries the Church attempted to influence courts who had the final say on marriages.[2] By the Early Modern period, the Church had control over most areas of everyday life, at least in Catholic countries. Foreign visitors sometimes saw the English way as being ‘severe’ as an account from 1497 written by an Italian visitor to the country shows that he thought we had ‘several harsh laws and customs’ and then goes on to describe how a man was supposed to leave everything to his wife when he died, excluding his children.[3] This demonstrates that wives seemed to have more security before the Reformation than after within their marriages as, after the Reformation, married women had almost no independence from their husbands but women married because it was one of the only ways to secure her future and stability.[4] This stability, however, could be brutally ended if one spouse committed adultery.

In a Medieval marriage ‘adultery in either sex is punished in the same way’ and all they had to do to be forgiven was to perform penance which would save their marriage.[5] However, with the Protestant Reformation across Europe, things began to change as laws became stricter and women began to be punished more stringently than men because adultery by a woman, if she got pregnant by her lover, meant that the child would not be legitimate and so would jeopardise the family lineage.[6] For example, the 1566 law in Geneva stated that for an adulterous man, he would be imprisoned for twelve days but an adulterous woman would be executed; it was similar under the English Adultery Act as well.[7] As has been demonstrated, marriage was one of the only options for women in both the Medieval and Early Modern periods but the change in ideas on marriage itself and adultery meant that it was not always a pleasant experience for them.

Educated women were often frowned upon, in the Medieval period particularly, as it was not seen as right for women to be educated, especially in the same areas as men were. However, education did create ‘brilliant women’ who were learned but also still feminine, as men believed that learning directly affected femininity.[8] With this in mind, there were very few sources of education available to women in the Medieval and Early Modern periods as ideas did not change much in this area – they could only learn whatever their parents wanted them to be taught, or by listening to their husband’s friends once they were married. Only royalty and the high nobility let girls be educated, and still not in the same way as boys.[9] Through better education for girls and women, people were promoting the legitimacy of female monarchs, which had been denied up until this time, at least by the beginning of the sixteenth century, and these positive views of female monarchs were strengthened by the success of monarchs like Mary I and Elizabeth I in the second half of the sixteenth century, both of who were educated women.[10] This set a precedent for the future and showed that women were capable of much more than men believed. Before this demonstration by Early Modern monarchs, and particularly in the Medieval period, women generally accepted their inferiority under men and acknowledged their limited capacity for learning.[11] Nevertheless, men still believed that a woman’s first duty should be to her husband and her children and carrying out domestic duties like cleaning, raising children and cooking but feminists have looked back and realised that these ‘duties comprised intellectual development’ of women.[12] Men thought that learned women were ‘dangerous’ and that being educated could change how a woman sees herself and her place in the social order and the world and Christine de Pizan was one woman who tried to encourage these views.[13]

Christine de Pizan.
Christine de Pizan.

Christine de Pizan was one of the lucky few women who were encouraged in their education and learning. In her case, she was encouraged by both her father and, once she married, her husband, however, her mother wanted her to have a much more conventional education and upbringing.[14] She wrote a lot about strong women who had overcome adversity and achieved something. She wrote a poem praising Joan of Arc, advice books for women, love poetry and a treatise on the accomplishments of other famous women.[15] She manages to demonstrate exactly what an educated woman could do and how important it is for women to be educated to reach their full potentials. De Pizan published several volumes on a variety of different subjects which ‘men saw willingly and accepted with great pleasure’ which led to her books being published worldwide; this also meant that after her father and husband died, she could support herself and her three young children who would otherwise have probably been living in poverty.[16] Many women who had read Christine de Pizan’s ‘City of Ladies’ protested about the fact that women were excluded from schools and they extolled the positive side of women learning and being educated, but it failed to change the minds of those in authority until much later.[17] Christine de Pizan influenced future generations of women to stand up for themselves and to write about themselves.

In writing books, women were trying to advise each other on how to behave and how to improve their own way of life, but also how to show men that women were capable of so much more than allowed and that marriage should not limit them. Authors like Elizabeth Clinton and Dorothy Leigh wrote advice books for women and praised the ‘strength and conviction’ of mothers who raised their children well and who were not suppressed quite as strongly.[18] The contrast in male and female written advice books is distinct – male written books tended to see women as ‘idle consumers of male production’ as material goods came from the male population; whereas, female written books tended to see maternal production as being more important than material because women’s work was spiritually significant.[19] Mary Wollstonecraft was quite a revolutionary writer at the end of the Early Modern period. Her well-known book ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ was published in 1792 and is what led the twentieth century feminists to campaign for a change in the status of women. Wollstonecraft says that ‘I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves’ as men thought that if women got power, they would want to be placed above them.[20] She also says that women are ‘systematically degraded’ as men, in attempting to pay attention to women, are actually massaging their own egos; this leads to women feeling inferior, like they are not worth any more.[21] Mary Wollstonecraft could be counted as the first real feminist who influenced those of the early twentieth century.

Historians have debated whether or not there was in fact an early feminist movement which developed in the Early Modern period. In the Medieval period, women were more accepting of their position, but in the Early Modern period, women wanted to ‘challenge [the] prevailing idea that women were an inferior branch of the human race’.[22] As there was no such thing as feminism, called by that name, in Medieval or Early Modern Europe, Stephanie Hodgson-Wright tries to define feminism in this period and what she comes up with is that feminism is defined as ‘any attempt to contend with patriarchy in its many manifestations between 1550 and 1700’.[23] This was a major change in ideas between the Medieval and Early Modern periods as feminism in any form did not exist in Medieval Europe. Women were second-class citizens until they got the vote in the early twentieth century in most places and men in the Early Modern period fully believed this. Early Modern feminists knew that set patterns (such as men in authority) could change but they also realised that women would

Mary Wollstonecraft.
Mary Wollstonecraft.

never be taken seriously, or at least as seriously as men.[24] Women did not have equal status with men and this is what early feminists wanted to remedy – they wanted men to accept that they were citizens too, and not second-class. The “rights of the citizen” did not apply to women in the Medieval period or the start of the Early Modern period and only began to emerge towards the middle and end of the eighteenth century.[25] If this inferiority of women and lack of an individual status came about because of their invisibility within societal, political, economic and cultural fields, their liberation could then be achieved by making them visible in these same spheres.[26] More and more women were making ‘feminist statements’ but it failed to affect their legal position or their economic condition; this was because feminism was largely fought in social and cultural arenas rather than the political or economic arenas, as women were not supposed to know anything about politics or money.[27] This feminist attitude, although it changed from the Medieval to Early Modern periods, there were still no major changes in the status of women until the end of the eighteenth century at the earliest, when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’.

To conclude, ideas changed radically between the Medieval and late Early Modern periods. The change was largely due to the Reformation in the first half of the sixteenth century, but also to writers like Christine de Pizan (1363 – 1430) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797). This essay has looked at changes in the period 1100 – 1800 and how ideas about women changed and evolved in this period, paying particular attention to developments in marriage, education, women’s writing and an early form of feminism. Ideas about women did change, but some areas, such as marriage, changed for the worse and not the better. The main difficulty with this debate was that the changes were not universal and affected different parts of Europe in different ways, with a divide between north and south.


[1] Christopher Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 126

[2] Ibid, p. 128

[3] P.J.P. Goldberg, Women in England 1275 – 1525 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), p. 133

[4] Stephanie Hodgson-Wright, ‘Early Feminism’ in Sarah Gamble (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 4

[5] Emilie Amt, Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: a Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 37

[6] Merry E. Wiesner Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 285

[7] Ibid, p. 285

[8] Joan Wallach Scott, ‘Introduction’, in Joan Wallach Scott (ed.), Feminism and History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 1 – 16, p. 1

[9] Cristina Malcolmson, ‘Christine de Pizan’s ‘City of Ladies’ in Early Modern England’ in Christina Malcolmson and Suzuki Mihoko (eds.), Debating Gender in Early Modern England 1500 – 1700 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 15 – 36, p. 23

[10] Ibid, p. 20

[11] Alcuin Blamires, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 278

[12] Stephanie Hodgson-Wright, ‘Early Feminism’ in Sarah Gamble (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 9

[13] Merry E. Wiesner Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 143

[14] Alcuin Blamires, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 278

[15] Emilie Amt, Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: a Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 135

[16] Ibid, p. 138

[17] Cristina Malcolmson, ‘Christine de Pizan’s ‘City of Ladies’ in Early Modern England’ in Cristina Malcolmson and Suzuki Mihoko (eds.), Debating Gender in Early Modern England 1500 – 1700 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 15 – 36, p. 17

[18] Naomi Miller, ‘Hens Should Be Served First: Prioritising Maternal Production in the Early Modern Pamphlet Debate’ in Cristina Malcolmson and Suzuki Mihoko (eds.), Debating Gender in Early Modern England 1500 – 1700 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 161 – 184, p. 164

[19] Ibid, p. 168

[20] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (New York: Cosimo Inc., 2008), p. 71

[21] Ibid, p. 66

[22] Stephanie Hodgson-Wright, ‘Early Feminism’ in Sarah Gamble (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 4

[23] Ibid, p. 3

[24] Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 289

[25] Ibid, p. 290

[26] Joan Wallach Scott, ‘Introduction’, in Joan Wallach Scott (ed.), Feminism and History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 1 – 16, p. 2

[27] Stephanie Hodgson-Wright, ‘Early Feminism’ in Sarah Gamble (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 13

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